Learning outside the Classroom

While emphasis on standardized tests and core subjects such as reading, writing, math and sciences has reduced the number of out of classroom learning opportunities, the value of learning outside class remains undeniable.

According to Richard J. Light Harvard Professor from the Kennedy School of Government, in his ten-year study of the most successful students at Harvard,  many had their most “important and memorable academic learning…outside of classes. Whether it was among other students in the dormitories…80% of the students, a large majority, cited a critical incident that occurred outside the classroom ‘changed them profoundly.”

Meeting a variety of people and having casual conversations generates all kinds of new ideas and approaches. That’s why when designing the Pixar Film Studio offices, Steve Jobs wanted to ensure everybody would run into each other a lot. The best ideas, the best meetings, happen by accident. Separately, the erstwhile Building #20 at MIT, an architectural disaster, had students from linguistics, electronics, even the ROTC running into each other constantly. Consequently, it generated innumerable ground-breaking inventions including the first video game, the physics behind microwaves, the original Bose speakers, and Chomsky’s linguistics. When people with ranging ideas wander outside the classroom and begin mixing with others—a spigot of inventions flows freely.

The British, who founded the Boy Scouts, are particularly fond of learning outside the classroom when weather allows. Through roundtable discussions and research they have confirmed learning outside the classroom builds student confidence, transforms relationships with teachers, and even improves grades. In Britain the 2008 Ofsted report noted that implemented well, outside of classroom experiences, “contributed significantly to raising standards and improving pupil’s personal, social, and emotional development.”

In the US, one of the most noted practitioners of outside the classroom learning is the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). NOLS uses the challenges of nature to elicit leadership and cooperation and has trained every new US astronaut and about 10% of Annapolis graduates.  

On a more elementary level, Lynn Cashell, a primary school teacher in Garnet Valley, Pennsylvania, takes her math class outside with their digital cameras to snap a series of geometrical shapes found on-campus, which they then will view back in the classroom to identify, and then enter into a classroom published book on geometry. When there is a distinct purpose attached to the out of classroom activity, and students have clear cut activities to accomplish, the learning outcomes are magnified.  

Even though out-of-classroom learning often seeks to dispense with technology, particularly the ubiquitous cell phone, sometimes digital technology serves a valuable purpose. Lawrence University students in northern Wisconsin, as part of an environmental science course, collected and tagged water samples using GPS devices (their smartphones) and a tablet PC to measure pollution levels, and determine the source of the pollution. 

The Incredible Edible movement blossomed forth in the small British mill town of Todmorden. It is the very embodiment of learning outside the classroom: Incredible Edible planted dozens of beds of raspberries, apricots, apples, strawberries, beans, peas, cherries, mint, thyme, onions... throughout the town, in front of parking lots, a hospital, civic buildings...everywhere. All the produce is free to anyone who wants it at any time. Every school is involved in growing and promoting ‘food-based learning’ for the community as a whole. Incredible Edible recently joined Todmorden HS to create a special food hub at the school that incorporates aquaponics, and has engaged ‘problem pupils’ in building this new resource. As a consequence student communication, engagement, and aspiration levels rose, leading some of these ‘problem pupils’ to apply and gain admission to college.

When out-of-classroom learning engages students and involves the community, it can reach far beyond four walls and a whiteboard to create ‘profound changes.’