Fieldwork at Key Stages 3 & 4; Practices and Actions for Development

Fieldwork at Key Stages 3 & 4; Practices and Actions for Development

Fieldwork at Key Stages 3 & 4; Practices and Actions for Development

Roger Lock, School of Education

The University of Birmingham


Semi-structured interviews were conducted with an opportunity sample of biology teachers based in 15 secondary schools in the West Midlands. All were maintained schools and 11-16 and 11-18 schools were included.

Hand written notes were made during the interviews, which recorded, as far as possible, verbatim responses from the interviewees. These responses were written up within a maximum of 12 hours of the end of the interview.

The content of the interviews was analysed, initially school-by-school, to identify key issues that reflected practices, which appeared to promote fieldwork, as well as those which could lead to fieldwork being reduced or avoided. Common themes are identified and illustrated by direct quotations from teachers.

Teacher views on action that could be taken to support, encourage and develop fieldwork were also identified and analysed.


In recent years there has been mounting concern about the place of fieldwork in school biology. This is most poignantly exemplified by publications from the Field
Studies Council and the British Ecological Society (Barker, Slingsby and Tilling, 2002) and the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (House of Commons, 2002). Lock and Tilling (2002) have carried out some empirical work but this, in common with the previous two publications, has tended to focus on fieldwork for post 16 year old students.

Against such a background, I felt it was important to carry out some pilot investigative work on the use of fieldwork at Key Stages 3 and 4. If there is no progression and continuity across the age 16 watershed, then the foundations on which study at AS and A2 level is based could well be insecure.

In this paper I report on selected findings from an initial analysis of the 15 semi-structured interviews that were carried out with an opportunity sample of teachers responsible for biology in maintained comprehensive schools. The focus will be on the practice in their schools with regard to fieldwork at Key Stages 3 and 4 and the reasons why such an approach is adopted. The paper concludes with teacher views on actions that could be taken to support and encourage fieldwork.


An opportunity sample of 15 teachers was drawn from schools in partnership with the University of Birmingham PGCE Science: Biology course. The interviews were carried out in June and July 2003. The interviewees were mainly teachers with responsibilities for the teaching of biology in their school. Interviewees were informed by letter, well in advance of the interview date, of the issues on which the questions would focus. They were also encouraged to collect evidence, for example schemes of work, relating to fieldwork in the Key Stage 3 and 4 curriculum.

There were 5 specific foci, which were:

  • Fieldwork in your school’s schemes of work at Key Stage 3 and 4 and the rationale for inclusion/exclusion.
  • Your views on pupils’ experiences of fieldwork at Key Stage 3 and 4.
  • Your views on pupils’ and colleagues’ attitudes to fieldwork at Key Stages 3 and 4.
  • What factors do you think encourage and discourage fieldwork at Key Stage 3 and 4?
  • What do you think is needed to support you and your colleagues in undertaking fieldwork at Key Stages 3 and 4?

Within the course of each interview, respondents were asked to identify the nature and substance of fieldwork in each of Years 7 to 11 and, if in responding to such questions positive or negative factors were referred to, then these were followed up at that point with appropriate subsidiary questions.

In preparing for the interviews I had thoroughly familiarised myself with the content of the programmes of study at Key Stages 2, 3 and 4 with respect to fieldwork content. In addition, I had analysed the QCA Key Stage 3 scheme of work, and a range of GCSE specifications, which I knew, were commonly used in the sample schools. The purpose behind this activity was that I could, where appropriate, make direct reference to these elements in subsidiary questions, for example in asking how a school’s specific scheme of work met particular aspects of a GCSE specification or statutory elements of the Key Stage 3 programme of study.

As this was a pilot activity, permission was not sought to tape record interviews. Copious hand written notes were made during the interview where I recorded verbatim responses from the interviewees. Where points were made which didn’t directly relate to the 5 key issues only brief recording was made. Where I was unable to record quickly enough, interviewees were asked for restatement or further clarification of the point. All notes were word processed within 12 hours of the end of the interview. They were not handed back to interviewees for validation. Interviewees have, however, seen a draft version of this paper, and when asked if there was significant elements that had been misrepresented they were unanimous in providing a negative response.

Initial analysis of the word-processed responses from interviewees was done on a school-by-school basis, using different coloured highlighter pens to represent themes and key issues within the discussion. Once completed, an attempt was made to aggregate patterns that were common to several respondents. This initial analysis led to 52 themes each of which was exemplified by quotations drawn from the range of schools.

