ERIC Identifier: ED287684
Publication Date: 1987-00-00
Author: Disinger, John F.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse for
Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Cognitive Learning in the Environment: Elementary Students.
ERIC/SMEAC Environmental Education Digest No. 2, 1987.
Cognitive learning in the environment as it relates to secondary
schools and students was the topic of a recent ERIC/SMEAC ENVIRONMENTAL
EDUCATION DIGEST (Lisowski and Disinger, 1987). The situation with respect to
outside-the-classroom instruction, which is somewhat different in the elementary
setting, is the topic of this digest.
There are a number of similarities between the field instruction situations
in elementary and secondary schools, the most prominent being that affective,
not cognitive, learning has traditionally been the primary objective of field
instruction at all K-12 levels. Likewise, most of the educational research
dealing with learning in the environment--or, more generally, outside the
classroom--at both elementary and secondary levels has centered on noncognitive
areas (Disinger, 1984).
There are typically fewer difficulties in arranging for elementary
out-of-school activities than for secondary school activities. The
self-contained elementary school classroom allows for flexible scheduling, and
the absence of rigid time frames for instruction in specific subjects makes it
easier for the teacher to arrange to leave the classroom and engage in "outside"
ventures. Also, ause the elementary teacher is more of a generalist than is the
secondary school teacher, there is greater potential for the planned integration
of knowledge which is possible through in-the-environment experiences.
Countering these factors, the elementary teacher is typically not well-versed
in the various specific content areas associated with field learning, and
generally sees his or her primary task as instruction in the "basic skills"
areas or 3 Rs. This may be the result of elementary teacher education and
training which generally does not provide depth in the sciences or social
Elementary teachers are, however, generally quick to identify and take
advantage of learning situations which motivate students; outside-the-classroom
activity clearly provides such opportunities. But teachers' intent and
anticipated outcomes of such ventures are frequently in the affective domain,
with expectation of, and planning for, cognitive gain being at best of secondary
". . .SHOULD THERE BE TAUGHT"
For many years L.B. Sharp's dictum, "Those things which can best be taught
outdoors should there be taught" (quoted by Donaldson and Donaldson, 1958) has
been accepted as a truism by many outdoor educators, and by extrapolation for
all who promote outside-the-classroom learning. Sharp, his associates, and their
followers have provided numerous examples of situations where in-the-environment
learning was, or could be, more effective than about-the-environment learning in
the classroom. It is critical to point out that they did not suggest that all
learning about the environment was best achieved out of the classroom; they
promoted the idea that educators should take advantage of those situations where
in-the-environment learning offers distinct educational advantages, including
cognitive ones, to other modes of instruction. Few of their pronouncements were
supported by rigorous research; it is not that their work did not and has not
produced significant results, but that most of their reports were anecdotal. For
example, they conducted and reported few well-controlled empirical research
studies, particularly with respect to cognitive learning.
An early study which attempted to address the merits of learning in the
environment was reported by the New York City Board of Education (1947). Two
experimental groups consisting of 62 fifth and sixth graders, and two control
groups, were used to investigate the effects of the Life Camps program, a
residential camping experience, on academic growth in five areas: interest,
arithmetic, science and health education, vocabulary, and nature study. The
first report of results indicated "initial and final superiority of the
experimental group"; this report has long been cited as conclusive evidence of
the value of outdoor education in litating cognitive development.
However, Backman and Crompton (1984-85) have re-analyzed the results,
suggesting that the research design was not rigorous and that the conclusions
are overly optimistic, and certainly not definitive.
An attempt to replicate the Life Camps study was made by Huntley (1979).
Using 94 sixth grade boys and girls as subjects, he established control and
experimental groups, the former being taught in an established classroom and the
latter participating in outdoor education experiences. The groups were similar
at the beginning of the study; both were taught by regular school district
faculty. All participants completed pre- and post-tests over four curriculum
areas: nature study, mathematics, science, and vocabulary. At the conclusion of
this study, no statistically significant differences were found between the
groups in any of the four curriculum areas.
Based on the results of his study involving fifth-grade students, Howie
(1974) determined that students need extensive and structured programs of
advance organization in order to gain maximum benefit from field experiences. He
concluded that environmental education field programs should be built as
extensions of the classroom, not as unique, isolated events; "the most exciting
outdoor program is only as beneficial to the students as the preparation their
classroom teachers were competent enough to prepare." His prescription for "the
most effective program" identified four phases--teacher in-service training,
classroom development of advance organization, the field experience, and
follow-up in the classroom, with further application and conceptualization.
