Virtual fieldwork

14th March 2003 at 00:00
Jack Kenny meets a geography teacher whose lessons and homework exercises are an interactive experience for his pupils

Keith Phipps has taught geography in the same school for 30 years, but his enthusiasm today is probably even greater than it was in 1973. Today, it's glaciation with Year 11. The boys come into the room looking as though they expect something good. The students at King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys in south Birmingham are, in the main, well motivated. Keith is relaxed and jokey, and a quick burst of a quiz based on a classroom favourite, Who wants to be a millionaire?, enables some reflection on the work of the previous week. All the material is projected from the laptop via the digital projector to the whiteboard. Keith is at home with the technology and uses it with style. The quiz is fun, it focuses minds and sets the agenda for the lesson.

Pupilvision, Keith's own website, takes over the screen, with the Year 11 section on glaciation processes showing images of Glen Nevis - the valley, the road that meanders over the moraines, a glacial trough, how the vegetation changes with altitude, a corrie, and glacial debris in the river.

These are not small pictures on a page but full-screen on the whiteboard.

Keith collected them on his travels last year and now he draws over the images on the whiteboard to emphasise geographical points and features. He fires questions at the students to get them to think about some of the points he wants to make. He focuses eventually on one image, a waterfall on the side of a glacial trough; then, with a series of zooms, he uses Multimap software at a scale of 1:125,000 so that students can compare what they are seeing on the screen with how it is displayed on a map of the area. It is possible at this point to make copies of the map, of the images and of Keith's annotations. This is linked to skills they studied in Year 10. Keith insists there is a need to establish the appearance of a place with work in geography. He mentions that in other sections of Multimap it is possible to overlay an aerial photograph on to a map so that the two can be directly compared.

The next stage of the lesson is the introduction of a Birchfield CD-Rom called The Work of Ice, an interactive geography package with diagrams, videos, photographs, quizzes and other activities that work well on the interactive whiteboard. The software deals with abstract concepts in a multi-sensory way. Using images, three-dimensional animations and video footage, it examines the ways in which the planet has been sculpted by ice: there are maps of its distribution during the ice age and in the present day; the processes of erosion and the transportation of glacial debris are explained; students can learn how to recognise a variety of landforms and how they come about. The software has a review process at the end of the unit that takes about five minutes to complete. Keith moves to the side of the room and gives the pen to a student who goes through the drag-and-drop exercises to match answers with questions on the interactive board, going through the process at the pace of the class. This game entices everyone to make a contribution. The software also has a game-based quiz to review the lesson. The homework, too, is set and shown on the website. The exercises contain easy links to a supporting page. He also shows them best practice examples from previous students, so they can see the kind of work expected now and, in the future, by examiners. Keith has an agreed time during the evening when he is online to answer supplementary questions; this evening it is 7pm to 8pm. There is also an online scheme for students to mentor each other.

The Pupilvision story

Keith started using the internet when it was "piped" to a stand-alone PC in his room. "I began playing with it. This was 1999 and I didn't have one at home. It quickly became apparent that this was the greatest invention since Caxton's printing press, and that it gave me access to a worldwide library and a point of communication with others." Keith saw immediately that if he could develop a website he could use it to communicate with pupils, answering many of the problems he was having in everyday teaching.

"I got a PC and the internet at home," he says. "I bought some magazines that made ICT simple and learned how to put a web page together. I bought a domain name, Pupilvision. All this happened because it was made available in my classroom. I have since seen many wonderful things that have been done in schools where the software and hardware are available. It works particularly well when it is not tied to a target. The outcome has not always matched what was expected. If you give teachers the tools, they will adapt and use them. They can see how to use them for education."

The school has a geography club and Keith says if he doesn't know how to do something he asks the students. "They show me some amazing ICT techniques.

I have learned most of what I know from them. Every time I see a boy make a Powerpoint presentation, there is something new in it and I ask them to show me how they did it. That gives students status because they are teaching the teacher. It's some of the best in-service training that I've had."

Keith has also been involved with a group of Birmingham geographers who are keen on the work of David Leat. They have built a website, Thinking Through Geography, that provides thinking-skill geography lessons for key stage 3 teachers and pupils. The site has been acknowledged by the National Grid for Learning and the DfES site TeacherNet (www.teacher The cognitive theory of using thinking skills in geography started with David Leat's work, which is about setting challenges that children respond to in groups. It is a social experience enhancing understanding and empathy - an additional song in the geography teacher's repertoire.

"The students are engaged by movement and the sound and size of the image," says Keith. "I always put sound into my Powerpoint (presentations) to create a mood. There is a strong emotional element to learning. One of the students did a Powerpoint recently on refugees, using music and images that brought tears to the eyes of rugby-playing sixth-formers. They were engaged; they will not forget it; it made an impact."

Keith believes the right balance needs to be found between the formal and the informal, the ICT-enriched and the traditional academic approach. For him, differentiation means the teacher using a variety of methodologies and stimuli. "It has taken the pressure off the academic treadmill that we were on before," he says. There is now greater enjoyment, and more humour. They are more involved in their own learning. They understand so much more. And, as an afterthought, exam results have improved over the past three years."

Pupilvision (contains outline maps of continents and countries): www.pupilvision.comThinking Through The Work of Ice CD-Rom is available from

Hampstead School geography department

Earth and Moon viewer www.fourmilab.chearthviewvplanet.html

Home Planet (a free astronomy, space and satellite-tracking package) www.fourmilab.chhomeplanet

homeplanet.htmlPopulation Clock


Descriptions of the multiple intelligence theory


Home Check (an environmental guide to flooding, subsidence, pollution...)

Ordnance Survey (a number of free resources are available)

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