In order to make the analysis more manageable and the report to conference on key themes succinct and fitting within 50 minutes, a more radical approach had to be adopted resulting in some of the themes being reported without supporting quotation or exemplification. It is my intention, at a later stage, to present these finding separately as school practices with respect to fieldwork at Key Stages 3 and 4 with a third article focusing on actions for development. In this current paper readers are given a flavour of all three aspects.

Fieldwork at Key Stage 3

The initial 5 key themes identified at Key Stage 3 all indicated that fieldwork was not carried out in these schools. The themes were:

  • We don’t do fieldwork
  • We don’t follow the QCA scheme of work (and so we don’t do fieldwork is implied)
  • We do follow the QCA scheme of work BUT we don’t have a school field (or any facilities near to hand)
  • We do follow the QCA scheme of work but the ecology unit is at the wrong time of the year.
  • We have fieldwork in our scheme of work but pupil behaviour is an issue so it isn’t always carried out.

More than half the schools represented in the sample were included within the themes identified here. Reasons for such responses are explored at a later point.

Some respondents felt that the QCA had an idealised view of what a school was like and that this was particularly reflected with regard to expectations of the facilities which teachers or schools had that were available for fieldwork. For example, for a school with an asphelted playground, Astroturf and a sports centre, access to grassland at a 20 minute walk’s distance from the school was not perceived as a viable option.

Schools commenting on the QCA scheme of work and the timing of the ecology unit were apparently perceiving the sequence of units, identified by letters in alphabetical order for each year, as a teaching sequence. It is unclear to me whether this is what the QCA intended, but with units 7c, 8c and 9d being the main ones in which fieldwork is involved, I do have sympathy for schools making these comments, as it would place the work in the second half of the Autumn term. There is one unit, 9m, which would come towards the end of a year’s teaching but some schools seem to squeeze this in before the end of the Spring term so that there is adequate time left for revision for the SATs.

Pupil behaviour outside of the classroom and indeed outside of the school premises is undoubtedly not just a large city issue. Later comment will show that for schools in this sample it was a significant consideration and I will also illustrate how some schools deal with this issue and ensure that fieldwork opportunities are provided for all.

There were some schools who followed the QCA scheme of work but felt that it offered a range of teaching and learning activities on fieldwork that could be carried out in the laboratory. In this way, they felt that they overcame some of the issues already raised, for example lack of facilities, time of the year and pupil behaviour.

Three types of alternative were identified and are illustrated here by direct quotes from teachers:

a)Model habitats

Physics and chemistry colleagues and some biologists use the wet weather, alternative activities, which create a habitat in a plastic tray in the lab. The plastic tray has sand with coloured balls in the sand and the activity is to sample to get an estimate of the number of different coloured balls. Acetate quadrats are used for this sampling activity …an alternative is to do this activity with Smarties but the kids eat the Smarties so counting the actual number at the end is not possible. (School G)

b)Paper-based habitats

Some colleagues are reluctant to use the activity with sand as pupils use this as a reason to misbehave and sand gets distributed around the lab. There is a second activity that uses a transect but this can also be done using a paper transect exercise (the paper transect exercise is produced by Folens (1991) and relates to a salt marsh). (School G)

We have a unit that looks at populations and pollution but we do this inside. There is no outside work in Year 9 due to time pressures. (School K)

c)Virtual activities

The sampling activity is done in theory using worksheets. We show the pupils quadrats and chuck them on the floor in the classroom. (School A)

Our scheme of work follows closely the QCA one, the section 8d, where the major focus is to observe and record, most people do this using a website plus a virtual activity. (School E)

For some schools resources are an issue while for others they are not.

Equipment… quadrats we are OK for but nets are a problem. We have hardly any sample bottles but I think that is a low priority. We have one pooter between 3 pupils. (School H)

It’s about the cost effectiveness of the resource so it’s like the radioactivity equipment, it’s only used once per year so it’s difficult to justify spending money on that topic because of it’s relative importance. (School H)

We have got quadrats tapes and even software for kite diagrams but we don’t do any ecology work. In lower school there isn’t much ecology work. One day doing food webs in the classroom and you’ve got the lot really. (School F)

Over a third of the schools in the sample raised time pressures as a reason for not doing ecology. It is interesting to note that whilst we have clear proposals for reducing the content of the national curriculum programme of study at Key Stage 4 (QCA, 2003) there are no parallel proposals for an equivalent reduction at Key Stage 3.

