Teaching with archives: history in education studies

Students exploring one of the store rooms at the IOE Archives

Mark Freeman, UCL Institute of Education


I am a historian working in an education faculty – the UCL Institute of Education (IOE) – which happens to have a world-leading archive. In recent years the IOE has extended its activity into undergraduate teaching, and I have contributed heavily to the BA (Hons) Education Studies programme.

Originally, this degree was structured along disciplinary lines, with separate ‘pathways’ in philosophy, sociology and history of education; and, although this is no longer the case, these so-called ‘foundation’ disciplines still have an important part to play.

Some students have a background in these disciplines – at A-level for example – most have not studied history since GSCE or equivalent, or perhaps not even then. This presents both a challenge and an opportunity for the staff of the International Centre for Historical Research in Education (ICHRE).

My main contribution to the programme is a 15-credit optional year 2 module called ‘Archival Research and Oral History in Education’, which I teach with colleagues in the IOE Archives.

This introduces students to some of the key issues in historical research in education, particularly through a week-by-week examination of different genres of source material, many of which are held in the archives. For example, students look at photographs and film as historical sources, official publications, biographical sources, student writing and oral history interviews.

In keeping with the degree programme, the focus is always on education, although we do use a history textbook, Simon Gunn and Lucy Faire’s edited collection Research Methods for History (EUP, 2011), as well as Gary McCulloch’s Documentary Research in Education, History and the Social Sciences (Routledge, 2004).

There are some particularly interesting activities on the course. One is the first archive session, where students reconstruct the process of writing a research article from the archival sources, looking at a paper from the journal History of Education which was based on the archives’ own holdings. Following through the footnotes enables students to check the accuracy and representativeness of the sources the author used, and to see for themselves the ways in which historians work.

We look at material from the Plowden Report (1967), including the large collection of photographs that are held at the IOE; we consider work produced by international students in the mid-twentieth-century Colonial Department (now Education and International Development); and we explore educational biography using the extensive Brian Simon collection. For the sessions on oral history, we use the education section of the British Library’s online ‘Disability Voices’ collection.


Working with archival material in the IOE Library Teaching Room

Assessment is mainly through a group research project of 4,000 words, based on sources in the IOE Archives and elsewhere. In practice, due to the assistance available on the premises and to the convenient location, most students work on sources from our own archives, and there are a number of areas on which they can choose to focus. There is also a smaller assignment where each student writes a critical analysis of a single source.

The course is labour-intensive to teach: we have small groups meeting for ten two-hour hands-on workshops, and these require the presence of myself and, usually, a colleague from the IOE Archives; each group is also assigned an archivist whom they can contact at any time. The contribution of these colleagues is vital, and ensures that students are fully engaged with the central principle of UCL’s ‘Connected Curriculum’: ‘students learn through research and inquiry’. It forms part of a research ‘throughline’, running across the three years of the degree programme: in year 1 students write a literature review based on secondary sources, and of course in year 3 there is the opportunity to write a dissertation.

A number of students on this still fairly new programme have used archival sources to good effect in dissertations. The course has encouraged students to gain confidence with historical source material – often in large quantities – and staff and students together presented their reflections on the module at the 2015 ICHRE summer conference, ‘New Horizons in the History of Education’. More recently, Becky Webster (head of archives at UCL) and I obtained a ‘Liberating the Curriculum’ grant to support the further development of the module: the results of this work have been shared internally, and will be more widely disseminated in due course.


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