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Planning fieldwork for geographical learning

“Geographical fieldwork provides students with experiences that are intrinsically valuable, but detailed planning can ensure they maximise the wide-ranging education benefits from such activities.”

Holmes and Walker, 2006

Topics on this page:

  • How do I plan fieldwork for geographical learning?
  • How good is your subject knowledge for fieldwork?
  • Learning geographical knowledge and understanding through fieldwork
  • Creative ideas for fieldwork
  • Planning your own fieldwork
  • Questions to consider as you plan fieldwork
  • Different styles of fieldwork
  • Further fieldwork planning ideas
  • Useful links for fieldwork ideas and resources
  • Reading

Refer to the webpages on Fieldwork and Fieldwork experiences and field teaching, if you have not read these already.

Key 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.
  • Widdowson, J. (2017), ‘Fieldwork’ in Jones, M. The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Chapter 17.
  • Refer to this extensive Reading list on Fieldwork.

How do I plan fieldwork for geographical learning?

Fieldwork needs to be planned as part of a curriculum and should not be a ‘one-off’ activity. Ofsted (2008) evaluated the impact of learning outside of the classroom and found it was most successful when ‘it was an integral element of long-term curriculum planning and closely linked to classroom activities.’

However, Ofsted (2023) reported:

In most schools, leaders had done very little curriculum thinking about fieldwork. They had not decided what they wanted fieldwork to achieve and therefore could not plan for how best to achieve it. Fieldwork was rarely taught as part of the wider geography curriculum, and opportunities to carry out fieldwork either on the school site or at home were rarely taken.

Therefore, the learning outcomes sought from fieldwork should be derived from the curriculum unit of which the fieldwork is part. Classroom teaching should set the scene for the fieldwork activity and follow it up afterwards. 

Understanding of your own students is critical, to give them the contextual knowledge and skills required to access fieldwork experiences both before and after your work outside the classroom.

  • See Sloggett (2021) p 29 for how one department sets out its key stage 3 fieldwork plan.

Ofsted (2023) praises schools with a clear curriculum for fieldwork that approach it alongside other aspects of procedural knowledge, so that students had frequent opportunities to collect and present data and to analyse it.

Fieldwork has a body of knowledge that needs to be taught. Students should be taught how to collect, present and analyse data, and how to reach and evaluate conclusions based on this data. They should have first-hand experience of collecting data and should be expected to use data meaningfully when back in the classroom.

In your planning you should clearly identify the aims and objectives of the fieldwork and bear these in mind as you design the fieldwork tasks. Learning objectives would usually include the acquisition of new skills/techniques, specific con­ceptual understanding and vocabulary. But you may wish to specifically promote student development in enquiry skills or one of the aesthetic or values domains.

You might also include objectives such as to practise OS map skills, or develop inter-personal skills such as teamwork. However, you must strike a balance between enabling discovery and promoting deeper thinking.

How good is your subject knowledge for fieldwork?

One of the ways in which you must be fully prepared for fieldwork teaching is by making sure you have good subject knowledge of the content you are teaching and the fieldwork techniques. 

The latter includes statistics and the presentation techniques that students are expected to use for both GCSE and A level examinations. In addition, you must know about the fieldwork location and background information about the place you are visiting for the fieldwork.

  • See Fieldwork subject knowledge which suggests some resources to help you to develop your subject knowledge.
  • See the GA’s KnowHow Fieldwork series that is designed to help key stage 3 teachers with their background knowledge of fieldwork enquiries, data collection, and data presentation and analysis.

Learning geographical knowledge and understanding through fieldwork

As with all other aspects of the geography curriculum, it is important to consider progression in fieldwork learning so that students develop their ability to carry out fieldwork over time.

At key stage 3 short enquiry-based fieldwork tasks should provide an opportunity to give students familiarity with some of the basic knowledge and processes inherent in fieldwork and prepare them for examination work later. Students should have opportunities to be introduced to different fieldwork techniques and develop the necessary skills in the immediate environment of the school as well through day visits to other locations. 

