Reflection on taking learning outdoors: The implications for teachers and learners.

Introduction

It is suggested by the literature that we have become an indoor, sedentary society (Barron, 2014). A number of reasons are reported, such as being a culture of fear (stranger danger, unknown terrors), safety concerns (traffic, accident prevention), obsession with cleanliness and germs, indoor enticements such as games consoles and TV, lack of parent or teacher confidence and finally urbanisation. There is emerging research and policy interest in the health and wellbeing outcomes associated with the use of outdoor spaces (Munoz, 2009). In particular, an interest in a conceptualisation of health that links to not only physical abilities or impairments, but also mental health and wider notions of wellbeing including behavioural and social health problems (Maller et al, 2005).

Many authors (Maller et al, 2005, Munoz, 2009 and Barron, 2014) refer to the notion of outdoors learning as a learning experience which is delivered outside normal means, including field trips. However, a key limitation to this definition is the wide ranging interpretation to what is considered normal. In this case study, an adapted version of the definition is adopted, thereby, outdoors learning is defined as a structured experience, which is delivered outside the classroom to aid and support learning.

Learning inside a classroom is a well-documented preference of organising education.

However,  both teacher and students value the supplementary avenues for learning provided by the many and varied activities which can only occur out of the class room environment (Ofsted, 2008) such as day tips to local amenities, investigations in the schools neighbourhood, sporting events, and outdoor arts productions. Traditionally such activities require the help or services of external suppliers to achieve the learning objective and warrant the venture out of the classroom. publication of the recent Learning outside the classroom manifesto (DfES, 2006) shows the boost in emphasis on outdoor learning (and its intrinsic training) by the government. This reflection aims to critically analyse the implications of outdoors learning for teachers and learners. It is split into main parts, primarily concerning the theoretical background of taking the primary curriculum outdoors, while considering the benefits and limitations to this approach for teachers and learners before concluding findings.

Theoretical Background

Numerous studies have shown that outdoor learning adopts and promotes active and experiential learning (Edington, 2002, Ofsted, 2008 and Barron, 2014). Ofsted (2008) goes further to suggest, that learning outside the classroom was most successful when it was an integral element of long-term curriculum planning and closely linked to classroom activities.

The research proposed here strongly suggests the benefits of outdoor learning, however, the preparation of organising and carrying out learning outdoors can be excessive (Munoz, 2009). There is a requirement for teachers to visit locations beforehand and to plan them in their own time. During the course of a survey by Ofsted (2008) proposed that the most effective single strategy was the use of well-trained administrative support staff to organise transport, make bookings, collect money and contribute to preparing risk assessments. This would then allow teachers to concentrate on the educational planning and preparation.

This survey was conducted jointly by Ofsted (2008) and 27 schools across England, which found that primary schools made better and more consistent use of their own buildings and grounds and the neighbouring area to support learning than the secondary schools.

Contrary to this, highlighted in the report by Ofsted (2008) and supported in later case studies by Barron (2014) and Robertson (2014), health and safety, together with the consequences of accidents and injury are recognised as significant concerns and may lead to a reluctance on behalf of schools to engage in the process

Behaviour of children outside the classroom is always at the forefront of ever changing policies and research methods (Edington, 2002). It is acknowledged that worries about children’s behaviour may act as a hindrance to arranging lessons out of the traditional classroom environment. Some schools punish poor behaviour by removing student privileges such as class trips. However, as Ofsted (2008) highlights, this may be wholly counterproductive as lessons conducted out of classroom of alleviates undesirable behaviour as opposed to facilitating it. During this survey, inspectors saw nothing but good or very good behaviour. This echoed findings of an earlier Ofsted report that showed that pupils’ attitudes and behaviour during outdoor and adventurous activities were good and often exemplary, ‘with mature responses to challenging situations’ (Ofsted, 2004).

It is important not to overlook,

that outdoors learning builds on active learning which is derived from two basic assumptions, that learning by nature is an active endeavour and that different people learn in different ways (Meyers and Jones, 1993, Rivkin 1997).

The argument is put forward, when students are engaged in more activities than just listening they are involved in dialogue, debate, writing and problem solving as well as higher order thinking (Bonwell and Eison, 1991).

