SECONDARY SCHOOL STUDENTS' EXPERIENCE OF OUTDOOR LEARNING: A SWEDISH CASE STUDY.
There is a continued interest in outdoor learning internationally (e.g. Atencio, Tan, Ho, & Ching, 2014; O' Brien & Murray, 2007) but the research field is diverse and there is a need for more studies focusing on outdoor learning that takes place on the school grounds (Rickinson et al., 2004). This study explores students' experiences of long-term outdoor learning on the school grounds, and discusses their experiences of outdoor learning in relation to support, structure and autonomy. Previous research suggests that teachers' academic and emotional support, teachers' monitoring of the classroom such as ability to provide structure and clarity, and teachers' support of student autonomy are distinct and important aspects of the learning environment (e.g. Barber & Olsen, 1997; Bru, Stephens, & Torsheim, 2002; Cosmovici, Idsoe, Bru, & Munthe, 2009). Academic support refers to teachers' ability to teach well and help students' perform academically (Bru et al., 2002; Cosmovici et al., 2009). Emotional support refers to teacher behaviour that aims to foster connections between teacher and students and towards school in general. Autonomy refers to matters such as involving students in decision-making about their learning process, and encouraging them to think independently. A task supporting autonomy can involve problem-solving in authentic contexts and autonomy is closely related to intrinsic motivation and on-task orientation (Cosmovici et al., 2009; Ryan & Deci, 2000).
A number of studies explore students' experiences and perceptions of outdoor learning (e.g. Amos & Reiss, 2012; Fagerstam & Blom, 2013; Humberstone & Stan, 2011) but to the best of our knowledge there is no study investigating students' experiences from long-term regular outdoor learning on the school grounds. Research on outdoor learning often explore teaching and learning at outdoor education centres or in natural environments away from school. Results reveal that students' motivation, interpersonal relationships and collaborative skills often improve from such experiences (e.g. Amos & Reiss, 2012). However, field trips and other out-of-school experiences differ from outdoor learning on the school grounds. An out-of-school journey involves aspects of novelty and adventure which a lesson on the school grounds lacks. Safety issues and time and money constraints are barriers that prevent teachers from bringing children away from school (Dyment, 2005). Outdoor learning on the school grounds is probably more easily incorporated in the everyday activities at the school and thus a promising way to vary traditional class room education but without the barriers associated with out-of-school journeys. Consequently more research on outdoor learning conducted on the school grounds is needed to better understand its' potential and pitfalls.
Students' perceptions of the role of learning environments in a broad sense have been explored in various ways, for example in relation to how student-centred versus teacher-centred learning affects psychological need and motivation (Smit, de Brabander, & Martens, 2014), positive experiences in school in general (Backman et al., 2012), and on-task orientation among different achieving levels of students (Cosmovici et al., 2009). Backman et al. (2012) found that a positive learning environment extended beyond the classroom and that outdoor activities were important for developing a good climate in class as well for individual learning processes. However, the outdoor activities in their study mainly referred to occasional field trips and other single days out-of-school.
The aim of this study is to explore lower secondary school students' experiences and perceptions of regular outdoor learning on the school grounds.
Outdoor learning: definition and theoretical background
The following section aims to briefly define 'outdoor learning' as it is implemented in this study. A short description of the theoretical framework informing outdoor learning will also be presented to situate this research. There is growing interest in teaching and learning outside the classroom but there are cultural differences in conceptualization and implementation (Atencio et al., 2014; O' Brien & Murray, 2007). Outdoor learning is neither a well-defined term nor practice (Dyment & Potter, 2014). A term used to describe regular outdoor learning that mainly uses the surrounding environments for learning, is 'school-based outdoor learning' (Thorburn & Allison, 2010). The Scandinavian outdoor learning tradition embraces regular school-based outdoor learning in the nearby natural and cultural environment and is not restricted to subjects such as biology or geography but includes other disciplines such as mathematics and language. When the term outdoor learning is used in this study it refers to school-based regular outdoor learning. The term literally meaning outdoor school (uteskola in Swedish) is often used in Scandinavian languages referring to a regular curriculum-based approach.
