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Outdoor education produces better results

Pupils who receive part of their education out of doors become more involved, work better with others and learn more, as shown in Emilia Fägerstam’s remarkable thesis based on studies in both Sweden and Australia. (07 Nov 2012)

Emilia Fägerstam

The thesis has received a lot of attention in the media and it is the first in Sweden to deal with outdoor education at upper secondary level.

For one year, Emilia Fägerstam followed a group of Swedish teachers and pupils who received parts of their education outdoors and compared them with groups who had all their lessons indoors in a classroom.

“Outdoor lessons were more fun and the social climate in the classroom improved. Both teachers and pupils participated in a different way than indoors," Fägerstam explains.

When she interviewed the teachers before they started outdoor teaching, many of them were sceptical. They wondered how they would have time for everything and whether the students would respond. Many of them also viewed outdoor education as something only for science subjects.

After a professional development course in outdoor education, the teachers took one lesson per week out onto school grounds. Prior to this, the students had received just one lesson per term outdoors, and it took a long time for them to understand that it was still a lesson, even though they were outside.

“There was a roughly three-month lead-in period, but once it got going, the students thought that it was fun and became more engaged. Cooperation and participation are important elements of learning, and outdoor teaching helps these elements. We learn better when we talk and work together,” Fägerstam says.

In German and English lessons, the pupils could take the role of guides and describe what they saw. They dared to speak more and felt more confident than in the classroom. In Swedish, they worked on adjectives and the outdoor environment meant they could create more colourful descriptions of how the wind moved, for example, or the sound of leaves.

Utelektion i skogen

In maths the pupils were given the same problems as in the classroom, but as group work.

“They solved the problems by moving about as they discussed measurements and did calculations. The pupils really found it of value,” Fägerstam says.

When she then compared the arithmetic skills of some outdoor and some indoor groups, she found that they performed equally well, although the outdoor class pupils were worse in the beginning.

“The outdoor maths seems to have contributed to them catching up with the indoor group.

A similar comparison in ecology showed that the outdoor group had a more vivid memory of the contents of the course. The indoor groups’ memory of the course was more closely connected to what the teachers and they themselves had done in the classroom than to the content itself.

Fägerstam’s studies are leading to a double PhD at Linköping University and Macquarie University in Australia. She has had supervisors at both universities and carried out part of her studies in Australia.

“Outdoor education is a natural part of school work in Sweden, but in Australia once every school year or term the pupils visit special centres for the study of the environment and ecology known as Environmental Education Centres, or EECs,” says Emilia Fägerstam.

Utelektion i skogen

An upper-secondary class that visited an EEC with mangrove swamps, for example, got to compare different types of nature, check the pH level and measure the intensity of the light. They also analysed computer images showing how the mangrove swamps have changed.

Upper secondary teachers and EEC teachers in Sydney whom Fägerstam interviewed talked about how many pupils were scared when they were out in nature. Their knowledge about animals and nature came more from the media than from actual experience.

“Even in Sweden there’s a discussion about whether children’s contact with nature is decreasing, but in Sydney 40% of the inhabitants come from other countries and have no experience of nature in Australia. The teachers believed that knowledge about the environment and ecology was important for children who need to understand and connect with a new place,” says Fägerstam.

Pictures: 1. Emilia Fägerstam. 2. Pupils at upper school have outdoor lesson 3. Upper secondary students in Australia in a mangrove forest.

Text: Birgitta Weibull
Photography: Private


07 Nov 2012

Related links

  • Emilia Fägerstam's thesis is Space and Place. Perspectives on Outdoor Teaching and Learning and can be downloaded from LiU Electronic Press.
  • NCU, the National Centre for Outdoor Education at LiU works to increase the awareness and understanding of outdoor environments as an important part of and a foundation for learning..


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Last updated: Tue Nov 13 11:34:06 CET 2012