Why it's sometimes important to take your teaching to the classroom outside

Mike Lamb
9th July 2015 at 10:33

It is at this time of year that thoughts turn to planning next year's programme of study and in biology it is important to consider when we can get outside. Teaching parts of the biology syllabus in a classroom has limitations. A subject such as ecology which is all about interactions between species and their environments is surely better taught surrounded by our environment rather than a classroom which can feel relatively sterile.

Of course not every school is surrounded by countryside but most schools have access to some playing fields or grass at the very least. A few dandelions or daisies growing among the grass is all that's needed to carry out a mini-field study using a quadrant. Being able to access a pond is an excellent way to collect samples of species that can be used as biological indicators, as is a selection of trees that have lichens present on the bark leading to discussion about air pollution. Spotting birds looking for food is a great introduction to food webs and an oak tree provides the perfect start to helping pupils get their head's around pyramids of numbers. Inspired by their surroundings the pupils can also be challenged to design their own investigations or come up with 'thought experiments', which they enjoy more when sat under shady tree on a hot day.

The novel environment seems to engage the pupils and they can carry out field work that closely mirrors what ecologists really do in the field. Suddenly the dry process of learning definitions such as population, community and ecosystem is made much more interesting and put into context when the pupils can see the plants and animals in front of them. There can be some difficulties in controlling your class or getting concerned glances from other staff, but I have always found it effective when used carefully and in a controlled manner.

As such here are some tips when planning ahead to teach lessons outdoors;

  • plan your programme of study carefully to ensure topics such as Ecology can be taught outside (e.g. In September or after April) when the appropriate species are available to sample;
  • plan your outdoor lessons in advance, ensuring you are prepared for weather changes and other unpredictable elements;
  • ensure you have evaluated any risks from road crossings to pupils throwing pine cones, which may require adapting or amending an existing field work risk assessment;
  • have a plan B, for example if rain prevents you from going outside set up a transect in the corridor with different types of sweets (e.g. colours of jelly baby) being different plant species;
  • make your expectations clear to the class, the novel environment is great for learning but the informal surroundings can lead to less predictable pupil behaviour. I generally set the rule that any inappropriate behaviour will mean no more lessons outside;
  • use the opportunity to discuss other relevant concepts such as food webs, biotic factors, climate, etc whilst 'in context'. This allows you to provide a more holistic, joined up approach to the subject which can help bring the subject alive for some pupils.

I'm sure for all (biology) teachers the benefits are obvious and evidence from various sources supports the effectiveness of learning outside, so next time you are trying to get a key concept about the environment across to your class, try the classroom outside.