Outdoor learning is informed by theories of constructivism and by sociocultural theories of learning (Jordet, 2010). By using the nearby natural and cultural surroundings, students have improved opportunities of first-hand experiences and multimodal learning. From a constructivist perspective those embodied and multisensory experiences are believed to enhance robust long-term knowledge and understanding. Learning is perceived as the interplay between bodily and mental activity. The sociocultural theory of learning emphasizes that learning involves participation with others in social interaction. This can be achieved in a traditional classroom but the extended outdoor environment enables rich opportunities for cooperative learning in concrete situations. Since the social dimension of learning is often emphasized in outdoor learning research (e.g. Amos & Reiss, 2012; Jordet, 2010), student-centred and cooperative learning will be discussed briefly.
Student-centred and cooperative learning
Student-centred and cooperative learning are defined slightly differently but share significant elements. Both approaches emphasize learning as a sociocultural activity where students learn together and from each other. Problem-solving in real-life activities, where students can take responsibility and make choices is emphasized in student-centred learning (Smit et al., 2014) whereas student's interpersonal skills and understanding of expectations are emphasized in cooperative learning (Gillies, 2004; Springer, Stanne, & Donovan, 1999). According to Smit et al. (2014), autonomy is also characteristic of student-centred learning, and they conclude that autonomy could be considered as being automatically embedded in student-centred learning.
Cooperative learning in small groups has much potential as well as many pitfalls. Gillies (2004) argued that just placing students in groups and expecting them to work together will not promote successful cooperative learning. In her research on cooperative learning, she concluded that small-group learning needs to be structured to ensure effective learning. This structure should ensure that students clearly understand what they are expected to do and how they are expected to work together. They must realize that they are required to contribute but also to assist others in solving tasks. Furthermore, students need training in social skills such as how to adopt a respectful attitude toward each other, but also need a willingness to challenge each other's perspectives.
This study applied a case study design (Bryman, 2012) and the unit of study was one lower secondary school. The aim of this research was to generate understanding of how secondary school students experience long-term regular outdoor learning. To the best of our knowledge, this is has not been the focus for previous research and the present case provided an opportunity to study this phenomenon. We want to emphasize that this was a small-scale study, from only one school, and hence with limited generalizability. However, the findings from this study may be used as a basis for further hypothesizing and theory-building in the field of regular outdoor learning.
Context for the Study
This study was conducted at a lower secondary school situated in the outskirts of a medium-sized (approximately 90 000 inhabitants) city in Sweden. The school had prior to this study participated in a two-year long outdoor teaching intervention project. The outdoor teaching project included a professional development course in outdoor education (7,5 European credit transfer system credit points) for all teachers at the school, conducted over one year. During the one-year long intervention, the teachers at the school were requested to organize their teaching to enable all students to participate in outdoor teaching, preferably on a weekly basis. The present study was carried out in June 2011, one year after the completion of the intervention.
Some teachers began using the outdoor environment for teaching purposes already at the start of the professional development course and some continued to do so, more or less regularly, after the intervention. The students who enrolled in grade 7 year 2008, and were taught by the teachers who started to teach outdoors at the beginning of the course and continued to do so after the intervention, consequently had practiced outdoor learning for three years (i.e. their entire lower secondary school period). A number of grade 7 students', taught by teachers that began to practice outdoor teaching early, participated in a study at the beginning of the intervention when outdoor learning was a new experience to them (XX). Those students who were enrolled in grade 9 at the time for the present study, where consequently of particular interest as participants in a follow-up study to investigate students' experiences of outdoor learning when it had become a regular practice and part of every day school work.