As they gain more fieldwork experience from year 7 to year 13 students should progress in the skills and techniques they use, the complexity of the concepts they explore, and their degree of independence in enquiries. They also should experience a wide range of fieldwork techniques in different places and environments.

Over time students should get better at carrying out fieldwork. When students are taught well how geographers collect, present and analyse data and how they then reach conclusions and evaluate their work, they are better equipped for the independent investigation at A level and for higher education.

Refer to Progression in geographical fieldwork developed by the Field Studies Council (FSC).

  • Try Task 7.2 Progression in geographical fieldwork in Biddulph et al (2021) p 210.

The progression table illustrates how fieldwork skills and understanding build up through the key stages. Laying good foundations in the use of different fieldwork techniques and data collection strategies is particularly important at key stage 3, so that students are equipped to select and evaluate a range of techniques for GCSE fieldwork and are well prepared to undertake the non-examined assessment at A level.

The progression table from the FSC sets high expectations at key stage 3.  For example, students are expected to be able to use a wide range of techniques, identify their own relevant questions and carry out an enquiry with minimal teacher intervention; they are also expected to reach substantiated conclusions and begin to reflect critically on their methodology. Your planning and teaching in the field need to consider these expectations carefully.

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’. Such moments create memories to which geography ideas can be pinned to. But you must ensure that you teach the relevant geography concept so that it is ‘attached’ to the memorable moment! As you plan your field teaching, think about HOW you are going to achieve what you actually want students to learn.

  • Read Kinder (2018).

This article should give you a lot to consider about how to go about your fieldwork teaching.  Firstly, Kinder (2018) says that teachers should design fieldwork activities so that they ‘reveal processes at work, spatial patterns, inter-relationships or other geographical ways of seeing’. He points out that this requires students to undertake careful field observation and measurement which can reveal counter-intuitive ‘hidden truths’.

Kinder illustrates this in relation to speed of river flow and shows how fieldwork in situations like this can challenge students with cognitive conflicts. As you plan fieldwork you must be explicit in identifying precisely the concepts you wish students to grapple with and provide sufficient scaffolding to provide help them to make sense of what they see. 

You also need to spend time actually teaching when you are in the field, by asking questions to check understanding and clarify any misconceptions. Unless you do this, students will probably not make sense of their observations and their learning will not be effective.

Kinder also reminds us that helping students to begin to make sense of the complexity, or ‘messiness’ of the real world, is ‘part of the very fabric of geographical education’ and properly planned fieldwork can use this to advantage. 

He suggests that ‘fieldwork provides 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’.

He advocates giving more attention to this by having these discussions when in the field, not leaving it until you return to the classroom. Indeed, he suggests that an analytical-predictive fieldwork approach is worthy of consideration to involve students more fully in thinking about the processes they are observing and predicting outcomes rather than giving all the attention to critiquing the reliability of data collection techniques afterwards. 

Charlton et al (2012) also stress that reviewing learning whilst still in the field helps to reinforce the benefits and purpose of fieldwork.

Bearing this in mind, think how you can plan your teaching to capitalise on the fieldwork experiences and the discussions you have with students in the field to help them to make sense of the phenomena they observe.

Creative ideas for fieldwork

Biddulph et al (2021) has an excellent section in their text on Creative Fieldwork which should encourage you to widen your horizons in the type of fieldwork to include ‘values’ and ‘place’ and ‘environment’ and not be confined to urban surveys and river measurements which you may remember from your school fieldwork experiences. 

They also describe the notion of ‘layering’ when you plan fieldwork, to incorporate OS map skills or understanding of how the place they are visiting is connected to other places.

It is very important that the approach you decide to adopt is appropriate for your fieldwork objectives and the geography you want students to learn. But the key texts below, together with the case studies will show you that there are many different ways to achieve your aims.

  • Read about fieldwork in these chapters in the key texts: Biddulph et al (2021) Chapter 7 and Widdowson (2017).
Annually the GA runs a national fieldwork event in the summer term. There is a different theme each year with resources and activities available on the Fieldwork pages on the GA website. Many PGCE students use these in schools.
 
