Continuned from the Other Side

Continuned from the Other Side

Ecology Fieldwork in 14 to 19 Biology

Roger Lock and Steve Tilling


In July 2002 the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a report entitled “Science Education from 14 to 19” (House of Commons, 2002). A subsection within this report addressed problems with practical and fieldwork. They expressed the view that

“… fieldwork should be strongly recommended in all courses.”

The key conclusion to the subsection was that fieldwork plays a vital part in science education. The report also suggested that there had been a decline in the quantity of fieldwork being offered to students studying science/biology from 14 to 19.

In this article we try to draw together evidence relating to fieldwork opportunities in post 16 biology and review some of the factors that may influence this position. We conclude with suggestions as to how we might proceed from the current position in order to enhance and firmly establish fieldwork as an entitlement in the provision for all students studying science/biology from 14 to 19.

What is the evidence?

Evidence relating to student experience fieldwork in the 11 to 19 curriculum is at best sketchy and, in many cases, anecdotal. Indeed, we have found only one paper giving evidence relating specifically to ecology fieldwork experience of 11 to 16 year olds (Fisher, 2001); a two question telephone survey of 30 secondary schools in the SW of England. With respect to A level biology there are studies that were conducted 10 and 20 years ago (Fido and Gayford, 1982: Kinchin, 1993) but no recent work.

Against such a background, and with a specific focus on post 16 biology, we have been involved in collecting evidence from three sources. In each case the evidence comes from small, opportunity samples which give problems with attempting to generalise to the whole population. Despite these shortcomings, we feel that the evidence is worth presenting here, so that readers may match their own experience against it and, thus, help put into perspective, the discussion on the issues influencing fieldwork which is presented following the data and analysis.

Questionnaire Survey

The evidence described here is drawn from a larger scale survey (Lock, 1999) of 150 centres in the Midlands area who prepared candidates for A level biology examinations. The survey was conducted in 1998. In a 20 question postal questionnaire, two questions focused on fieldwork. The first question asked how many days were devoted to fieldwork in a 2 year A level biology course. The results are presented in figure 1. The data suggest that, of the 77 centres who responded to the question, 13% offered no fieldwork study while a further 23% did just one or two days. However, with just under 50% of the sample retaining 5 or more days of fieldwork, the position, prior to the introduction of AS/A2 levels was far from discouraging.

( Figure 1 about here)

The second question explored the type of habitats that were being used by centres (table 1). Clearly, a large number of centres are still using coastal habitats with 41% visiting marine environments and a further 40% either sand dunes or salt marshes. Moorland and bogs are also well used. It is interesting to note that woodland and freshwater are the most popular habitats used. Together with grassland, these three habitats should be accessible to all schools and open to a wide range of investigations. For centres with playing fields, where they still remain, access to grassland investigations should be possible within normal lesson times.

(Table 1 about here)

At the same time, a supplementary survey, using the same questionnaire, was carried out with all centres that were still offering the Nuffield Advanced Biology Examination. Of these centres (n=41), only one was doing no fieldwork but the findings broadly mirrored those of the other survey with 31% of centres undertaking 2 days or less and 56% doing 5 days or more of fieldwork.

Telephone Survey

In 2001 a telephone survey was carried out of state schools who had attended field courses at Field Study Centres in the previous 10 year period. (Over to you Steve).

Internet Survey

In May 2002 a questionnaire was sent to members of an email discussion group. There were 23 replies from centres who were entering candidates for A level biology. The size of centres varied considerably from 18 candidates to 350. Three centres had large cohorts of more than 100 candidates. The sample responding is not representative, with a bias towards the private sector. Twenty two of the centres carried out fieldwork.

Data in table 2 show that the time at which fieldwork is undertaken is not evenly spread throughout the year. It is no surprise that such activities are more popular when the weather is likely to be clement. It shows clearly that, for most, fieldwork is undertaken in the period between the end of the AS examinations and the time when A2 courses start. The 4 centres doing fieldwork in September all saw this as a means of bonding the group together and getting the A2 course off to a good start.

(Table 2 about here)

Thirteen of the 18 respondents said their courses where residential. The cost to students varied considerably from 3 days at £250 to 5 days (non residential) at no charge. The cost of the most expensive course was £300.

In response to a question enquiring about the charges to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, 9 centres made no response No charges on such students were made by 3 centres, while 7 others offered subsidies. Two centres commented that subsidising fieldwork was no longer an option in future years.

Table 3 shows the number of days devoted to fieldwork study over the AS and A2 years. In contrast to the data from the 1998 survey, under a third of the centres offered study from 5 to 7 days. Data such as this suggests that there is a decline in fieldwork study offered to A level candidates. The habitats used were similar to that in the 1998 survey (table 4). Coastal locations remain popular for fieldwork along with woodland, grassland and freshwater.