The participants were selected by a mix of strategic and convenience sample (Bryman, 2012). As discussed above, the students from the pilot study were of particular interest. Consequently, students from a class who had participated in the previous study were asked to volunteer. This request resulted in a list of seven students. They had all practiced outdoor learning on a more or less weekly basis in mathematics for three years. They had also experienced outdoor learning in other subject and with other teachers for at least one year. A possible bias in this sample is that the volunteers might have been the students most positive towards outdoor learning. To obtain a larger and more diverse sample, additional grade 9 and grade 8 students were asked to volunteer. They were recruited through a convenience sample. A teacher familiar with the amount of outdoor learning practiced in different classes, approached students who were known to practice or have practiced regular outdoor learning (i.e. weekly or fortnightly) and asked if they wanted to participate. All of them agreed and this resulted in another seven participants. Two were grade 9 students who had experienced outdoor learning in mathematics on a regular basis from grade 7 to grade 8. In grade 9 they had changed teacher and practiced outdoor mathematics more sporadically. They had also experience of learning German outdoors on a more or less regular basis (approximately once a fortnight in grade 8 and at least monthly in grade 9). Five were grade 8 students and they had learnt German outdoors in grade 7 and 8 (approximately once a fortnight in grade 7 and at least monthly in grade 8). They had also practiced mathematics outdoors, regularly in grade 7 but more sporadically in grade 8. All students had experiences of outdoor learning in other subjects and with other teachers during the intervention year. Of the total 14 students, nine were grade 9 students representing two classes, and five were grade 8 students from the same class. Eight of the students were boys and six were girls. When students discussed outdoor learning they mainly referred to lessons in mathematics or German taught by two teachers.
The implementation of outdoor teaching
The focus in this study is students' experiences of the outdoor learning environment. We want to emphasize that when teaching was moved outdoors it had implications on teaching methods as well.
The students did not just bring text book out but small group learning increased. In mathematics, usually one of four weekly mathematics lessons was taught outdoors. The outdoor mathematics lessons were most often organized as cooperative learning sessions where students in small groups were presented with a problem to solve and discuss together, followed by a presentation of the results and discussions in class. In about one third of the lessons, problem-solving and calculations involved outdoor material such as trees or snowballs, but generally tasks formerly presented indoors were developed by the teachers to suit outdoor small-group problem-solving.
In learning German as a third language, outdoor learning was usually conducted every fortnight. An example of an activity was that the teacher gave the students small cards with the beginning of a conversation or a few terms, and the students were expected to walk around in pairs and communicate with each other and the teacher using the cards and the environment as sources of inspiration. Thus, the outdoor lessons usually involved aspects of student-centred learning where the students needed to take responsibility for their learning process and cooperate to solve a problem. A common practice was that the teacher introduced a topic during a lesson indoors, which was followed by an outdoor lesson where students were able to work more practically and hands-on. Summing up was part of the outdoor lesson or occurred in the next indoor lesson. The cooperative group learning in this study could be characterized as structured (Gillies, 2004), which means that the students were required to communicate and collaborate to solve the problems, and they were generally engaged in outdoor cooperative small-group learning regularly.
As this study sought to gain insight into students' experiences and perceptions of outdoor learning, semi-structured interviews were chosen as the method of data collection. The interview was structured according to Kvale and Brinkmann (2009) and included an initial open-ended question, then follow-up questions. Later during the interview, specifying questions, direct as well as indirect questions were asked. By following this structure we wished to obtain rich answers capturing several dimensions of the students' experiences and limiting socially desirable responses. The interviews took place in a conference room at the school. They were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. The duration of the interviews was around 15-20 minutes.
The interviews were analysed thematically to identify and analyse patterns in the material (Boyatzis, 1998; Braun & Clarke, 2006). Thematic analysis can be data driven or theory driven and this study used a combination of both approaches. The analysis followed the six phases suggested by Braun and Clarke (2006) but also included quantification of data in a matrix (see phase two). In phase one, the transcripts were read through several times for familiarisation purposes. The second phase was to generate initial codes. The generated codes were further organized in a matrix, displaying for each participant if, and from which question(s) the code appeared. This procedure guided the analysis by visualizing the weight of a respective code, e.g. how many times it appeared, and in which questions. The codes generated in step two were inductively generated. In the third phase, searching for themes, the codes were further elaborated upon and linked to emerging themes. During phase four, reviewing themes, the codes and themes, were reviewed and related to important aspects of learning environments previously identified in the literature. The aspects were academic and emotional support, monitoring and students autonomy. This process resulted in a thematic map comprising five main themes. In the fifth phase, defining and naming themes, the essence of each theme was refined and identified. Step four and five were mainly theory driven. The sixth step in thematic analysis is the producing phase, to begin writing a coherent account illustrated by relevant extracts. This work of writing the text is considered the final step of the thematic analysis. The analysis was mainly conducted by the first author but the themes were discussed and reviewed by the two authors together.
