Thursday, November 23, 2006

Field based lesson

At first, a group of us wanted to go overseas to and construct a field based lesson based on the stuff we could find there. Options were, if I remember correctly, Sarawak, Sabah, Desaru and others. However, nearing the deadline amidst out tight schedules, we decided to cancel the trip and do a local field based lesson. On hindsight, there were really a lot of administrative matter to clear before heading overseas – consent, budget, transport, accommodation, prior recce, relevance, availability of resources, risk assessments, teacher student ratio, wet weather plans, finding contacts to bring you around, seamless mobility, permits, itinerary etc. Well, that’s all I can think about at the back of my mind, but I’m sure there’s more. Another point that was brought out by Pearlyn and well summed up by Prof Wong Poh Poh is we should discover out own backyard first before discovering other people’s. And so we settled on the local.

My group’s field based lesson is on natural vegetation, covering Sungei Buloh’s Mangrove and Bukit Timah’s tropical rainforest. Going to Sungei Buloh was a first for me. In fact, there were many places we went for this module that were a first for many others in the class too. We wanted students to learn about and compare the features and adaptations of the mangrove and the rainforest in the local context through observation and hands-on activities. This is very much different from other subjects like history or social studies, where it is mainly observation and reflection, or science, where hand-on activities are carried out in the school compound. In the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, one the activities was to carry our quadrat sampling. Despite the unrealistic area that students can carry out quadrat sampling, our group still felt that it was a useful activity for students to learn about plant biodiversity. In addition, this activity provides students with an experience different from that of the non-geography students.

One of the issues was whether to look through the syllabus and derive important points we wanted to find at field sites, or recce the field sites first and then adapt what we wants students to learn to what can be found. After much discussion, we decided to go with the latter approach. This is partly because many of us were not exactly very familiar with the field sites and had to see and recall what resources could be found there. On hindsight, it is more beneficial to base the field lesson on what can be found in the field site rather than what is found in the book. In this way, students will be able to be curious over the new things they see yet at the same time reinforce the things they have learnt.

The other issue is how to create relevant and meaningful yet creative activities for the students to work on based on the resources available in the field site. For example, in Sungei Buloh, we had a boardwalk featuring the different types of roots in the mangrove system, characteristics of leaves, biodiversity of the mangroves etc repeatedly throughout the boardwalk itself. We therefore had to decide to divide the boardwalk into sections and focus on one feature at one section. Similarly in Bukit Timah, we needed to decide how long the route should be given the constraints of relevant resources available as well as time. I have learnt that sectioning of a field site is extremely useful particularly if the teacher to student ratio is big.

This brings us to the next issue of how to sequence the mobility of student groups. In our report, we included a section on sequencing, which was a really big headache. Imagine a class of 40 under one geography teacher going to two field sites in two days. It will be rather difficult to manage the mobility of the students, not just in terms of management, but also in terms of exposition and audibility. Hence, we mentioned that there will be another teacher, but can be a non-geography teacher, to assist the geography teacher. This is so as to widen the range of teachers the main geography teacher can call on for help in the field trip since in reality, not every school has a united and team spirited geography department.

Upon reflection, I feel that I lack the skills in conducting fieldtrip. I remember my first attachment to a mainstream school where I was involved in constructing a field trip package to Labrador Park. During my attachment, I was a complete stranger to the education system as a teacher and had a lot of difficulty finding resources or understanding the processes at the field site. Plus, it was only the 2nd time to Labrador Park, and the 1st time was a recce for this fieldtrip. I asked for help minimally because I did not want to appear dependent. So, unfamiliar to the field site, unfamiliar to the system and unfamiliar with the students, I went ahead with two other experienced geography teachers. We were tasked to take care of different sections and there were worksheets available. My section was the coastal area dealing with rock and grain size. At the beginning of the main field trip, I really had no idea how I was going to do my section. But as the trip progressed, I forced myself to think on the spot to answer the questions that the students asked. I found that I was able to explain most of the things they asked based on common sense but I did not feel comfortable at all, knowing that I could possibly be struck down anytime. From this experience, I learnt a few lessons. First, it is important to be extremely familiar with the field site - the features in it and the processes that develop the features in it. Second, dare to ask for help. This is really hard for me, but at the end of it all, I am responsible for my student’s learning and so I will ask for help if necessary in future. One way to (subtly) do this is to develop a close bond with my colleagues. Anyway, it helps in other areas as well to be comfortable with my colleagues and it makes working life a whole lot easier. Thirdly, the only way to be comfortable during fieldtrip is to be familiar with teaching outdoors. Of course the development of these kinds of skills comes only with practice, not only skills in terms of lesson delivery outdoors, but familiarity with the features in the field site. Therefore, with regards to the overseas fieldtrip, I think I will attempt it only when I am confident enough in my own backyard and when an opportunity knocks!


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