Students learn outside for a class with their teacher, Tralee Reford, at St. John’s Catholic Elementary School. Photo courtesy TCDSB

Live and learn: Education outside the classroom

  • August 21, 2018

When Grade 10 students at Bishop James Mahoney High School in Saskatoon learned about motion in physics class last year, they weren’t in a classroom. Instead, they met with former Air Force pilots at an airport hangar.

Students learning about ethics and stages of life in Catholic Studies class volunteer at St. Angela’s Merici Residence, an Ursuline Sisters retirement home. And students reading Romeo and Juliet in English class learn about old-world apothecary practices inspired by the poison a friar gave to Juliet. 

It’s all part of the school’s Health & Sciences Academy program which does away with the traditional classroom setting, trading desks and chalkboards for experts in real-life settings. It’s an approach to learning that has gained traction in many schools.

Bishop James Mahoney students have the opportunity to work and study out of the University of Saskatchewan’s Canadian Light Source, a state-of-the-art facility that conducts one of the largest science projects in the country. 

“I think ultimately (this program) has allowed students to recognize where their areas of interests truly lie,” said Andrea Regier, teacher and program lead for the school’s Health & Sciences Academy (HSA). “We want to show them how exciting science can be and really make it practical as well.”

HSA is a unique program launched last year that connects students with experts in Canada’s “Science City” and integrates their hands-on learning into their entire curriculum. 

“Traditionally, I think we thought of the teacher being the instructor at the front and sharing their knowledge and their passion, which still has its place…. But now, we’re drawing in experts,” said Regier. “This model of learning allows teachers to collaborate with these experts.”

outdoor science classBishop James Mahoney students learn science in and outside the lab at the Univeristy of Saskatchewan. (Photo courtesy of Andrea Regier)

HSA just finished its pilot year. Regier and a team of teachers developed the program based on a similar model used by science academies in Texas. They also looked at various research studies that demonstrate the benefits of experiential learning outside the classroom. 

Barrie Bennett has been studying and researching these methods for more than 47 years. Now a retired associate professor from the University of Toronto and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE), he builds systemic projects for school districts around the world. 

“You start to see why these programs work is because it’s meaningful,” said Bennett. “It’s more meaningful to be outside of the school than inside of the school. It’s real.”

The roots of many of these programs, he said, come from Maria Montessori, a devout Italian Catholic who developed an educational philosophy in the early 1900s which catered to a child’s mind, body and soul. Her child-centred approach to learning was so successful, her method is still used over 100 years later. 

“I don’t think it’s an either-or issue,” said Bennett. “I don’t think it’s just about having kids out there or just having kids in the school. It’s a balance between those two positions.”

At St. John’s Catholic Elementary School in Toronto, outdoor learning is taken quite literally. Tralee Reford is a Grade 1-2 teacher and as part of her curriculum the class spends time outdoors once a week. On the side of the school building, an outdoor chalkboard faces rows of wooden tables and benches.

“You can see a whole different student by just having them in the outdoor classroom.... who is listening, who is retrieving, who is retaining information how you never thought before,” she said.

outdoor class elementary 02Students learn outdoors at St. John Catholic Elementary School. (Courtesy of TCDSB)

The outdoor classroom was an idea St. John’s parent council brought to the school two years ago. It was part of a larger project to have the school certified for the Ontario EcoSchools program. Since then, Reford has been encouraging her fellow teachers to use St. John’s outdoor classroom as part of their curriculums. 

“Any of those subjects listed can be taught outside,” she said. “And I teach this to the Grade 1s, that we have a responsibility to be good stewards to our planet…. You can talk about a tree or watch a video about a tree, but you can go out there and feel the bark and look at the leaves and understand how they work in the ecosystem.”

In a way, this is why Tony Wong decided to start a community garden three years ago at Msgr. Fraser College’s Isabella Campus. In the parking lot of this adult high school in Toronto, there are three 4x3-foot boxes where Wong’s Food and Culture students grow kale, rhubarb, beans, basil and many other plants.

“For some of them, they are growing and tending to plants for the very first time,” said Wong. “This is the first time they’ve actually cut their food from a living plant instead buying it from a store or something that’s already pre-made.”

outdoor plants farming
Students finish building their plant beds at Msgr. Fraser College. (Photo courtesy of TCDSB) 

Wong said he is always surprised how many students have never had the experience of growing a plant from its seed. Because of this, he is intentional in encouraging students to grow a plant from a seed but also spend part of the class time tending to the school’s existing garden. This allows students to gain a better understanding of an ingredients journey from the farm to the dinner table. 

“Ultimately, what we’re hoping is that what they’re learning inside the classroom is something they carry in their own lives,” said Wong. 

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