The research followed the Swedish ethical guidelines for research in the social sciences (Gustafsson, Hermeren, & Petersson, 2006). The students were informed about the purpose and the dissemination of the research. They were further informed that only the researchers would have access to the interview transcripts and that pseudonym would be used to attain confidentiality. They were informed about the voluntary nature of their participation and their option to withdraw at any time. Parents had been informed about the research project through information letters and meetings with the researchers prior to the initial intervention project involving the entire school.
The thematic analysis revealed five themes which are presented below. They could all be related to important aspects of learning environments such as emotional and academic support, monitoring and student autonomy. Drawing upon previous research, (Cosmovici et al., 2009; Smit et al., 2014) autonomy is discussed in terms of on-task orientation, student-centred and cooperative learning.
A joyful learning environment
All participants expressed that they enjoyed outdoor learning. Almost all explicitly said that the outdoor lessons were fun, good or pleasant and that they appreciated the fresh air outdoors. Several students emphasized positive emotions such as enjoyment as a prerequisite for learning, as the following quotes illustrate.
I am not so good at maths, I don't know why; I must be born that way. But, sometimes it is fun. To be able to learn you need to think that something is fun, otherwise it doesn't work. With outdoor lessons you don't get bored and you learn easier and don't think it is quite as boring anymore. /.../ They [teachers] should do it [have outdoor lessons] because you can sense how students enjoy it and they pay more attention.
Nelly, grade 9
When questioned about why they enjoyed outdoor mathematics, the answers mostly covered the aspect of bodily and practical learning.
It is fun to be able to do different stuff, because you can't do the things we do out there in the classroom /.../. If you do it indoors you have to think all the time but when you are outdoors you can actually do those things and really try them out practically. It is easier to learn then.
Elaine, grade 9
Another positive aspect was the fact that the student-centred approach included more open answers and opportunities to think in different ways.
It is not like; calculate this and there is only one, abstract answer; you can solve the problem in different ways and there are, you know, several ways to do it.
Carl, grade 9
Outdoor learning seemed to contribute to emotional support by enhancing positive relationships between the students. George expressed it this way.
Interviewer: Do the outdoor lessons add something that is not possible to learn indoors?
George, grade 9: Well, it is mostly the feeling that we as a class get a better feeling of community. The class kind of cooperates better outdoors than indoors. Because indoors, we are more separated, those who are good at math and the rest us are kind of left behind, we who are not as good. But there is more cooperation outdoors because everybody knows that everyone has to work to the best of their ability, help the group you know. You cannot be a "diva" because then you destroy for the entire group.
Negative emotions were also discussed. For several participants, bad weather had a negative effect on the mood. However, negative emotions were only reported in relation to weather conditions.
A challenge with the outdoor learning environment was teachers' ability to supervise the class. According to Rosanna, the teacher needed to monitor the class adequately in order to accomplish a good learning environment outdoors. However, it was mainly the students in grade 8 that reflected upon disciplinary issues.
Z is anyhow a good teacher/.../she is pretty disciplined and strict. If it had been a completely different teacher that was not that strict, we would have been fooling around and not taking it seriously.
Rosanna, grade 8
The outdoor lessons during the intervention year were not always successful as the quote from Eva illustrates. Her conclusion was that the structure of different subjects was more or less suitable for outdoor learning.
In year seven we occasionally had it [outdoor lessons] in social science, but it turned out to be chaotic so we had to go inside instead/.../social science is a huge subject and perhaps is difficult to teach outdoors. It may be difficult to explain certain things. So, there were some misunderstandings.
Eva, grade 8
Monitoring and on-task orientation were often discussed in relation to each other as the quote from Rosanna reflects but on-task orientation was also discussed in broader terms than just a question of monitoring.
When discussing on-task orientation, which was described mainly in terms of attention and focus, the picture was multifaceted. The majority of students said that one of the advantages of outdoor learning was that it allowed them to concentrate and focus better. The quote below illustrates that many participants found that outdoor learning supported on-task orientation.
