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Learning in the field has traditionally been one of the fundamental components of the geoscience curriculum. In light of the historical value that has been ascribed to field instruction, there is a surprising paucity of scholarly studies that provide the direct evidence to support these claims. The preponderance of literature is descriptive and anecdotal, but in aggregate, these reports reveal a communal experience, which we recognize as “practitioners' wisdom,” that places a high value on field instruction in the training of geoscientists. We initially review the attributes of learning in the field environment, instructional goals for field instruction, the place of field instruction in the modern geoscience curriculum, and the value that has been ascribed to learning in the field in terms of cognitive and meta-cognitive gains, aspects of the affective domain, impacts on learning through immersion in nature, and the role of field instruction in providing the foundation for development of skills and expertise in the geosciences. The theory and practice of the cognitive, learning, and social sciences provide further insights into thinking and learning in the field setting in three important domains: (1) embodiment, how body and mind are integrated through interactions within the natural and social environments in which geoscientists work; (2) creation and use of inscriptions (i.e., constructed representations of natural phenomena such as maps, sketches, and diagrams) to explain, confirm, rationalize, and externalize our understanding of Earth; and (3) initiation into the community of practice that has established accepted norms and practices related to language and discourse, selection and use of tools, ethics and values, and a common understanding of the assumptions, limitations, and uncertainties inherent in the discipline. These insights on how people learn in the field have important implications for what and how we teach in the geoscience curriculum, and they provide a framework to guide future research. Our initial findings indicate that learning in the field results in cognitive and metacognitive gains for students; produces affective responses that have a positive impact on student learning; affords types of learning that cannot be easily achieved in other, more controlled environments; facilitates creation and use of representations of nature (inscriptions) in learning; helps initiate novices into the community of geoscience practice; and provides a solid foundation for development of geoscience expertise.

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