Sousa (2014) published focused research into children’s ability to retain information. It was concluded that generally, students retain the least information the less that they are engaged. Therefore, it was suggested that students need to be involved in order to remember information, concepts and skills. Previous research by Maller et al (2005) and Ofsted (2008) support this view, stating, when planned and implemented well, learning outside the classroom contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupils’ personal, social and emotional development.

Historically, these research papers were based on Malone and Tranter’s (2003) detailed report into the benefits of outdoor learning compared to the classroom. It was found that children who are given more outdoor learning opportunities attain higher levels of knowledge and skills, improved socialising and interaction in new and different ways with peers and adults. It is also important to note, that by nature, pupils’ physical health and motor skills increased.

These approaches however, fail to consider the implications of the facilitator, as highlighted in a report by Ofsted (2008), that there are reservations regarding professionals who view the practice as a special treat, often carried out under the guise of an annual school tour/trip.  During this study, some head teachers noted that staff, governors and parents held reservations about the practice and whether it was wasted time that may have a negative effect on academic attainment.

However, it is this author’s opinion that by reviewing teaching practice within schools and re-assessing the value of learning outside the classroom, teachers would be better suited to exploit its advantages to better effect and make it an integral part of the curriculum. As previously mentioned in the research, a broad and balanced curriculum, with learning outside the classroom as a powerful element, supports higher achievement (Ofsted, 2002).

Bringing the research up to date, a study by The Education Endowment Foundation (2015) make some important contributions to the benefits of outdoors learning, in which an evaluation of a writing project involving 842 pupils across 23 schools is made. It was found that there was increased pupil’s progress by an extra nine months by average. Pupil voice was used to evaluate the impact and success of the project, with a Year 6 pupil commenting that they had a memorable experience during outdoor learning activities which included field trips.

Contrary, a thorough examination of the research (Munoz, 2009, Robertson, 2014, Barron, 2014) paints a more complex picture. For these experiences to become successful, schools repeatedly ask parents to provide capital to facilitate lessons away from the classroom, eg busses and tickets. As mentioned in Ofsted (2008), lawfully, with the exception of musical instrument lessons, schools cannot as parents or guardians for financial contributions towards any activity which is scheduled for during school hours.

Leading and managing learning outside the classroom

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It is strongly suggested by Ofsted (2008), that the success of learning outside the classroom is largely dependent on leadership of schools. The best practice of outdoor learning occurred when leaders were strongly convinced of the need for a broad and balanced curriculum. Robertson (2014) goes further to state that leaders of outdoors learning need to be able to promote a sense of common purpose among staff with an expectation that activities outside the classroom would become a regular part of the curriculum. This would be further supported by robust planning and systems that can promote safe, exciting and well integrated planning.

To ensure a continuous provision of effective outdoor leading learning, Ofsted (2008) offers areas for reflective practice, such as evaluation of impact on learning outside the classroom on children’s attainment and progress, making sure that lessons taken out of the classroom was a key component of all subjects rather than a select minority.

Case study

What impact does this have on teachers?

At present, outdoor learning is not an integral element of long-term curriculum planning and closely linked to classroom activities as suggested by Ofsted (2008). Therefore, a requirement for future practice, is individually and collectively developing opportunities for outdoor learning at the school. When outdoor learning is implemented, teachers will consistently use resources made readily available to them such as their own buildings and grounds to support learning. This is in line with results shown in the Ofsted (2008) report, however, when comparing the frequency of this to other primary and secondary schools in the local authority, is beyond the scope of this case study. This aspect proved successful because a well trained administrative support staff is involved in ensuring the financial and legal aspects of taking learning outdoors is covered to release teachers to plan and risk assess.

Upon reflection, there was a conscious effect to organise clear, appropriate and well understood procedures for managing health and safety and risk assessment. School policy implemented has been explicit about the expectations of outdoors learning and the adults to student ratio during out of the school excursions. Difficulties arose when it was found staff varied their commitment in preparing assistants, resulting in a lack of clarity what was actually expected of them. This communication with assistants broke down not only with regards to hazards and risk assessment but indeed the actual learning objectives themselves. This ultimately agrees with Munoz (2009) and Robertson (2014) findings, adding preparation time and workload of the teacher.

