I was pleased to see Alan Kinder's blog for NAEE the other day: The contribution of fieldwork to geography education. As the Chief Executive of The Geographical Association, Alan knows a lot about this subject. He was arguing against the popular view that fieldwork is ‘only about skills’. Unfortunately, as he noted, that view is held by Ofqual, the qualifications regulator. As such, it has consequences.
I'm going to quote his main argument:
"Rather, I suggest that fieldwork involves and develops the act of observing and asking questions of and in the real world and that this provides a unique and essential learning experience for young people. It develops investigative skills, careful observation and primary (first-hand) data collection in distinctive and important ways. But this experience isn’t simply a skill, or a technical procedure. Fieldwork investigation gives young people experience of the complexity of a real world location and invites them to both appreciate and begin to make sense of its complexity, or ‘messiness’. Doing so helps them to appreciate that the ‘theoretical’ world of the textbook and their own investigative research is partial and limited. This seems to me to be a critical insight into the nature of geography, of geographical knowledge and the process of becoming a geographer: we do geography fieldwork because direct observation is an essential, rewarding but challenging part of creating valid knowledge about the world. I am drawing on a very long tradition of thinking here: in the 13th Century the English philosopher Roger Bacon asserted that both ‘Experimentum’ and ‘Argumentum’ were necessary ingredients to understanding phenomena fully; the 18th Century writer Goethe concluded that understanding also affects observation (‘we only see what we know’) and more recently, Alex Standish of the UCL Institute of Education has suggested that fieldwork helps pupils to understand that their agency is involved in gaining knowledge – that it doesn’t just ‘drop out of a textbook’."
Well said, and the very best fieldwork that I have seen over the years has illustrated this. I still remember being on Dartmoor with my PGCE students and a school group in the 1980s – we were all in the excellent hands of FSC tutors. The only quibble I have with Alan Kinder's argument is that it could well have been titled: 'The contribution of fieldwork to a young person's education'. The contribution of geography is undeniable, but other subjects have a role as well. It would be good to see these distinctive (and overlapping) contributions laid out.
As a postscript, I should say how very good it was to see these arguments set out without recourse to the increasingly meaningless phrase 'outdoor learning'.