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‘It’s not inside, it’s… ? Moving the class beyond the four walls

| April 11, 2017 | 0 Comments


Experiential learning in the outdoor classroomisbeingneglected1 inthe teaching of cognition as a critical component of 21st century skills.2

For a number of reasons, field trips are being ignored and neglected as schools grapple with expenses, safety issues, competition between subject departments for subject contact time, syllabus demands and parent concerns. 21st century skills have been explained in many ways. In this article, 21 century skills have been interpreted as follows:

• critical thinking: real-world problem-solving, risk-taking, thinking skills and strategies

• creativity: divergent thinking, flexible thinking and innovation

• communication: written, verbal/non-verbal, creative and digital

• collaboration: knowledge-building, teamwork and value of difference

• self-management: initiative, resilience, values-driven and self-regulation

• observation: using and developing all sensory abilities

• producing a product of excellence

• resilience.

21st century skills are nurtured and developed through using experiential learning in the outdoor classroom.3 Yet the integral link between the two needs to be recognised, and the value of experiential learning in the outdoor classroom – such as field trips – appreciated as valuable learning opportunities.

Consider the possibilities

Research into experiential learning in the outdoor classroom reveals that Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget concluded: “An environment rich with challenges appropriate to the stage of a child’s development was more important than trying force the pace of change in order to increase the pace of cognitive development”.4 Kevin Downing5 reinforces the notion of using the outdoor classroom for the development of learning, proposing that “metacognition development progresses as a result of challenges in the environment, finding solutions to real world problems with a fixed time scale,”6 and further suggests that “for effective learning to occur on a higher order meta level, the learning environment should encourage the activity of the learner”.7

The outdoor classroom provides activities in a number of forms: physical activity, sensory activity, interaction with people (both peers and the general public) and problem-solving in an unfamiliar, “out-of-comfort-zone” environment, or an environment that is familiar but has not been experienced as a creative learning space. An example would be the centre of Cape Town, where students regularly pass contractual development sites and the renewal of buildings and access routes, but have not viewed these areas in other contexts.

Proper planning important

As with any programme of work, working in the outdoor classroom has to be carefully planned according to the intended outcome. Says Downing: The type of planning will depend on the aim of the programme. Is the aim of the programme self-discovery with limited pre-instruction and cognition or is it dependent on students having to confirm their base of knowledge and skills before they proceed with the activity? If sufficient attention is paid to providing the appropriate levels of scaffolding and support, the students then are likely to show significant metacognitive development.8 Henk Vos and Erik de Graaff,9 who pioneered the Active Learning in Education (ALE) programme, found that effective learning results when “students determine their own learning objectives within the scope of the course”. They suggest: “Don’t give them all the information without consideration”.10

They also investigated the power of collaboration, saying: “Let the students work together. Give them the opportunity to discuss among one other and also with other groups, but require an individual report (and/or log-book) of what they did or learnt.”11 Timothy Nokes-Malach’s research12 reveals that for experiential learning to be effective, students need to receive metacognition instruction and training. Students who do so “are less biased when making metacognitive judgements, endorse higher levels of motivation… [and] perform better at physics tests and language reading exercises”.13 He adds that the “Instruction can lead to better self-guided learning outcomes during adolescence – a period in which students’ academic achievement and motivation decline.”14

A suggested structure

Research indicates that fundamental, key components for experiential learning in the outdoor classroom need to be put in place to enhance effective learning. The purpose must be to develop students who think about their thinking, and understand the process of monitoring, reflection and problem-solving as a process of metacognition. An effective programme will have a basic structure. The level of input and facilitation by the teacher will depend on the degree of self-discovery aimed for. Is the programme developed as an introduction to a new concept, or as a reinforcement of work already covered?

A suggested structure will include the following steps:

• Identify the existing thinking and knowledge a student has about the concept. This is best done in as a brainstorming task, initially individually and then in groups.

• Share existing thinking and knowledge with students.

• Initiate the asking and answering of trigger questions to stimulate further thinking (what, where, why, who, where and when).

• Conceptualise the thinking and knowledge in a concept framework (mind map).

• Formulate a hypothesis or a question based on the concept.

• Develop a worksheet based on existing thinking and knowledge, and research that is used by all students to collect information in the field relative to the concept.

• Conduct the field trip.

• Collate data and analysis.

• Evaluate the effectiveness of the worksheet.

• Create an end-product such as a concept poster diagram, research paper, essay, documentary, PowerPoint presentation, photographic collage or painting or drawing.

Inculcate curiosity

In conclusion, a carefully selected experiential outdoor learning programme, supported by structured scaffold programmes or teaching methodologies, will enhance 21st century skills. The sites visited can create an environment rich with challenges, and a mindset that stimulates metacognition, automotive cognition and problem-solving. Students need to understand and become familiar with the concept of metacognition, and monitor and reflect during their learning. Teachers need to guard against providing too much support, with the ultimate aim of developing students who will become innately curious through exposure to “learning from doing” in the outdoor classroom. I leave you with one more question: can the classroom be developed into a creative space that fulfils the opportunities offered during field trips? 

Dave Carr is coordinator: extracurricular programmes and head of geography at St Cyprian’s School in Cape Town.

References: 1. See: Factors_Which_Influence_Learning_Ability_during_a_Scientific_Field_Trip_i n_a_Natural_Environment. 2. See: 3. See: of-all-external-learning-opportunities. 4. See:’s_theory_of_cognitive_development. 5. See: learning_and_the_development_of_metacognition. 6. Ibid. 7. Ibid. 8. Ibid. 9. See: 10. Ibid. 11. Ibid. 12. See: 13. Ibid. 14. Ibid.

Category: Autumn 2017

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