It is important to note, in line with Ofsted (2008), staff workload was scaled down when local authorities or amenities made generic risk assessments available which could be adapted for the school’s needs. Additionally, work sheets and educations resources are often made available by the venue being visited, again reducing the workload on the teacher. Although, as noted earlier, there can be a tendency for these material to be used in an ad-hoc manner and as a substitute rather than adapting to suit the needs of the children in the class. Within the case study placement school, constant contact was maintained with the educational visit coordinator at the venue ensuring that staff could focus on what actually required in preparation and thus avoiding unnecessarily adding to their workload. It has been noted in strategically focused conversations, either structured or informal, that in order to improve future practice, there is a need to appoint a lead of outdoors learning in the school.

It is certainly true that there are reservations of outdoor learning within the case study. It has now been added to the schools long term development plan, with an emphasis of ensuring outdoors learning is cross curricular instead of limiting it to particular subjects such as Science or Maths. Results differ from Ofsted (2008) report, the chance to use the unique resources that the external environment has to offer which can be utilised in all areas of the curriculum has been personally driven forward by the head teacher.

When considering financial implications, it was found that it does become a barrier to extending particular areas of learning because of the reluctance to ask parents to contribute too much too often. This is in direct agreement to research by Ofsted (2008). Thereby, spending precious time with families outside of work hours in school to visit locations caused added tension and stress, as they felt that time should be devoted to quality time with their own families. When analysing the survey by Ofsted (2008), gathering background data and information, it became clear, the school does indeed rely considerably on financial aid on behalf of parents and carers to address the expenses associated with visits whilst giving little effort in providing an alternative financial solution. It has now been suggested that in order to address this issue, a meeting with all key stakeholders in the near future is needed.

What impact does it have on the learners?

During time on school placement within a Year 1 and 2 mixed class of 28 children of wide ranging ability, it has become clear that in line with research by Rivkin (1997), the younger the child, the more the child learns through sensory and physical activity; thus the more varied and rich the natural outdoor setting, the greater its contribution to the physical, cognitive and emotional development. Through observation of a den building lesson to promote poetry writing using the five senses, it improved attention, enhanced self-concept, self-esteem and mental health. It was also found to positively change their environmental behaviours, values and attitudes, in line with research proposed by Ofsted (2008).

There is evidence to suggest, upon reflection, that the children in the class respond more eagerly to multiple learning approaches in the visual, auditory and kinaesthetic domains. In agreement with Meyers and Jones (1993), this caters for a wider range of needs, as-well as engaging and motivating. It is this author’s opinion, from observation and feedback from children, it does builds on active learning with evidence to suggest that the den building encouraged to become involved in dialogue, debate, writing and problem solving as well as higher order thinking as hypothesised by Bonwell and Eison (1991).

As Munoz (2009) previously highlighted, physical activity has been linked to tackling contemporary health problems, such as obesity, but exercise in the outdoors has been shown to be beneficial also because it facilitates contact with nature. It has been evidenced during the Autumn Term that being outdoors has contributed to higher levels of wellbeing – bringing physiological benefits such as stress reduction to the children. In particular, the benefits of outdoor learning within the school grounds have shown to greatly improve the self-regulation of emotions in a looked after child in the class. The details of this are beyond the scope of this reflection at the time of submission. However, it is in no doubt that this will warrant further investigation. It was initially suggested by Sousa (2014) that outdoor learning has had a positive impact on long-term memory – the research initially implied that there can be reinforcement between the affective and the cognitive, with each influencing the other to bridge higher order learning. There is insufficient evidence to support this hypothesis at this time.

Historically, there are behaviour concerns regarding a looked after child in the class. However, this case study has evidence to support the hypotheses by Ofsted (2004; 2008) by a dramatic improvement in behaviour. Further supported by the children themselves, who noted that the good behaviour displayed by everyone in the call was one of the best aspects of doing lessons out of the classroom. The students themselves believe that this was because they were motivated and active and gave them opportunities that they may not have had inside.