Consider investigating urban green spaces near you. Almost every school in the UK has a physical geography environment that is easily accessible and local. Explore what is close to your school — a local urban park, recreation field, churchyard, golf course or canal towpath.

 

Refer to this enquiry for key stage 3 and GCSE students, written by Andy Owen, which uses quantitative and qualitative techniques to collect primary data and investigate the benefits created by urban green spaces. Green spaces create a wide range of benefits that are analysed in detail in an Office for National Statistics (ONS) report, which provides useful background reading.

For fieldwork ideas for secondary and post-16, see Fieldwork ideas and resources.

 

Planning your own fieldwork

Try to observe fieldwork in action with a geography teacher experienced in fieldwork, so that you have a good understanding of the detailed planning that is required before you lead fieldwork yourself. In particular go through the risk assessment requirements with them, or the person in your school who coordinates off site visits.

You should have the opportunity to plan some fieldwork that you carry out yourself during your ITE training. If you do not, set this as a priority for your first year as an ECT when you can gain experience with a mentor at hand to guide you as a critical friend. 

Seek their expert advice as you select the fieldwork strategy to use and plan activities for the learning to be achieved in the context of the fieldwork. Check with them on the manageability of your plans and any aspects that you need to watch out for with regard to management and safety.

Think carefully about the lessons leading up to the fieldwork, in which the foundations for the geographical learning are laid. What concepts and skills need to be taught to prepare students for the fieldwork?

The GA offers a wide range of fieldwork resources to support learning, including student resources to help with collecting, analysing and presenting fieldwork data.

  • Publications: Fieldwork through Enquiry; Methods of Analysing Fieldwork Data; Fieldwork at A level; Creative Fieldwork.
  • Guidance for undertaking fieldwork: KnowHow (KS3) series.
  • Exploring urban settings: A Guide to Fieldwork in… series.
  • Posters and fieldwork equipment including compasses, measuring tape, clinometers etc.

Fieldwork planning needs to be detailed and thorough. You cannot ‘wing it’ or leave things to chance. You need to have a contingency plan in place to maintain the key learning intentions, if for any reason (e.g. inclement weather) you cannot complete the plan as you had hoped to.

There two presentations provide good advice and ideas for new teachers planning fieldwork for the first time.

  •  Refer to Briscoe (2023) ‘Teaching year 12 students how to code interviews’, Teaching Geography, Summer to find out how a teacher prepared her students to use fieldwork interviews.
When you are planning fieldwork, consider the environmental impact we have during field visits?
  • What learning outcomes are you hoping to achieve? For example, are you developing understanding of: specific fieldwork techniques or data collection skills; appreciating how people influence the environment; understanding processes?
  • What fieldwork approach will you use: enquiry; hypothesis-testing; field teaching or other strategy? Is this likely to be the most effective way to achieve your learning objectives?
  • What fieldwork ‘experience’ do you expect students to gain e.g. understanding of how to carry out their own individual studies; teamwork and cooperation; ‘wow’ factor?
  • What specific activities will students undertake ‘in the field’?
  • What data will be collected? Sampling? Recording?
  • Will you give the students the opportunity to participate in any of these planning decisions? Will they contribute ideas for a key enquiry question, or suggest techniques to use, or what data to collect? How will you ensure they fully understand what they are going to do and why?
  • What pre-fieldwork lessons and tasks will be needed to ensure students have the necessary prior knowledge for the field activity? What contextual information do they need about the fieldwork location?
  • What resources will you need – e.g. maps, recording sheets, equipment?
  • How will you organise the activity in the field: groups; sharing tasks; recording and collating data etc.
  • Will you need to adapt the activity to cater for all students in the group?
  • How will you check understanding ‘in the field’? What will you need to look out for?
  • How will the students collate/analyse/present the data they have collected? How will this operate?
  • What follow-up/conclusion will there be? Are you expecting a written outcome? Will it be assessed?
  • What happens next?

