Practical learning

2008-07-31 00:00

One important determinant of success in geography is field work. Geography pupils can perform extremely well if they carry out practical exercises in particular topics in the geography syllabus.

Field work is the practical exercise of moving out of the classroom to the outside environment. It involves the collection of objective information to discover something new about which we have no prior knowledge.

Firstly, pupils need to identify the problem by formulating a hypothesis. A hypothesis is a clear and simple statement whose validity has to be tested by the data that we collect. For example, “Migrants in Pietermaritzburg depend on informal trade”.

Alternatively, the problem may be stated as a simple objective: “To determine the geographic origins of migrant inhabitants of Pietermaritzburg”, and, “To determine the employment patterns of migrant inhabitants in Pietermaritzburg”.

Geography is a subject concerned with the spatial interaction of numerous variables, for example population densities with available resources, settlement patterns with transport routes and so on. These variables are geographical factors that vary from place to place.

The following are examples of hypotheses which aim to quantify the relationship between variables in human geography.

• Tourism creates employment.

• Urban land use is determined by distance from the central business district.

• Sizes of urban spheres of influence are largely determined by urban functions.

Caution should prevail in the formulation of hypotheses. They should be simple and quantifiable, with data available for collection. The use of more than two variables should come after successful experiences in working with simple objectives.

The second step of the field-work exercise is to select an appropriate sampling method. For instance, when using a questionnaire to gather information from people in Pietermaritzburg, it is not possible to ask every single resident. Sufficient data to reach valid conclusions may be collected by sampling a small, representative number of people. This is the sampling frame or sample size, which may be 50 to 200, people depending on the nature of the exercise. A greater degree of accuracy is gained with a larger sampling frame.

The sampling method determines where to collect data using a map of the study area. It is often easiest to use a random sampling method where every place or person stands an equal chance of being chosen as part of the sample. The purpose of having a suitable sampling method is the avoidance of any bias in the collection of data.

Having formulated a clear hypothesis and decided on an appropriate sampling method, the class now ventures out into the field to collect the data. This may be done in small groups or as individuals, depending on the nature of the exercise.

When using a questionnaire to elicit data from members of the public, the pupil should begin with a polite greeting and a request for their permission to be part of the exercise, clearly stating the objective(s) and the school that he or she represents. The pupils should remember that they may be interrupting the respondents who may be busy. The questionnaire should not, therefore, take up more than a few minutes of their time. They should conclude with an appropriate statement of appreciation for their co-operation.

A request for information from an official source should be polite and succinct. In some cases, official permission must be sought and obtained from the relevant authorities before carrying out a data collection exercise. It would not be surprising, for example, if a private landowner become very irate on discovering that pupils are gathering data on his farm without his prior knowledge and permission. This means careful planning must precede any field work.

The collected data must now be processed and illustrated with diagrams. The need for this is to arrange the data in such a way that conclusions can easily be reached in relation to the validity of the chosen hypothesis or objective of the exercise.

The collected data can then be suitably illustrated by graphs or maps which reveal negative or positive relationships, contrasts, similarities and so on, thus enabling the pupil to draw accurate conclusions and generalisations from the field work. Careful selection of the methods and types of illustrations to be used is essential.

The pupil reaches conclusions and makes valid generalisations on the findings of the processed data. The original hypothesis is accepted or rejected on the scientific basis of the data collected from the field work exercise.

Field work is one method of instruction that can contribute to the child’s body of geographical knowledge and skills. Besides, field work can also be used as an instrument of integrating geography with other subjects in the curriculum.

• Alois Nzembe has several years of teaching experience at both primary and high-school levels. He is currently teaching geography at Icesa College. Send your comments to

aloisnzembe@webmail.co.za or phone 073 622 1176.

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