Edington (2002) conducted an extensive review of the missed learning opportunities as team building, interpersonal relationships, communication skills, speaking and listening, sharing, self-confidence, negotiating, use of tools, material selection, weights and measures, counting, estimating, calculating, balance, physical strength, risk assessment, understanding of the natural world, imagination, creativity, awe and wonder. The evidence found during the case study can only partially agree to most key points outlined by Edington (2002), outdoor learning was found to provide children with the space to move around and do things on a large scale such as the den building exercise or even spatial awareness activities. In addition, being outdoors gave the children all the inspiration they needed to think creatively and produce imaginative ideas within poetry or fiction writing. The experience of uncontrolled environments enabled the children to appreciate real life learning, for example, habitats in science, rain gauge work in maths and observations and prediction work. This approach thereby fosters a connection to and understanding of the natural world they live in.

Conclusion

To conclude, this reflection aimed to consider the implications of outdoors learning for the teacher and learner. We are able to draw a number of conclusions, however, as with all such studies, there are limitations that offer opportunities for further research. It is this author’s opinion, one area to consider would be the long term impact of outdoor learning on looked after children.

Overall, the results tend to be consistent with previous research supportive of a cross curricular outdoor learning opportunities to enhance learning experiences. Essentially, for outdoors learning to be effective, it needs to be implemented in curriculum planning with sufficient well-structured opportunities for all learners to engage in learning outside the classroom as a key, integrated element of their experience. Equally important, a consistent and effective use of evaluation on the quality of learning outside the classroom to ensure that it has maximum impact on learners’ achievement, personal development and well-being. This may be done by mini plenaries, higher order questioning and self-assessment approaches.

Upon reflection of outdoor activities already delivered, to further professional development and progress, there is a requirement to ensure equal and full access for all learners to learning outside the classroom by monitoring participation in activities by different groups of learners and removing any barriers. Not just for underachievers, which research has shown to be positive to attainment and progress, but stretching more able children. To continue my own pedagogical development and to ensure confidence in my own ability to deliver outdoors learning, I aim to complete an accredited course on taking the primary curriculum outdoors in a cross curricular approach. This will mean I can then maximise the opportunity to exploit the full potential of the outdoors.

References

Barron, P. 2014. Games, Ideas and Activities for Primary Outdoor Learning. Classroom Gems. Second Edition.

Bonwell, C. C., and Eison, J. A. 1991. Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. 1991 ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Reports. ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education, The George Washington University, One Dupont Circle, Suite 630, Washington, DC 20036-1183.

Department for Education and Skills (DfES). 2006. Learning Outside the Classroom: Manifesto, London,. Accessed 18th October 2015. Available at http://www.education.gov.uk/publications/standard/publicationdetail/page1/DFES-04232-2006

Edington, M. 2012. The Great Outdoors: Developing Children’s Learning Through Outdoor Provision (Early education series)

Education Endowment Foundation. 2015. Accessed 18th October 2015. https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/toolkit/toolkit-a-z/outdoor-adventure-learning/

Maller, C., Townsend, M., Pryor, A., Brown, P., St. Ledger, L. 2005. ‘Healthy nature, healthy people: ‘contact with nature’ as an upstream health promotion intervention for populations’, Health Promotion International, 21, pp. 45 – 54

Malone, K. and Tranter, P. 2003. ‘Children’s Environmental Learning and the Use, Design and Management of Schoolgrounds’, Children, Youth and Environments.

Meyers, C., and Jones, T. B. 1993. Promoting Active Learning. Strategies for the College Classroom. Jossey-Bass Inc., Publishers, 350 Sansome Street, San Francisco, CA 94104.

Muñoz, S. A. 2009. Children in the Outdoors. London: Sustainable Development Research Centre.

Ofsted. 2002. The curriculum in successful primary schools (HMI 553). Accessed 18th October 2015. www.ofsted.gov.uk/publications/553.

Ofsted. 2004. Outdoor education: aspects of good practice (HMI 2151). Accessed 18th October 2015. www.ofsted.gov.uk/publications/2151.

Ofsted. 2008. Learning Outside the Classroom. How far should you go? Accessed 18th October 2015. http://www.lotc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Ofsted-Report-Oct-2008.pdf

Rivkin, M. 1997. The schoolyard habitat movement: What it is and why children need it. Early Childhood Education Journal25(1), 61-66.

Robertson., J. 2014. Dirty Teaching – A beginners guide to Learning Outdoors. Second Edition.

Sousa, D. A. 2014. How the brain learns to read. Corwin Press.

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