Field Studies in the Methods Course

Teaching history well also means instilling the notion of history as a living and lively and engaging discipline

Preparing pre-service teachers to teach content well is a key goal of the history/social studies methods course. Depth of content knowledge of history (as well as other allied disciplines) is clearly essential to high-quality teaching, and teacher education programs continue to seek ways to “beef up” students’ content knowledge. Depth of content knowledge is necessary – but it is not sufficient – to achieve a mature understanding of history. Teaching history well also means instilling the notion of history as a living and lively and engaging discipline. Pre-service teachers are unlikely to convey the “aliveness” of history to their students if they do not have the opportunity to experience it themselves. A good field study can move pre-service teachers a long way toward that experience.

History becomes alive when we are enticed to act as historians and to engage in the kind of thinking historians apply to their work. Central to historical thinking is its raw material – primary documents. While we usually think of documents as two-dimensional objects (diaries, maps, letters, and the like), “place” can also serve as a primary document in three dimensions. This is why a good field study of an historic place can provide students (and future teachers) with a rich experience in historical thinking about the three-dimensional built environment and in how field studies can extend and deepen historical content knowledge drawn from traditional classroom instruction.

Table of Contents

  • Field Studies versus Field Trips
  • The Role of Field Studies in Historical Thinking
  • Placement in the Methods Course
  • Choosing the Place
  • Field Studies – Preparation by Methods Professors
  • Field Studies – Preparation of Students
  • The Day of the Field Study
  • Debriefing the Field Study
Field Studies versus Field Trips

Field study at Sweetbriar College in Sweetbriar, Virginia Photo courtesy of Beth Boland We use the term “field studies” to differentiate it from the all-too typical approach used in “field trips.” Too many field trips reflect little preparation on the part of teachers and students are unlikely to derive the maximum benefits from the time expended. Among common pitfalls of the field trip:

  • Too often, the “tour” provided to students has only a tenuous link to the curriculum, conducted by well-meaning and well-informed guides who are not aware of the instructional purposes of the teacher.
  • Most “tours” have little to do with historical inquiry. Moreover, their focus on “the story” lacks sufficient historical context for students to make sense of it.
  • Students are ushered through room after room without a chance to pause and imagine.
  • Too many teachers fail to debrief students on the uses of places to uncover history and to understand how historians use them to construct a cohesive narrative.
  • Too often, “field trips” are a day off for students, who endure the minutiae of docents’ presentations and see little connection either to history or to their own time period.
In contrast, field studies provide opportunities for serious inquiry and reflection about three-dimensional historical “documents,” firmly embedded in the curriculum and in the development of historical thinking.

The Role of Field Studies in Historical Thinking

A good field study provides students with access to three experiences important to historical understanding.

1) First is the experience of “being there.” As history is part story, “place” is the stage on which the story played out. In this sense, the field study allows students to step onto the stage and imagine how the story unfolded – to walk through the same space (whether a building, a community, or a landscape) and to develop what Baron (see below) refers to as empathetic insight. Watch people when they visit a site like the Coliseum in Rome for the first time. How many of them do you see touching the ancient stones? Why do they do that? Because it puts them literally “in touch with” the thousands of others – slaves, gladiators, patricians, and emperors – who touched and walked in that same space in past millennia. Being in the place enriches and deepens the answer to the question “What must it have been like?” But this experience is mere fantasizing if it does not draw as well from a reservoir of historical knowledge of the time and place, as well as a means of investigating the historical significance of what they are seeing – using the place as the object of investigation.

2) A second role of field studies, then, is the use of place as a three-dimensional primary source, providing evidence to use in historical inquiry. What visual evidence does this place offer that locates it in time and space? How does it compare to other similar places, and how do its differences with similar places provide clues to its historical significance and its story? Is there three-dimensional evidence that supports historical accounts drawn from other sources? If one had to rely solely on the place to make historical inferences, what would one look for? What hypotheses about the history of the time would one make based on the visual record displayed at this site? How would one test these inferences? These are all questions that historians ask when they seek to interpret the story (or, more accurately, “stories”) of a place.

