Inquiry-based Fieldwork for Primary Social Studies (Part 1)

By Dr Sim Hwee Hwang (HSSE/NIE)

What is ibF?


Inquiry-based fieldwork or ibF refers to the conduct of an investigative work at a field site to achieve learning outcomes for pupils. It requires pupils to actively do something to find out or inquire about something or an issue at the site (Sim, Tan & Sim, 2005). ibF structures pupils’ outdoor learning experiences around inquiry and guiding questions which provide direction, focus and purpose for the fieldwork.

Reference: Sim, J., Tan, I. & Sim, H.H. (2005). Exploring the use of inquiry-based learning through fieldwork. In C. Lee & C. H. Chang. (Eds.) Primary social studies: Exploring pedagogy and content. (pp. 33 – 43). Singapore: Marshall Cavendish.

Why do ibF?

Fieldwork that is inquiry-based

  • Extends pupils’ understanding of the unit of study learnt in class and connects their learning to the field to make it meaningful.
  • Facilitates a more thinking approach to fieldwork as pupils have to go beyond simple knowing and understanding to questioning, collecting and organizing data in a meaningful way, and analyzing and interpreting them. Besides honing their inquiry and thinking skills, pupils can also acquire teamwork skills.
  • Develops pupils’ awareness, appreciation and care for the physical and human environment.
  • Stimulates pupils’ curiosity and motivates them in their learning.
  • Caters to different pupils’ learning styles as ibF is experiential - it engages the five senses for learning.
  • Supports the constructivist learning perspective. Knowledge is not passively received but is actively built up by pupils through the fieldwork activities. The teacher acts as a facilitator rather than a dispenser of knowledge in the field.

How to do ibF? (5Es)

When planning an ibF, the “5Es” should be included. These are engagement, exploration, explanation, elaboration/extension and evaluation. The stages for fieldwork, namely, pre-, during and post-fieldwork plus evaluation (May & Cook, 1993) should be factored into the design as well.

a) 5Es


  • ibF involves sparking curiosity which is the "Engagement" in the 5Es.
  • Sparking curiosity can be incorporated in the Pre -Fieldwork and/or Fieldwork Phase.
  • The questions to consider for “Engagement” would be:
    • What is the hook?
    • Is it a suitable hook?
    • Is the hook linked to the inquiry?

Many types of hooks can be used. A hook can be something that connects to pupils’ emotions (such as a heart-warming story), a puzzling situation that has no solution yet or something that needs to be explored. Hooks can be presented using relevant videos, audio-clips, newspaper cuttings, storybooks, etc. They can also be presented in the form of a scenario whereby pupils can take on certain roles. For example, in the ibF on the Tiong Bahru Housing Estate: Change and Continuity (see section on inquiry based fieldwork packages), the scenario to hook pupils is as follows:

“You are all rookie (new, inexperienced) housing agents. Your task is to help a Malaysian couple, Mr and Mrs Zhong Ba Ru, find housing in Singapore. They are looking for housing in an estate that has an old world charm and yet at the same time, it has modern facilities. Based on your research, the Tiong Bahru Housing Estate seems to be suitable for them but you are not sure. You have decided to explore and experience the housing estate yourself and gather first-hand information before you make a proposal to Mr and Mrs Zhong.”


  • ibF involves gathering data which is the "Exploration" in the 5Es.
  • Data gathering is done during the Fieldwork Phase.
  • The questions to consider for “Exploration” would be:
    • Is/Are the data collection method(s) appropriate for answering the inquiry and guiding questions?
    • Are my pupils equipped with the necessary skills to gather data from the field?
    • If they lack the skills, how can these be taught?


  • ibF involves answering the inquiry question/s and guiding questions which is the “Explanation” in the 5Es.
  • The fieldwork learning experiences should be structured around the inquiry question/s and guiding questions.
  • Inquiry question is the overarching question that drives the fieldwork. It is usually an open-ended question and can be further divided into guiding questions. There can be more than one inquiry question for an ibF
  • Guiding questions are the specific questions derived from the broad inquiry question/s. By answering these questions, the inquiry question/s can be answered.
  • All the questions give direction, focus and purpose to the fieldwork (May & Cook, 1993).
  • The questions to consider for “Explanation” would be:
    • How can pupils be assisted to answer the inquiry and guiding questions?
    • How can pupils be assisted to draw conclusion based on the findings?


  • In some ibF, pupils may also be asked to apply their understandings in new situations, suggest implications or future applications or social actions. This will be the “Extension” in the 5Es.
  • Questions to consider for “Extension” would be:
    • How can the post-fieldwork task/s be designed such that pupils are required to present their learning in another form that reflects their understanding? Examples of these forms can be a role play, a slide show and a video-clip?
    • How can the post-fieldwork task/s be designed such that pupils are required to engage in some social action? Examples of social actions can be a petition to the authority or a letter to the forum to propose a change that will affect the general public or some policy.


  • IbF involves an evaluation or reflection which is the “Evaluation” in the 5Es.
  • Evaluation or reflection is not necessarily confined to the Post-Fieldwork Stage, it can be on-going.
  • Questions to consider for “Evaluation” would be:
    • What have pupils learnt in terms of the topic, the inquiry process and the inquiry skills? What are their attitudes towards inquiry now that they have experienced the inquiry process?
    • What have they learnt about themselves as learners and teamwork from the ibF experience?
    • For teachers who plan and organize the ibF, a common question to ask would be how can the ibF be improved for the future?

Reference: May, S. & Cook, J. (1993). Fieldwork in action 2: An enquiry approach. Sheffield: The Geographical Association.

