Best Practice in Marine Field Work?
The workshop continues the process begun at the MESA Field Workshop held at Jervis Bay in 1995, where marine educators put into practice a range of unusual field activities in an attempt to establish what exactly is the best possible way of doing field work in the marine environment.
This workshop will utilise principles of adult learning, and requires participation by all: "work" means all contribute; and "shop" means trading ideas and experiences.
Participants will rank in order of perceived importance a range of criteria for best practice field activities developed and utilised at recent teacher workshops in Queensland. The most commonly selected criteria already appear to be "Match learned information from the classroom with actual scenes and situations in the field", "Develop skills in observing, collecting data, carrying out experiments" and "Develop concern and appreciation for the environment". Matching these criteria with known fieldwork examples can assess their validity and serve as a check list for establishing the ‘best’ field activity. A ‘learning log’ about the Workshop and the implementation of its ideas will be completed by participants.
Over the past year, marine studies and social science teachers have been participating in a search to identify the most effective and efficient use of fieldwork in their subject. This search for excellence is often termed ‘best practice’.
‘Best practice’ is the buzz phrase in industrial and commercial operations throughout the world, as companies endeavour to utilise their resources, both human and productive, to their fullest extent.
The concept of best practice developed in the late 1970s in the Xerox Corporation of USA (Tucker 1996). Best practice is also inherent in Japanese culture (McDonnell, 1993: 2).
Recently, many organisations in Australia have striven to identify and publicise those actions or strategies that can be termed to be most effective in gaining efficient, superior performance in every facet of a business. Federal, state and local council regulations may now require the establishment of best environmental practice to ensure that activities by various organisations are environmentally sustainable.
There has been little attempt in Australia however, to establish guidelines to the most effective and ‘best’ practices in student marine fieldwork, whether it be for science, geography or marine studies. Yet, many teachers unconsciously apply ‘best practice’ when deciding on objectives, sites, activities, pre- and post fieldwork and the assessment that frequently accompanies activities outside the classroom. All that is required to do is to formalise the procedures. Many of the guidelines on establishing best practices in industry can be adapted for use in educational situations.
Development Of Best Practice In Marine Fieldwork
The Marine Education Society of Australasia (MESA) organised a workshop at Jervis Bay in 1995. The whole workshop was based on field trips to the surrounding coastal area, and attempted to investigate the types of activities used in a marine setting which could be labeled ‘best practice’ for the location. The participants, chiefly teachers and environmental educators, considered the use of some criteria which could be applied to marine fieldwork. The field activities have now been published by Environment Australia (Oliver, 1997). The discussion was continued at the Coast to Coast Conference in Adelaide in 1996.
Subsequently, the criteria have been applied at workshops with various groups of teachers utilising several units from the Coastal and Marine Studies Workshop Manual (Fien & Ferreira, 1997) as part of the on-going Commonwealth’s Coast and Marine Schools Program, whereby every child in Australia should be provided with the opportunity to develop some understanding of the marine environment. This opportunity can be provided across the curricula, by any teacher, at any level.
But what is best practice?
What constitutes best practice in fieldwork is hard to actually define, especially as many educators cannot even agree on what is best way to measure a student's performance. Commercial and government agencies tend to define it (McDonnell, 1993) by stating:
Best practice in the field can involve what teachers are doing in the field as well as considering what students are getting out of this fieldwork. Given the restraints on time and money, marine teachers have to carefully consider how their classroom practices and content will be bettered by using fieldwork.
In response to a brainstorm on "We have to think more about ‘best practice’ in fieldwork because …………", teacher workshoppers agree that quality outcomes will occur, field work will become more personally satisfying and enjoyable for the teacher, and without fieldwork, a vital learning tool is lost. Most agree that fieldwork added student enjoyment and perceived popularity to their subject, thus ensuring teachers’ jobs were retained!
Features of marine fieldwork
So far, teachers have agreed that marine fieldwork encompasses:
So, we need to develop ideas about what IS best to do.
The 1997 Results
Small groups at the teacher workshops in 1997 have all considered a list of thirty criteria, drawn up as a result of the earlier work with MESA, and have selected what they consider are the most important ten. These ten have then been arranged on sheets of paper in various ways — some show a systematic flow, others links with inputs and outputs, still others as part of a ‘tree’ or octopus or jellyfish with certain key criterion forming ‘branches’ or ‘legs’.
