Geoscience Fieldwork – barriers to participation (Part 1 of 2)

This is an unedited version of an essay I produced as part of module 1 of my Postgraduate Certificate in Academic Practice. I’m not massively proud of it as a piece of work, but I think it’s a reasonable discussion of some of the issues surrounding fieldwork – highlighting their value, as well as some of the challenges we face in Widening Participation.

I have an unusual educational role within the School of Earth and Environment, in that my teaching commitments are almost entirely field course based. As a result, very little of my teaching takes the form of the much maligned traditional lecture format (Powell, 2003, Mazur, 2009). Instead, I spend approximately 20-25 full days per year teaching in the field. This consists of a very wide variety of teaching and supervision activities, including small group teaching, short talks, demonstrating methods and skills, evening talks, and one-on-one supervision. Very few of these activities are passive or “shallow” in terms of their learning. Field trips in geosciences are generally synoptic exercises, applying classroom learned information in a real world context. Students are often asked to work completely independently to describe, interpret and summarise the geology of an area. A First Class field geology assessment shows evidence of developing thought, postulating hypotheses, and testing theories. In the learning theory terminology of Constructivists such as Biggs (1999), this suggests that geoscience education is already taking an optimal approach. Evaluating field teaching using the Kolb (1984) approach to learning as an experiential cycle would also look favourably upon our methods (Healey and Jenkins, 2000). Mapping field courses are a repeated cycle of geological observation (Concrete Experience), interpretation (Reflective Observation), forming hypotheses (Abstract Conceptualisation) and planning what additional data needs to be gathered to test those hypotheses (Active Experimentation). This cycle is repeated daily, and sometimes more often through the course of a field trip.

Despite learning theorists’ and the media’s apparent disdain for a didactic lecturing approach to education I personally believe that lecturing still has its place. In terms of density of information conveyed to an audience the lecture is beaten only by the written word. At some point, students require a grounding in the basics of a field to be able to apply that knowledge. We could not simply throw 60 students out of a bus in the Scottish Highlands and expect them to produce a meaningful geological map without the prior 6+ months of education on rocks, minerals, geological processes, etc. The constructivist approach to learning may still apply on a degree timeframe, but the lecture of basic knowledge is still a Concrete Experience required to get the students to the point where they can actively apply their learning. In my opinion it would be a misapplication of the pedagogical literature to omit this early educational stage.

Contextual knowledge as a foundation for learning is a subject which I have spent a great deal of time reflecting on as part of my own practice. Geoscience students utilise and develop several ancillary skills which are almost unique to the subject, and which are often unfamiliar to students prior to the degree. One of the unique and much publicised qualities of a geoscience degree is the importance and extent of fieldwork exercises undertaken by students. These are touted extensively by their proponents as excellent educational tools for developing spatial reasoning, team work, practical experience, and independent scientific thought (Petcovic et al., 2014, Kastens et al., 2009, Schiappa and Smith, 2018). However, this fieldwork builds upon a foundation which not all groups within geoscience education may have had the equal privilege of receiving. Geoscience field trips rarely, if ever, teach basic map reading and navigation skills, relying largely on the assumption that undergraduates either already have them or can pick them up rapidly whilst still keeping pace with their peers at recording data, identifying rocks, producing a map, and constructing and testing geological hypotheses. The reasons for this assumption vary, but are often down to the instructors’ own familiarity with maps and navigation acquired both through their own geoscience training as well as their pre-degree background. Liben et al. (2011) investigate this issue through the somewhat narrower lens of spatial reasoning skills as applied to a particular measurement commonly taken in the field. They come to similar conclusions that widely assumed levels of spatial reasoning are not universal amongst students, and that instructors should consider specific interventions for students deemed to be struggling in these notionally foundational areas. Liben et al. (2011) also specifically identify a gender gap in this particular area of ability, though they are cautious about their interpretation of its cause. This particular identified variation in learner ability is one of what may be many such areas of foundational skills or knowledge which is variable across a student population, and may correlate with gender or background. With the widening of the geoscience subject to encompass wider fields including chemistry, environmental science, and computational science, alongside the increasingly diverse populations studying geoscience degrees, this assumption of a level playing field of skills and existing knowledge needs to be re-assessed.

