Ahmad Amirali is a Religious Education teacher in Pakistan and conducted his research in Karachi in 2016. The aim of his study was to gather students’ perceptions about learning outside the classroom in gardens and examine whether students saw these visits as contributing to their learning. The study also enquired the outcome of visits on students’ learning experiences and investigated challenges faced by the students and teachers while participating in these experiences. Two visits were conducted during this qualitative action research; one inside and one outside the school premises.
Rationale of my Research
One of the biggest challenges that teachers face in their classrooms is making the content relevant to the students’ lives. Many scholars, like Izzo (2006), encourage us to see that culturally-guided teaching can be one of the approaches through which teacher scan relate students’ lives with the taught curriculum. Learning Outside the Classroom (LOtC) can be one such culturally-driven pedagogy through which teachers can help students to relate the curriculum with their lives. In countries like Pakistan, where availability of learning spaces outside the classroom are few, parks and gardens both inside and outside the school premises can be one of the practical learning spaces for students. Moreover, gardens inside the school ground ‘are rich and ecological stories……and have relevance to the life of students, as this is the place where majority of their formal learning takes place’ (Beames et al., 2012, p.06). A majority of schools in Karachi have at least one small garden inside their premises. Therefore, gardens were chosen as a learning space and were my primary focus for this study.
The research was conducted in a community religious education centre (REC) of Ismaili Muslims in Karachi, Pakistan with twenty-seven Grade 7 students aged between twelve to thirteen years. In addition to their secular school, the student participants of this research attend three hours of supplementary RE classes held once a week. The purpose of these RE classes is to foster ethical thinking, religious knowledge and support the children in their overall development. The RECs follow a curriculum designed by the Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, taught by salaried RE teachers trained jointly at the Institute of Education and the Institute of Ismaili Studies.
I started by observing two lessons conducted by another teacher to stimulate my thinking and reflected on these observations. After this, in the first few sessions of my teaching with a new class, I gathered students’ preferences on how they would like to learn and what their expectations were from classroom learning with the help of a reflective task.
Focus group interviews were conducted before and after the garden activities to gain students’ insight on their outdoor learning experience and to ellicit a discussion based response from the students. Apart from students, their parents’ opinions were also gathered by the means of individual interviews both before and after the garden visits; observations were also conducted by a colleague, acting as a ‘critical friend’.
Student perspectives on outdoor garden-based learning were also recorded with the help of classroom observation in the form of peer- and self-reflections. This included post-observation discussions with a colleague who assisted me throughout the research period. His observation notes and discussion with him highlighted various critical incidents relating to how teaching and learning took place both inside and outside the classrooms.
How have things changed?
I shared my research outcomes in the Karachi context with my fellow teachers who noted in passing that almost every RE centre has a garden in their premises. They now realise that gardens can a good cost effective option to explore as a learning space instead of conducting expensive field-trips to provide different learning opportunities to the students. Many teachers have started to use the gardens on their premises for this purpose, and conduct outside school garden visits to see its impact on their students learning of the taught curriculum.
These garden visits, and the process of reflection on them, have also helped students to see how visits impact their own learning; the process has also helped broaden their horizons, in the face of a law and order situation in our country that can be quite inhibiting.
How will I teach differently and why?
My study showed me that students wanted to go outside and learn. The perspectives of outdoor learning in student minds are different: they see outdoor spaces as a way to express how creatively they learn the curriculum. Therefore, in order to provide such creative learning opportunities to students, there is no need to plan an expensive and high profile field trip. A majority of the schools in Karachi discourage outdoor learning due to the students’ security concerns and the cost of the trips. However, I learned that gardens can be the best alternate to these cost-effective field trips. Moreover, I also learned that knowing my students’ perceptions before planning the lesson is equally important for me as a teacher to provide my students best learning and exploring opportunities.
My study revealed to me that students were able to make relevant connections between their garden visits and their taught curriculum topics. Parents also encouraged garden visits as they observed a positive attitudinal change in their children towards learning. I also found that these outdoor visits also had a positive impact on the class attendance with the children taking a more active interest in taught topics and discussions. The study also revealed that students prefer to visit inside the school premises garden instead of gardens outside the school premises: students felt more secure in their own school grounds and feel a sense of belongingness there.
Ahmad’s full report can be read here: final_report-copy