Whilst science-based field trips have been enshrined in the school calendar, not all researchers and educators agree on their effectiveness (Cox-Petersen et. al. 2003). The ‘outdoor classroom’, including greenspaces, watersheds, reserves, or other natural settings, is an increasingly popular phenomenon – especially in primary schools in Australia (Jose et. al. 2007, p. 271).
In the Australian Curriculum, Outdoor Learning is described as an opportunity to ‘develop skills and understandings while valuing a positive relationship with natural environments and promoting the sustainable use of these environments’ (ACARA 2020). It easily lends itself to cross-curricular teaching, especially sustainability and critical and creative thinking, and can be delivered through almost all capabilities, particularly Geography and Science (ACARA 2020b).
The outdoor classroom is not a new idea; school grounds and local greenspaces have always been used by schools to enhance learning across the curriculum (Gilchrist and Emmerson 2016, p. 3). However, due to the increasing prevalence of high-stakes testing dictating curriculum direction, opportunities for students to participate in trips to these natural settings has reduced and the tangible (measurable) benefits to learning questioned (James and Williams 2017, p. 59). In studies which measure the experience of fieldtrip participants, students and teachers have reported fear of the unfamiliar (i.e. weather, insects, wild animals) (James and Williams 2017, p. 65), ambiguous measurement of student achievement (Smith 2002, p. 593), financial requirements beyond those available to many schools (Howley 2011, p. 232), concern about health and safety, shortages of time and the teacher’s lack of confidence about teaching outdoors (Dillon et. al. 2006, p. 2) as the main prohibitors to undertaking outdoor field trips.
These concerns are valid, and the lack of studies quantifying the quality of learning on field trips in the literature is evident. We need to observe field trips under a critical lens and draw from these studies the key components of what makes a ‘good field trip’ – what makes it worth the effort and expense?
As demonstrated in the figure above, the pedagogies underlying research into ‘outdoor classrooms’ or fieldwork is eclectic. All studies consistently highlight the importance of ‘hands-on’ and interactive learning experiences, in-line with progressive pedagogies and Kolb’s (1984) ‘Theory of Experiential Learning’. Experiential education, which states that ‘learning occurs when students use hands-on task-oriented activities and relate previous knowledge in a contextual way to real life examples’ (Jose et. al. 2017, p. 270), is derived from constructivism (Piaget 1954). Jose et. al. (2017, p. 280) found after accompanying students on a field trip to a watershed, that the students were most responsive to the ‘hands-on’ and ‘experiential’ activities such as water quality testing and fish sampling. Similarly, James and Williams (2020, p. 65) interviewed students after an outdoor field trip to a forest and found several students expressed that it ‘needed to be more activity-based with less sitting and listening’.
The structure of the field trip can have a great influence on learning, including pre- and post- activities in the classroom (James and Williams 2017, p. 61). For ‘comprehensive and memorable’ learning, activities completed on the field trip should scaffold on prior learning from the classroom. The fieldwork should also give students the opportunity to practice collecting real data, and observe that ‘there is no direct route from data to explanation’, moving away from a ‘rhetoric of conclusions’ (Millar 2004, pp. 3-6). For instance, a student in James and William’s (2017, p. 64) study stated: “we didn’t just get data from some worksheet; we saw how the data was collected, and that makes it much more meaningful”.
Local natural settings such as a creek or reserve build on this by allowing for a meaningful and authentic connection between the local ecological context, students, school curriculum and local community (Subramaniam 2020, p. 3).
This ‘place-based’ framework for learning also allows students to connect new learning to prior classroom and lived experiences or ‘funds of knowledge’ (Subramaniam 2020, p. 2). Cormack (2006, p. 3) in a ‘River Literacies’ project at The Murray Darling Basin, found it was particularly important for students in middle-childhood – a ‘critical period for the development of self’ – to develop authentic connections with the natural world and gain knowledge from locals in the community in the form of Aboriginal elders, historians, and environmental project officers (McInerny et. al. 2010, p. 16). A critique in the literature, however, is the lack of a connection of these ‘local ecological contexts’ to global contexts and environmental challenges. Teachers should use these experiences as a base from which they can then examine ‘more distant and abstract knowledge from other places’ (Smith 2002, p. 593).
Whatever the setbacks and challenges, learning science in an ‘outdoor classroom’ is worthwhile. Whilst studies comparing learning outcomes with classroom-based learning are rare and difficult to carry out, there is evidence that field trips are more memorable and effective for developing cognitive skills when adequately planned (Dillon et. al. 2006, pp. 1-2). As supported by the literature, a well-planned fieldtrip to a natural setting is somewhere local, involves strong partnerships with a community or government organisation, is built upon prior class-room learning, is hands-on, constantly relates back to student’s ‘funds of knowledge’ and involves well-designed post-field trip data analysis or reflection, linking the ‘local’ environmental issues encountered to global issues of sustainability in a tangible way.
Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACAEA) 2020, ‘Outdoor Education: Year 7 to 8’, Accessed: 7th September 2020, < https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/media/3228/oe_cc_7-8_201.pdf>
Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority (ACARA) 2020b, ‘cross-curriculum priorities’, Australian Curriculum, Accessed: 2nd September 2020, < https://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/f-10-curriculum/cross-curriculum-priorities/>
Cormack, P, Green, B and Reid, J 2006, ‘River literacies: Discursive constructions of place and environment in children’s writing about the Murray-Darling Basin’, in Vanclay, F, Malpas, J, Higgins, M and Blackshaw, A (eds.), Making Sense of Place: Exploring Concepts and Expressions of Place through Different Senses and Lenses, National Museum of Australia, pp. 57-75.
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Dillon, J, Sanders, D, Rickinson, M 2006 ‘The value of outdoor learning: Evidence from the UK and elsewhere’, The school science review, vol. 87, pp. 1-5.
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Millar, R 2004, ‘The role of practical work in the teaching and learning of science’, University of York.
Piaget, J 1954, ‘The construction of reality in the child’, Basic Books, https://doi.org/10.1037/11168-000
Smith, G 2002, ‘Place-Based Education: Learning to be where we are’, Phi Delta Kappan.
Subramaniam, K 2020, ‘A place-based education analysis of prospective teachers’ prior knowledge of science instruction in informal settings’, International Journal of Educational Research, vol. 99, pp. 1-14.