by Julia Mackintosh, Primary Geography Associate Consultant
In a crowded Initial Teacher Training (ITT) curriculum, geography, like other foundation subjects, has a limited time allocation. Therefore, the choice of topic for geography training needs to be carefully considered. This short article outlines the case for learning about fieldwork as part of primary trainee teachers’ ITT.
Although fieldwork is one of the signature pedagogies of geography, recent subject inspections have highlighted that many primary pupils have weak geographical skills due, in part, to a paucity of meaningful fieldwork (Ofsted, 2020). Therefore, one obvious reason to include fieldwork as part of ITT is to help new teachers understand what good fieldwork looks like, providing a model for their future practice. However, I would argue that a focus on fieldwork affords several other learning opportunities for primary trainee teachers. Planning fieldwork can provide the context for learning about the essential concepts, knowledge, skills and principles of geography as well as ideas about enquiry-based approaches to learning. Furthermore, co-planning sequences of lessons that include fieldwork can provide trainees and mentors with the chance to discuss and analyse how to build on prior learning, apply skills in different contexts and how to effectively combine learning from different subjects.
Many of us can remember very little about the geography that we studied at primary school; fieldtrips to the local river, town or even the sewerage works can often be the exception to this rule. However, the importance of engaging in fieldwork in the primary phase goes beyond providing memorable experiences. Well-designed fieldwork has the potential to inspire in pupils ‘a curiosity and fascination about the world and its people’ (DfE, 2014) and an appreciation of other people’s values and attitudes. Engaging with fieldwork, therefore, provides opportunities for trainee teachers to appreciate and engage with the aims of the geography curriculum. Similarly, using key questions associated with the big ideas of geography when planning fieldwork can familiarise trainees with key concepts underpinning geography education (Owens, 2021). For example, before visiting a locality, pupils can use maps and aerial photographs to find out Where is this place? (Key concept: space) and How does my view of this place change when I zoom in and out? (Key concept: scale). During their visit, pupils can investigate What is this place like? What kind of physical and human features does it have? or How do I feel about this place? Activities back in the classroom can help pupils to consider How is this place changing? or How does it compare to other places? (Key concept: place and environment). Engaging with fieldwork can also, therefore, illustrate to new teachers that geography is concerned with asking questions about the world and developing the skills needed to answer them. This can counter the all-too-common view of geography as a subject concerned chiefly with learning lists of facts and information about places and features and colouring-in worksheets (Geography Expert Subject Advisory Group, 2013).
Fieldwork provides pupils with authentic learning experiences, immersing them in ‘doing geography’ in real places. It provides opportunities to ‘observe, measure, record and present’ geographical information (DfE, 2014). This helps pupils to understand what it means to ‘behave like a geographer’. As shown in the diagram below, when enquiring about a place, pupils engage with distinct activities: establishing a need to know, asking questions, collaborating and selecting how to organise an investigation, carrying out the investigation, reflecting on the results, communicating what has been learnt and evaluating the whole process (Tanner, 2021). Planning fieldwork activities that seek to solve real-life problems, such as where to locate a new school bench or how to improve the environmental quality of the local area or biodiversity of the school site, helps trainees to appreciate the motivation that a project with a real purpose, audience and outcome can bring. Moreover, trainees can begin to appreciate and understand the components of, and complexities associated with, the enquiry process, transferring this knowledge to their teaching of other subjects, such as history and science, adding to their pedagogical toolkit.
The enquiry cycle in geography
Source: Paula Owens/Geographical Association cited in Tanner (2021)
Co-planning geography units of work that include fieldwork can also provide opportunities for mentors and trainees to consider questions such as those suggested by Catling and Willy (2018):
- What is the purpose of the fieldwork, why is it included in this topic?
- What types of data are to be gathered and in what form (counting, taking photographs, mapping)
- Given the children’s age and experience what skills and techniques will help them to gather the data required. Which of these skills can they use and which are new to them?
- How do the children build on what they can do already and how will they develop and apply new skills or techniques?
Asking these questions can prompt important mentoring conversations about progression, the importance of building upon pupils’ prior experiences and when and how to introduce new concepts and skills (DfE, 2019). For example, mentors and trainees can consider whether an open-ended sensory exploration of a place or more structured investigation designed to develop pupils’ place knowledge through observing, measuring, recording and presenting information (DfE, 2014) is best suited to the topic being studied by their class. They can weigh-up whether the topic in question would be best served by freely exploring outdoor environments, noticing and talking about features or whether the introduction of simple fieldwork techniques such as drawing, taking photographs or marking features on a plan should be used. In addition, they can consider how to build knowledge and skills through the sequencing of activities before, during and after fieldwork. For example, initial classroom-based activities might include the use of maps and aerial photographs to locate and initially investigate a place. This might be followed by lessons supporting pupils to understand how to collect data in the field and practicing the skills needed for this. ‘Walking through’ planned fieldwork activities together can highlight practical issues associated with learning beyond the classroom and provide opportunities for mentors and trainees to address risk assessment. Deciding how best to collect and analyse data and communicate findings can also prompt mentoring conversations about the relationship between geography and other subjects. Mentors and trainees can consider how data handling techniques learned in mathematics lessons can be applied to design questionnaires, tallies, tables or graphs and how the features of persuasive arguments or non-chronological reports learned about in English can be used by pupils when sharing the findings of their fieldwork. These conversations can highlight the importance of retaining subject-specific goals whilst making meaningful links between subjects. Finally, as part of the co-planning process, mentors can introduce trainees to resources that provide useful models for fieldwork such as the Geographical Association’s fieldwork GeogLive! webinar and the Royal Geographical Society’s Primary Fieldwork Resources, highlighting the support provided by subject associations.
As has been outlined above, fieldwork affords a variety of learning opportunities for trainee teachers during their ITT. This summer, National Fieldwork Week will be held from 6-10 June 2022. This is an event designed to enthuse and encourage all schools to take part in fieldwork. The Geographical Association are providing a range of resources to support schools, including ideas for investigating your neighbourhood, articles from Primary Geography journal and Powerpoint slides to introduce the event. So, what are you waiting for? Let’s encourage our trainees to go outside and do some fieldwork!
Catling, S. & Willy, T. (2018) Understanding and Teaching Primary Geography. London: SAGE
DfE (2014) Geography programmes of study: key stages 1 and 2. National Curriculum in England [Online]. [Accessed 8.4.22]. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/239044/PRIMARY_national_curriculum_-_Geography.pdf
DfE (2019) ITT Core Content Framework. [Online] [Accessed 8.4.22] Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/974307/ITT_core_content_framework_.pdf
Geography Expert Subject Advisory Group, (2013) Interpreting the 2014 Geography National Curriculum, Framework [Online]. [Accessed 8.4.22]. Available at: https://geognc.wordpress.com/about/support-for-key-stage-1-and-2-geography-curriculum-2014/
Ofsted (2020) Geography in outstanding primary schools [Online] [Accessed 8.4.22] Available at: https://educationinspection.blog.gov.uk/2021/05/11/geography-in-outstanding-primary-schools/
Owens, P. (2021) Making progress with geography [Webinar] [Online] NASBTT. [Accessed 25.10.21]. Available at: https://www.nasbtthub.org.uk/event/primary-geography/?fbclid=IwAR0JJApTk0V6rS4xiawNOPLxvLh3unr59CfRb8Xx86r_RnBf_f-sA3GTTKw
Tanner, J. (2021) ‘Progression in geographical fieldwork experiences’ Primary Geography, (104) Spring, pp.13-17