I recently received an email from a group of pupils I had taught more than 20 years ago, inviting me to a school reunion. It wasn't the surprise at receiving the message that made me smile, but what it contained:"When we get together, we still talk fondly about our geography fieldwork in Holland and the Durham Dales, even after all these years".
This was not a testimony to the quality of my teaching, but to the quality of the "memorable moments" these former pupils had experienced all those years ago. Memories that remained fresh when the duller parts of their schooling had faded into distant memory. At a time when the number of pupils taking geography post-14 is declining, how many of these former pupils might encourage their own children to take up the subject? "You'll have fun and enjoy it - we did, especially the fieldwork!"
What a disappointment for these children if their fieldwork experiences are dull or limiting. There is no doubt that "quality" fieldwork is in decline, especially in primary schools and at key stage 3 - hardly surprising when many teachers are concerned about safety issues, possible litigation, excessive bureaucracy, logistics, increasing costs or the unsympathetic views of colleagues who perceive such "trips" as disruptive to other subjects.
As David Bell, HMCI, said in the spring edition of Teaching Geography:
"Some schools... retain a vibrant programme linked to outdoor learning... students remark positively about their experiences, and the numbers taking the subject at examination level are frequently buoyant... should geographers make better and more effective use of fieldwork to engage students'
interest and develop skills of critical enquiry?"
In primary schools, good use is made of the local area at foundation stage and KS1, and "crocodiles" of pupils can often be seen marching to the local shops, park, library or fire-station. In these early years, pupils learn by "looking" and "observing" the world around them and developing a curiosity about diversity, what is happening and what is changing. However, geographical learning through fieldwork in primary schools is frequently incidental rather than planned. In part, this is due to the insecurity of many teachers, who lack confidence in teaching geography.
At secondary level, fieldwork is ignored by far too many schools, with pupils not receiving sufficient "quality" experiences that could build up expertise in fieldwork skills and analysis. At GCSE, teachers need to question whether fieldwork is merely a means to an end or is intended to add value to pupils' learning. Too many enquiries are sterile and formulaic, organised to meet marking criteria rather than to provide a valuable learning experience. Surveys of local shopping areas, using a limited sample of data and basic fieldwork techniques, do not enthuse pupils and, if this is the only opportunity to learn outside the classroom, it can lead to disillusionment in the subject.
A recent visit to a secondary school clearly illustrated to me the value of quality fieldwork and the extra dimension it can add to learning in geography. A new, dynamic and organised head of department had taken a moribund teaching programme and revitalised it with relevant and varied fieldwork, which not only brought the subject to life but also led to a doubling of numbers wanting to opt for geography at GCSE.
In the previous year, pupils had studied the controversial building of wind farms in the local area. Extracts from local newspapers had been used as a stimulus. Their lack of interest and engagement with the topic was evident in the weak letters they had written to their local MP on this issue. Most covered less than a page and many merely repeated points from the press cuttings.
This year, much of the work was more practical and centred on designing questionnaires, interviewing local residents, visiting the proposed site, drawing their own conclusions and voicing their own opinions. The quality and depth of writing produced were outstanding and the arguments were well supported by the data and information which they had gathered. The end product was not only excellent geography, it was excellent writing. Pupils were able to use their first-hand fieldwork experiences to add detail and depth to their writing, and they understood the relevance of the geography they were studying. The teacher had used fieldwork constructively to bring their learning to life.
The value of fieldwork was recognised in the House of Commons Education and Skills Committee report, Education Outside the Classroom (February 2005), which acknowledged the benefit that outdoor learning had for pupils of all ages and recommended that the DfES produce a manifesto giving all students a right to outdoor learning. We should await these outcomes with interest.
Pupils value their fieldwork experiences, which provides many of them with those moments of insight where something "clicks" and the geography becomes clearer. Perhaps we need to put the subject firmly back on the agenda and use that "walk on the wild side" as an opportunity to bring geography back to life and make it relevant and interesting.
Leszek Iwaskow is an HMI and subject specialist adviser for geography