Sam Wineburg, professor of education and history at Stanford University, outlined heuristics for developing historical thinking using primary sources – specifically, documents.1 According to Wineburg, we use documents for corroboration, comparing documents with one another to confirm or reject an account. When we analyze documents, we also engage in sourcing, looking first to the source of the document before reading the body of the text. Finally, we seek contextualization, situating a document in a concrete temporal and spatial context (Wineburg, 1991, p. 77). These heuristics provide a framework historians use to make sense of documents, discern patterns, and differentiate types of evidence. While these heuristics play an essential role in document analysis, their application to historic places is problematic, as shown in Christine Baron’s study on the use of historic places in historical understanding.2 Her study sought to apply and adapt Wineburg’s model to historic places and, in doing so, provided guidance for the design of field studies. As we will see, Baron’s adaptation of Wineburg’s heuristics comes into play during a well-conceived field study.

3) A third role of the field study, flowing from the inquiry-based use of historic places, is the means by which students can see a site across the sweep of time, from its origination through its transformations to the present day. A field study allows students to explore a place through strata of time and its multiple contexts,3 in addition to examining its original state.4 What is original and what has been changed over time, and how does this help to identify the historical “strata” necessary to understand the place across time? How do the architectural elements reveal the values of the time of origination, and the changing values reflected in elements incompatible with its origination story? “Why was it put here?” “How did it change?” “Why is it still here?” Fundamentally, why is this place still here and why has it been preserved? What is the purpose and value of preserving this and other historic places?

In planning a field study, the methods professor needs to consider how these dimensions of teaching with place can be applied to the goals of preparing future teachers to uncover the richness of history for their students and to think historically.

Placement in the Methods Course

A logical place for a field study in the methods course is after a session on inquiry/problem solving, which would include not only a general model for inquiry but also the use of various kinds of primary sources. The field study serves as an application of the inquiry model to three-dimensional primary sources represented by historic places, in conjunction with more traditional sources (documents, historical maps, and the like).

The duration of the field study will vary, of course, based on the organization of the methods course. A three-hour class session is ample time to demonstrate to students how inquiry and imagination can be applied to a place. Sessions of half that duration will have to be more selective in the range of inferences, evidence seeking, and insight activities to be pursued.

Choosing the Place

At the outset, it is important to note that the place one chooses for a field study need not already be officially designated as an historic site. Those that have been designated, such as the ones listed in the National Register of Historic Places, or in state or local registers, bring the advantage of having been researched and documented already. That information is available by searching the National Register online database, which contains tens of thousands of recognized historic places of local, state, or national significance. But there is also much history on display, whether or not the places have ever been formally recognized, when one strolls down any town center or travels on a bus from home to school.

For places not designated, there often is a greater challenge for the methods professor in preparing for the field study, since much of the history of the place is not always easily accessible (although the town library is often a useful resource in this regard). But such sites have the benefit of inviting methods students (and their future students) to do the work of historians in uncovering the history of the place.

There are a number of criteria one can apply to the choice of a field study site. Of course, proximity is a key issue and will impose some limits on the range of options. Beyond that, consider the criteria displayed in the table below.


Methods level (elementary/secondary) (At what depth should my students engage in historical inquiry? If secondary, perhaps a deep level; for elementary, perhaps a broader level.)
Concepts (What historical concepts can this site help to illustrate?)
Skills (What particular skills can students employ in investigating this site?)
Inferences and Generalizations (What are some key inferences students can make based on visual clues at the site? What are some key generalizations students can construct based on the visual evidence available at the site?)
"Story" (What story/stories does this site shine a light on? What events unfolded in this place that shed some light on the history of the time?)
Historic Resources (Are there sufficient historical resources available on site and from other sources to support student historical inference making and hypothesis testing?)
Productive Partnerships (Can a partnership with the site be built to support the goals of the methods course?)
Educational Activities (What particular research activities are possible at the site? Is there good potential for students to develop "empathetic insight?")
Civic Participation (Is there potential for engaging students in efforts to preserve the site –researching a currently unrecognized historic place in the community, helping to draft a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places, advocating for preservation and/or the establishment of a local historical site designation?)


Adapted from White, C., and Hunter, K. (1995/2000).Teaching with Historic Places: A Curriculum Framework for Professional Training and Development. Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press.

The “Choosing a Site” worksheet serves as a planning tool for both methods professors and classroom teachers, since both need to decide what place will be the focus of the field study. Productive partnerships with historic sites and their staffs aim to serve the curriculum needs of both the university professor and the classroom teacher, and not all sites easily lend themselves to such partnerships. Note also the inclusion of “civic participation” as one of the criteria. Since both pre-college and college students are encouraged to be civically engaged, one avenue for engagement is in the preservation of places that are historically significant to the community. Such community service opportunities ought to be brought to the attention of students, regardless of grade level. Service learning is a growing trend in K-12 education and historic places provide many fine opportunities for civic engagement that also enhance academic learning.