You need fresh air for thinking. You need to be able to focus on what you are doing and not just "let your mind fly away". It is easier to become more tired indoors and then you quit thinking and just kind of feel, "Uhh why are they forcing us to do this"? Outdoor makes you, kind of happier, if it doesn't rain of course. But outdoors often makes you a bit more alert and focused.
Eva, grade 8
The variation of learning environment was appreciated and facilitated on-task orientation for some students. On the other hand, when questioned about the disadvantages of outdoor learning, one fairly common answer was that outdoor lessons generally decreased ontask orientation. The quote below illustrates the multifaceted picture.
Interviewer: Do the outdoor lessons add something that you couldn't do in the classroom?
Robert, grade 8: Well, you could probably do it indoors as well but I think it is good to go outdoors sometimes, to vary the lessons. So they aren't the same all the time, because that makes it more boring and then you don't concentrate as much.
Interviewer: Mm, do you think it is equally easy to concentrate outdoors as indoors?
Robert, grade 8: Hm, maybe a little bit more difficult outdoors, if something happens nearby or something.
Apparently, the student above is discussing different aspects of on-task orientation. On one hand, on-task orientation involves aspects such as being alert and focused. On the other hand, there is an increased possibility of a disturbance from the unpredictable environment outdoors, which may direct attention to other things and decrease on-task orientation. The major perception around on-task orientation was mainly expressed by the ninth graders, namely that the outdoor environment improved focus due to increased activity, variation and enjoyment. On the other hand, a decrease in on-task orientation was also expressed, mainly by the eighth graders, caused by disturbance and the more unbounded outdoor environment.
Cooperative and student-centred learning
If there were different opinions concerning on-task orientation outdoors, the perceptions concerning the social dimension of learning were more uniform. All agreed that the way outdoor learning was organized in this study improved cooperative and student-centred learning, and this was considered positive. The students discussed different aspect of cooperative learning such as participation, engagement and peer-learning. The main point was that outdoor learning favoured cooperative learning, which increased discussions and subsequently improved their learning, and this perception was distributed among high as well as low achieving students. Robert, who was one of the high achievers stated:
Small-group learning is good. You learn yourself as well as learning from others /.../ If any person is talented in maths and you have collaborative work he/she can add a lot; that teaches others how to solve given tasks in a clever way and so on. /... / There may be some that have more clever ways [of solving problems] that are faster; these are ways you learn from each other.
Robert, grade 8
Another potential was enhanced participation. Small-group learning in the extended spatial area of the outdoor environment gave extensive possibilities for the individuals to explore their proficiency in mathematics.
Interviewer: You told me before about increased collaboration and discussions, is there any difference between indoors and outdoors?
Elaine, grade 9: Well, surely you can discuss indoors too but I believe that there are many that sit quietly then and do not dare to speak. Outdoors, if you are in small groups you are forced to speak. It is more difficult to be in so many small groups in the classroom. One prefers slightly larger groups in the classroom. Here, outdoors you can spread out more and if you are two persons in each group you have to talk, which I believe is a good thing.
The quote below illustrates how outdoor learning facilitates discussions and peer-learning, which in turn has the potential to facilitate engagement and understanding.
We do it indoors too [discuss different solutions] but you are more alert [outdoors], Maybe many just sit and watch indoors, messing around. You are more on your own outdoors, everyone is at different places, and you don't hear them so close. So, it is nicer, to be undisturbed. And then you just present in the group and so you can see, "aha, we solved it this way and they solved it that way". So we always come up with different solutions. And this increases your understanding.
Elaine, grade 9
Even though all of the students enjoyed outdoor learning, many also raised a concern about challenges for academic support. Several students found it more difficult to understand instructions and objectives outdoors.
Well, the whole-class instructions can be fuzzier outdoors. I think they are more distinct indoors. I understand her better and 1 don't have to ask "what should we do? What should we write" all the time. It can be more unclear outdoors and you have to ask, constantly, "What are we going to do?"
Rosanna, grade 8
The absence of a whiteboard and other materials that would normally be provided indoors was considered negative at times by some students. The classroom was considered the most appropriate place to be for the most efficient learning by many of the students.
