Science in the Schoolyard
A key goal of the evaluation was to identify important considerations for Boston and other school districts that wish to embrace outdoor instruction as part of their science programs. It is important for all districts that intend to implement similar programs to understand both the challenges they may face and how those challenges may be addressed. This section provides recommendations for BPS specifically, as well as more generally for districts with emerging outdoor instruction programs. The recommendations highlight the important structures and resources that need to be in place for effective, long-term outdoor instruction.
Outdoor instruction benefits student interest and engagement, but teachers and schools may not prioritize those benefits in the face of competing demands and barriers to successful outdoor instruction. Teachers may feel time constraints and discomfort teaching outdoors, while school leaders need to give attention to the development and maintenance of outdoor space. Both require financial and human resources.
A district or school’s commitment to integrating outdoor instruction into the curriculum should be communicated as a priority for all instructional leaders from the central office to science teachers in schools. In the absence of a clear message, outdoor instruction will likely only be instituted by the most motivated staff, and even the most carefully designed and quality systematic plans to support outdoor instruction will eventually succumb to teacher turnover and other priorities that are more forcefully communicated.
At the school level, developing a culture of teachers taking students outdoors can make a difference. The findings of this evaluation demonstrated that teachers who reside in such a culture are more likely to engage in outdoor instruction. School leaders can promote and encourage this culture by designating even a small amount of time for teachers to communicate about their experiences with teaching outdoors, and by managing schedules and volunteers so that teachers can have more adults to provide support outdoors.
Finally, in order to sustain effective outdoor instruction, some budget considerations will be necessary, particularly for maintenance and some level of training. Volunteers and teachers turn over, and without designated funds to support ongoing maintenance of physical space and orientation and support for newcomers, outdoor instruction can easily lapse.
Teachers often perceive outdoor instruction as an “add-on” to the established curriculum. Having clearly designed structured outdoor lessons (such as SSY guides to FOSS) can help teachers see how they can successfully deliver science instruction outdoors as part of their normal science instruction.
The SSY training was found to have significant relationships to teacher commitment to and self-efficacy for teaching outdoors. In turn, both of these attitudes were related to how often teachers take students outdoors. If teachers do not feel that outdoor instruction is important and do not feel confident in their ability to enact it, it is less likely to occur.
Further, as the outdoor training gets integrated into regular professional development, leaders would be wise to focus on shifting perceptions about “bad” weather from something to avoid, to something to embrace and explore. Cold, snow, and rain are rich opportunities to examine scientific questions of interest to students and to deepen students’ understandings of concepts learned in the context of more temperate weather.
As teachers have many professional growth needs, it may be difficult to find time for formal outdoor instruction development. Some districts or schools may benefit from exploring alternative models of professional development to incorporate outdoor instruction training. An example could be appointing one teacher to serve as a point person and advocate that brings outdoor instruction training into the school. It is important to note that training and professional development alone do not ensure continuous, long-term, high quality science instruction (indoors or out). As described above, mutual teacher support and centralized prioritization can also help provide mechanisms to ensure that instructional quality is high, wherever it takes place. Districts and schools can explore different development strategies to determine what will be effective, yet efficient, for their specific needs.
Although some BPS schools depend on maintenance staff, many rely on volunteers (teachers, parents, or community members) for outdoor space upkeep. In many cases, articulated responsibilities and steps for caring for outdoor spaces were vague, leading to inconsistent and ineffective maintenance.
In some schools, teachers or parents take on the role of gardener or caretaker, but their ability and willingness to do so came from their own commitment and interest. Teachers already have full days and can’t be expected to take on maintenance as yet another responsibility. Further, when left to ad hoc approaches, there is no guarantee that if and when that person leaves the school, someone else will step in to fill their shoes.
It is tragic to see beautiful outdoor classrooms fall into such dramatic overgrowth that they simply cannot be used. In order to capitalize on such a costly and uniquely special investment, districts and school leaders must institute structures to ensure the upkeep of schoolyards and outdoor classrooms. Some schools have formed committees, others engage community members, some establish external partnerships, and still others simply pay for a maintenance position. No single approach is better than another; but a systematic approach is necessary.
For districts, schools, or teachers that want to introduce outdoor instruction, the process may go more smoothly and be more enduring if taken in “baby” steps. Teachers can grow comfortable with managing outdoor instruction if they begin with short sessions during which students simply explore and observe, and then work up to more thoroughly articulated investigations. This approach, enhanced with opportunities for teachers to talk with one another, can build momentum, particularly when training is not immediately available.
In addition, although a designed outdoor classroom is a beautiful benefit for any school, teachers can effectively conduct outdoor lessons in less structured, but sufficient, spaces. Schools may more easily manage a small green space, with some basic tools and resources. A smaller, simpler space does not have all of the unique facets of an outdoor classroom, but still affords students a place to go outdoors with less maintenance a more elaborate space would require.
“BPS has a strong commitment to high quality science instruction. The resources provided by BSI’s Science in the Schoolyard program have helped BPS teachers actively engage students in ‘doing science’, helping them develop good observation skills, make predictions, talk about science with each other, and connect science concepts to their everyday lives. With BSI, BPS science teachers have proudly led the way in using outdoor teaching to support rigorous science learning.”
Senior Program Director
Boston Public Schools