Historically, the majority of geoscience graduates have come from a fairly narrow demographic – predominantly male, predominantly white, and predominantly middle class or wealthier. This is, fortunately, changing rapidly at the undergraduate level, with cohorts becoming far more diverse in almost every sense. It is perhaps because of this less diverse history that traditional geological mapping training has been able to rely on prior experience of these skills. Map-reading abilities are a set of practical skills which are difficult to teach effectively in a classroom, instead they require outdoor practice as part of an extra-curricular activity (e.g. the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme), sport (e.g. Orienteering), or hobby (e.g. Walking and Mountaineering). Whilst high school students may have some experience of working with maps during A-Level (or equivalent) Geography or Geology (Note that A-Level Geology is not a core subject, and thus is often not taught in every school – often only those with additional resources) classes this experience is not extensive and often is only classroom based (Dalton, 2001). The outdoor pursuits mentioned above have participation rates which are also heavily demographically skewed – a Natural England (2015) study monitoring engagement with the natural environment concluded that “Those who were less likely to have taken a visit to the natural environment in the last seven days were those of BAME origin, those aged 65 and over, those with a long-term illness or disability and those in the DE social grades”. Sport England (2018) report similar results, with the least likely participants in Climbing, Mountaineering, Orienteering or Walking for Leisure in socio-economic classification being NS SEC 6-8 (i.e. “working class”), and in ethnicity being Black, South Asian or Other. Assuming a representative sample of the larger population, geoscience students from non-white or working class backgrounds are far less likely to have experience in outdoor pursuits and may not have had the opportunities that their more privileged peers have had to acquire these assumed skills. Thus assuming prior knowledge of these skills is a diversity issue, in addition to an educational one.

I would therefore argue that broadening the skill base taught as part of a geoscience degree is an important measure in improving diversity, equal opportunity and access as laid out in the University of Leeds values and strategic plan (The University of Leeds, 2015), the Office for Students strategy (Office For Students, 2019), Russell Group policy (Russell Group, 2015), etc.

With consideration to my own academic practice I’ve made a personal commitment to do what I can to combat this inequality. This has first taken the form of challenging my own assumptions and privilege. As a white male raised by middle-class parents I was introduced to outdoor activities very early in life, and have had to check my own privilege with regard to assumed knowledge and skills. As a moderately successful geoscientist I evidently have a reasonable level of the required spatial reasoning skills that are vital to field geology, a survivorship bias which may not be typical to all students (Liben et al., 2011). I now attempt to consider field trip briefings, and instructions in the field from the perspective of someone who is unfamiliar with such experiences. This has led to many realisations of skills and advice which goes unspecified to students. I have developed a short lecture for the first year Pembrokeshire field course on navigation skills and compass use to help students with the basics, expanded from the micro-teach I delivered during this course. On an even more basic level I’ve started to pay a lot more attention to pastoral care on field trips, ensuring that students who are unfamiliar with the environment or levels of physical activity have the time and advice needed to help them. Additionally I have started to undertake external training in skills and activities which are complementary to geoscience education, such as walking and navigation qualifications (Mountain Training, 2019). These provide alternative perspectives and feature curricula targeting other audiences. As such there are many tools and techniques which may be applicable to my own teaching, indeed my micro-teach session was based on one such technique. The heuristic navigation exercise I used was modified from the training I received for my own Lowland Leader Walking Award qualification.

The basic contextual knowledge and ancillary skills required for fieldwork are rarely explicitly included in learning outcomes within the curriculum, despite being recognised as a “selling point” of the degree and one of the justifications for the extensive field days requirement for accreditation by the Geological Society of London (The Geological Society of London, 2019). In the framework of constructive alignment this is something of an incongruity (Biggs, 1996). The skills and knowledge are clearly desirable outcomes from the course, yet are not explicitly a part of either the teaching or the learning outcomes. Instead there appears to be an implicit requirement for students to know them or pick them up on their own if they wish to succeed. On the other hand, this is also true of a great majority of “soft skills” which students are also expected to obtain through the course of a degree. “Learn to outfit oneself appropriately for fieldwork” may never appear in stated learning outcomes, but neither does “learn to successfully produce a word processed report”. My personal opinion on this is that whilst documented learning outcomes may be overkill in this case, the importance of these skills should be communicated during pre-trip briefings and discussions during the exercises themselves.

In summary, my personal philosophy of field teaching is that pedagogically speaking geoscience educators generally do quite well at promoting deep learning of a variety of complex and interconnected topics. The existing consolidation activity of field based learning promotes deep reflective learning incorporating “soft skills” in communication, spatial reasoning, resiliency and leadership in a way which cannot be replicated easily in a classroom environment (Schiappa and Smith, 2018). The places where I believe there is room for improvement are in the foundational aspects and in the support of the students who we may mistakenly leave behind. In my own practice I have attempted to alter my mind-set to be more considerate of the diversity of knowledge, ability and background within the student body. I’ve integrated broader approaches to practical field teaching into my own lessons, and tried to explicitly explain foundational concepts which previously were assumed. In the wider context of higher education these measures should help address the key goals of widening participation from under-represented groups, narrowing attainment gaps, and improving student satisfaction.


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