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Practicals and Field Trips in School Science

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's report on practicals and field trips in school science was published on 14 September 2011. You can download a PDF of the report below, and read the terms of reference for the inquiry at The Geological Society made a written submission

House of Commons S&T Committee's report on practicals and field trips in school science 

Submission to House of Commons Science and Technology select committee inquiry: practical experiments in school science lessons and science field trips

Submitted 6 May 2011

  1. The Geological Society is the national learned and professional body for Earth sciences, with 10,000 Fellows (members) worldwide. The Fellowship encompasses those working in industry, academia and government, with a wide range of perspectives and views on policy-relevant science, and the Society is a leading communicator of this science to government bodies and other non-technical audiences. This submission has been prepared principally by our Education Committee, which in addition to academic geoscientists includes school teachers and representatives from industry.

    How important are practical experiments and field trips in science education?

  2. An essential element of training in any scientific field is to learn to plan, conduct and evaluate an experiment, and it is important to nurture these abilities from an early stage. In Earth science, particular skills that need to be developed are observation, recording, creating a hypothesis, and testing that hypothesis against further observation. Much of the skill of a modern Earth scientist lies in being able to deduce a 3-dimensional structure from 2-dimensional observations that are made at the surface. Field trips are an essential part of developing these skills, and of acquiring a basic familiarity with rocks and their properties as they occur in the environment. The revised Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) benchmark statement for Earth sciences, environmental sciences and environmental studies (or ‘ES3’) (QAA, 2007) states that ‘it is impossible for students to develop a satisfactory understanding of ES3 without a significant exposure to field-based learning and teaching, and the related assessment’.
  3. In their guide to effective fieldwork in environmental and natural sciences, Maskell and Stokes (2009) reviewed evidence for the importance of fieldwork. Kern and Carpenter (1984) found that Earth science students who learned in the field are more motivated, have more positive attitudes, and place more value in their work than those that learn in the classroom. A second study by these authors in 1986 found that students learning through fieldwork performed better in tests which required them to apply more sophisticated (higher-order) cognitive skills, including analysis and evaluation. Mackenzie and White (1982) reported that fieldwork helps create ‘memorable episodes’ which form the basis for long-term ‘deep’ learning. The findings of Nundy’s (1999) study of primary school children undertaking physical geography residential fieldwork supported those of both Kern and Carpenter, and Mackenzie and White. Nundy also suggested that both emotional (affective) responses to fieldwork and the associated cognitive development are important aspects of the learning process, rather than simple independent outcomes. Interestingly, Nundy identified that the types of events that children were most likely to remember were those involving an element of ‘fun’ – those which were enjoyable and made them feel good. More recently, Boyle et al. (2007) showed that students’ attitudes and motivation improve as a result of participating in fieldwork, whilst Elkins and Elkins (2007) demonstrated increased conceptual gain in students learning entirely in the field against those learning in more passive environments. These studies all support the widely held notion that fieldwork helps students to improve their learning by developing their thinking or cognitive skills, and that aspects of the field experience relating to enjoyment and motivation are an important part of that learning process. Where fieldwork is structured around problem based learning, Perkins et al. (2001) noted that students are much more engaged; more are prepared to take on responsibility and control their own learning.
  4. While we are largely concerned with developing skills that are pertinent to the Earth sciences, we recognise the importance of practical experiments and fieldwork within all the sciences as a vital element of developing high level cognitive and practical scientific skills.

    Are practical experiments in science lessons and science field trips in decline? If they are, what are the reasons for the decline?

  5. In our opinion, there is widespread decline in opportunities to expose learners to education in the outdoors, despite the Learning Outside the Classroom Manifesto. This is largely the result of increasing financial pressures within schools and local authorities, meaning that the costs of these experiences can no longer be met. This is exacerbated by the concerns of teachers and Heads about the health and safety responsibilities which fall to them, and their lack of confidence in their own field skills. There is also greater bureaucratic burden on teachers associated with this form of learning. Fieldwork is less likely than before to be allowed during school time, because of the regulation introduced in September 2009 that teachers should only rarely be expected to provide classroom cover in colleagues’ absence (the so-called ‘rarely cover’ rule), and that this should not usually be done when the absence can be foreseen. A further burden on staff time is that a group which can be taught by a single teacher in a classroom environment is likely to require more than one member of staff in the field. In addition, many teachers and Heads are concerned about the impact on delivery of the rest of the curriculum of taking children out of school – particularly following the introduction of Controlled Assessment which makes student absence from lessons problematic. This is a major factor in the development of stress and mental illnesses within the student body, and significantly reduces the rigour and enjoyment of learning. The impact of the modular exam system makes it still more difficult to find times to schedule trips outside school. These issues are all capable of resolution, but reflect the failure of the existing system properly to integrate field-based study in the school programme, despite its fundamental importance in a discipline such as Earth science.

    What part do health and safety concerns play in preventing school pupils from performing practical experiments in science lessons and going on field trips? What rules and regulations apply to science experiments and field trips and how are they being interpreted?

  6. As mentioned above, health and safety are significant concerns for many teachers. It is important that health and safety considerations are taken seriously and addressed effectively, but teachers can be supported in doing this through appropriate Continuing Professional Development. Some initial teacher training courses incorporate an element of training in outdoor education, but these skills need to be taught more widely and maintained on a regular basis. There may also be fear on the part of some teachers of legal action should something go wrong, and a lack of confidence that others in the educational hierarchy will be supportive. (This is also the case in Higher Education institutions, where it acts as a serious disincentive to staff.)