(Table 4 about here)

The fieldwork was taught by school/college staff in 15 centres, while a further centre taught only some. Others were happy to hand over the teaching to staff at field study centres, either residential or day centres.

The vast majority of centres, 16 with 1 no response, were using the fieldwork for coursework assessment purposes. In all cases, the coursework assessment was directed to the A2 course. This we find an interesting feature of the work as it suggests that the major coursework assessment for most students in centres involved in this study were made in the period before the A2 course had started. It might be suggested that students were being assessed when they had not had the opportunity to develop their skills and knowledge to the maximum. We surmise that more mature and synoptic discussion and evaluation of fieldwork data would occur if the exercise was undertaken nearer to the end of A2 course.

Lots of respondents made comments about how appropriate fieldwork was for coursework assessment in A level in that it provided a wide range of opportunities for significant numbers of variables to be investigated, was often synoptic in nature and students were well motivated and achieved highly in such a context. All three examination boards specifications were being used by centres involved in the survey.

We end comments on this survey with a note of caution. It is likely that teachers in centres who were not undertaking fieldwork would not respond to this survey. This is in contrast to the questionnaire survey where only a small number of the questions centred on fieldwork. It is for this reason that we have presented the data from this survey in terms of numbers and not percentages. The reason why caution should be applied in interpreting data is well illustrated by this survey where the one responding centre, which undertook no fieldwork, had 350 students studying A level biology. Their reasons for avoiding study was that they were concerned about the impact that student cohorts of this size would have upon the habitats they selected for study.

What does the evidence suggest?

Taking data from the three studies together, we would tentatively conclude that:

  • Less study of fieldwork is being offered at A level
  • Fewer students gain residential experience in connection with fieldwork
  • Most study is confined to a brief period in the year in June/July
  • Assessment of coursework using fieldwork activity is undertaken when the students may not have fully developed their skills, up to 8 months prior to the end of the course.

We believe that these issues give cause for concern that endorses the views of the House of Commons Committee and in the following sections we consider what factors may have led to this position.

What factors influence this situation?

Here we identify 7 sets of factors that we believe have influenced the current situation. In coming to this list of factors, we have been influenced by colleagues who have similar concerns about the position of fieldwork in the 16 to 19 curriculum (see acknowledgement) and comments made by teachers in the 3 surveys described the previous section. The factors we consider influential relate to:

  • Curriculum
  • Biology the subject
  • Teachers
  • Students
  • Financial
  • Teaching and learning
  • Aesthetic

In the following sub-sections we consider each of these factors in turn.

Curriculum factors

It is clear in the National Curriculum for key stages 1 and 2 that study in local habitat is a necessary part of the curriculum. The QCA Key Stage 3 Scheme of Work provides concrete examples of possible teaching activities that involve practical work outside school laboratories. However, as we will discuss further under teacher factors, inclusion in statutory documentation is no guarantee of a pupil entitlement to fieldwork study.

At Key Stage 4 the position is less clear. Reference to fieldwork within the Scientific Enquiry Attainment Target at Key Stage 4 is exemplary and not statutory. (see for example Sc1.2D). All components of Sc2 could be taught without reference to fieldwork, f or example explaining relevant abundance of organisms in a habitat in terms of interdependence, adaptation, competition and production. Checking out the way in which these topics are handled in Key Stage 4 textbooks, will serve only to confirm that these are classroom/laboratory based activities.

Examination board double award science specifications mirror the position seen in the Key Stage 4 programme of study. Some specifications may even exacerbate the position from the programme of study in that they remove reference to the exemplary material and so are devoid of reference to fieldwork.

At AS/A2 level the opportunity for extensive fieldwork is there should centres choose to take them Take, for example, the AQA biology, Specification B. In this specification, two modules available at A2, modules 5 and 6, focus strongly on ecology. Both clearly encourage significant practical work in the field.

Teachers feel frustrated by the way in which the coursework assessment is organised through subject specifications. They feel that the workload involved has increased, if only because such assessment is required for both AS and A2 examinations. For this reason, some centres are moving away from assessed coursework towards a practical examination. Practical examinations bring with them a different approach to practical work, one which is not conducive to fieldwork activities: one which many would argue was abandoned in the 70s as an invalid method of assessing practical skills full stop.

If assessment opportunities are not afforded within written or practical examinations where studies carried out in the field to form the context of questions, then fieldwork study would reduce even further. The reason for this, is that in an assessment dominated culture if something is not assessed we, sadly, see it as an area in which study is unnecessary. Sc 0, now Sc 1 strand 1, set the precedent for such an interpretation. In addition, if those setting the questions are inexperienced in fieldwork they are less likely to use such situations in question contexts.