Field Studies – Preparation by Methods Professors

After the selection of the site, what do methods professors need to know before introducing a field study to students?

A starting point is differentiation by grade level. A secondary history/social science methods professor might choose to focus on a specific historic site in order to provide sufficient depth for inquiry among future history teachers and using evidence that is fairly subtle. An elementary methods professor might choose to expose students to a range of possibilities rather than an in-depth examination of a single site, and to focus on site evidence that is more concrete and visually distinctive. For example, one methods professor in Boston grounded his field study on the “Piano Row” historic district (as designated by the National Register of Historic Places), but expanded it to encompass other available evidence types. These included topographical changes due to substantial filling to expand the city, the construction of the Boston Public Gardens (and the 19th century social improvement basis for this effort), an 18th century graveyard and the evidence it provides, changes in the streetscape over time, and the influence of immigration (e.g., a McDonald’s restaurant with a pagoda roof and Chinese characters in the Chinatown section of the city). Elementary methods professors can model a technique more akin to a scavenger hunt, looking to find visual elements that were introduced in class. In either case, the focus is on inquiry and imagination – What do you see? What do you notice? How would you explain? What must it have been like?

Of particular utility is the National Register of Historic Places, which has a database of more than 80,000 historic districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects. For each, a nomination document was required. The nomination presents the historical justification for inclusion in the register and, in so doing, provides a wealth of historical evidence for methods professors and students to use. If the focus of the field study includes a NRHP site, then obtaining that information would be a logical first step for the methods professor to take in preparation for a field study. To search for and download National Register nomination documentation, including photographs, visit the National Register Database.

From the inquiry perspective, methods professors need to work backwards in the inquiry process when planning field studies:

  • The starting point has to be “what are the generalizations that historians have constructed with regard to this place?”
  • Second, “what evidence did they use from the site to support these generalizations?”
  • Third, “what evidence is currently accessible to students to use to construct generalizations about this place?” “What might we infer based on what we have found?”
  • Finally, “what will I make sure students discover when I take them to this historic place?”

Staff at the historic place can be of enormous value to the methods professor who is preparing for the field study – if they understand the goals of the experience. It behooves the methods instructor to prepare and to let the site personnel know in advance, if possible, key ideas they want their students to explore. That will help site educators and interpreters to identify specific pieces of evidence that would be of use in the study of the place. What typically sabotages field studies is the failure to communicate methods course goals to site staff – most staffs are, in fact, eager to meet these needs if they know what they are.

A summary of methods professor planning tasks is presented in the table below:


Walk through and
meeting with site staff


Historical background:

  • The “stories” of the place Relationship to similar sites (correspondence)
  • Historical contexts (contextualization)
  • How it came to be (origination)
  • Background material available on-site addressing heuristics
  • Archives accessible to teachers and students
  • Special artifacts chosen especially for the field study (usually inaccessible)
  • Interview site educators and/or interpreters (where available)
  • Nomination from the National Register of Historic Places
  • Written histories of the site

Visual evidence:

Elements that reveal its similarities and differences to corresponding sites (e.g., churches of the same and different denominations/eras; landscape elements identified with a particular landscape architect that differ with others)

Site maps, pictures, paintings of corresponding places that convey historically significant similarities and differences

Visual evidence:

Identification of elements that reveal changes to the site across different time periods

Site maps, pictures, paintings of site at different time periods, including changes to the community in which the site resides

Visual evidence:

  • Identification of earliest and original elements of the site
  • Early sketches, site plans, photographs of the site

Maps of the area at the time of origination, relating the site to its surroundings

Visual evidence:

Identification of multiple pieces of data from which suppositions and hypotheses might be made

Additional data off-site that allow students to test their hypotheses (historical accounts, etc.)

Visual evidence:
Empathetic understanding

Locations on-site to best exercise historical imagination

Information about life and circumstances during the time period being studied

Handouts for the field study

Pre-field study material for students to study
Field study data retrieval worksheets to complete
Supplemental handouts for students to use during the field study (for example, maps, visual images to look for, site plans, etc.)

Opportunities to employ Hilda Taba’s questioning sequence for “interpretation of data” (see below)

Where at the site are there fertile opportunities to employ Taba’s questioning sequence for the interpretation of data?


Field Studies – Preparation of Students

How should methods students be prepared for the field study? These steps mirror what they should do in their own classrooms later:

First, of course, is the inquiry process in general. An in-class example of inquiry using traditional forms of evidence would be a logical starting point.