You maybe learn more indoors if you think of the four rules of arithmetic because it is not possible to do everything outdoors. Indoors, you have the whiteboard if the teacher has to explain something. It is anyhow easier to draw than just talk. So, if there is something important to go through you don't want to do it outdoors.
Elena, grade 9
Because mathematics was the subject most regularly taught outdoors to the students in this study, it was mainly mathematics they referred to when reflecting on academic support. The students pictured a view of classroom mathematics as predominantly textbook-based. Good results on tests were considered important and this was achieved by focusing on textbook work. Although textbook work was considered important and as implying "real" mathematics, it was also considered boring by several of the participants. Outdoor learning provided an opportunity for variation of the context and way of learning which was appreciated and which supported content learning. Mathematics learning outdoors was oriented towards being a tool for problem-solving, something useful in everyday life. The students described the outdoor lessons as concrete, hands-on and enhancing other ways of thinking, which they found beneficial for their understanding.
/.../ as I said before, that you learn in new ways. You maybe work more practically and maybe more in groups exchanging experiences. And also you might be able to think clearer and feel "oh, this was so difficult in the classroom, but suddenly when you come outdoors, then you understand at once, kind of. Because you can use new ways, which makes you think in other directions.
Vincent, grade 9
/.../ if it is only a picture in the book you might not understand at once but if you do it in real life you remember, oh yeah, exactly, that's the meaning of it. So, you mostly understand better if you experience it yourself than if someone explains to you.
Elena, grade 9
However, some students found the outdoor lessons less challenging, focusing too much on playfulness and competition, and that they were difficult to vary.
You maybe do not learn as much in mathematics; it is more like funny games and so on.
Matthew, grade eight
The sequence of introducing new concepts in the classroom, and later on practicing them outdoors, could explain the finding that many participants said that it was during outdoor lessons they finally understood different mathematical concepts and calculations. A majority also considered it best practice to introduce new topics in the classroom. One girl related the enjoyment of the outdoor lessons to this sequence: when they worked with a subject outdoors, it was familiar to them, which then gave them a feeling of power and mastery. This in turn led to a feeling of joy and pleasure.
The findings from this case study reveal fourteen grade 8 and 9 students' experiences and perceptions of regular outdoor learning. Previous research on outdoor learning has tended to focus on younger children, and this study's focus on 14-16 year old students adds new knowledge concerning older students' perceptions of outdoor learning. The students in this study had been practicing outdoor learning regularly for two to three years which means they had substantial experience of this learning environment.
The findings from this study reveal that students enjoyed and appreciated outdoor learning on a regular basis. Without exception, they all expressed positive emotions in relation to the outdoor lessons. Positive emotions, according to Fredrickson (2013), include joy, interest, amusement and inspiration. Words used by the students in this study to describe the outdoor lessons were fun, good, pleasant and playful. The students mainly reflected on emotional support as a result from student-centred learning and not so much on emotional support from their teacher. In this study, the teachers organised outdoor learning in a way that supported a positive learning environment for their students. Enjoyment, engagement and good relations between teachers and students characterize a good climate in class, which was an indicator of academic success in second language learning (Damber, 2010).
In what way different aspects such as the outdoor environment per se, tasks such as problem-solving and games, collaboration in small groups or physical activity interplayed is difficult to conclude. Anyhow, the reported outcome of increased positive emotions in the outdoor learning environment is an interesting finding as a growing body of literature suggests that emotions and cognitive learning are interlinked (e.g. Mega, Ronconi, & De Beni, 2014). The broaden-and-build theory suggests that positive emotions broaden a person's thought-action repertoire by for example increasing creativity, problem-solving skills and openness to new experiences and information. Positive emotions have been found to improve our working memory and ability to focus attention although more research is needed to better understand the contribution to cognition from emotions and motivation (e.g. Algoe, Fredrickson & Chow, 2011; Pekrun, Goetz, Titz, & Perry, 2002). Negative emotions were also reported but only in relation to weather conditions. A balanced use of the outdoors is possibly most favourable for the students. Being too dedicated to outdoor learning or without a back-up plan if it rains heavily is probably not a constructive approach.