How to do ibF? (Stages of Fieldwork)

Stage 1: Pre-fieldwork

  • Conduct necessary background research of the fieldwork site and do a reconnaissance to assess its suitability to the primary social studies curriculum and fieldwork goals and objectives. As pupil safety is top priority, safety consideration is therefore pertinent. The accessibility of the fieldwork site has to be considered as well for appropriate transport arrangement. Toilet and/or rest/refreshment stops have to be noted and the fieldwork route to take from one station to another has to be identified to minimize time for long distance walking for the pupils. One may have to visit the site a few times before finalizing the fieldwork site.
  • Determine the field inquiry goals and objectives that are linked to the curriculum theme/s, the big idea/s (that is, the concept/s and generalisation/s), and the inquiry and guiding questions.
  • Design field activities aligned to the syllabus, fieldwork goals and objectives, help to answer the inquiry and guiding questions, cater to pupils’ varied learning characteristics and incorporate the elements of inquiry (that is, asking questions, seeking answers and drawing conclusions) and the 5Es. The variety and duration of fieldwork learning experiences, cost, manpower, resources and fieldwork equipment (for example, compass, iPAD, digital camera, voice recorder, etc) need to be considered and be incorporated too. A wet weather plan should be devised for unsheltered fieldwork sites.
  • Seek permission from the Head of Department and the school leaders for conducting the ibF.
  • Prepare the ITQ (which stands for Invitation to Quote) and liaise with approved vendor to finalise the itinerary and provide the necessary information (e.g. special needs of pupils and staff, etc.)
  • Write letters to the resource persons/organisations if necessary to request for permission to visit the fieldwork site on the specific date and time. Bring along approval letter and relevant passes for identification (for example, staff card) on the fieldwork day.
  • Inform pupils and parents of the fieldwork purpose/s, cost and arrangement, etc.
  • Get pupils to ask their parents to sign their indemnity forms.
  • Obtain pupils’ medical information especially if the fieldwork is overseas.
  • Make transport arrangement.
  • Brief staff, parent volunteers and senior pupils if they are involved. According to the Ministry of Education, the ratio of teacher to pupils for fieldwork is 1:20. Make sure that these chaperons understand their roles and responsibilities. Each chaperon should have the fieldwork itinerary, list of pupils’ names under his/her charge and the mobile phone number of the lead fieldwork teacher. If possible, involve them in the preparation of the fieldwork activity booklet, equipment, first aid kit, etc.
  • Leave the list of pupil participants and their family members’ contact numbers (in case of emergency) and the fieldwork itinerary with the school. Be familiar with the procedures to follow in the event of an emergency. If it is an overseas fieldwork, inform the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for ease of contact in case of emergency. Also keep the local emergency numbers (such as the local police and the Singapore overseas mission) at hand. Bring along extra cash for emergency purpose.
  • Conduct pre-fieldwork lessons:
    • Link the fieldwork to the unit of study for pupils to make meaningful connections between their previous learning and what they will be learning at the fieldwork site.
    • Show a video-clip of the fieldwork site if possible.
    • Introduce the inquiry and guiding questions.
    • Highlight the fieldwork goals and pupils’ roles/responsibilities.
    • Group pupils and conduct team building activities if necessary.
    • Instruct pupils to bring clipboard and stationery.
    • Instruct them to wear appropriate attire like school tee-shirts, comfortable shoes and caps/umbrellas and bring their water bottles for drinking. Remind pupils to have their meals before the fieldwork.
    • Remind pupils of the safety and fieldwork rules. Model appropriate behaviours and inform them of the consequences for misbehaviours.
    • Teach or revise with pupils the pre-requisite knowledge and skills.
  • Check the weather of the fieldwork site one day in advance as part of the pre-fieldwork preparation to determine whether there is a need to make any contingency plan. For weather forecast, go to For haze conditions, check the PSI readings at Follow the Ministry of Education (MOE)’s guidelines for fieldwork.

Stage 2: Fieldwork

  • Welcome pupils to the fieldwork site and remind them of the fieldwork purpose/s.
  • Get pupils into groups and ask them to assign each other cooperative learning roles. Ensure that they are aware of their respective responsibilities.
  • Distribute the fieldwork activity booklets and other resources to pupils. All fieldwork resources and equipment could be placed in bags to be distributed to the pupils working in groups.
  • Reiterate safety and other fieldwork rules. Monitoring of pupil safety and behavior should be on-going.
  • Have pupils visit the toilets first before commencing the fieldwork activities.
  • Conduct the fieldwork activities and keep to the timing. Have adequate rest, toilet and refreshment stops for pupils. This is especially important for unsheltered fieldwork sites under hot weather conditions.
  • Do a head-count of pupils from time to time.
  • For the conclusion, get pupils to share their overall learning (although pupils can reflect at the end of each station). Lead teacher/s need/s to consolidate pupil learning.

Stage 3: Post-fieldwork

  • Get pupils to organise, analyse and interpret their data and draw conclusions for the inquiry questions. Teacher may have to direct pupils to other resources to confirm their findings.
  • Get groups to share their post-fieldwork products with the class and get the class to provide feedback before the teacher’s turn to do so.

(Note: Pupils’ inquiry fieldwork products can be presented in many forms such as posters, concept maps, reports, picture montage, video-clips, podcasts, etc.)

Stage 4: Evaluation

  • Get pupils to reflect on their learning, the inquiry process, teamwork and themselves as learners.
  • Teachers should also reflect on the fieldwork in terms of the planning and implementation and pupil learning outcomes for improvement in future.

Part 1 on Inquiry-based fieldwork is written by Dr Sim Hwee Hwang.

For feedback and enquiries, please contact Dr Sim at E-mail: Dr Sim Hwee Hwang