Educational value of fieldwork

Driving to DiamantinaSome of my school peers selected Geography A-level at least in part because of the fieldwork opportunities, and they selected university courses on the same criteria, seeking courses with the best holiday opportunities. What can be done to ensure that fieldwork is highly educational for all participants, including those lacking motivation to learn? I am interested in answering this question to ensure that field courses I am involved with now and in the future, are justified in terms of the learning achieved when balanced against the associated costs of fieldwork.

Fieldwork is widely regarded as important even if it doesn’t align with specific learning objectives, because it delivers on other fronts like group working and integration of research and teaching (Andrews et al 2003).

If my school peers and others like them are permitted to take a holiday in the guise of education, then arguably we have failed as teachers, and this must be avoided. We must ensure that students learn even if their primary motivation lies elsewhere. There are many opportunities to achieve this in the field, but we can also kid ourselves by being satisfied that students benefited from the experience in an intangible way. I recently discussed with a colleague who was facing a lack of (student) motivation on a field trip. He explained how he fostered a competitive team spirit and the initially un-motivated group managed to complete more tasks than the initially motivated group. This was a sensible approach to engaging students with the learning objective. Constructive alignment of teaching and assessment could be another useful tool to ensure learning on field trips, however Andrews et al (2003) have shown that  there is a hidden curriculum of field based learning that is difficult to fit in the framework of constructive alignment (Biggs, 2003).

The hidden curriculum includes things like group working and interpersonal skills, both of which are reasonably expected to be developed during field trips. According to Andrews et al (2003), such skills are often noted by teachers as being key aspects of field trips, yet they are rarely assessed. It seems clear to me that this is because the field trip is set up for a specific course, and the trip objectives are set accordingly. Surely the, this so called hidden curriculum isn’t the curriculum at all, and should be regarded as a fringe benefit?

I conclude that we should save constructive alignment for the learning objectives we are setting out to deliver. Done properly we can use this to trap even un-motivated students into learning (Biggs, 2003). My plan is to focus on that and avoid fuzzy ideas about fieldwork being good for developing the whole person. In practice this means that a field activity cannot be justified by hidden curriculum items like self management, unless that item is set as a clear and measurable objective for the course. The hidden curriculum will take care of itself, as demonstrated by my colleague using group morale to help deliver the true curriculum.


References

Andrews JR, Kneale P, Sougnez YG, Stewart MT, Stott TM (2003). Carrying out pedagogic research into the constructive alignment of fieldwork. Planet Special Edition, 5, 51-52.

Biggs J (2003)Aligning teaching for constructing learning. The Higher Education Academy

 

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