Academic support and monitoring
Students' difficulties in integrating school mathematics with out-of-school mathematics have received considerable attention from scholars in the field of mathematics education (Boaler, 1998; D'Ambrosio, 2010). One main result of outdoor learning was student's experience of its potential in helping them to understand how to apply textbook knowledge to another context. Several students recalled how the practical implementations during the outdoor lessons helped them see the relevance of the mathematics they had learnt in the classroom. Since one of the challenges with mathematics education is students' difficulty in transferring textbook knowledge to a real world context, shifting some of the lessons from the classroom to the outdoor environment might be a relatively easy way to help the students to develop such skills. Despite the perception of outdoor mathematics learning as a useful tool in aiding understanding primarily by being practical, visual and embodied, the students view was that classroom practice was anyhow most important for their learning.
Challenges to academic support and monitoring outdoors discussed by the students, were aspects of discipline, structure and clarity. Oral instructions, without the aid of writing on the whiteboard, could be difficult to remember and understand, resulting in an ambiguity about the task. Individual teachers were not obliged to teach outdoors during the intervention project but the social and informal pressure to participate in the project probably resulted in a number of outdoor lessons taught by teachers who felt unconfident in this new learning environment and would rather have stayed in the classroom. The professional outcome from participation in the professional development course was most certainly highly individual. A few teachers could rather quickly implement outdoor teaching in their daily practice but altering teaching method was probably for the majority of teachers, challenging and not underpinned by personal preference. That not all lessons were successful is thus not surprising. The interviews also revealed opinions of outdoor lesson as less serious, difficult to vary and with limited mathematical challenges. This might also reflect average school work-some lessons are successful and others are less successful, and many factors contribute-but it also enhances ecological validity by showing that the outdoor lessons were not something extraordinary but part of everyday school work.
Written tests were considered very important by the students and the best preparation was consequently to practice on similar tasks in the textbooks. Thus, the outdoor lessons were seen more as a kind of nice variation rather than important times for learning, especially by the youngest students. Although none of the students preferred classroom teaching only, they still considered the classroom as the best place to introduce new concepts. If school mathematics put more emphasis on practical mathematical understanding, the results in favour for classroom learning might be different. Although contemporary theories of learning emphasize the social and participatory aspect of learning (Illeris, 2007; Jarvis, 2006) mathematics learning in Swedish classrooms has been found to focus on individual textbook practice without much participation from peers or the teacher (Tomroos, 2005). Outdoor learning constituted a marked difference to this type of practice. All the students emphasized and enjoyed the increased communicative aspects when learning was moved outdoors. A majority of the students thought they learnt from each other when they had to discuss and present calculations and solutions to problems.
The findings from this study indicate that on-task orientation was increased for some of the students in the outdoor setting. Lack of on-task orientation due to distraction was also reported and differences in the ages of students and the monitoring ability of the teachers might have an influence on students' ability to stay on-task. Although drawing upon a small sample, a finding was that there seemed to be a difference between the ninth graders and the eighth graders on this issue. It was mainly the eighth graders that discussed problems with lack of monitoring and on-task orientation. Whether this reflects a teacher effect or an age effect is impossible to conclude from this small-scale qualitative study but could be worth further investigation.
Cooperative and student-centred learning
The outdoor lessons involved less individual work in textbooks but instead a focus on cooperative small-group problem-solving; sometimes with a competitive side that the students seemed to enjoy. The students' main experience was that they appreciated this structure with its improved possibilities for cooperative learning. (Gillies, 2003) argued that low-ability students might benefit from group work by a) receiving more detailed explanations from their more knowledgeable peers, and b) that high-ability students benefit from having to reorganize their own understanding to be able to explain to others. The aspect of benefit from receiving explanations from peers was articulated by the students in this study, but contrasting with Gillies, this was communicated by high-ability as well as low-ability students. The majority found it beneficial for their own learning to listen to other students' ideas and ways of solving problems. Another point of view was that work in pairs or smaller groups increased participation by pushing them all to contribute contrasting more individual work in the classroom. Proper skills for cooperative learning are important for successful group work and are not possessed by everyone. Listening to each other, encouraging everyone to participate, and trying to understand each other's perspectives are examples of skills suggested by Gillies (2003). The more positive opinions about the learning outcomes from cooperative learning from the older students might reflect improved skills in actually working in groups.