Hosley (l974) attempted to compare effectiveness in the promotion of
cognitive learning in environmental education of field instruction and
audio-visual instruction using a three-screen slide-tape presentation. He
developed an instructional unit based on the "balance of nature" concept, using
a table of specifications following the Bloom, and others, TAXONOMY OF
EDUCATIONAL OBJECTIVES: COGNITIVE DOMAIN (1956) to organize anticipated
cognitive learnings. Two versions of the instructional unit were prepared. One
hundred fifth-grade students were selected at random, and equally divided into
four treatment groups--no instruction, slide presentation only, field approach
only, and both slide presentation and field approach. A post (retention) study
indicated that the slide presentation and field approaches produced similar
retention, but that students receiving both treatments scored highest.
Gross and Pizzini (1979) analyzed the effects of a treatment consisting of
advance organizers and a one-day field experience on environmental orientations
of upper elementary students. Environmental orientations are described as
expressed responses of individuals to both general and specific areas of their
environments, and reflect both affective and cognitive inputs; their
interactions are involved in making environmental decisions in an integrated
manner. The results of this study indicated an observable change in the
environmental orientations of fifth and sixth-grade students, which the authors
attributed to the combination of advance organizers and field experience.
Werling (1979) developed a model whereby parks-based (nonformal)
environmental educators could act as organizing forces to move from the initial
stage of school, youth, and adult group visits to an environmental education
center, to a second phase in which educators put their learnings into practice
by improving the stewardship of school site and neighborhood outdoor
laboratories. Working with fourth- and fifth-grade students, he compared
learning of Science Curriculum Improvement Studies (SCIS) content taught
indoors, both with and without environmental lectures, to a modified SCIS
approach in association with site stewardship. He found that pupils learned SCIS
life science concepts as well outdoors as indoors, and that the outdoor
(site-stewardship) groups gained significantly more environmental knowledge than
either of the indoor groups.
MUSEUMS AND ZOOS
Stronck (1983) investigated attitudes and learning of school children from
grades 5-7 (N=816) in 31 museum tours. He concluded that students made greater
cognitive gains, but demonstrated less positive attitudes, when participating in
structured tours led by museum personnel. Conversely, less cognitive gain but
more positive attitudes were found when students participated in less structured
tours led by their classroom teachers.
Cognitive and affective outcomes of a class visit to a participatory science
museum were examined by Flexer and Borun (1984) by comparing responses of 416
fifth and sixth graders randomly assigned to four conditions (control, exhibit
only, lesson only, and exhibit followed by lesson) and two tests (verbal and
visual). Students visiting a simple machine exhibit scored higher on a test of
science content than the control group, but lower than the group attending a
classroom lesson in the museum. The study did not demonstrate conclusively a
cognitive advantage of having the exhibit experience prior to the lesson. Scores
on the visual test were consistently higher than scores on the verbal test.
Study findings indicated that the particular strength of the science museum
exhibit lies in the affective domain; students found the exhibit much more
enjoyable, interesting, and motivational than a classroom lesson. Thus, the
researchers concluded that a science museum, by providing exhibits which
generate enthusiasm for and interest in learning science, can serve as a
valuable adjunct to formal, in-school instruction.
A single-visit, structured tour of a specific area of a zoological park can
be a significant learning experience for elementary students. A Falk and Balling
(1982b) study, one of a series conducted by personnel of the Smithsonian
Institution's Chesapeake Bay Center for Environmental Studies, demonstrated that
children do learn a great deal on well-structured field trips, indicating that
design and execution of the field experience, including well planned pre-trip
orientation, are critical. Also, the most effective pre-trip orientation was
that conducted by the classroom teacher trained in advance by a targeted
workshop. Orientation by a resource person from the zoo, or by the classroom
teacher supported only by zoo-generated printed materials, was found to be less
Most children in the 10- to 12-year-old age range are ready for and can
thrive on day-long trips to novel settings such as museums, outdoor centers, and
zoos (Falk, 1983). For children between 7 and 13 years of age, novel
environments are poor settings for imposed task learning, when compared to
familiar environments (Martin and others, 1981). Thus, younger children are
likely to learn more from field experience in a more familiar setting, such as
one near their school (Falk and Balling, 1982a). These children may need more
than one trip to the same site to overcome the negative effects of novelty; the
younger the children, the more likely the novelty of an unfamiliar setting will
interfere with cognitive learning, so the need for familarization is greater.
Classificatory behavior of 41 fourth-grade students enrolled in a science
program at the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC, was assessed on an
instrument adapted from Piaget's interviews with children on class
inclusion--their understanding of the inclusiveness of classes of animals within
a hierarchical structure (Lockett, 1982). One goal selected from the evaluation
of program effectiveness was to determine how well students had learned the
zoological classification system and the characteristics of animals within the
vertebrate class. Data analysis showed that students with a high understanding
of class inclusion performed better in the program at the zoo. The data also
supported Piaget's finding that a lag exists in children's application of class
inclusion to animal classes. The results imply that educators should keep in
mind the developmental levels of students when planning programs, specifically
(in this instance) out-of-classroom visits to zoos; and provide students with
opportunities to extend emerging cognitive abilities to new situations, such as
those encountered in field settings.