Second, students can be encouraged to consider what other kinds of evidence historians might use, particularly in terms of engagement with place.

Third, students should be provided with sufficient background information to facilitate students’ comparisons to similar sites of the time, the connection to larger historical movements and themes, and life at the time and to guide their eyes in examining the site in detail.

Finally, methods students should be encouraged to develop strong question-asking skills that support the inquiry process.

One of the finest examples of question-asking for various cognitive tasks was designed by Hilda Taba.5 (See table below)






What did you notice? See? Find? What differences did you notice? What similarities?

To provide an opportunity for students to enumerate items.


What do you think might be the cause of…? The effects…? What might we infer from…?

To provide an opportunity for students to verbalize cause-and-effect relationships and inferences.


What makes you think so? How do you account for that?

To give students the chance to state reasons for inferences.


What could you say generally? What general statement could you make?

To give students the opportunity to generalize about the relationships they see.


To develop the skill of generalizing by processing data and arriving at conclusions and generalizations.


Though developed primarily for elementary-level instruction, Taba’s questioning models for various cognitive tasks ought to be standard teaching in methods classes at all levels. Her model for interpretation of data presents solid guidance to teachers interested leading students through the inquiry process using place. Students should be introduced to Taba’s questioning sequence and the methods professor should employ those questions in conducting the field study and in constructing data-retrieval worksheets for evidence gathering during the field study. It is imperative that the methods instructor model Taba’s question sequence as the methods class walks through the historic place. “As we stand in this place, what evidence can we see that informs our understanding of the place?” “What do we see/notice?” “How do we account for this?” “What might we say generally, based on what we have found this place?” The answers to these questions are, in part, based on prior research (the historical context) and the methods instructor’s own preparatory walk through and inquiry.

A summary of suggestions for methods student preparation appears below:




The inquiry/problem solving process

  • The steps of inquiry, from problem identification through inferences/hypotheses to tentative conclusion
  • Taba questioning strategy for interpreting evidence
  • The basis for evidence gathering on and/or hypothesis testing on site
  • Models effective questioning technique for teachers
Types of evidence/primary sources

  • Traditional 2-dimensional sources
  • Types of evidence available from 3-dimensional sources – place.

  • Traditional
  • Maps, newspaper accounts, speeches, diaries and correspondence, photographs/paintings, public records, records of organizations
  • 3-dimensional (what to be looking for)
  • Spatial relationships among site elements
  • Temporal relationships among site elements
  • Interaction between humans and the natural environment
  • Artifacts associate with the place
  • Design (use of space, building materials and techniques, style, form/function
  • Context

Historical context for site

  • Locate site in broader history in which the place is situated; highlight important historical themes that are reflected and discoverable in the historic place.
  • Generate expectations for what might be observed (or not observed) on site.


The Day of the Field Study

With adequate preparation by the methods professor and by the methods students, the field study itself focuses on the implementation of plans.

In general, the methods professor’s role is to ask questions – to challenge students to find and interpret evidence gathered in the course of the field study. Modeling is the key. If well planned, students will have opportunities:

  • to confirm prior generalizations of the time, based on the visual evidence of the site,
  • to identify original elements and changed elements of the place over time,
  • to recognize similarities and differences between this place and similar places,
  • to generate inferences (“suppositions”) that remain to be pursued after the field study, and
  • to take the time to engage in informed, contextualized, and purposeful historical imagining (“empathetic insight”).6

Students should complete the data retrieval chart created for the field study as they move through the site. A sample is given below, but it is important to note that the particular construction of the chart is very dependent on the nature of the site and the goals of the methods course. As with any graphic organizer, the data retrieval chart is a creature of the methods course, its students, and the population its students are to serve.

(room in house, exterior view, section of landscape, etc.)
(artifact, visual detail, spatial relationships of specific elements, etc.)
Why significant or noteworthy?
(Links to larger historical context? Reveals timeframe of origination? Contradicts expectations? Denotes an adaptation? Confirms an inference?)


Debriefing the Field Study

The importance of the field study debriefing cannot be overestimated. The methods professor will want to discuss with his/her students “empathetic understandings” formed as a result of their field study, as they, in turn, would discuss with their future students. How did the resources and inquiry process contribute collectively to that understanding? Methods students also will have many questions about how to construct a field study. “How would we answer the unanswered inferences posed during the field study?” “What resources are available to support my development of field studies?” “What questions do I want to ask of people who work at the site?” “How would I do this with my future students?” “How does our experience apply to other places and in other contexts?”