Although the ecological validity in this study is high because outdoor learning was practiced on a regular basis, up to three years, particularly in mathematics and German as a modern language, it is a small case study with limited generalisability. The students' main experiences of outdoor learning originated from only two teachers' outdoor lessons. The teacher is the most important factor affecting students' success in school (Hattie, 2008), and to what extent the results would have been replicated with other teachers is a question for further research. This study was conducted one year after a one-year long intervention and all students therefore had experience of several different teachers' lessons outdoors. However, their major experience originated primarily from those two teachers' lessons.
Interviews can be a source of rich and spontaneous accounts of participants' lived experience but questions of reflexivity need to be addressed. Researchers need to critically scrutinize their own part in the research process, from the choice of interview questions and methods of analysis, to their impact on the interaction with the interviewee. Power relations are always an issue when researching children and this might have influenced the answers in the interview. Possible disadvantages of an interview study are the problems of socially desirable responses. One of the authors, who collected the empirical data, had met some of the students during earlier research at the school but she did not know any of them well. The participants' undesirable reaction of providing the researcher with socially desirable answers might have been limited by this lack of a previous relationship. However, socially desirable responses could not be disregarded in this study. The semi-structured interview guide contained several questions about the same topic and also indirect questions to check whether the answers were consistent. We therefore argue that the interviews to a large extent captured the informants' perceptions with limited bias. However, we consider an interview not as a process of collecting facts from informant but as a co-construction between the interviewer and the interviewee (Kvale & Brinkmann, 2009).
In the present study we suggest that through a variation of context and learning environment the students are given the possibility to understand and strengthen their own learning process, particularly in mathematics which was the subject most regularly practiced outdoor in this study. In addition, the students are given the possibility to understand how one's proficiency can be enhanced and be used in an out-of school context. The students enjoyed outdoor learning as a complement to the ordinary classroom practice. However students stressed that the classroom practice was still the most important location for their learning. The way outdoor learning was implemented in this study enhanced cooperative and student-centred learning. It makes it possible for individuals to realize that there is often more than one solution to a problem and they can experience it embodied as well as visually. Finally, to work solely with outdoor learning will not solve all the challenges to teaching. It is the gain of the academic support they are given by the cooperative and student-centred learning as well as variation of context and learning environment that are to be seen as another dimension of the learning process. This dimension is important because it supports students in their understanding how to apply their knowledge in an out-of school context.
Conclusion and suggestions for future research
The aim of the present study was to investigate lower secondary school students' experiences and perceptions of regular outdoor learning. We want to emphasise that the results from this study originate from a small case study including only one school and 14 students taught regularly by mainly two teachers, but given this limitation on generalisability, we argue that the findings make a contribution to our knowledge about students' experiences of outdoor learning. The analytical perspective in our study was the group of central dimensions of learning environments derived from previous theory and research. Those dimensions were emotional and academic support, monitoring and students' autonomy.
The students perceived several potential advantages but reflected also on challenges from using this learning environment. A main result was that outdoor learning supported academic achievement and autonomy in terms of student-centred and cooperative learning. By solving problems and working together in small groups the students were enabled to discuss and exchange ideas which they found important for their learning. All 14 students expressed a solid perception of the outdoors as a positive and enjoyable learning environment. Some students reflected upon challenges for academic support and monitoring in terms of limitations in discipline, structure, and academic challenge. Outdoor learning as well as learning in the classroom needs to be organized so students feel motivated and know what to do. Using the outdoor environment seems to be a promising way of varying every-day school practice and to increase students' motivation for learning. However, teachers need appropriate training in using outdoor environments which is often lacking in pre-service teacher training. The results from this case study support the need for future observational studies. Future research may also focus on more in-depth analysis of the effects of learning in the outdoors.
Dr. Emilia Fagerstam
Linkoping University, Sweden
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|Author:||Fagerstam, Emilia; Grotherus, Annika|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2018|
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