None of the recent studies reported here have made claims that
out-of-classroom learning experiences are sufficient in themselves to produce
significant cognitive gains with elementary students. Factors such as lack of
readiness, or too much novelty, can mitigate against successful cognitive
instruction in such situations.
However, there is ample evidence that in-the-environment instruction is
useful in promoting and achieving cognitive gain when effectively planned and
managed. Advance organizers for students and coordination with other modes of
instruction appear to be effective in promoting cognitive gain through use of
field activities, as are care in the selection of learning environments,
recognition and mitigation of the effects of novelty, and attention to readiness
factors. There appears to be little doubt that elementary students can profit
cognitively from outside-the-classroom experiences, but much more must be
learned about how to structure such experiences and integrate them with other
modes of instruction to take full advantage of these possibilities. In addition,
longitudinal studies are needed to determine the long-term impact of these modes
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Backman, Sheila J. and John L. Crompton. "Education Experiences Contribute to
Cognitive Development." JOURNAL OF ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION 16 (1984-85): 4-13.
Bloom, Benjamin S. and others. TAXONOMY OF EDUCATIONAL OBJECTIVES HANDBOOK I:
COGNITIVE DOMAIN. New York: David McKay Company, 1956.
Disinger, John F. "Field Instruction in School Settings." ERIC/SMEAC
ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION DIGEST NO. 1, 1984.
Donaldson, George W. and Louise E. Donaldson. "Outdoor Education--A
Definition." JOURNAL OF HEALTH, PHYSICAL EDUCATION, AND RECREATION 29 (1958).
Falk, John H. "Field Trips: A Look at Environmental Effects on Learning."
JOURNAL OF BIOLOGICAL EDUCATION 17 (1983): 137-142.
Falk, John H. and John D. Balling. "The Field Trip Milieu: Learning and
Behavior as a Function of Contextual Events." JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH 76
Falk, John H. and John D. Balling. IMPROVING THE QUALITY OF SINGLE-VISIT
FIELD TRIPS TO THE NATIONAL ZOOLOGICAL PARK. DEVELOPMENT OF PRE-TRIP MATERIALS
AND AN ASSESSMENT OF LEARNING AND BEHAVIOR. Edgewater, MD: Chesapeake Bay Center
for Environmental Studies, 1982b.
Flexer, Barbara K. and Minda Borun. "The Impact of a Class Visit to a
Participatory Science Museum Exhibit and a Classroom Science Lesson." JOURNAL OF
RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING 21 (1984): 863-873.
Gross, Michael P. and Edward L. Pizzini. "The Effects of Combined Advance
Organizers and Field Experience on Environmental Orientations of Elementary
School Children." JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING 16 (1979): 323-331.
Hosley, Edward Wendell. "A Comparison of Two Methods of Instruction in
Environmental Education." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Maryland, 1974. ED
Howie, Thomas Richard. "Indoor or Outdoor Education?" JOURNAL OF
ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION 6 (1974): 32-36.
Huntley, Robert George. "Extending Education Through Camping, 1978: A Study
Approximating L.B. Sharp's Outdoor Education Research in 1947." Unpublished
Ph.D. dissertation, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. Ann Arbor, MI:
University Microfilms, 7926312; DISSERTATION ABSTRACTS INTERNATIONAL 40 (1979):
Lisowski, Marylin and John F. Disinger. "Cognitive Learning in the
Environment: Secondary Students." ERIC/SMEAC ENVIRONMENTAL EDUCATION DIGEST NO.
Lockett, Danuta Wal. "The Relationship of Classificatory Behavior in Fourth
Grade Students to Performance in a Science Education Program at a Museum."
Washington, DC: Creative Associates, Inc. A paper presented at the meeting of
the American Educational Research Association, New York, NY, March, 1982. ED 236
artin, W. Wade, John H. Falk, and John D. Balling. "Environmental Effects on
Learning: The Outdoor Field Trip." SCIENCE EDUCATION 65 (1981): 301-309.
New York City Board of Education. EXTENDING EDUCATION THROUGH CAMPING. New
York, NY: Outdoor Education Association, Inc., 1948.
Stronck, David R. "The Comparative Effects of Different Museum Tours on
Children's Attitudes and Learning." JOURNAL OF RESEARCH IN SCIENCE TEACHING 20
Werling, Donn Paul. "A School/Community Model for the Stewardship of School
Site and Neighborhood Outdoor Laboratories and an Evaluation of Their Use by
Selected 4th and 5th Grade Pupils for Environmental Education." Unpublished
Ph.D. dissertation, The University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI: University
Microfilms, 7925245; DISSERTATION ABSTRACTS INTERNATIONAL 40 (1979): 2432-A.