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Helping Students Think about the Provenance of Sources

Students often struggle with ‘provenance’ i.e. how to use what they know about the creator of a source to reflect on the utility or reliability of that source. This article suggests ways of helping students focus more effectively on provenance by studying the creator of source before they look at what it says or shows. I have used examples related to the Norman Conquest as it’s a topic almost everyone knows to some degree.


A WORD version of this activity can be downloaded [ click here ]

Why provenance may struggle for students’ attention

It’s hard to explain now just how new and exciting using sources in the classroom was in the 1970s. You’ve probably been on the receiving end of ‘source work’ since the age of 11 or earlier. In contrast, I never saw or read a source until I was at university. Sources just didn’t appear in textbooks for O level or A level in the 1960s with the exception of Punch cartoons in the book we used for 19th century history at O level - and they were for illustration, not analysis.

However the use of sources in the 70s set a pattern that has largely stayed in place - firstly look at what was written or shown and clarify what it is telling us, secondly look at information about provenance and use that to reflect on the utility of the detail.

What are the likely dangers of this sequence?

1. students assume the extract is useful – if not, why include it in the book or exam paper?

2. it relegates the importance of thinking about provenance in students’ mental list of priorities – it’s likely that they always spend far more time on what’s in the source than in the ‘provenance box’.

3. it increases students’ expectations of finding a definite or certain answer to the question.

Problems students have with provenance may stem from this sequence of activity. As an alternative, the approaches below begin with students focussing on the provenance rather than what a source says or shows. This puts the person behind the source at the centre of attention, involving careful thinking about why the source was created.

Approaches giving more emphasis to ‘provenance’

1. Thinking in advance about the certainty of answers

Sometimes we look closely at sources when exploring single-issue questions such as:

Why did William win the Battle of Hastings?

On other occasions we explore more wide-ranging questions such as

How fairly did William I treat the English after he became king in 1066?

I call this a ‘wide-ranging question’ because, certainly at GCSE and probably at KS3, it looks at a number of sub-topics – handling of rebellions, land-ownership, the church etc. Unlike the first question, you may not have time to engage in detailed analysis of every source extract you use.

With both types of question students need to understand that answers are likely to be uncertain because e.g. the sources do not provide definite information or do provide different viewpoints. Students will realise this more clearly if they tackle a short introductory activity identifying in advance that certainty of answer is unlikely. The sequence of tasks would go like this:

a) Give students the question they are going to answer together with information about the sources they could use – such things as reasons for writing, date of writing, access to information, possible reasons for prejudice etc.

Ask students to place each source on a continuum such as this:

You can see an example of this kind of activity HERE …

b) Review and discuss their placement of the sources, focussing on the details in the provenance information that played a part in the judgement.

c) Draw conclusions about the likelihood of reaching a definitive answer to the question.

None of the sources are likely to appear at the extremely helpful end of the continuum so this gets students thinking about the kind of language they will need to use in their answer.

Whether you go onto detailed source work or not, students may well have spent more time focussed on the provenance of the sources than if they had launched straight into the content of the sources.

2. Ask students to predict what individual sources may say or show

This idea appeared in the SHP Y7 book in 2008, partly because I wanted to include longer sources than usually appear in textbooks and needed to structure the approach to make the sources more accessible. They were accounts of 1066 written by William of Jumieges and John of Worcester (together they run to two and a half textbook pages). The activity works in stages which can be followed to study other sources closely and think in detail about provenance.

a) familiarise students with an outline of the events that could appear in the source, in this case the key events of 1066.

b) give students information about the writers and ask them to predict what the writers put in their chronicles. Provide guidance through questions e.g. what do they want readers to think about Harold and William, which events would they write most and least about. The task is to ‘think from the inside’ as the chronicler, using what they know about his nationality, access to information etc.

c) discuss students’ predictions as a class and the reasons for the predictions.

d) read what the writers actually wrote – which predictions were right and wrong and why.
Feedback from teachers suggests that students are more enthused to read the sources after the prediction activity because they want to find out if their predictions are right. More importantly this approach gives students more insight into why, for example, sources put emphasis on some aspects of events and not others - they’ve made those choices themselves in the prediction process. This seems as valuable and important to do with GCSE and A level students as at KS3.

One variation I came across explored the question of the reliability of sources for Urban II’s preaching of the First Crusade. Matthew Hefferan, a postgraduate teaching this topic at Nottingham University took his students outside the lecture room and spread them out at various distances, then began preaching as if he was Urban. The result – not everyone could hear, not everyone noted the same details etc – so how reliable were the accounts of what was said?

Enquiry questions which develop students understanding of
provenance and the limits of evidence

The ideas above will take more time because they go into more depth – so it’s important to say that these approaches should be used sparingly. Better to have more depth less often than frequent surface coverage. Students may also be helped by occasionally tackling topics through enquiry questions which focus on the issue of uncertainty, rather than the apparent search for a definite answer, thus developing their awareness that History is a subject that’s about degrees of certainty, not about finding the utterly correct answer. Such enquiry questions could begin:

How certain can we be that …

Why is it hard to be certain about …

Do we really know why …

Are we more certain about … than …

Such questions link to one of the major aims of studying History. Later in life students will face decisions such as voting in elections or referenda when they will be treated to claims of certainty, such as that X will certainly happen as a result of a particular choice. But those who expect certainty in life or believe in simple solutions to major problems are the prey of demagogues of all kinds. One of the great values of a good historical education is to become comfortable with uncertainty and a balance of probabilities. The starting point for this is working with and understanding the nature of our sources and why certainty about historical events is often difficult to achieve.


Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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Why Provenance Struggle

Two Approaches

Developing Understanding