More immediately, methods students will want to know “What accommodations would I make for diverse students?” “How might I use ‘place’ in the [methods course] unit I am constructing?” “How might I use ‘place’ in my upcoming practicum?” The methods professor should think through these questions in order to support the long-term use of historic places to support history instruction by their students.

Baron’s Modification of Wineburg’s Historical Thinking Heuristics for Use with Historic Places7

Wineburg’s Heuristics

Baron’s Proposed Modifications/Addition

Rationale For Modifications/Expansion

Corroboration: the act of comparing documents with one another.

Correspondence: checking the architectural features and the procedural workings of a given building (such as an historic church) with prior understanding of the form, functions, duties, or rituals of other churches or historic buildings encountered.

Wineburg states that the purpose of corroboration is so that historians can check “important details” of a document to see if they are “plausible” or “likely.” However, with buildings, the “details” of a building simply are. They exist. Plausibility is irrelevant. Further, the inability to make side-by-side comparisons with other buildings of similar type requires individuals to compare information in relation to similar buildings they have previously encountered (correspondence) in the attempt to understand what is distinct about the new building presented.

Contextualization: the act of situating a document in a concrete temporal and spatial context

Contextualization: sorting through the layers of evidence available and placing the individuals, events, or building elements within the layer most appropriate to further the discussion; sifting and relegating anachronistic elements to their appropriate time period or place.

As the “where” of Wineburg’s contextualization is resolved by virtue of being in a physical space, the contextualization of an historic place requires being able to see that ‘where’ in the multiple time periods, however muddled the visual record. As distinct from situating a document in a single time or place, the historians sift through the strata of time evident within a single place to locate individuals, events, or building elements within their proper context.

Sourcing: the act of looking first to the source of the document before reading the body of the text.

Origination: understanding the multiple factors involved in a building’s origins, rather than singular documentary authorship.

Similar to sourcing, historians do attempt to ascertain which individual or group of people built a building; however, very few buildings are the result of single “authorship” in the same way as documents. However, building “authorship” is an essentially collective activity, the understanding of which is more closely aligned with the processes indicated by contextualization than by sourcing. Historians appear to be attempting to understand the larger question of how did this building come be to in this place? — a process that might be better understood as determining the origins of a building, rather than authorship.

Wineburg offers no heuristic for Supposition.

Supposition: Strategy with which historians both takes an imaginative departure from the evidence presented, while rooting that historical possibility in the evidence of that which is known. Supposition may take the form of either a highly-contextualized “if-then” statement or hypothesis.

When historians find themselves in a situation where the evidence on its own does not resolve the query, they take a very controlled imaginative leap based on the available evidence, prior knowledge, and an understanding of how the world works, to suggest a plausible scenario or outcome.

Wineburg offers no heuristic for Empathic Insight.

Empathic Insight Empathic or experiential insight into an historic moment, event, or social dynamic in which an historian puts him or herself in the place of an historic agent, in reaction to physical stimuli provided by being in an historic place.

In order to fully comprehend history, it is essential to grasp the goals and intentions of historical agents within the context of their situations, for the purposes of seeing how these led to a particular action or set of actions. However, those goals or intentions cannot be the sole factors taken into account when attempting to understand that historical agent’s situation. The inclusion of this heuristic is essential for modeling how to properly include the highly-contextualized empathy (as achievement) in a historical study.


Baron, C. (2010). Encouraging Historical Thinking at Historic Sites. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Boston University, Boston, MA.

Prepared by Charles S. White, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, School of Education
Boston University
Boston, MA


1Wineburg, S. (1991). "Historical problem solving: A study of cognitive processes used in the evaluation of documentary and pictorial evidence," Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 73-87.

2Baron, C. (2010). Encouraging historical thinking at historic sites. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Boston University, Boston, MA.

3Baron (2010) refers to this as contextualization (similar to Wineburg).

4Baron (2010) refers to this as origination, an adaptation of Wineburg’s “sourcing” heuristic.

5Taba, H. (1969). Teaching strategies and cognitive functioning in elementary school children (Cooperative research project 2404). Washington, DC: U.S. Office of Education. See also Taba, H. (1967). Teacher’s handbook for elementary social studies. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., Inc.

6 “Purposeful historical imagining” should not be construed as simply creative flights of fancy, but a series of very controlled, very contextualized attempts to fill in the historical blanks.

7 Baron, C. (2010). Encouraging Historical Thinking at Historic Sites. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Boston University, Boston, MA.

Last updated: December 22, 2015