Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Learning out of the classroom

Today Margaret Boyd and I hosted a group of colleagues, teachers, students and other interested friends to share with them  the highs, lows and perhaps most importantly some of the results of our research project "Harnessing the value of biodiversity". Oh,  there was cake too.

Over the last two years we have worked with 8 primary school teachers and more than 200 children aged 9/10 to explore the potential value to both tea hers and children of a short student centred field based learning exercise. The exercise involved the children exploring a local habitat and collecting, identifying, describing, observing and photographing the organisms that they found there. One school looked into their pond (a pond not used for learning - infact the  school paid to visit a similar pond some miles away because that must be better!!!)' another focused on invertebrates in a garden area, one looked at a local shore and another looked at the plants in their school grounds. The children then collaborated to produce a photographic field guide to their chosen location. A book that they were told would be used by their peers to carry out their own investigations. This has happened!

You can read about our work at our project webpage and you can find papers our group have published about this and related work at our website. But essentially today we discussed the following main findings:

1. There are lost of reasons that teaches don't take their class out doors; cost, risk, expertise, school culture, concerns about behaviour etc etc. But these barriers are not insurmountable, nor do they apply to all teachers in all situations. It was great to hear today about the ways that teachers we've worked with have found ways to overcome barriers like using local resources to minimise costs but maximise time in the field or learning with children rather than teaching them. It was even better to hear teachers describing the ways that they have continued to take the children out as a result of working with us, or even better that they have encouraged their colleagues to.

2. Fieldwork promoted engagement and ameliorated the behaviour of some children. Children told us that they learned about local biodiversity (good job too!). But they also talked about learning to work with one another and learning to work in a new way with the adults teaching them. They clearly enjoyed the exercise and thought of themselves as scientists and experts.

3. Children who completed the fieldwork exercise tended to score higher in standardised science and literacy tests than other children in their year group who hadn't taken part. The analyses are still ongoing but it looks like there is a lasting benefit to having taken part in fieldwork that is related to the fact that real experience consolidates enhanced memories and enables children to access key components of literacy (descriptives, jargon, similes etc.).

Leading this project has confirmed some of my preconceptions about the benefits of fieldwork but it has also changed the way that I think about the benefits of fieldwork too. In particular over the last two years I've started to think less about teachers as a group of colleagues and children as a population and then by extension about the average teacher and the average child (although when it comes to some analyses this is of course appropriate and essential). Instead I've started to think more about the diversity of individual teachers experiences and the way that individuals will react to barriers in their specific context. And about individual children and the fact that different levels of benefit may be experienced by different children. I can see this becoming the focus of my thinking and my research efforts for the near future.

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