This is an attempt to pull some of the biggest ideas from Keith Barton's text entitled Primary Sources in History: Breaking Through the Myths. (Check out #inquirychat Thurs 7/17 for a Q and A session with Professor Barton!)
Just because students are working with sources does not mean that they are receiving "good history instruction".
You must take a closer look to see what students are actually doing with the sources. In addition, it is necessary to examine which sources the students are using and how the sources tie into the larger course of study.
How teachers use primary sources is tied to how they perceive the discipline of history and to how they envision the work of an historian. Some teachers think that students will develop historical understanding from primary source work that is not supplemented by secondary source work, stating or implying that original sources are superior to secondary sources, the sources written by scholars years later. The reality is much more murky.
Since all sources are created for a variety of reasons, it is important to remember that primary sources, sources connected directly to the people or events under study, may not have been created for the purpose of conveying an accurate account of what happened. Historians know this and read sources with a careful eye. If students read primary sources looking to derive an accurate understanding of what happened, what a person was like, or why something happened, then they will be led astray easily.
For example, students turning to the Federalist Papers to learn more about the federalist and anti federalists would walk with away with a skewed view of the debate if this were the only source they examined. The big idea here is that primary sources are not inherently more reliable than secondary sources.
Summing up the above, accounts are created for a variety of reasons. And "some of these reasons have nothing to do with objectivity." Original accounts cannot be read the same way other nonfiction texts might be read.
Later today or tomorrow....
All primary sources are NOT testimony. Testimony is one kind of account.