Outside Atlanta, after returning from a class hike through the woods, an excited six-year-old grabbed his head and said, “There’s so much nature and I only have two eyes and one brain and I think it’s going to explode!”
A teacher at the nature-based Chattahoochee Hills Charter School shared that story about her student with me a couple weeks ago. Telling it, she seemed just about as excited as the six-year-old, though she did not grab her head.
We were watching a CBS This Morning television crew roam the grounds. They were working on a piece about schools that emphasize the natural world as a learning environment (barring a Trumpian implosion or other massive world event, the segment will run on April 8th, sometime after 8 a.m. Eastern time). Here’s what they saw: a series of classrooms, each in its own building; the front of every classroom is glass to let in natural light, and teachers can open that side of the room to the elements. Surrounding the school is a forest laced with walking trails. From deep in those woods came the sounds of young laughter, running feet and learning.
At Chattahoochee Hills Charter School, students spend about a third of their time learning in the outdoors.
Creating this school has not been easy. As with many nature-based schools, there have been bumps on the trail. But Clay Johnson, Chattahoochee Hills Charter School Board Chair, reports impressive results. As measured by the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (standardized tests used in Iowa and many other school districts across the U.S.), the school has shown more academic improvement on average, across all subjects, than any other school in Fulton County, GA. According to Johnson, “The region’s third-grade average reading score is 41.3, nearly nine points below national average. Our nature-based school is batting 17 points above that average. Same thing is happening in math. In both third and fifth-grade, we’ve seen double-digit gains — a far higher rate than the county average, including the schools in wealthier areas.” Chattahoochee Hills Charter School students are healthier, too. “On average, they miss far fewer days of school than students elsewhere in the county.”
The health finding is no stretch. In Scandinavia’s “all-weather” schools, student spend time outdoors every day, in every type of weather. They report fewer colds and less flu than kids who spend their days in closed classrooms. And the education results? Probably similar to schools in Finland. In the early 1970s, after decades of war and Russian occupation, Finnish schools were in bad shape. But, during the past decade or two, while the US began to fall behind, Finland’s scores in math, science and reading have consistently been at or near the top, as measured by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Finland ranks first in PISA’s measure of “study effectiveness.” The reasons for these gains are complex, but in Finland, outdoor recess, often held in natural spaces, is considered nearly as crucial to academic success as literacy.
In a 2014 article in The Atlantic, Tim Walker, an American teacher in Finland, described how he had been skeptical of Finland’s practice of giving 15-minute breaks each hour. Then he saw the difference it made in his own classroom. “Normally, students and teachers in Finland take a 15-minute break after every 45 minutes of instruction,” he wrote. “During a typical break, students head outside to play and socialize with friends while teachers disappear to the lounge to chat over coffee…Once I incorporated these short recesses into our timetable, I no longer saw feet-dragging, zombie-like kids in my classroom.” Most importantly, he reported, after their 15-minute outdoor breaks, his students “were more focused during lessons.”
Despite widespread reporting about Finland’s successes, the majority of America’s school boards have marched in the opposite direction: reduced recess, fewer field trips, longer hours sitting at desks, more tests– and more computers, with iPads and even video games used increasingly as teaching tools in classrooms.
All of this has led many of us to assume that more technology in the classroom necessarily increases the quality of education. Some digital technology is effective in and outside the classroom. We’ll be seeing more of it. But how far do we really want to go in that direction, without balancing agents?
Consider what may be the ultimate high-tech school: AltSchool Brooklyn, a pre-K to eighth-grade private school. As Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker, it “does not look like a traditional educational establishment. There is no playground attached, no crossing guard at the street corner, and no crowd of children blocking the sidewalk in the morning. The school is one floor up, in a commercial building overlooking Montague Street.” Inside the school, the cutting edge is sharp indeed. Students are issued tablets in pre-K. “AltSchool embeds fish-eye lenses in the walls of its classrooms, capturing every word, action, and interaction, for potential analysis.” The teacher of the future will be transformed, into a data-enabled detective” according to one of the school’s founders. “Retroactively omniscient,” is how another AltSchool leader, formerly a Google employee, put it.
So the good news, apparently, is that testing, as we know it, will go away. The weird news: we won’t need traditional testing because the machines will be watching our kids all the time — every keystroke will be monitored and measured, every restless wiggle, every eye that wanders into a daydream, every sidelong glance at a tree beyond the window, moving in the wind.
Evidence supporting nature-based, place-based education or experiential learning (as this approach is variously called) has been building for decades.
A purely natural setting isn’t required, by the way. The method can be used in a forest or in an urban neighborhood, especially if it’s graced with a little nature. Gerald Lieberman, an internationally respected education expert, helped produce a 2002 report for California report called “Closing the Achievement Gap.” He worked with 150 schools in 16 states for 10 years, identifying model programs in place-based education or experiential learning, examining how those students fared on standardized tests. The findings were stunning. Students in the schools achieved gains in social studies, science, language arts and math; improved their grade-point averages; and developed skills in problem-solving, critical thinking and decision-making.
Later, David Sobel, a pioneer in the philosophy of place-based education, conducted an independent review of “Closing the Achievement Gap” and similar studies. His conclusion? When it comes to reading skills, place-based education should be considered “the Holy Grail of education reform.”
In 2013, Harvard Education Press published Lieberman’s book, “Education and the Environment: Creating Standards-Based Programs in Schools and Districts.” And today, Sobel, author of several books on the topic, teaches at Antioch University New England, where he recently helped launch the Nature-Based Early Childhood Certificate program at Antioch New England, a program designed to essentially teach teachers how to take kids outdoors to learn. Mary Baldwin College’s Environmental-Based Learning Program offers similar help to educators. There’s growing demand. The number of nature-based preschools and schools similar to Chattahoochee Hills Charter School are on the rise. So are school gardens and nature-based play spaces in elementary and even high schools.
Still, at the time, Lieberman’s report was virtually ignored by the education establishment. Among possible reasons, the body of evidence is relatively new; and most of the studies of health and education showed correlation, not necessarily cause. More longitudinal studies are finally emerging. A six-year study of 905 public elementary schools in Massachusetts found that third-graders got higher scores on standardized testing in English and math in schools that had closer proximity to natural areas. Likewise, preliminary findings of a 10-year University of Illinois study of more than 500 Chicago schools, comparing green schools with more typical schools, indicate similar results, especially for the most challenged learners. As it turns out, greening schools may be one of the most cost-effective ways to raise student test scores.
In many districts, technology does continue to rule the school day. Rejecting digital tools isn’t the point. These tools are useful. But so is nature. Green schools are growing into a strong counter trend — as even some technologists question the underlying assumptions leading us to techno-overkill.
Chattahoochee Hills Charter School Board Chair Clay Johnson happens to be one of them. Not long ago, he worked in the White House as one of the administration’s chief tech guys. He likes his tech gadgets. He drives a Tesla. But he believes fervently that the real cutting edge of education is where the woods and the fields begin. His school’s irrepressible students seem to agree. On the day I visited, two girls on their way to an outdoor learning experience handed a newborn bunny to the CBS reporter and another to me. Whatever worry I had about the interview disappeared. When the reporter asked them to describe some of the ways they were learning math, science, history and language, the girls practically burst with pride and excitement, at that green edge.
Most of us can relate. All that nature! And each of us with two eyes and only one brain.
Photo by Shutterstock/Phillipe Put