Why we need Mr Spock when it comes to teaching science outdoors

If you are the person that follows this blog you’ll know that I’m trying to write book at the moment about teaching science (hence the slightly intermittent entries). Recently I’ve been working on a chapter about the importance of teaching science outdoors. I won’t go into the details of why I argue it’s important (I don’t want to undermine sales of the book!) but I’d say that some of the reasons actually relate to the nature of science through contextualised observation, sense of enquiry, the excitement of exploration etc. I’m not alone in thinking this and there is a significant and current literature out there on just this topic. Even the UK Government now is pushing for more teaching to take place outside and no, not just to save heating bills, but through a realisation of its importance. In fact, what we call primary schools (I believe elementary elsewhere) are now part evaluated on their provision for outdoor learning.

At this point I should be thinking ‘great’, all these outdoor opportunities to apply science, to really get to grips with ‘real-life’ observations, setting up hypotheses and designing and carrying out experiments that children can see, not in some abstract sense, but just outside the door.

I should be thinking ‘great’ but I’m increasingly not. I know, I know, I always have to spoil things, but my recent experience of outdoor ‘science’ is very different to the picture above.

In the South West of England we have a good number of outdoor education centres (we have two National Parks and two UNESCO World Heritage Landscapes in the area) and I’ve visited a number of such centres over the years. What I’ve begun to notice is a little curious for those interested in science teaching. Gradually, boxes of magnifying glasses have been replaced with boxes of blindfolds, specimen jars have been replaced with mirrors and on the walls of the teaching rooms posters of results produced by children have been replaced with poems written by them.

There has been a significant pedagogical change in the approach to outdoor learning. The work of writers such as Joeseph Cornell and Steve Van Matre (and others) have provided practical approaches to teaching outdoors that I would argue are predicated (although the lineage may not be direct) on the philosophical approach of Deep Ecology. In other words, we try to ‘engage’ children in the environment through the use of different sensory techniques, hence the blindfolds and mirrors. We also look to employ emotional responses to the outdoors, hence the poems. They are methods that try to promote affective learning, in other words they try to illicit behavioural change in children (and adults). To be fair, these approaches are essentially used in environmental education, but nevertheless have really come to dominate outdoor learning.

For example:

Chawla & Cushing (2007); Perrin & Benassi (2009); Cheng & Monroe (2011); Duerden & Witt (2010); Ernst & Theimer (2011); Okaty (2012); Callado et al (2013); Hind & Sparks (2008, 2009); Kaiser et al (2011); Gilburton (2007); Perkins (2010); Lieflander et al (2012); Nisbet et al (2009)

These papers represent a quick trawl (precisely 2 minutes) through some outdoor education journals and all deal with behavioural change through ‘engagement’ with the environment – one even addresses methods for ‘measuring love of the environment’ (a couple more deal with ‘engagement indices’). Indeed, the term biophillia is commonplace in outdoor education and phrases such as ‘promoting a love of the environment’ and ‘deep engagement’ are frequently used with impunity but rarely (if ever) interrogated. Such approaches are now commonplace in the mainstream. There is nothing wrong with promoting a love of nature in itself, but we need to tread lightly here for a number of reasons.

Firstly, the promotion of ecocentrism is usually at the expense of ‘the human’, the outcome being that students emerge seeing ‘people’ as the problem, rather than providing a solution. I’ve lost count over the years of the number of students who have said, “The world would be so great if it wasn’t for humans.” This sort of fatalistic nihilism raises a whole range of concerns, too many for this blog; I’ll let you fill them in.

Secondly, we are in danger of throwing out the rational, or at least disparaging it, in favour of the emotional and intuitive. I’m not at all sure that my poems about flowers will be as useful to humanity as my previous research on the amelioration of water borne organic pollutants.

Now I’m not saying that using imagination and empathy when it comes to wildlife is a bad thing, nor is it necessarily bad to get children to experience the world using different senses (such as listening carefully, or feeling objects) but it is the idea that this is a more effective way of learning, rather than simply being complimentary to cognitive approaches that is worrying. It seems to me that Deep Ecology is having a subtle, but profound and disproportionate impact on our approach to learning outdoors and is driving learning strategies that are overly ecocentric (often based around a sort of New Age mysticism) eschewing the rational and cognitive and promoting the intuitive and affective.

If we’re not careful the outdoors will become the preserve of the emotional and the sensory and not a place for science. Holistic Scientists (people who don’t understand science – often finding it too hard) will take over, teaching children to talk to trees, to act like squirrels and that rocks have feelings.

OK, so this is a bit cruel and over the top and I don’t want to sound too much like Mr Spock, but come on scientists out there, let’s reclaim the environment and outdoor learning for the rational. It is after all, quite logical.

Live long and prosper.