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Conference Papers

Best Practice in Marine Field Work?

Jan Oliver
Marine Parks
Queensland Department of Environment
PO Box 155, Brisbane Albert Street, 4002


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.

Best Practice in Marine Field Work?


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

Recent developments

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 is ‘recognised’ and visible
    • it is globally recognisable
    • it allows comparison with other organisations
    • it requires identification of those practices and processes which add value to the organisation
    • allows delivery of world class standards of performance value
    • it involves implementation of strategies for change
    • it s related to both performance (the ‘practices’) and measures of those practices (benchmarking criteria).


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:

  • commercial settings, such as boat shows, aquaria and oceanariums, generally for half day, possibly familiar to students, but increasingly expensive
  • coastal settings, usually a day trip, possibly far from school, requiring expensive transport, lunch but venue is often free. (For some schools, coastal sites are their local neighbourhood)
  • camp activities, over a weekend or at least three days, possibly in combination with social skills and leadership training, often in marine or national parks
  • consideration of some criteria to establish best practice
  • are frequently challenged by school administration and other staff as being a waste of time, money and energy
  • have potential for organisational and disciplinary problems which have wide ranging effects on the school and,
  • may not always have objectives which relate to the syllabus and work program.

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:

  1. Have fun in the outdoors
  2. Develop skills in observing, collecting data, carrying out experiments
  3. Use physical skills –walking, climbing, swimming, boating
  4. Work with Aboriginal communities and individuals
  5. Use experiments on the physical, chemical and social properties of the environment
  6. Develop concern and appreciation for the environment
  7. Appreciate the planning problems in both physical and urban environments
  8. Become committed to personal action on the environment, eg clean up campaigns, tree planting
  9. Develop changes to behaviour in the environment, eg keeping to paths, not dropping litter
  10. Undertake independent field investigations
  11. Follow teacher-guided activities in the field
  12. Use variety of learning settings, including school grounds, local and distant locations
  13. Use cameras, videos, aerial photography and geographical information systems in the field
  14. Match learned information from the classroom with actual scenes and situations in the field
  15. Interpret of graphs, maps, data, photographs, historical records etc in the field
  16. Test and analyse information based on field observations and experiments
  17. Understand how the environment is managed
  18. Involve non-English speaking background (NESB) communities
  19. Learn about interactions between species
  20. Understand Aboriginal interests in the environment
  21. Involve local interest groups in the field and school program
  22. Assist in research data collection for community groups
  23. Participate in related organisations or community groups
  24. Investigate indigenous ethics for land and sea management
  25. Understanding human impacts on the physical and urban environment
  26. Develop sense of responsibility
  27. Become aware of hazards in the environment
  28. Avoid hazards in the environment
  29. Work in a safe environment
  30. Work in a challenging environment

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.

  1. School administration may consider fieldwork can only be justified if it is directed solely at the acquisition of knowledge through the application of 'good' techniques and skills.
  2. Some schools have set such strict requirements for supervision and hazard prevention at coastal venues that students are stymied in their efforts. Examples documented include ‘no getting feet wet’, and ‘no exposure whatever to sun conditions even when students are protected according to anti-cancer campaigns’.
  3. What should be done with the data and observations collected in the field? Ideally, they should be exchanged with other users of the site. Innovative ways should be used to interpret what is observed as part of the entire environmental system. But if these processes are not followed, is it ‘bad’ practice?
  4. How can all students be motivated? Some highly intelligent students consider fieldwork a waste of ‘learning’ time, and the less able may not cope with detailed field surveys. Both groups may then ‘play up’.
  5. How do teachers justify the inclusion of time-consuming fieldwork when faced with school and parental demands for achieving the best levels of achievement for their students because of the competition for tertiary entrance places?
  6. What is the role of the individual teacher in deciding upon, and then implementing best practice? Should certain practices be set up as ‘bench marks’, levels of competency which should be matched by both teachers and students? Is the educational institution itself the final arbiter of what is best practice?


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.


1996, School Environmental Audit, A Guide to best practice environmental management, Keep Australia Beautiful Council (Qld), Fortitude Valley, Qld.

Australian Manufacturing Council Secretariat and Jones, S. 1995, Lessons from Best Practice Practitioners, AMC, Melbourne.

Australian Manufacturing Council 1992, The Environmental Challenge: Best Practice Environmental Management, AMC, Melbourne.

Clark, R. 1995, 'From What? To why? To why not? Techniques and tools to reflect on current practices and motivate for better practices', paper presented to Central Queensland Extension Forum, DPI, Rockhampton April 1995.

Fien, J. and Ferreira, J. 1997 (eds.) ‘Best Practice in Coastal and Marine Studies’ and ‘Using the Environment and Community as a Resource for Learning in Coastal and Marine Studies’ in Coastal and Marine Studies in Australia: A Workshop Manual for Teachers, Griffith University for DEST, Brisbane.

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority 1996, Code for Best Environmental Practices, GBRMPA, Townsville.

Kay, R. and Lester, C. 1997, ‘Benchmarking the Future Direction for Coastal Management in Australia’, in Coastal Management, Vol 25:3, 1997, The Coastal Society, Taylor and Francis Ltd, London.

McDonnell, J. 1993, The Best Service in the World: A Critique of International Best Practice as Applied to the Australian Service Industries, AGPS, Canberra.

Macquarie Research Ltd, 1996, Coast and Marine Schools Project Stage 1 (i-iv), Identification of Best Practice, Final Report, MESA, Macquarie University, AAEE, Sydney.

MESA 1995, Jervis Bay Workshop Program and Abstracts, Marine Education Society of Australasia, Brisbane.

Oliver, J. (ed) 1997, Field Activities for Coastal and Marine Environments, Report Series 10, MESA with Environment Australia, Canberra. (Free copies may be obtained by ringing 1800 803 772).

Oliver, J. 1996, ‘Establishing best practice: The Jervis Bay Experience’ in Proceedings of the Coast to Coast Conference, Uni. Adelaide Press.

Tucker, N. 1996, "Benchmarking and Best Practice", Creative School Management, Vol 13:8, March 1996, Philip Roff & Associates Pty. Ltd., Melbourne.