Close focus on field studies

23rd June 2006 at 01:00
ACTION RESEARCH: IMPROVING LEARNING THROUGH THE ENVIRONMENT. Edited by Adrian Clarke, Helen Parry, Clare Shorter. National Association of Field Studies Officers (NAFSO) pound;6.

OUT-OF-CLASSROOM LEARNING: Practical information and guidance for schools and teachers. Real World Learning Partnership (28pp). Free from RSPB: youthlearnindex.asp

Fourteen specialists reflect on out of class learning. Liz Taylor welcomes their approach and a helpful guide from the RSPB

What have the children learned and how do we know? These questions should be familiar friends to all teachers.

This 40-page, A4 booklet is the result of the reflections of a small group of members of the National Association of Field Studies Officers, in the wake of a conference in which they were challenged to give more concrete evidence for their belief in the value of field studies. They turned to action research methodology to help them analyse their own practice.

This type of small-scale, practitioner-owned research was ideal for their situation. It involves first identifying a problem, question or issue, trying out a new idea (however small), collecting information on how this works in context, then reflecting on the processes of change and adjusting one's thinking for the future. Ideally, this process is conducted in a series of cycles, as the ideas develop and evidence from different sources informs practice.

The majority of the 14 short reports are case studies of teachers dipping their toes into action research. In most cases, the accounts describe their evaluation of their practice, perhaps introducing a new method of gaining feedback from children about their learning.

This shows the reality of the first steps in research, and also provides some creative examples of methods of accessing children's reactions to their field experience, including concept maps. These should provide food for thought for geography teachers looking to develop evaluation procedures for field trips.

However, I found there was a worrying tendency in a few accounts to see proving the benefits of field experience for formal evaluation procedures as the aim of the research. This is perhaps understandable in the current climate of concern about the risks versus benefits of outdoor education. I agree that such evidence can be a useful by-product of research. However, I worry that any project which sets out with this aim is likely to shy away from investigating the more tricky issues.

Helen Parry's account, "Learning among the limpets" is a good example of a piece of research that goes further than evaluating current practice.

She investigated the nature of key stage 2 children's questions as they undertook fieldwork on the seashore. She used a well-phrased research question to direct her work, and moved on to explore what happened when she introduced a new small-group investigation to the children's experience.

Other accounts are more modest in their aims and findings, but include contributions from field- centre settings and some interesting reflections of the children's experiences.

The booklet also contains a basic introduction to some ideas about action research. It would be good to see the participants moving on to develop their use of research methods and analysis further, by investigating particular issues.

I hope that this publication will be the starting point for an interesting journey fuelled by an internal desire to explore processes of teaching and learning rather than by an external pressure to prove the value of their work.

Out-of-Classroom Learning makes a good job of building awareness of organisations involved in out-of-classroom learning, and promoting its benefits. It also gives a basic overview of the stages involved in planning an effective fieldtrip or visit, a number of helpful lists of further information and contact details.

While much of the content would be familiar to experienced geography teachers, it would be useful for those needing to convince a sceptical audience of the value of fieldtrips or other out-of-school work, or for introducing trainees to the range of opportunities available.

Liz Taylor is a lecturer in geography education at Cambridge University

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