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Taking Kids to the Community

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Originally appears in the Spring 2015 issue

On our third day out in the woods across from the school, my fourth graders were hard at work finishing up their diagrams representing local food webs and the ecosystem they are a part of. As we were wrapping up, Rose came up to me sharing excitedly that she only needed one more thing: “Where can I find soil?” she asked. Slightly taken back by the question, I subtly pointed to the ground. Suddenly the connection dawned on her. She explained “Oh!! We usually get our soil from the garden shop.” This exchange, and other similar interactions with children, reminds me how important it is to connect kids to the world around them.

As a former elementary school teacher, I know how difficult it can be to bring a group of young children outside. Early in my career I had to develop political skills to address concerns from parents and administrators about how kids could possibly learn outside the classroom. Will they be safe? Will they be able to cover everything in the curriculum before the tests? In fact, I had more injuries in the classroom than we ever had while out conducting field investigations, and the kids’ test scores were just fine – in fact, usually better than those in classes that stayed inside all the time.  In my current role, coaching teachers as they build place-based projects with their students, I often find that teachers encounter similar concerns. In particular, test success has become such an all-encompassing goal that we have a number of local school districts that don’t allow kids outside the classroom for six to eight weeks before the tests.  Clearly, we have work to do in establishing the value of kids getting out in the community.

While it’s easy to say that teachers would do more if they were just freed from testing and accountability requirements, I’m not sure if it’s that simple. Instead, there are deeper issues at work we need to bring to the surface. To do this, I offer a framework that emerged from my experience running a pair of National Science Foundation-funded projects. In both, we supported teachers in leading community-based after-school programs. Working in partnership with MIT, we hired teachers at schools in the St Louis and Boston areas to run these programs, free of the typical concerns for coverage and test preparation that are so ubiquitous in North America and elsewhere. Teachers in these programs also had a generous supply budget and access to our help in designing and leading rich programs. Still, there was a clear split among the teachers; those who were able to craft an engaging learning environment and those who — despite the freedom and resource support — struggled to get out of the standard front-of-the-room teacher mode.

If we are to make outdoor learning experiences ubiquitous and meaningful, there is more to be done than simply removing obstacles. I’d like to share here a few observations about what it takes to get kids outdoors and into meaningful inquiry. The differences among teachers who are more or less successful in this effort follow a predictable pattern that is worth considering.

Envisioning a project: scope, ownership, and impact

The largest and most apparent difference among teachers is in how they envision a project. Specifically, projects that are more successful in bringing students into the community show a more ambitious scope, shared ownership between the teacher and students, and a greater focus on the kids’ effort having an impact on the community. In terms of scope, those who lead successful projects look beyond the individual lessons with an eye toward greater ends. This isn’t to say that each step along the way isn’t well planned. Rather, each activity is planned to be one stop on a path toward broad and ambitious learning outcomes. For example, I recently worked with a teacher who, rather than simply giving her fifth graders a planting experience, engaged them in the design and installation of a native plant garden on their school grounds. The students came to our ecology center, learned about native plants, and went back to school with an array of field guides. They in turn offered a garden design for review by our horticulture supervisor. Based on her suggestions for a few minor changes, the class moved forward planting their garden — an experience which has led to notable beautification on their school grounds and which has served as a source of information and inspiration for community members interested in native plants.

Aside from the ambitious scope of this project, notice the level of shared ownership between teachers and students. Instead of assigned work for which students will be accountable, there is a culture of shared adventure. Viewed in terms of Hart’s Ladder of Participation[i], the best projects offer collaborative efforts where students and teachers jointly have input into the scope and design of the effort. Less collaborative teachers simply assign tasks to students, perhaps offering a reason, and often not. With no investment by students in a project they have been assigned to, it’s not surprising that they don’t invest much of themselves in their work. All too often, the work becomes an example of what Rheingold and Seaman[ii] referred to as the ‘wastebasket economy’ of schools, where work is simply something to be completed, graded, and discarded. While there are developmental issues to be considered in deciding how much shared ownership students are ready for, kids of any age can have some level of input.

In addition to an ambitious scope and shared ownership, the best teaching practice for outdoors also has a clear vision of impact – both on the community and on the students. Working with students on a project such as a stream bank restoration effort or in the design and development of a native plant garden serves both of these goals: There is a clear community benefit in terms of an improved habitat, and there is an educational benefit realized as students feel empowered by their work. This difference showed up clearly in the evaluation of the NSF-funded projects. Whereas students in the less adventurous classes noted that their favorite part of the program was something fairly trivial (such as being called on by their teacher or getting a snack), more successful projects were appreciated by students in quotes such as “I liked it when we investigated water quality in our creek” or “I liked it when we posted our own geocaches.” Note here the collaborative ownership embedded in the liberal use of ‘we’ and ‘ours’ as well as the value the students put on community engagement.