    Do examination boards adequately recognise practical experiments and trips?

  7. Recognition and support for practical work in science varies across the GCSE science awarding bodies, and this would be strengthened by an increased profile for practical work at a national level, and improved assessment. This is particularly true of investigational practical work.
  8. Whilst fieldwork is a required element of the English National Curriculum in geography, this is not the case in science, and it is therefore not a requirement of GCSE science examinations with the exception of GCSE Geology – despite the inclusion of Earth science content in the science curriculum. It is a requirement of one of the two A-level Geology specifications, and a strong recommendation in the other.
  9. More specifically, there is no requirement for field work at AS and A2 level in the OCR specification. Students can take a ‘Centre Based Assessment’ instead – in other words, an additional exam. Assessment of fieldwork has become very formulaic, and is presented in the context of a simplistic task-led depiction of ‘how science works’, of the kind which has led to disquiet about standards in schools science more generally. Synoptic tasks (in which fieldwork can make a particularly strong contribution) have been diluted and spread through the course. So although fieldwork can still be a part of the course, its place is not secure. This is due to the attempt to standardise specifications across the sciences in recent years, to the detriment both of geology and of holistic skills development. There may be scope for introducing further fieldwork opportunities through the Extended Project, but this initiative is in its early stages. Given all this, there is no doubt that if fieldwork were more strongly recommended in science specifications, and more thoroughly assessed, its prominence in schools would be significantly increased.

    If the quality or number of practical experiments and field trips is declining, what are the consequences for science education and career choices? For example, what effects are there on the performance and achievement of pupils and students in Higher Education?

  10. Discussions with those in industry reveal clearly their need for students who have acquired a high level of practical and field skills. If children do not have the opportunity to develop these skills at school, their development later in life is all the more difficult. In particular, outdoor education not only fosters particular science skills, but also builds confidence in working in different environments outside the classroom.
  11. Research evidence also indicates that well taught practical work and fieldwork has major impact on developing the thinking and investigational skills of students, in ways that are valuable in all walks of life. Without these elements, science education is impoverished and less effective.

    What changes should be made?

  12. The Science and Technology Committee should offer their strong support for a national initiative to develop practical work in schools, with regard both for the number and quality of activities and how these can be used most effectively in educating the next generation of scientists, in developing children’s interest in science, and in promoting the development of investigational skills and thinking across the population.
  13. The committee should also promote a national initiative to develop investigational fieldwork across the sciences, for similar purposes to those outlined above. Not only is there good research evidence for the impact of fieldwork on students – both those who will eventually become scientists and those who will not – but there is a wealth of anecdotal evidence for the positive impact of fieldwork, on scientific skills as well as a wide range of transferrable skills, including social skills.
  14. These initiatives should focus both on teachers in training and on those who are practicing.

    Is the experience of schools in England in line with schools in the devolved administrations and other countries?

  15. In Scotland, development of the Curriculum for Excellence is currently underway. This encourages a diversity of learning environments, including learning outdoors. The Scottish Government has a scheme to assist with the cost of transport so that schools can take children to science centres to engage in practical activities in environments outside the classroom. Across all the science disciplines, the Scottish Government, through the Scottish Qualifications Authority, is recognising that the development of practical skills should be the focus for producing the next generation of scientists that will contribute to a developing Scottish economy. This is not currently the case in England.

    Concluding remarks

  16. The Geological Society recognises the important role it can play in supporting school teachers – both specialist geology teachers, and those who bring aspects of Earth science into the curriculum in other subjects. We are developing our programme of activities aimed at school teachers and their students, including our Schools Affiliate scheme. In particular, we have recently started to run a Geoscience Education Academy – an intensive week of training aimed at those who are not specialist geology teachers. An important aspect of this training is to develop teachers’ skills and confidence in fieldwork. We are keen to hear suggestions about other ways in which we can provide such support to teachers.
  17. We would be pleased to discuss further any of the points raised in this submission, to provide more detailed information, or to suggest oral witnesses and other specialist contacts.


BOYLE, A., MAGUIRE, S., MARTIN, A., MILSOM, C., NASH, R., RAWLINSON, S., TURNER, A., WURTHMANN, S. & CONCHIE, S. (2007) Fieldwork is good: the student perception and the affective domain. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 31, 299-317.

ELKINS, J.T. & ELKINS, N.M.L. (2007) Teaching geology in the field: significant geoscience concept gains in entirely field-based introductory geology courses. Journal of Geoscience Education, 55, 126-132.

KERN, E. L. & CARPENTER, J. R. (1984) Enhancement of student values, interests and attitudes in Earth science through a field-orientated approach. Journal of Geological Education, 32, 299-305.

KERN, E. L. & CARPENTER, J. R. (1986) Effect of field activities on student learning. Journal of Geological Education, 34, 180-183.

MACKENZIE, A.A. & WHITE, R.T. (1982) Fieldwork in geography and long-term memory structures. American Educational Research Journal, 19, 623-632.

MASKALL, J., STOKES, A. (2009) Designing Effective Fieldwork for the Environmental and Natural Sciences, GEES Teaching and Learning Guide. HE Academy Subject Centre for Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

NUNDY, S. (1999) The fieldwork effect: the role and impact of fieldwork in the Upper Primary School. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 8, 190-198.

PERKINS, C., EVANS, M., GAVIN, H., JOHNS, J. & MOORE, J. (2001) Fieldwork and problem-based learning. Planet, Special Edition 2, 27-28.

QAA (The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education) (2007) Benchmark statement for Earth sciences, environmental sciences and environmental studies, QAA, Gloucester