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Fieldwork experiences and field teaching

‘Through its unique nature fieldwork …. brings conceptual, cognitive, procedural and social gains – much of which would be lost without the particular opportunities fieldwork provides.’

Lambert and Reiss, 2016 

Topics on this page:

  • Why use fieldwork as a teaching approach?
  • Different types of fieldwork
  • Analysing fieldwork approaches in your school
  • Management of outdoor learning: field teaching
  • Exploring fieldwork management
  • Reading

Why use fieldwork as a teaching approach?

Lambert and Reiss (2016) offer a clear justification to this question. They explain that fieldwork provides different cognitive demands that are difficult to recreate in the classroom. Conceptually, the concrete experience of fieldwork can help students to understand geographical features and phenomena that may be difficult to comprehend through textbooks or even through images.

It is also important for students to witness and be part of geographical enquiry and investigation in the real world where variables cannot be tightly controlled. Students are often working with data that may be incomplete and provisional, and they have to synthesise multiple forms of data and be tentative in drawing conclusions. Finally, there are the social benefits from working collaboratively on fieldwork activities.

Different types of fieldwork

Fieldwork is the opportunity for students to learn outside of the classroom, to actually experience the environment, to observe geographical features first hand and through the ‘soles of their feet’. Fieldwork provides a unique opportunity to appreciate the qualitative aspects of the environment and understand the essence of place.

It is in fieldwork that students have the opportunity to work through Kolb’s ELC model (see Learning theories and geography) starting with the underpinning concepts and theories to investigate, followed by planning how to test the theories, having the concrete experience of data collection and finally reflecting on what they have found in the light of their understanding.

However, the hypothesis testing approach is not the only one that can be used in fieldwork and there are several different ways to structure a fieldwork experience for students. Each has a different purpose and learning style and a school should provide students with a varied experience of fieldwork in the geography curriculum.

Commonly used approaches are:

  • fieldwork excursion
  • scientific approach (hypothesis testing)
  • geographical enquiry
  • discovery fieldwork
  • sensory fieldwork.

Most geographers will be familiar with the traditional field excursion where the students are led through a landscape and this approach is often described as ‘look’ and ‘see’. This is strongly teacher-led. Sometimes the field teacher might be a local expert. 

The students focus on recording skills, such as note taking, field sketching, photographs and on the appreciation of landscape and place. The teaching is mainly through teacher exposition, although there is usually some question and answer as well.

The scientific approach to fieldwork or field research is a very common approach in schools and is based on hypothesis testing. The teacher, sometimes in collaboration with students, sets up one or more hypotheses to be tested and decides the data to be collected during the fieldwork. 

The focus tends to be on developing skills in data collection techniques, mainly quantitative data, and the presentation and analysis of real data. The ‘research’ element of forming hypothesis from geography theory often has rather a subsidiary role and conceptual understanding is often less to the fore than it might be.

Geographical enquiry establishes an overarching question as the starting point and this drives the fieldwork. It usually draws on students’ broad geographical knowledge, not particular theories. Students can be involved in deciding the question and topics are not confined to the collection of quantitative data; they often are concerned with people’s opinions and attitudes. 

In fieldwork enquiries, students make links across different elements of geography as they pursue the ‘route for enquiry’; the interpretations and reaching conclusions are essential parts of the enquiry process.

The final two approaches are qualitative approaches. These are concerned with developing students’ appreciation and respect for nature and the environment and a sense of place. Discovery fieldwork is an ‘experiential’, open-ended approach that encourages students to look closely at an environment and explore it for themselves.

It puts students in control of learning using their own focus and methods of investigation. Sensory fieldwork, sometimes known as earth education, encourages understanding of the natural environment by involving all the senses and seeks a more emotional response from students than from field observation.

David Job (1996) classified fieldwork strategies into these categories and it does provide a useful way to think about fieldwork. The diagram illustrates how these different fieldwork strategies range from teacher-led to student-centred and also range from those approaches that emphasise quantification to those that are more concerned with qualitative issues and affective learning.