Different styles of fieldwork

Using these questions as a framework, read these five examples of different styles of fieldwork. As you read them think about how the teacher has planned the fieldwork to address the above questions.

Example 1: Year 7 enquiry; school grounds; environmental quality analysis; bipolar survey

  • Peppin, K. (2020) ‘Getting outside! Investigating the school environment’, Teaching Geography, Summer.

Example 2: Year 9 enquiry; coasts; student design fieldwork; organisation (NB: This case study refers to assessment levels that are no longer used)

  • Rynne, E. (2000) ‘Year 9 students design fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, April.

Example 3: Year 10 enquiry; locating a supermarket; Hypotheses-testing; problem solving; roleplay; data collection; organisation; presentation

  • Rawling, E. (1975) ‘Supermarket for Llandovery: An exercise in field research’, Teaching Geography, April.

Example 4: A Level; coasts; study of community; qualitative + quantitative; revisiting earlier data; range of local data sources

  • Bye, C., Hirst, S. and Thorpe, C. (2017) ‘Creating local opportunities for independent investigations’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
Example 5: Traffic counts, beach sediment surveys, litter surveys
  • Searl, C. (2023) ‘Rethinking the ‘simple’ in fieldwork, GA Magazine, Spring, No. 53.

Further fieldwork planning ideas

  • Bustin, R. (2019) ‘Investigating lived space: ideas for fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Charlton, M., Lapthorn, N., Moncrieff, D. and Turney, A. (2012) ‘Changing coastal fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Finch Noyes, H. and Steel, B. (2020) ‘Beyond A level fieldwork … an exploration of urban areas’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Holmes, D. and Farbrother, D. (2000) ‘Activity surveys’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • House, D., Lapthorn, N., Moncrieff, D., Owen-Jones, G. and Turney, A. (2012) ‘Risky fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Knight, S. (2013) ’Investigating weather through fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Searl, C. (2023) ‘Fieldwork for the first time’, GA Magazine, Summer.
  • Sloggett, G. (2021) ‘COVID-19: an opportunity to review fieldwork provision’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Trafford, R. (2017) ‘Seizing the opportunity for a new era of fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Witt, S. (2013) ‘Chance encounters of the playful kind: exploring places’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.

Useful links for fieldwork ideas and resources

Reading

These articles illustrate that a wide range of ideas and teaching techniques contribute to good fieldwork teaching to provide exciting experiences for students:

  • 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.
  • Caton, D. (2006) ‘Real world learning through geographical fieldwork‘, in Balderstone, D. (ed) Secondary Geography Handbook.
  • Holmes, D. and Walker, M. (2006) ‘Planning geographical fieldwork, Chapter 18 in D. Balderstone (ed.) Secondary Geography Handbook, Sheffield: The Geographical Association.
  • Kinder, A. (2013) ‘What is the contribution of fieldwork to school geography?’ in Jones, M. and Lambert, D. (eds) Debates in Geography Education. London: Routledge.
  • Kinder, A. (2018) ‘Acquiring geographical knowledge and understanding through fieldwork’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Maddison, J. (2018) FSC Creative Fieldwork Guide, Sheffield: The Geographical Association.
  • Marvell, A. and Simm, D. (2016) ‘Unravelling the geographical palimpsest through fieldwork: discovering a sense of place’, Geography, Autumn.
  • Monk, P. (2016) ‘Progression in fieldwork’ Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Ofsted (2008) Learning outside the classroom, Ofsted.
  • Ofsted (2023) Getting our bearings: geography subject report, Ofsted, September.
  • Roberts, M. (2018) ‘Do the new GCSEs promote “sound enquiry and investigative approaches” to learning geography?’, Geography, Spring.
  • Sloggett, G. (2021)‘ COVID-19: an opportunity to review fieldwork provision’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Widdowson, J. (2017), ‘Fieldwork’ in Jones, M. The Handbook of Secondary Geography, Chapter 17.