“I love forest school and I know it works, but I need some evidence to convince other people.”
My immediate reaction was of course Forest school is great we all know that… then I stopped and thought.
Firstly, just like all of us, I am a part of a social media bubble, which in my case means all forms of environmental education, nature interaction and experiential learning are seen as important. This means there is a danger of thought polarisation and as such I have to be open to question my own thinking, and not rely on gaining a balanced approach through other people.
I therefore started thinking “How do I know nature interaction is worthwhile?”
My first step here, was that word, “KNOW” how can we be said to know anything. This of course is a big philosophical question that has been debated over many millennia (1), from Plato to Euler, from Descates to Russell and is of course a major branch of philosophy know as epistemology (2). I am not the right person to go into all of that; it is not my area of expertise, but I will summarise a very basic approach – to know means;
- The person believes the statement to be true
- The statement is in fact true
- The person is justified in believing the statement to be true (3)
And I love Eulers’ approach summarised in this diagram
The person believes the statement to be true
I believe it because of several different things.
- I enjoy being outside and I feel it does me good.
- I have run many different approaches to environmental education and the outdoors, and in my experience, I have seen how much children enjoy it, and what they get out of it.
- The children tell me how important it is to them
- Schools, parents, teachers, governors, head teachers, police and more feedback on both how the children talk about the experience, but also what they observe in changes for the children.
- I am not alone in this – other people who run similar sessions talk about their experiences and feedback they get, which mirrors my own.
Well that does seem that added all together nature, forest school and environmental education is an excellent approach to both learning and wellbeing. Much of the time this is all that is needed. Educational establishments and funders love this sort of anecdotal data. It is easy to understand, can be effectively to sell an approach and make me feel all warm and fuzzy.
I think therefore I am justified in believing in the power of nature interactions. So I “know it works.”
But, I am still not convinced this is the answer. There are still the other areas of knowledge and although this is all good – there is the saying “the plural of anecdotes is not data!”
The statement is in fact true
Wow, not only does my simple question ask what is meant by knowledge, it also asks what is meant by truth – I maybe regretting I started on this path!
Truth, like knowledge, is surprisingly difficult to define (4)
In fact so much so I am not going to go into the concept of truth here. I just suggest you look up “What is truth” (5, 6 and 7, for a quick start!)
I think I will go for the legal definition – “beyond reasonable doubt.” There has been quite a bit of research into forest schools over the past 20 years, and much more into the wider area of environmental education. A good starting point for reading some of this research can be found here (8).
From a personal perspective when I first started forest schools I did a simple study. We were working in the foundation stage of three schools for two years. Each school had approximately 60 children per year, so 180 children attended forest school over those 2 years. Using just the normal levels found in the EYFS curriculum I analysed the achievements of those children who attended forest schools and compared them with the 180 children whose data was available two years prior to starting forest school. I found in the years of attending forest school pupils achieved significantly (I use Mann Whitney U to test this!) higher levels in certain areas of the foundation stage curriculum (see my table below).
Now we are getting away from the problem of simply using anecdotes. This is actual studies, some of which are qualitative and give data! Great! Surely I can now say forest school works and know it to be true!
Is there room for any reasonable doubt here? I would argue yes. Given the complexity of humans can any one aspect actually be isolated?
The data above doesn’t give an idea of the other areas of the curriculum, maybe there was a reduction in achievement? (as I remember it there wasn't any significant change but this was unpublished, and I have no longer got access to my original work). Moreover, there is the Hawthorne effect (9)! This says people do better when something – anything – is altered; basically, they like attention! Maybe the fact that we, as an outside organisation were spending time with the classes was what affected the data, not the form of intervention.
I also have this distinct sneaking suspicion that anyone who loves something, when they study it they may well find it “works.” I have not just worked outside in education, but also in maths, poetry and art. Look into any of these areas and you will find equal, if not more evidence that increasing this sort of learning can do a lot, not just to a child’s achievement in that subject, but also to helping to develop other curriculum and non-curriculum areas. (10, 11, 12, 13 and 14)
One of the worst things I can imagine is singing in a choir. I would hate it. I can’t sing, I don’t like music, all that noise, inability to escape, no space – it is my ideal of hell. And yet people love it. There is much anecdotal evidence and research (15 and 16) that has been done that says how important it is. Here my beliefs do not match the research. I am not willing to change my beliefs and throw myself into singing despite the research.
The person is justified in believing the statement to be true
I am not sure a true answer will ever be possible. What we can aim for is justification of evidence. I would argue we need (and in many cases already have);
- Ongoing regularised self-reports – something that extends the anecdotal evidence
- Longitudinal research – do these interventions make an impact over time, or just in the short term?
- Comparative studies – Which approaches are best? How does forest school compare with Earth Education? How about residentials? How does forest school compare with singing in a choir?
- Classify how environmental intervention can be said to impact on children (and adults) - is it in knowledge acquisition, understanding, self confidence, overall wellbeing, specified wellbeing or more?
- Look at the groups who are being studied - do young children respond differently to older? How about teenagers and adults? How about those already identified as "struggling" in one way or another?
- Making use of standardised quantitative approaches; to wellbeing; to learning and to other areas of achievement
- Develop standardised, easily administered qualitative approaches that can be used to easily justify an intervention
- Observational and qualitative research of children and adults current and prior experiences.
- Pre and post attendance contextual analysis – does attendance at a forest school or environmental event change beliefs, knowledge or understanding
- And finally, I do like a bit of neuro science, so whilst all these behavioural studies are great, how about a bit of brain biology, and non invasive research on hormone secretion!
I think I may have realised why I want to undertake a PhD! I may also be questioning a little more my assumption that "forest school works."