Head to Head

Learning outside boosts educational attainment

Research tells us that taking pupils outdoors as part of school education has a positive impact on learning during and after outdoor experiences.

Recent studies, building on many years of research and education policy development in Scotland suggests an improvement in attainment in literacy and numeracy through ‘Outdoor Learning Hubs’(1). Published as part of the Scottish Attainment Challenge to reduce the poverty related equity gap within Scottish education, the researchers worked with two primary school clusters within Livingston in West Lothian. In a 12-week programme (two hours per week) with 80% delivery in school grounds, children gained on average six months of mental arithmetic and two months of general maths against a similar cohort of children within control schools.

This type of study is in line with recent Scottish studies and other international research which is gradually adding to the evidence base on the importance of outdoor learning for educational attainment. For example, a substantial 2004 international review demonstrated links between educational attainment and outdoor environmental learning (2). This was followed-up by a Scottish study (5) of over 150 secondary school pupils on the impact of structured outdoor learning experiences on geography and mathematics, which demonstrated that outdoor learning provides opportunities for pupils to guide their own learning, and develop critical thinking skills(3). Teachers also acknowledged that such an approach presented an opportunity to develop these skills, which can in some cases, be overlooked in early secondary education.

More recently, a study by American psychologists(4), using matched pairs of lessons (one in a relatively natural outdoor setting, and the other indoors), observed subsequent classroom engagement during an indoor instructional period. They found classroom engagement was significantly better after lessons in nature than after their matched counterparts for four of the five measures developed for the study. After replicating these comparisons over 10 different topics and weeks in the school year, this ‘nature advantage’ held across different teachers, and held equally over the initial and final five weeks of lessons.

Finally, a recent Scottish Doctoral study(6) provides further evidence and suggests a possible mechanism. In comparison to a control group “outdoor tasks were recalled more readily and in richer detail, and were preferred for all criteria, with the experienced group returning the strongest preferences”, and that “underachievers recalled more outdoors than peers”.

The possible explanation suggested is “that ‘creative compatibility’ is associated with ‘natural richness’ and hinges on perceived compatibility, discovery and resourcefulness outdoors.” This is “best summarised as a virtuous systemic interrelationship between affordance richness, functional motivation and positive interdependence, with significant implications for task performance.”

This new material supports a recent University of Edinburgh ‘Research into Action Briefing’(7) which summarises the evidence that well structured outdoor learning:
•    facilitates children’s development in school grounds, local areas and on residential courses;
•    supports learning in all aspects of the school curriculum from 3 to 18;
•    provides opportunities for pupils to guide their own learning and develop critical thinking skills in ways elusive in the classroom;
•    raises children’s awareness of environmental and sustainability issues, resulting in understanding and promoting an ethic of care for our planet (directly linked with the concept of ‘learning for sustainability’); and
•    has direct health and wellbeing benefits.

All of this leads to high rates of ‘enhancement of challenge, enjoyment, personalisation, relevance, breadth and progression’ of learning.

In line with this, the Scottish Government has recently announced funding for outdoor learning in the early years(8). In making the announcement the Minister for Childcare and Early Years, Maree Todd said:
“The significant expansion of funded early learning and childcare gives us the perfect opportunity to define the type of experience we want to offer our children during their early years. That is why we are committing more than £860,000 to increase the use of outdoor learning, to ensure it becomes a defining feature of childhood in Scotland.”

In light of the evidence reported above it seems logical that comparable encouragement, policy and support should be put in place for Primary and Secondary provision to ensure such benefits are maintained.

In this, Scotland’s Year of Young People(9) we hope to see such support and that much more critical research will be published in this key area. Outdoor learning in schools could be the key to unlocking the potential for a ground-swelling shift in educational attainment. Resources, Projects and Continued Professional Life Long Learning are all in place to help schools make the transition needed to regular, frequent, structured and progressive outdoor learning experiences.

In summary, whilst there are many practical and pedagogical reasons for teaching indoors the research evidence suggests that in both education policy and practise we should be we should be asking if we should be doing so as a norm. Given the additional health and ’restorative’ benefits of time spent in the outdoors we should perhaps not ‘why outdoors?’, but rather ‘why indoors?’

Prof Peter Higgins
Moray House School of Education
University of Edinburgh

Prof Des Thompson & Dr Peter Rawcliffe
Scottish Natural Heritage

1 http://www.sapoe.org.uk/wp-con...
2 https://www.field-studiescouncil.
3 Christie, B., Beames, S., Higgins, P. (2016). Culture, context and critical thinking: Scottish secondary school teachers' and pupils' experiences of outdoor learning. British Educational Research Journal. 42 (3), 417-437.
4 https://www.frontiersin.org/ar...
5 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com...
6 Hamilton, J. M. (2017). Relationships between Outdoor and Classroom Task Settings, and Cognition
in Primary Schoolchildren. Heriot Watt University. [ESRC CASE studentship with the Forestry
7 http://learningforsustainabilityscotland.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Impact-of-Outdoor-Learningattainment-
8 https://beta.gov.scot/news/lea...
9 http://yoyp2018.scot/