Geography Fieldwork is Not Mission Impossible, pp. 3 of 6

Whither fieldwork in school-based geography?

In contrast to the major shifts in geographical knowledge in the last century, school-based geography and fieldwork has remained in a 1950s and 1960s time warp. For physical geography topics, satellite technology has evolved to allow accurate capturing of physical data (e.g. surveys of beach length, width etc.) without going to the field. The need for fieldwork seems obsolete. On the other hand, doing fieldwork for retail geography, for example, is still limited to land use surveys and plotting pedestrian footfall. 

Yet the child of the 21st century has to grapple with a host of contemporary issues about globalisation and the relocation of industries, re-branding of shopping districts, re-imaging of places, gentrification, and immigration, just to name a few. 

How can the fieldwork in school geography, which has become somewhat misaligned with the development of geographical understanding, attempt to re-represent geographical knowledge more accurately? At the same time, how can geography teachers plan fieldwork that engages the geographical imagination of our students?


First, the purpose of the fieldwork is important. For example, we may ask ourselves why is collecting data about the land use of a neighbourhood important? What purpose does it serve? Does it prove or disprove a hypothesis? Does it help us understand how the upcoming mega mall that has been approved by local authorities will impact neighbourhood shops? The geography teacher will also need to have an awareness of the full range of strategies that can be employed to collect data. 

To fulfill both criteria satisfactorily, the framework in Annex A was adapted from Job, Day and Smyth (2002). The broad educational purpose of fieldwork on the top row is rather self-explanatory. Teachers may select any one of the five columns as their purpose of fieldwork. To achieve the purposes however, there are five different strategies. In what follows, I shall briefly discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the five strategies.

Hypothesis Testing

Hypothesis Testing is a dominant model in fieldwork in most British schools at A Levels. It is a very straight forward, easily understood framework where field data can be compared against models or expected trends. There is also a clear end-point to such fieldwork. Harvey (1991) warns against a teacher-centric slant (which is often adopted for this strategy) where teachers pre-determine the focus of studies and, as a result, ameliorate the students’ field experiences and perceptions. In the new Inquiry-based Learning approach adopted as the key pedagogy for humanities teaching and learning by the Ministry of Education (MOE), the crucial step of using data to “spark curiosity” may also be dampened with this method. Hypothesis testing depends largely on conceptual understanding of processed data or models rather than direct field experiences. Harvey argues that such a strategy should be retained in order to broaden the students’ repertoire of fieldwork skills. It also allows for interdisciplinary transfer of procedural skills to other subjects.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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