Supporting Field Work Training for Teachers

The BES Policy Team yesterday attended a briefing event in parliament, run by the Field Studies Council and chaired by Phil Willis MP, chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee. “Helping the next generation of teachers to get children enthused about science through fieldwork” saw around 50 representatives of teacher training provision, colleagues from the FSC and learned societies come together to hear brief speeches from Mr Willis, Rob Lucas, Chief Executive of the Field Studies Council and Professor Justin Dillon, Professor of Science and Environmental Education at King’s College London.

Rob Lucas posed a question; ‘where will the next Darwin come from’ if students sit in a classroom all day and are not taken outside to learn? He described the situation in which the UK now finds itself as analagous to the bottom of a ‘helterskelter’, at a low in terms of field work provision in schools, with no staircase to find the way back up to the top again. ‘Teachers are the gatekeepers of students getting out of the classroom’, he said, and the commitment of teachers and school managers to outdoor learning is vital. Teachers must have the knowledge, skills and experience to deliver effective field work, and more must be done to ensure this.

Prof. Dillon contrasted his experience as a trainee teacher, spending a week on a residential field course, with the experience of teachers training today; for whom there are no minimum standards for what is an acceptable level of field work experience to undertake during Initial Teacher Training (ITT). Done well, he said, field work works. It improves students’ knowledge, skills and experience, whilst depriving some students of field work and allowing others to benefit from it is morally reprehensible and creates an unequal playing field for later educational opportunity.

Prof. Dillon urged the UK Government, on behalf of the FSC and the Association of Science Education Outdoor Learning Group, to make sure that ITT contains minimum standards for field work experience and training, as set out in the document ‘Initial Teacher Education and the Outdoor Classroom: Standards for the Future‘, published in 2007.

During the question and answer session, Mr Willis was asked what legislators could do to help effect change in ITT to ensure field work was better recognised and supported. Mr Willis paid tribute to the House of Lords as containing a cadre of people distinguished in and passionate about science, something he acknowledged that the House of Commons lacked. He said that the biological education community should target individual MPs with a genuine interest in education and lobby them to support a simple campaign (one for minimum standards would work well, he suggested). He also encouraged those present to target Science Learning Centres, finding out whether their CPD courses included fieldwork, and to encourage the Department for Children, Schools and Families Select Committee to run a major inquiry into outdoor education. MPs could also be encouraged to run an adjournment debate about the issue, to which the Minister for Education would have to respond.

Overall this was a useful and interesting event but it’s clear that those supporting field work in schools need to move beyond talking to one another and those already ‘converted’ to the cause. Working with curriculum awarding bodies, as Karen Devine, Education Officer at the BES, and others, are already doing is vital; making sure that field work is a fundamental component of the curriculum. Mr Willis also challenged the community to move beyond anecdote to the use of high quality, peer reviewed scientific evidence to support the need for field work in biology education.

Read more about the BES’s work in Science Education