Specifications require the application of a statistical test to the coursework used in the A2 examination. This should encourage fieldwork to be undertaken as studies lend themselves well to statistical analysis. However, recent experience with the West Midland Biology Teachers' Centre suggests to the authors that many teachers are unsure as to which statistical test to apply in which contexts. (This might be included under subject factors and/or teacher factors).

A further issue, linked to specifications, is the way in which ecology content is described. At least one specification gives a focus which is technique driven; line and belt transact, quadrats and point quadrats capture/recapture technique etc.. This can lead to a relatively unstimulating approach to ecological work where the focus in on the technique rather than posing a question which leads the students to carry out a whole investigation.

In summary then, the opportunities for fieldwork are greater post 16 than at Key Stage 4 and some specifications do promote such study. However, there are challenges associated with the way in which the coursework needs to be assessed and the timing of this assessment. Specification content prescribing a technique based focus and the requirement for statistical analysis can constrain opportunities.

Subject factors

There are many subject factors that promote the study of ecology. It is often seen as “real biology” where students have opportunities of first hand experience of working with living things, both animals and plants. Whole organism biology has tended to take a back seat with the given introduction of the National Curriculum. Here, the Programme of Study has possibly overemphasised the characteristics of living things (respiration, movement, reproduction, nutrition etc), study at the cellular level.or of concepts such as variation classification and inheritance. This can leave little space for a more holistic view of organisms, communities and habitats. Interestingly, the focus on Key Ideas in the Key Stage 3 Strategy may help to redress this balance, as 'interdependence' is one of the two notions associated with Sc2.

Ecology is rich in issues where a broad understanding is necessary for pupils to go on to play a full part in a democratic society. Formal opportunities for developing a public understanding of science in this area end, for most students, at 16. To this point a study of science should have afforded an opportunity to consider “the power and limitations of science in addressing … environmental issues.” (DfEE, 1999). Students should also have been taught about sustainable development, the impact of humans on the environment, the nature of habitats and energy and nutrients transfer within them. For many, we suspect, that if the opportunities are even offered, they come through rather sterile, largely paper-based, classroom study.

Experience of ecology for those that study biology beyond 16 will be dependent upon the exact specification that they are studying. All students will at least have studied adaptation, succession, population changes and energy flow through ecosystems as well as conservation and management of habitats. The reasons for this are that these topics form part of the core content that should be equally shared across AS and A2 levels.

The subject matter is, thus, rich in issues that interest and motivate students and which directly impinge upon their lives in and beyond school. It suggests that the subject content provides ample opportunities for discussion of controversial issues of real concern to today’s young adults.

Ecology provides opportunities for a holistic view of biology. In addition, the interaction of biotic and abiotic factors offers a wide range of contexts where a synoptic perspective of the subject is essential. Explaining why species x is found in location y with such abundance can involve concepts such as adaptation, inter and intra-specific competition, predator prey relationships, the biochemistry of photosynthesis, soil science, osmosis, cell structure, and the list does not end there. Virtually no other area of biology brings the subject together in such a way.

(Nothing about autecology or classification or biodiversity within this section)

Teacher factors

One of the key issues raised by teachers in some of the surveys we have conducted is of their expertise and confidence in leading fieldwork. Those who feel that their own knowledge base is limited in the area of ecology are likely to be less enthusiastic about conducting fieldwork with students. It is for these reasons that some teachers seek out fieldwork provision where the teaching is done by others with specialist knowledge. However, such expertise comes at a cost; not just a financial one. Unlike the regular teacher, bought in 'experts' neither have the relationship/rapport with the students nor the in depth knowledge and understanding of work the students have undertaken previously. This reduces opportunities for some of the more synoptic elements in the work.

Biologists, more so than their chemistry and physics colleagues, are expected to teach broadly across the National Curriculum. Since there are more biology teachers nationally, the brunt of teaching across the sciences to 16 inevitably falls on them. This has lead, in recent years, to biologists extending themselves as broad and balanced scientists rather than having an opportunity to develop their knowledge, understanding and expertise within their own subject area. Opportunities for continuing professional development (CPD), where they exist, have tended to focus on assessment issues linked to the 14 to 16 curriculum. Although groups such as Science And Plants in Schools, National Centre for Biotechnology Education and Association for Studies in Animal Behaviour all provide high quality subject specific inset, nationally, only a small proportion of biology teachers have been able to take advantage of this. Opportunities exist to for CPD in areas of ecology through courses offered by, for example, the Field Studies Council but opportunities for them to make a national impact have, to this point, been limited.