This difference in scope, collaboration, and impact doesn’t just happen. Rather, it is an outgrowth of teachers who see their jobs differently, and who see the work of childhood differently. Emirbeyer and Mische[iii] offer the best interpretive frame I’ve found for this in their model of agency. There, they describe how people make decisions informed by projections of future success, and informed by a reservoir of past experiences. Applied to teaching and learning, teachers whose vision of success is in engaging kids with rich, meaningful, and collaborative work see their jobs and children’s capacity differently than those whose vision of success equates to curriculum coverage. Emirbeyer and Mische’s model of individual decision-making can be extended to include the social realm if we also bring in Luckin’s ‘Ecology of Resources’ model[iv]. Here she describes how successful teachers are able to leverage resources beyond standard classroom materials to support students’ work. These enhancements include use of people from across the school as well as community experts, scouting out a range of supplementary resources, and creative use of the social, political and natural environment. Fusing the framework offered by Emirbeyer and Mische with the one offered by Luckin, we can see an effective teacher as a political actor in the best sense – one able to lead people and assemble the resources needed to achieve a goal.

What Makes a Good Experience? — Dewey meets Aristotle

Even if a teacher is committed to ambitious goals, shared ownership, and community impact, the challenge remains in designing a good learning experience to achieve these goals. Doing this well requires a transformative — and ultimately liberating — view of learning. To use a botanical metaphor, you need good soil and good seeds. For the soil, the guidelines Dewey[v] laid out offer a good starting point. Most central for Dewey are continuity and interaction. In practice, continuity means that each experience needs to flow logically, with what has come before feeding and enabling a positive experience in the moment, which in turn enables future experiences. Where teachers are faced with highly regulated curriculum timetables that suddenly jerk from one topic to the next, fostering continuity can be a challenge requiring a great deal of curricular artistry (and a good bit of subversion at times). Paired with continuity, interaction is likewise essential. Students need to interact with peers, teachers, and community experts as they pursue their investigations. Shared inquiry helps everyone see more deeply and consider issues from a range of perspectives. Along with human interaction, it is also important for kids to have interactions with the real world, using tools as close to authentic as their developmental level allows. This in turn fuels a sense of purpose which is lacking in exercises that feed the ‘wastebasket economy’ noted earlier. Kids would much rather make a difference in the world than play school. Finally, Dewey argues for a progressive unfolding of experience over time. From an ecological point of view, this might be seen as a student first learns about how an organism meets its needs, followed by a sense of how it fits into an ecosystem, and from there building toward an understanding of how a change in the ecosystem might affect that organism’s ability to survive. Taken together, continuity, interaction, a sense of purpose, and a progressive unfolding of experience all come together to provide a rich subtext for growth.

Growth, however, requires more than just a good environment. Continuing the botanical metaphor, teachers need to plant seeds in that rich soil that are likely to grow into productive learning experiences. Too often, environmental education becomes a chase for knowledge, or for practicing skills out of context. Simply being able to identify a species by sight or to organize meaningless data in a graph won’t suffice. Rather, we need to rethink the nature of the work students do if they are to have meaningful experiences. Aristotle, in his Ethics[vi], offers such a path. In place of schoolwork that is completed simply to be done, kids need work that fuses what Aristototle described as episteme (knowledge), techne (skill), and phronesis (wisdom). When these come together, the task can best leverage an environment built on Dewey’s principles. For example, the fifth grade students noted earlier who researched, designed, and installed a native plant garden on their school grounds did this well. Under their teacher’s guidance, they built knowledge of native plants and soil conditions, employed a range of skills (such as how to read field guides and interpret data such as range maps), and developed a horticultural wisdom around the best way to arrange their garden. This wisdom grew over the course of the project as they offered initial ideas, garnered feedback from our horticulture supervisor, and rethought their plan toward an even better garden design. Episteme, techne, and phronesis all fused toward a productive learning experience. Looping back to Dewey, there was continuity with their classroom lessons, interaction with each other and my staff, a clear and valued purpose, and a progressive unfolding of experience as their understanding grew over the course of the project.

Projects like these help teachers and students move out of the robotic compliance that business-oriented approaches to school seem to enforce. In place of this, well-crafted community-based projects have the potential to build students’ character, competence, and sense of place — work that is clearly worthy of our best efforts.


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Bob Coulter is the Director of the Litzsinger Road Ecology Center, a field site managed by the Missouri Botanical Garden, in St. Louis, Missouri.


[i] Hart, R. (1997). Children’s participation. London, UK: Earthscan.

[ii] Rheingold, A. & Seaman, J. (2013). The use-value of real-world projects: Children and community-based experts connecting through school work. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA), San Francisco, CA.

[iii] Emirbayer, M., & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? American Journal of Sociology, 103(4), 962–1023.

[iv] Luckin, R. (2010). Redesigning learning contexts: Technology-rich, learner-centered ecologies. New York: Routledge.

[v] Dewey, J. (1938/1997). Experience and education. New York: Free Press.

[vi] Aristotle. (1976). Ethics. New York: Penguin Press.