Fieldwork is the physical activity of 'exploring geography'. Students undertake first-hand experiences of actual situations as they connect with the natural, managed and constructed environments. Fieldwork can take place locally in places students know, or further afield.
Fieldwork is 'doing' geography. It involves students studying geography outside the classroom – observing, questioning, planning, collecting, recording, evaluating, representing, analysing, concluding, communicating, reflecting and responding.
Fieldwork is first-hand experience of actual situations. Students connect with the environment, whether it is natural, managed or constructed. It allows students to understand, explain and think about their world – to open their eyes to the obvious in their community. They can look at their world from a quantitative and qualitative perspective – to collect data and use their senses in making judgements on issues in their world.
Fieldwork may be undertaken in the school grounds, just beyond the perimeter of the school, or further afield. Fieldwork requires you and your students to get out there and 'just do it'.
The following resources will help you to develop your understanding of fieldwork and how it can be organised:
- Illustration 1: Selecting a fieldwork site which provides suggestions for year-appropriate fieldwork.
- Why is fieldwork important to geography? In this video, Joseph Kerski (2011 National Council for Geographic Education President) talks directly to students from a wide variety of locations to stimulate thinking about fieldwork in geography and 'understanding the essentials of environments'.
- Real world learning through geographical fieldwork considers and the breadth of achievement and students' engagement that can gained through fieldwork.
Why do fieldwork?
Fieldwork is fundamental to the study of geography – it makes the subject come alive, promotes enthusiasm for geography and motivates students.
Fieldwork is the means by which students can engage and develop a deep understanding of geographical processes and enquiry. Fieldwork gives students (both individually and collaboratively) the opportunity to:
- enhance their knowledge through observing, mapping, measuring and recording real world phenomena
- explore geographical processes that form and transform environments
- use a range of geographical tools to assist in interpretation and decision-making
- locate, select, organise and communicate geographical information
- explore different perspectives relating to geographical issues.
Fieldwork requires careful planning, organisation and structure. Illustration 2: A checklist for undertaking fieldwork can assist you with your own planning.
There are a number of readings that will enhance your knowledge and understanding of fieldwork which are documented in the 'Resources' section below. Of particular relevance are:
The enquiry approach
Fieldwork taps into a student's curiosity about the world.
Using the enquiry approach creates 'a need to know'. Students are curious, so they can be encouraged to speculate, hypothesise, use their imagination, generate ideas, make links with existing knowledge, identify issues, formulate questions and be involved in the planning of their fieldwork activity.
The enquiry approach asks students to use data gathered in the field to support their findings. They will need to locate, collect and select evidence, then sort, classify and sequence the data to make sense of their world.
Making sense of their world will come through the connections that can be made between elements of the data to describe, explain, compare, contrast, analyse, interpret, recognise relationships and clarify values to ultimately reach conclusions relating their existing knowledge to their new knowledge.
At the completion of an enquiry it is important that students reflect on their learning. This requires a critique of their learning about:
- data sources used
- skills and techniques applied
- criteria used for making judgements
- what was learned and how it was learned
- how the enquiry can be improved and further developed
- the value of what has been learned.
The lessons learned about the learning process can be modified for the next foray into fieldwork. Fieldwork also develops a sense of place.
For an excellent introduction to fieldwork see Real world learning through geographical fieldwork. The Geogstandards website (currently not available online) is a very useful resource for teachers of geography, designed to offer a basis for professional learning. Video clips of geography lessons with supporting information are provided to demonstrate exemplary geography teaching. Coastal fieldtrip (currently not available online) features two video samples of a teacher facilitating fieldwork [add link]. While there are a number of interrelated resources on this web page which can support teaching, the videos show actual lessons being conducted.
Quantitative and qualitative data
Fieldwork is an adventure. It offers a great opportunity to see the world first-hand and experience education in a new context. It also has a range of social benefits. Students learn how to interact and collaborate, and they have the opportunity to develop their social skills.
Collecting data in the field enhances the conceptual understandings gained in the classroom.
Statistical data or measurements undertaken in the field are referred to as 'quantitative data'. It might be the:
- length, width or area of a feature
- temperatures, humidity and wind speed
- volume or sound levels of a transport system
- costs of products indicating liveability of a settlement
- ages and number of people in a population.
'Qualitative data' is information gained by observation. It reflects how students (or those being interviewed or involved in a discussion) feel about an environment. It involves the description or appearance of features indicated by comments on such aspects as colour, texture, smell, tastes and the level of aesthetic pleasure it brings to the student. When students are photographing, sketching and interviewing, qualitative data are being gathered.
These issues are addressed in more detail in Real world learning through geographical fieldwork.
Fieldwork allows students to work toward a more sustainable world. The actions that are raised in response to the issue being explored suggest that it is possible to move towards meeting people's needs and improving quality of life without destroying environments or depleting resources.
Fieldwork encourages students to be active citizens prepared to offer their opinions and aspirations for their community. Whether this community is the school community or the local community in which they live, students can communicate their ideas to community decision-makers. Their actions are a reflection of their values and emotions, and should be grounded in the personal experience of fieldwork. If students have been involved in an enquiry approach, they feel ownership of the ideas and are more likely to want to translate the findings into action.
Fieldwork can make a world of difference. Fieldwork is fun!
About the illustrations
Illustration 1: Selecting a fieldwork site provides a range of potential activities for each year level in the school grounds, a short distance from the school, and further away. Suggested sites are chosen for the value brought to curriculum objectives as well as the personal and social capabilities that can be achieved. Questions to stimulate discussion and reflection, and a range of resources are also provided.
Illustration 2: A checklist for undertaking fieldwork will help you develop required knowledge and understandings about how to plan a successful fieldtrip from beginning to end. The checklist resource provided can be adapted to suit your school and students, and other resources are listed. Questions to stimulate discussion and reflection are included.
Bourke, M. (2005). A guide to fieldwork in geography. Camberwell: Geography Teachers' Association of Victoria Inc.
Caton, D. (2006). Real world learning through geographical fieldwork. In D. Balderstone (Ed.). Secondary geography handbook. Sheffield: Geographical Association. http://www.geography.org.uk/search.asp?searchfor=Caton+&searchin=
Cranby, S. (2002). Fieldwork: A whole school approach. Interaction 30(4). Camberwell: Geography Teachers' Association of Victoria Inc., pp. 32-38.
Job, D. (1999). Update: New directions in geographical fieldwork. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Kleeman, G. (Ed.). (2008). Keys to fieldwork: Essential skills and tools. South Yarra: Macmillan.
Morris, G. (2010). Messing about in the environment – the foundations of living geography? Primary Geographer, Autumn 2010, pp. 28–29.
YouTube. Why is fieldwork important to geography? (duration, 12:52). Retrieved May 2019, from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTT3hPVoCoY.