Socio economic reasons were raised as an issue by just under a third of the schools. It may be difficult to see how this could be an issue as the most distant school in the sample from a suitable grassland environment for fieldwork would have involved a 20 minute walk. This may indicate that some teachers, even at Key Stage 3, have a concept of doing fieldwork away from the school and subsequently seeing a need for transport and payment for such transport. However, the following comment contradicts the preceding interpretation

If its wet its not likely to happen because pupils not having waterproofs, no suitable shoes or because attendance is low for such events (School D)

The absence of a school field or facilities near at hand was not the only, or even the main discouraging factor and some teachers, working in such environments, had developed ingenious, creative ways of undertaking fieldwork.

The factors that discourage us are no school grounds and colleague support. We have taken groups out and gone through the motions on the school playground … imagine this tarmac is a field full of daisies, this is a quadrat…. (School F)

Access is a problem – we have no school field only Astroturf. (School D)

We have used quadrats to sample chewing gum in the school playground. (School A)

The weather can be a challenge to fieldwork but teachers’ ingenuity comes to the rescue even in these situations.

If it’s wet this activity is done in school on blobs of chewing gum in areas used most by kids. They get the idea of random sampling by using quadrats on the carpets. The kids enjoy it. (School B)

Even where schools have facilities close to hand there is often pressure on the space available.

We have a pond but we have been told that this area is being filled in and slabbed over for more temporary accommodation. (School H)

Support from the senior management team for our environmental area is poor. We are getting a temporary classroom located on our current environmental area. (School I)

We do quadrats on the school field but nobody has done it this year as the school field has been dug up and so we missed that bit out. (School M)

Our lower school is being built on the upper school site in the location where wild area used to be. (School O)

Fieldwork in contexts other than biology

There are schools where work outside the laboratory is a feature of science lessons but sometimes this is linked to physical science rather than biological concepts.

At Key Stage 3 the work we do outside is more to do with physics, for example determination of the speed of sound and collecting data for traffic speed between two lampposts. (School F)

We do the speed of sound and light using a firework. (School L)

Chemistry and Physics specialists

Just as earlier studies (Lock and Alderman, 1996) have shown that physics and chemistry teachers are less likely to use living things in their teaching at Key Stages 3 and 4, so the same pattern is found with regard to ecology work. Nearly two thirds of the interviewees identified physics and chemistry colleagues as being more reluctant to get involved in fieldwork.

I’m not sure whether its humorous or seriously held views but things such as “you are just counting daisies” suggests that they are dismissive of fieldwork. Physical scientists see it as being in the realms of nature study and don’t appreciate the scientific rigour of proper fieldwork. (School D)

No physics or chemistry colleagues do any ecology. (School F)

Physicists and chemists take them out once and do quadrats – it’s a question of confidence as to what they do. Some go out and get it over and done with as fast as possible. One of the problems is that they can’t identify species. This is particularly a problem when this module is done before Easter as it’s difficult to identify plants from the vegetative and non-flowering parts. (School G)

The approach of physical science teachers is like my approach to physics. I do it faster because I simply don’t have the knowledge base. In general, physical scientists don’t do the transect activity. It is more difficult for them to manage Year 8 but if instructions are clear it works well. You need to get them excited about it. If the teacher goes out and is not enthusiastic then there is a limited response back from the kids. (School G)

Some teachers who are less confident in this area make the class do a long walk to the extremr end of the school field so that it takes up time that could be used in practical work. (School H)

Some staff do invertebrate classification using insects from the pond. Others do a cut and stick exercise with different invertebrates. It is mainly the physical scientists who do the cut the stick exercise. We have an alternative activity for fieldwork, which is bookwork. It’s more likely to be the biologists who would go out. The physicist might stay in school because he wouldn’t know what the kids were looking for. (School K)

Some physics and chemistry colleagues are more reluctant to do such work because it takes up time coming to ask about how it is done. (School L)

In this school we have an extra balance of biologists on the staff so the chances of asking physicists or chemists to teach the ecological bits are very low. (School N)

Ecological relationships is coming up now at the end of the third term. One teacher is just starting it but some colleagues, and they are mainly chemists and physicists miss out certain activities to make sure that others get covered. It’s usually the fieldwork activities that get missed out. It depends on individual interest as to whether it gets done and physicists and chemists are less likely to complete it. (School M)

Biologists would be more likely to take the pupils out. (School O

Some of the immediately preceding comments suggest that the initiative for help and support has to come from the individual teachers themselves. There are, in other schools, support procedures that are provided for colleagues whose curriculum strengths lie in the physical sciences.