Field trials

6th February 2004 at 00:00
Justin Dillon and Mark Rickinson review the evidence on the impact of outdoor learning in school geography

Who would question the value of fieldwork? How could anyone study geography without having first-hand experience outside the classroom? When geography undergraduates at an English university were asked about their experiences during their A-level studies, some replied that they had done no fieldwork whatsoever. At the other end of the spectrum, some had spent up to 11 days in the field. Why is there such disparity, and are students who don't do fieldwork missing out?

Fieldwork has been seen as an integral part of geography for as long as anyone can remember. Its proponents argue that it develops a range of skills and that it links classroom-based theory with the real world. Not only that, some say that learning out-of-doors, particularly residential fieldwork, can be life changing. But what is the evidence to support such beliefs, and what makes effective fieldwork?

Worried by reports of decreasing opportunities for fieldwork, the Field Studies Council and other partners, including the DfES and the RSPB, commissioned the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) to carry out a review of recent research on outdoor learning. A team led by Mark Rickinson looked at the literature on several related topics: fieldwork and visits to nature centres, parks, farms and gardens; outdooradventure education; and projects in school grounds and community settings. Their report will be available in March from the Field Studies Council.

At first, much of the literature seemed frustratingly anecdotal and lacking in any critical evaluation. Fieldwork has become an initiation test to some, a defining feature of geography to others. Much of the writing can be categorised by this quote from Tim Brighouse in a book published in 1993:

"One lesson outdoors is worth seven inside."

But we did find some researchers who had asked: "What learning takes place during fieldwork?" Others had attempted to identify the barriers and challenges to fieldwork in schools. Not surprisingly, time pressures, financial restraints and worries about safety are perceived as the reasons why fieldwork is under threat.

More surprising to us were the findings that challenged what might seem to be common sense. For instance, take the idea that students find new locations more stimulating than those closer to home. While this has a certain face value, the evidence points to the fact that novelty can sometimes be a barrier to learning. David Hurd found that people need time to tune in to a new situation, and that is something which is a precious commodity for most field-trip organisers, who want their students to get on with it. The trend towards a minimalist version of fieldwork that focuses on data collection at the expense of developing a sense of place, which takes time, is worrying.

There is evidence that the impact of some experience outdoors can wear off quite quickly without adequate preparation and follow-up. Two US researchers, Knapp and Poff, found that students taking part in a one-day visit to a Forest Service site forgot most of what they had learned within four weeks. But in some cases, the impact of outdoor education appears to increase in the months after the experience.

There is still the big question, however: "Is fieldwork an effective use of time and other resources?" From our reading of the evidence, we would agree with Stephen Bitgood, who wrote in 1989 that "students can learn as much or more on a field trip as in the classroom". Stuart Nundy, whose PhD thesis describes a study of fieldwork in primary school, noted that it had a positive impact on long-term memory due to the memorable nature of the setting. He also found that the residential aspect resulted in individual growth and improvements in social skills, and, even more importantly, that the affective gains reinforced the learning gains and vice versa.

Few researchers have compared fieldwork with classroom-based activities, but a recent study by Eaton found that outdoor learning experiences were more effective for developing cognitive skills than classroom-based learning. Other studies showing the usefulness of fieldwork have been carried out in the US, Australia, continental Europe and Israel.

And it's not just geography - studies of learning in science and the environment have had similar findings. There are, however, a few studies where the advantages of fieldwork are not so clear-cut.

We could not find a study that looked at the cost-effectiveness of learning out of doors. It is difficult to say if fieldwork is value for money when it is so difficult to calculate the financial benefit of learning.

Nevertheless, the Government has called for schools to make better use of the outdoor classroom as a context for teaching and learning. The evidence base for supporting that position is surprisingly strong and geography teachers and their managers ignore it at their peril.

The review will be available from the Field Studies Council in March: www.field-studies-council.orgindex.asp Justin Dillon and Mark Rickinson are part of the NFER team that carried out the review of research on outdoor learning on behalf of the Field Studies Council and its partners

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