Following discussion, the critical ten have been applied to a selection of fieldwork activities, some short, others longer, and many copied from the Field Activities for Coastal and Marine Environments (1997). Consensus has not been achieved without a great deal of argument, but what is interesting is that there is general agreement that certain criteria do add to best practice.
The unsorted list of criteria is:
Results of the workshop rankings
At this stage, the rank order from teachers indicates the most commonly selected ones to be 14, 2, 6, 12, 1, 25, 10, 16, 26, 29 and 30.
So, putting theory into practice, learning skills and developing good attitudes to the environment appear to be important to many teachers. Some criteria were linked together by several groups to increase validity.
The criterion which have not been selected included 5, 19, and 28, and those with only one or two mentions include 4, 18, 20, 22, 24, and 27. In some cases, according to the teachers, this lack of selection was because the criterion was overlapped by another more generalised one. There was a general feeling that hazards had to be avoided of course, but that this avoidance should not dictate the site or activities of the fieldtrip. Marine and science teachers did include 5 (‘Use experiments on the physical, chemical and social properties of the environment’) and 19 (‘interaction’) which were not considered essential by social science teachers.
In the subsequent review, teachers expressed concern about the low ranking given to developing understanding about Aboriginal and non-English speaking peoples (4, 20 and 18) though those could be subsumed in 23 (participate with community groups). Some teachers were frank: ‘It could depend on where you were going’ or ‘it is just too difficult’.
Additions to the list need further consideration. A commonly added criterion was ‘good preparation and follow up activities’. Interestingly, no one has attempted to add as a criterion the commonly discussed concern: 'Fieldwork has to be cheap and not be seen to challenge other subjects!' Nor has the role of the leader of the fieldwork been added, yet this keystone has been initially raised by each of the workshop groups. These criteria merit addition. Marine educators are encouraged to utilise the criteria themselves and to apply them to their own fieldwork.
How should best practice be applied to our own fieldwork?
Evaluation of best practice in industry and government agencies usually commences with an environmental audit or assessment of the existing situation. This will identify problems in achieving best practice. Then a management plan would be developed, followed by an evaluation and on going improvement.
In an educational setting, teachers can use the same procedure. The ranked order of the so-called best practices can be applied to an already used field activity. If many of the criteria match the practices on that activity, then the teacher may feel confident about using it at that site. But, what if a key criterion cannot be matched? Should the activity be abandoned? The criterion changed or ignored? Or both? This is the time to commence the environmental audit.
A brainstorm with a small group of teachers and older students who have participated in fieldwork could identify features and problems already encountered. Are there good reasons to change existing practices? After all, educators know that every field trip is different, every group of students are different, and that the environmental features (weather, tide etc) differ each trip. Solutions may be proposed which involve new activities, the removal of others, a more holistic application of data collected, use of different field sites, more use of outside experts or local residents. Sometimes the most useful review can be provided by an ‘outsider’, a teacher not involved in the subject, who may bring a different viewpoint. So, a management plan can be created, adopted and further evaluated after field trials.
Additional factors may need to be considered in the ‘audit’. Teachers have already raised various considerations which are likely to be troublesome.
The final decision as to what can be best practice is to evaluate what learning outcomes are being met for the students. There will probably never be total consensus as to what constitutes best practice in fieldwork. Many excellent practices will depend on the abilities of the individual teacher, their passion about their subject, their commitment to being considered innovative.
Some educators in environmental education centres have suggested that the true test of best practice is that a field activity can be done by any teacher at any site if the appropriate process is set in place. Hence, training of teachers in marine fieldwork becomes even more important. If these teachers are associated with forward-thinking schools, all the better. Schools which face the future with the greatest confidence have a clear and shared vision for that future. Teachers undertaking marine-based fieldwork can certainly contribute to that vision by contributing to the process of establishing best practice.
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Australian Manufacturing Council Secretariat and Jones, S. 1995, Lessons from Best Practice Practitioners, AMC, Melbourne.
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Macquarie Research Ltd, 1996, Coast and Marine Schools Project Stage 1 (i-iv), Identification of Best Practice, Final Report, MESA, Macquarie University, AAEE, Sydney.
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Oliver, J. 1996, ‘Establishing best practice: The Jervis Bay Experience’ in Proceedings of the Coast to Coast Conference, Uni. Adelaide Press.
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