Today’s blog is by Alan Kinder, Chief Executive of The Geographical Association

The contribution of fieldwork to geography education

In geography education, fieldwork is regarded by the Government, most parents, and the overwhelming majority of subject teachers as an essential element of the learning experience for young people.  Indeed, the commitment to fieldwork by teachers of geography can often feel evangelical – something we equate with our subject identity or a large part of the reason we became geography teachers in the first place.  We associate fieldwork with a sense of freedom, of breaking out from the constraints of the regular classroom environment and offering the opportunity to recover something of the spirit of exploration that helped to create the discipline itself.

Last year, the Geographical Association (GA) surveyed secondary teachers to find out how much and what kinds of fieldwork they did and whether this was changing. As part of this survey, it asked teachers about obstacles to fieldwork, revealing a depressingly-familiar list of factors, especially cost and lack of support from head teachers.

Given the challenges to undertaking fieldwork, it’s important that the benefits are increasingly well articulated and researched.  The positive impacts on social and personal skills, disposition to learning and on attitudes, values and character traits such as resilience are well documented elsewhere, so I won’t address these here.  However, in my view, there is a need to better articulate the role and impact of fieldwork on academic achievement and on the acquisition of knowledge and understanding in school subjects like geography.

Over the last year or two, I have been writing about fieldwork in geography as ‘the application of knowledge and understanding to the particular circumstances of a real-world location’ (see for example ‘The value of fieldwork’ in GA Magazine Issue 32, p.19).  I see this as a very important attempt to counterbalance the way many people and organisations (unfortunately including Ofqual, the qualifications regulator) characterise fieldwork as being ‘only about skills’ – a position I fundamentally disagree with.

Rather, I suggest that fieldwork involves and develops the act of observing and asking questions of and in the real world and that this provides a unique and essential learning experience for young people.  It develops investigative skills, careful observation and primary (first-hand) data collection in distinctive and important ways.  But this experience isn’t simply a skill, or a technical procedure.  Fieldwork investigation gives young people experience of the complexity of a real world location and invites them to both appreciate and begin to make sense of its complexity, or ‘messiness’.  Doing so helps them to appreciate that the ‘theoretical’ world of the textbook and their own investigative research is partial and limited.  This seems to me to be a critical insight into the nature of geography, of geographical knowledge and the process of becoming a geographer: we do geography fieldwork because direct observation is an essential, rewarding but challenging part of creating valid knowledge about the world.  I am drawing on a very long tradition of thinking here: in the 13th Century the English philosopher Roger Bacon asserted that both ‘Experimentum’ and ‘Argumentum’ were necessary ingredients to understanding phenomena fully; the 18th Century writer Goethe concluded that understanding also affects observation (‘we only see what we know’) and more recently, Alex Standish of the UCL Institute of Education has suggested that fieldwork helps pupils to understand that their agency is involved in gaining knowledge – that it doesn’t just ‘drop out of a textbook’.

In an era of fake news, perhaps we should be a little more upfront about the contribution of fieldwork to ways of acquiring and testing knowledge and to understanding our own, very human, limitations in doing so.

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Alan Kinder can be contacted at: akinder@geography.org.uk