Geography Fieldwork is Not Mission Impossible

Geography teachers face numerous difficulties in conducting fieldwork for their students. While the national curriculum is shifting towards a field inquiry approach, some pre-existing problems remain, such as the issues of large class sizes, the lack of suitable sites due to our highly urbanised landscape, and teachers who do not have an understanding of the role fieldwork plays in constructing meaning in Geography. Having an understanding of how geographical knowledge has evolved will allow teachers to adopt meaningful strategies in the field in order to maximise the construction of geographical concepts and learning of geographical skills. In this paper, I propose a simple matrix that identifies purpose and strategies as two key goals that can help teachers work towards the implementation of a meaningful fieldwork programme for students. 


Geography is possibly the most exciting discipline in the Humanities and Social Sciences group of subjects. Physical landscapes lend an authentic lens to contextualise the discipline. The need to measure and observe in order to infer and generalise are geographical skills that students find intriguing. When students venture out of their classrooms, the world becomes more apparent and real. The demand for quantification also necessitates collaboration amongst classmates. Suddenly, the Shy Shirley begins to talk, and Reticent Richard starts to come to life. Friendships, attitudes and values are forged and strengthened. Those who have gone through a cycle (or two) in fieldwork can easily testify to these positive outcomes.  

While many geography teachers are  excited at the prospect of geographical fieldwork re-emerging as a key driver for geographical education in Singapore, real challenges exist. A small handful of teachers still bemoan the lack of physical landscapes to conduct “real” fieldwork in Singapore (though this has been partially overcome by the somewhat generous government subsidy for overseas fieldtrips). There are also sceptics who think that fieldwork is just another round of “wave-counting” exercises and nothing else; and others who believe that the huge class size deters any form of fieldwork. 

The aim of this paper is, therefore, to correct the misconceptions that fieldwork 

  • requires an expensive trip out of Singapore
  • cannot be conducted in big groups 
  • is a boring data collection exercise

First, I provide a brief background to the evolution of fieldwork that developed with progress of geographic thought in the twentieth century. Knowledge of this development is important because it allows the teacher to understand the purpose of fieldwork. I then propose a simple framework that challenges educators to think about geographical fieldwork strategies based on the aims of the discipline. In this way, teachers can design focused and meaningful tasks for their learners.


I enjoyed reading this article, and I especially like the recognition that fieldwork is not a one-size-fits-all undertaking, but that there are multiple purposes and multiple strategies, and teachers need to plan their fieldwork with these in mind. The chart at the end is useful in showing which purposes and which strategies are the "most natural fit." (It looks like this can only be viewed in the pdf, so I encourage everyone to download it and print out the chart.)

I also liked the recognition that ideas about fieldwork have to be updated to reflect contemporary issues and concerns, rather than being stuck in the last century. The photos and suggestions helped to make that point concrete. I think charting the price of durian in different locations and speculating on reasons for the range of prices is a great example of geographic fieldwork (and much more interesting than "counting waves"). I wonder if readers have other good examples like that?

Thanks Keith for the suggestion. Indeed charting the price of durians from different locations in Singapore may yield interesting results. Besides conducting quantitative surveys, conducting in-depth interviews with the hawkers may also reveal how they give repeat customers get bigger discounts. There is scope for a wide range of interview/survey skills.

While the introduction of fieldwork into the new syllabus is indeed a step in the right direction, i question its implementation. I do agree that fieldwork is definitely not mission impossible. However, teachers will need adequate time and resources to support them in coming up with innovative fieldwork plans that will allow students' learning to be maximized.

Yet, i doubt that Singapore teachers are truly provided with the amount of support for them to plan and execute a fieldwork that truly benefit students' learning. Consequently, i fear that teachers will attempt to conduct a simple fieldwork exercise without much thinking behind its purpose, target audience or learning outcome, just to satisfy the requirements.

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