Museums, Archives & Heritage

History Fieldwork – Do Our Students Get Out Enough?

Scientists have just called for more fieldwork in schools, and suggest that there needs to be a ‘cultural shift’ in many schools to encourage out-of-school learning (see recommendations below). I couldn’t agree more, and I think history could take a good look at geography and geology, where field trips are considered an essential part of the school and university curriculum.

Let’s take my own experience as an example; I went to a small village primary school and had the good fortune to have a headmaster who believed that the outside world had as much to offer as the text book. He took us on long ‘history walks’ around the village and the nearby fields, pointing out things like old mill ponds and explaining how the school had to work around the harvests; and when we got back he got out the old school log book and showed us entries written by the headmaster of our school from a century ago. And whenever something unusual happened – like the road getting dug up by for a sewer repair, for example – he would see this as a huge learning opportunity. He would march us out to the roadworks and ask the (perhaps slightly bemused) road workers to explain how the diggers worked and how the road is put together. More than 30 years later, I remember these lessons more than any other – so why isn’t there more of this?

At secondary school I had some good history teachers, but none seemed willing or able to take us out of the classroom, despite the availability of museums and historic sites in the area. And it was the same at university – in fact believe it or not – in TEN years of post-primary history education – we are talking about hundreds of history classes – I didn’t leave the classroom. Ever.

Now I know of brilliant secondary school teachers who take their children out – some as far as the Somme battlefields in France – but I’m not sure that many do, perhaps because they may not have ever really experienced what an incredible ‘outside’ educational experience can be like as students themselves. Here are few examples I’ve witnessed over the years.

At Aberystwyth University, international politics students go on a three day residential course in diplomacy, in which the bedrooms of a mansion become different ’embassies’ and the students become ambassadors of different countries. Each team are given briefing documents and real newspaper cuttings for background. They must then negotiate their way through a complex, unfolding situation, such as the break up of the USSR or a euro crises. Student ‘journalists’ report throughout, giving daily closed circuit TV reports on negotiations and events. Espionage, secret deals and ‘freak’ events such as storms or even assassination might be thrown in by ‘the Gods’ – lecturers who had to agree all deals to ensure realism.

At Royal Holloway, University of London, cultural geography students go to Spain and either Glasgow or New York, where they are briefed by local experts and then expected to gather material for a mini-research project that will be written up back at home; this might include gallery visits, conducting survey interviews, observation of public spaces and archive research.

Student vist to the Royal Geographical Society archive
Students at the Royal Geographical Society

Personally I try and make sure that all the courses I teach include at least one guided trail, museum visit or archive experience. For example this year we worked closely with the Royal Geographical Society to set up a class exercise, in which students researched different sections of the 1924 Everest Expedition archive. Students could get their hands on letters, photos and meeting minutes; discuss their findings; see objects from the expedition that had recently been retrieved from the recently discovered bodies of the mountaineers who famously didn’t make it back, Mallory and Irvine; and finally, back at home, they could consider how their findings compared to a chapter of a book that had been written almost entirely from the sources that had been studying.

Surely no history degree taught in a city could not find a place for a visit to a museum or a historic site, and perhaps a talk from a curator? I’d love to hear of any more examples, good and bad – and if it isn’t happening, can anyone explain why not, as far as they are concerned?

From the Field Studies Council website

The forum reaffirmed the following:

  • Science fieldwork is essential to good science education;
  • Professional bodies such as the ASE should take a leading role in promoting fieldwork. This should include working directly with you and your department to ensure its effective application in schools;
  • Fieldwork should be strongly recommended – but not overly-prescribed – in the curriculum, and supported to the same extent as seen in Geology and Geography;
  • It was highly evident that a cultural shift towards supporting outdoor activity was needed in many schools, including their governors, and the wider community. Science needs to break out of the classroom. This was particularly true in secondary schools;
  • Simple, effective and inspirational science fieldwork opportunities exist everywhere – including urban areas – but these are very underutilised at present. Such activity will also increase older children’s ‘sense of place’ and their pride and interest in the places that they live;
  • Fieldwork opportunities could and should encompass the full breadth of science, and other subjects which rely on observational and procedural skills (such as geography, history and D&T);
  • The only way to reduce the perception of health and safety risks was by ensuring that early career and inexperienced teachers took an active part in fieldwork activity themselves – only then could we ensure a cultural shift which moved children from being risk-naïve to risk-aware;
  • Fieldwork skills could and should be assessed, and that there were a variety of methods – including the use of field diaries, notes, drawings and presentation – for doing this. These methods are used in universities and should be applicable in secondary schools.


  1. The 1924 Everest Expedition was the one Malory and Irvine disappeared on, not the 1926 one. Otherwise good article.

    1. Arghhgh! Mistype – now corrected. Thanks for that.

  2. I am sad to hear that the generally warmer, drier, less muddy history field trip is in decline.  I have fond memories of my own primary school trips that set me off in the direction of all things archaeology. I remember many school trips to castles and Roman forts that left me bubbling with stories which were garbled to my parents – perhaps the enthusiasm of the child will rub off
    on the parents, and help raise awareness of the educational value of
    heritage assets before they are stripped away by the effects of
    government austerity..

    There are a number of active archaeology organisations providing hands-on experiences for school groups – you have to look at these kind of experiences as a long-term human resources campaign for the humanities!

    A few organisations I can recommend who provide this kind of hands-on experience:
    Thames Explorer Trust London:
    Archaeology for Schools Wirral:
    Canterbury Archaeology Trust Kent:

  3. During my time at university as a trainee primary school teacher…I remember feeling very disheartened and to be honest completely dumfounded by the response I got when I suggested that as the children were studying the Vikings that term, that maybe a trip to the Jorvik centre (York) would really help their understanding and more importantly capture their imaginations…something they can visualise rather than just looking at pictures in a book! The response I got shocks me to this day….’Oh no…that is impossible, the costs and red tape we would have to go through it wouldn’t be worth it!’….Imagine if all school teachers thought this way! However this was over 13 years ago…..the world has changed a lot since then, perhaps not for the better with regards to history education.

    I am fortunate as a mature history undergraduate that fieldwork is an integral part of learning for SOME modules, for those it is not….it is needed. There is a huge comparison between the understanding and most importantly passion for the topic being covered from modules where fieldwork is included. I have observed the difference between the enthusiasm and contribution given by students sat in a lecture theatre to when gathered around an exhibit at a museum…intently listening to the curator. Of course there are time constraints, volumes of information to get through plus lecture theatres do have their many merits, as do seminar sessions…BUT a field-trip to Hampton Court gave students access to so much more information about the history of Early Modern London than a lecture ever could.

  4. Great article, Toby. I always like to include a field visit too – although classes sizes usually determine the location. Two years ago I took an MSc group to the Science Museum to explore the climate change gallery and Atmosphere exhibit. This was at the end of the course – so a bit of a jolly too. This year I’ve been teaching first year human geographers and we visited one of my University’s museums – Museum of English Rural Life – to bring to life my lecture and paper on museum geography. I would highly recommend that staff make friends with their local museum – the opportunities are endless. But the visit needs to be well justified to the students to ensure maximum impact. I found for some students the ‘rural life’ focus was a distraction from my real interest in the spatialities of museums and collections.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *