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Fieldwork

“Learning outside the classroom is important for all young people if they are to connect with their local place, find a relevance for the classroom-based learning and develop a meaningful understanding of what environment really means.”

Turney, 2009 

Topics on this page:

  • What is fieldwork?
  • Why is fieldwork important in geography?
  • Reflect on your fieldwork experiences
  • How can fieldwork help geographical learning?
  • Why is learning outside of the classroom important in education?
  • The position of fieldwork in schools
  • Fieldwork content in your school
  • Improving your subject knowledge for geographical fieldwork
  • Reading and references

What is fieldwork?

Fieldwork is learning directly in the real world outside the classroom and has a long tradition in school geography. It has been described as ‘learning geography through the soles of the feet’. 

It is one of the distinctive features of a geographical education and feeds students’ curiosity about the world. Much fieldwork is done locally, even within the school grounds and Alcock (2022) discusses the important role that local parks can play.

Fieldwork is not exclusively the domain of geographers in schools, but for many students it is the geography day or residential visit to explore an unfamiliar location that is the memorable experience. There is a trend for more schools to organise fieldwork in foreign locations, such as Morocco and Iceland.

Why is fieldwork important in geography?

Fieldwork is an essential ingredient of geography because it provides a ‘real-world’ opportunity for students to develop and extend their geographical thinking; it adds value to classroom experiences. The outdoors is a resource for geographical learning and fieldwork should be planned as part of the geography curriculum, not added on as a ‘special’ activity.

Geography fieldwork is very much ‘hands on’; when students are involved in fieldwork enquiries, they are collecting primary data; formulating questions to investigate; seeking answers to their questions; and communicating their findings.

Fieldwork’s importance for learning and raising achievement in geography is endorsed by geographers everywhere. And not just by geographers, but also by the DfE and by HMI who wrote:

‘Well planned fieldwork in geography adds clear value to learning in the subject as well as providing a positive contribution to the wider curriculum. Students gain first-hand, practical experiences which support and reinforce knowledge, skills and concepts explored in the classroom. Memorable experiences support long-term learning and recall. Good fieldwork encourages geographical enquiry and frequently can lead to higher-order thinking and learning.’    (Ofsted 2005)

More recently, in the Ofsted Research review: Geography (2021), Ofsted notes that through fieldwork students are ‘immersed in relevant thinking’ and ‘key geographical knowledge sticks in their memory’. 

Ofsted also points out that students connect their fieldwork experiences with their classroom learning because ‘to explain what is observed draws on pupils’ knowledge of human and physical processes as well as locational knowledge’.

They also point out the wider importance of fieldwork experiences that give students ‘a critical insight into the nature of geographical knowledge, by helping students appreciate that both the ‘theoretical’ world of the textbook and their own investigative research is partial and limited’.

Reflect on your fieldwork experiences

Participating in a fieldwork experience is often a well-remembered element of a person’s geography education. For some students it can be a life changing experience, as this quote illustrates.

‘I remember the trip to Pembrokeshire in west Wales vividly. I was a city kid and, up to that point in my life, my only experience outside London had been holidays at the seaside. I had never travelled anywhere in Britain that could remotely be described as wilderness, but as we tramped the coastal path, climbed hills and combed rocky shores, it aroused a new curiosity within me. It made me want to explore more of the world.’ (John Widdowson, 2017)

An important thing to consider when planning is to create ‘memorable moments’ in the field. Do not underestimate the power of the ‘awe and wonder’. Consider this when you plan your own fieldwork and take the opportunity to provides students with such an experience. You should also reflect on what your own fieldwork experiences have meant to you, and whether they have been as influential on you.

Think about your own fieldwork experiences during your geography education.

  • What did you find most memorable and why?
  • Was geographical fieldwork a motivator for you in studying the subject?
  • What types of fieldwork have you experienced personally?
  • Was university fieldwork the same as school?
  • Share you experiences with fellow trainee teachers, ECTs, teachers – are they similar?

How can fieldwork help geographical learning?

Fieldwork involves students in observing, collecting data for themselves, describing their findings and analysing them. When doing this they become immersed in geographical thinking and draw together different forms of geographical knowledge. 

To explain what they have observed, students must draw on their knowledge of human and physical processes and their understanding of location. Active engagement with geographical knowledge in the real world helps students to retain this knowledge in their memory.

Key reading

  • The article by Kitchen and Maddison (2021) which is an excellent article to build your confidence to undertake teaching outside the classroom.
  • The chapter by Widdowson (2017) in the Secondary Geography Handbook.

You will see from Figure 2 of Kitchen and Maddison that there are several components of high-quality fieldwork that resonate with the good geographical learning such as: thinking like a geographer, engaging in enquiry, critical thinking and linking theory to practice. Good fieldwork equates with good geographical learning.

Fieldwork can have these educational purposes:

  • Conceptual
  • Skills-related
  • Aesthetic
  • Values related
  • Social and personal development.

Each of these can be translated into specific aims for fieldwork. This is illustrated in Widdowson (2017) Figure 2 p 229.

Although anecdotally teachers are sure that fieldwork brings significant learning benefits, there has been limited research undertaken to confirm this. Research by Mackenzie and White (1982) found that fieldwork not only stimulates new sensory experiences, it also has a positive impact on retention in students’ long term memory.

Kern and Carpenter (1986) cited in Hawley (2012) noted that Year 9 and Year 10 students demonstrated greater ability to think holistically following Earth science fieldwork. Ofsted (2011) has found that good and regular fieldwork added depth and detail to students’ learning.

Why is learning outside of the classroom important in education?

Learning outside of the classroom (LOtC) is using places other than the classroom for teaching and learning. This helps young people to develop a real understanding of what place and environment mean. 

It may seem surprising in an age of tourism and frequent travel, but older people will tell you that many 11-16 year olds have less freedom today to discover and explore places in their own locality themselves than young people did 50 years ago.

Fieldwork can open young people’s minds to what is around them. It makes a significant contribution to students’ intellectual develop­ment but it also contributes to affective learning which includes aspects such as responding, valuing and organising. 

Kitchen and Maddison (2021) refer to ‘soft outcomes’ such as resilience, resourcefulness, perseverance, and independence that participation in fieldwork can promote.

Above all fieldwork can help students to experience the ‘wow’ factor of a mountain or coastal view and express feelings about places and landscapes. This IS geography. It can stimulate an interest in the environment and the outdoors which can be life-changing. 

Residential fieldwork provides social and shared experiences which can also be motivating and help students to develop confidence, interpersonal and teamwork skills, and to collaborate and engage with others and hear their attitudes and values.

The position of fieldwork in schools

There is widespread agreement among teachers, parents and politicians that fieldwork is beneficial; unfortunately, this is not enough to guarantee its place in the curriculum. 

There has been a marked decline in fieldwork provision, particularly at key stage 3, in recent years. In most schools, fieldwork stopped completely during the COVID-19 pandemic because of restrictions on movement and because examination boards removed the practical fieldwork requirement. 

Senior managers in some (but not all) schools are increasingly reluctant to allow fieldwork for a number of reasons. School timetable pressures, reduced school funding, anxieties about safety are all seen as barriers to fieldwork. Cook (2017) discusses the constraints facing teachers seeking to promote inclusive fieldwork.

In 2011, Ofsted reported:

Fieldwork was underdeveloped in the majority of the secondary schools visited. Only around one fifth of the schools visited had an integrated programme to develop fieldwork skills progressively. In almost half the schools there was no significant fieldwork in key stage 3 and in key stage 4 only enough to meet the examination criteria. Fieldwork was developed best in the 45 sixth forms surveyed. There were more residential visits and smaller groups of mainly enthusiastic students made fieldwork more manageable.

The secondary schools that had successful fieldwork programmes recognised that its benefits outweighed any difficulties. A new emphasis on fieldwork in some of them had been a turning point, revitalising teaching and making geography more relevant and exciting. The schools visited that had a vibrant fieldwork programme frequently said that increasing numbers of students were choosing geography at examination level at a time when numbers were declining nationally. This was often because fieldwork experiences added detail and depth to students’ learning and they understood the relevance of what they were studying.

Ofsted, Learning to make a world of difference (2011)

Curriculum revisions in recent years have made fieldwork an entitlement in geography and reinforce the expectation that all students will have fieldwork experience. The geography National Curriculum states that students should ‘use fieldwork in contrasting locations to collect, analyse and draw conclusions from geographical data’

Fieldwork is also a requirement of GCSE and A level specifications; GCSE examinations require that ‘fieldwork is carried out, outside the classroom and school grounds, on at least two occasions’; and A level requires four days of fieldwork.

Despite the expectations of the National Curriculum and examination specifications, Ofsted (2023) reported:

 

In some secondary schools, pupils did not carry out fieldwork in key stage 3…fieldwork at key stages 4 and 5 rarely went beyond the minimum requirements of the exam boards.

Oftsed also commented:

Fieldwork was underdeveloped in almost all schools, as the curriculum did not consider how pupils would make progress in their ability to carry out fieldwork over time. Although COVID-19 had an impact on the number of field trips and visits taking place, fieldwork had rarely been a strong feature of the curriculum before the pandemic. Leaders had not considered how fieldwork should be taught or how pupils would learn more about how geographers carry out their work.

There is a clear distinction between out-of-school ‘visits’ and fieldwork. Students may participate in ‘field trips’ or ‘visits’ during which very little ‘fieldwork’ occurs in terms of observing geographical phenomena or collecting fieldwork data.

Most geographers will be familiar with the traditional field excursion and with field research based on hypothesis testing. School fieldwork, especially at examination level, often follows an enquiry approach where students seek answers to one or more geographical questions. Newer fieldwork approaches are used in some schools such as discovery fieldwork and sensory fieldwork.

For more information:

Find out about the planned programme of fieldwork that takes place in your school: Study the department’s curriculum plan, resources and students’ folders, to find out about the fieldwork done in the department.

  • What curriculum topics are linked to the fieldwork?
  • When and where does the fieldwork take place?
  • What different types of fieldwork do the students experience?
  • How much fieldwork has a year 11 student experienced since they joined the school in year 7?
  • Have there been any changes in fieldwork over the last five years?
  • Read Biddulph et al (2021) pp187-9

From this reading, study carefully at the fieldwork curriculum and examination requirements at each key stage. The authors give four reasons for the case for fieldwork that it:

  • Develops students’ capacity to thinking geographically
  • Develops students’ geographical enquiry skills
  • Contributes to students’ ‘affective’ learning.
  • Contributes to the development of students’ interpersonal skills.

Consider their arguments carefully and then meet with both teachers and students in your school to find out their views about fieldwork.

  • Do they think fieldwork is important and why? Do they agree with the reasons put forward by Biddulph et al?
  • How and when do they use fieldwork? What opportunities and constraints do they face in implementing a fieldwork programme?
  • Do they agree with Kinder’s survey findings in 2016? Have they managed to overcome the barriers he describes?
  • Have they made any changes to fieldwork provision in the last 5 years…. And why?
  • What guidance and advice can they give you about running your own fieldwork?

Meet with small groups of students from year 9 and from year 11 in the school to discuss fieldwork with them.

Some things to find out from them would be:

  • What fieldwork experiences have they had in the school?
  • Do they enjoy fieldwork? Why?
  • What fieldwork do they remember most? Why?
  • Does fieldwork help them to learn in geography? Why?
  • What type of fieldwork activities do they find most, and least interesting?
  • For examination groups find out whether they have undertaken any fieldwork projects/enquiries. How much can they tell you about what they did and why?

Improving your subject knowledge for geographical fieldwork

Good geographical knowledge is essential to teach fieldwork and you should work on developing your breadth of knowledge during your training. 

The GA has a series of KnowHow publications that are designed to help key stage 3 teachers with their background knowledge of fieldwork enquiries, data collection and data presentation and analysis. There are written by Chloe Searl (2023) and cover:

  • Introducing fieldwork enquiries
  • Fieldwork equipment and data collection techniques: human geography
  • Fieldwork equipment and data collection techniques: physical geography
  • Fieldwork data presentation and analysis.
The GA also publishes a series of three publications for GCSE/A level on methods of collecting, analysing and presenting fieldwork data.
 
See the Fieldwork Knowledge Booster videos from Time for Geography.

It is essential you know about the contexts and locations where you are planning fieldwork.

Texts such as the GA’s Landform Guides and A Guide to Fieldwork in… series are a good source of background information. Fieldwork is concerned with first-hand, real world experiences for students and you need to be confident and competent in a range of fieldwork skills and techniques and how they can be applied in the field.

Do not only think about the knowledge you are lacking. Think about your fieldwork knowledge strengths too. Reflect on what you could contribute to a school curriculum that builds on these strengths.

  • Follow up: Building a fieldwork toolkit for new geography teachersThis is a video of a live broadcast for new teachers to develop the skills needed for designing and delivering geographical fieldwork. It focusses on practical tips, and key principles to build a fieldwork toolkit. There are also very useful support materials you can download.

Reading and references

  • Alcock, D. (2022) ‘In praise of local fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • 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.
  • Cook, V. (2006) ‘Inclusive fieldwork in a “risk society”, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • DFES (2006) Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto, Department for Education and Skills.
  • Hawley, D. (2012) ‘The “real deal” of Earth science: why, where and how to include fieldwork in teaching’, School Science Review, 94, 347, pp. 87–100.
  • Kern, E. and Carpenter, J. (1986) ‘Effect of field activities on student learning’, Journal of Geological Education, 34, pp.180–3.
  • Kitchen, and Maddison, J. (2021) ‘A fieldwork toolkit for early career geography teachers’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Lambert, D. and Reiss, J. (2016) ‘The place of fieldwork in geography qualifications’, Geography, Spring.
  • MacKenzie, A. and White, R. (1982) ‘Fieldwork in geography and long-term memory structures’, American Educational Research Journal, 19, 4, pp. 623–32.
  • Ofsted (2008) Learning outside the classroom, Ofsted.
  • Oftsed (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted, September.
  • Rickinson, M., Dillon, J., Teamey, K., Choi, M. Y., & Benefield, P. (2004) A review of research on outdoor learning, Field Studies Council.
  • Turney, A. (2009) ‘Living and Learning outside the classroom – fieldwork’ in Mitchell, D. (ed) Living Geography: Exciting futures for teachers and students, Chris Kington Publishing.
  • Widdowson, J. (2017) ‘Fieldwork’ in Jones, M. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association, Chapter 17.