Fieldwork strategies diagram

  • Read Widdowson (2017) 232-8 and Biddulph et al (2021) pp. 202-6.

Most schools use a range of fieldwork approaches reflecting the topic being studied to give students a range of different fieldwork experiences. However, the style of fieldwork adopted can also reflect the teacher’s experience or their educational philosophy.

You should explore as many different approaches as you can, both through direct experience and through reading case studies and texts. In this way you can make an informed choice of the approach you will use in the fieldwork you lead.

  • Find out about the fieldwork provision in your school for key stages 3 and 4. Consider the nature of the types of fieldwork provided. Which of the commonly-used approaches listed above are used?
  • Discuss with the geography teacher the different approaches they use and listen to their views:
  • Which approach do they use with which topics and groups? Why do they follow that approach?
  • How far should fieldwork be concerned with how students feel about the places they visit?

Management of outdoor learning: field teaching

Field teaching can be challenging. There is the actual teaching to consider, but there are also many organisational matters, as well as pastoral issues arising from managing pupils out of doors, possibly in inclement weather!

This is very different to classroom teaching. Residential fieldwork requires even more thorough organisation; remember this occupies 24 hours a day, with no down time! One aspect of fieldwork visits that is particularly important is health and safety. Before you take students outside of the classroom you must make sure you are fully aware of your responsibilities.

  • Read Biddulph et al (2021) pp. 191-3 on health and safety/legal requirements, management and organisation and field teaching.
  • Refer to the web pages by the Royal Geographical Society about Health and SafetyThis has links to advice from the Health and Safety Executive, the DfE and the FSC Operational Codes of Practice. It provides useful advice on possible hazards met on field visits and the support resources that should be integrated into risk management.
  • See Widdowson (2017) p. 239 Figure 8, which gives an extract from a risk assessment for fieldwork in an urban setting.

Find out about the school policy guidelines for out-of-school visits that operate in your school. Managing outdoor learning and field teaching involves many considerations that are different to usual classroom practice. Look at this drawing by a student which shows a ‘fieldwork geographer‘.

Study Biddulph et al (2021) Figure 7.1 on page 190 which gives a timeline for managing the various aspects of field visits. This can be daunting, so ask advice from teachers who are experienced in managing fieldwork. Devise your own ‘checklist for visits’ from your discussion.

Arrange to shadow an experienced geography teacher as they plan and lead fieldwork and observe closely how they manage the different stages set out by Biddulph et al.

Observe the briefing given before the visit. Take particular note of:

  • what organisational points are covered
  • how they brief students about timings, transport arrangements, safety matters etc.
  • if they give advice on practical issues such as clothing, footwear and food.

Take notes that you can add to your checklist for your own visits.

During the visit observe how they:

  • organise transport arrangements
  • manage groups in the outdoors
  • make sure they all understand instructions, rendezvous points etc.
  • brief students on site re: safety
  • manage equipment
  • keep alert regarding safety during the field activity
  • deal with any behavioural issues.

If it is not possible to shadow a teacher leading fieldwork for real, talk through each of the above elements with a geography teacher experienced in fieldwork so that you have a good understanding of the detailed planning undertaken before you lead fieldwork yourself. 

In particular, go through the risk assessment and safety requirements with them, or the person in your school who coordinates off-site visits.

Reading

  • Biddulph, M., Lambert, D. and Balderstone, D. (2021) Learning to Teach Geography in the Secondary School: A Companion to School Experience, 4th edition. London: Routledge, chapter 7 (field teaching).
  • Job, D. (1996) ‘Geography and environmental education’ in Kent, A., Lambert, D., Naish, M. and Slater, F. (eds) Geography in Education: Viewpoints on teaching and learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Job, D. (1999) New Directions in Geographical Fieldwork. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press/Queen Mary Westfield College.
  • Lambert, D. and Reiss, M.J. (2016) ‘The place of fieldwork in geography qualifications’, Geography, Spring.
  • Widdowson, J. (2017) ‘Fieldwork’ in Jones, M. (ed) The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Sheffield: Geographical Association, chapter 17 pp. 232-9.