Research Summary

Seeing the Wood for the Trees: Applying the dual-memory system model to investigate expert teachers' observational skills in natural ecological learning environments

Experienced Teachers Lead by Example

International Journal of Science Education

When it comes to observing the classroom environment, experience counts. Research reveals that expert teachers are able to observe a classroom with a broader perspective and can attend to more details than novice teachers. Experts can also react quickly to situations that require intervention, often without even being aware of their actions.

These findings may be true in a classroom, but what about outdoors? What tools do expert outdoor teachers use to observe both their students and the environment? According to the authors of this study, “Field-work studies focusing on teachers are rare.” The authors explain that it’s far more common to study students, not teachers, in outdoor settings. The researchers studied the behavior of two expert ecology teachers. Using a cognitive model lens, the authors explored how the teachers think about and transfer knowledge to their students.

The science teachers included in the study each had more than 10 years of teaching expertise. Referenced under the pseudonyms of Eric and Carl, the teachers work at two universities in Sweden. Eric led a group of 12 pre-service preschool and primary school science teachers, while Carl led a mixed group of both prospective biologists and biology student teachers. Both teachers covered similar content on a field trip to a natural environment on trips that lasted six and nine hours, respectively.

The researchers took photographs and made video and audio recordings of the trips. Video recordings included both videos shot from the students’ perspective and footage captured from a video camera mounted on the head of one of the instructors in order to capture the teacher’s view. After the excursions, the authors sifted through all collected data and interviewed the teachers in a stimulated recall setting, whereby the teachers were prompted with photos, videos, or transcripts to solicit their impressions.

The theoretical framework behind this study employs dual processing, a psychological model implying that there are two different systems for reasoning, judgment, and social behavior in the brain. These have come to be understood in the context of learning as the implicit and the explicit systems. The explicit memory system is conscious and analytic, and deals with facts, episodes, and rules. It uses working memory to scope out details and systematically identify objects through feature-by-feature matching with respect to a generic example. The implicit memory system is, in turn, non-conscious, using rapid, automatic, and holistic pattern recognition to process information. It makes use of what we perceive in the environment through all senses and is built up by past experiences to the point that working memory is not employed.

The study showed that the teachers made use of two different strategies to teach the students how to identify natural objects: The first was alerting the students to rules or specific characteristics, and the second was drawing comparisons between an unknown and familiar object. The authors highlighted a myriad of observed examples in which one or both teachers employed the use of the implicit system in making sense of their environment and then trying to explain how they recognized that information through verbalizing key features of the environment (thus working the explicit system). The authors determined that experience is especially valuable for student understanding, and observed how the teachers tried to help the students create memorable experiences by pointing out critical details in their surroundings. The teachers worked with their environment, making use of their observational skills to teach while being open to the unpredictable nature of the excursion.

In particular, the researchers noted that teachers used two key strategies to help their students identify natural objects. The teachers either described specific rules for identifying something (for example, naming the specific characteristics of a type of grass), or they compared the new natural object to something more familiar to the students. Those comparisons might be drawn from other natural objects or from objects familiar from everyday life. For example, one of the teachers compared different types of soil to different household objects such as toothpaste or flour. These explicit techniques helped build the students’ observational skills, which in turn helped them build more robust implicit memories of the experience. “Since implicit knowledge has shown to be more long-lasting than explicit knowledge,” the authors explained, “this may mean that the students will feel familiarity with the object even if they have forgotten its [name].”

Altogether, it became clear that the teachers used a holistic approach to teach their students in the natural environment, working unconsciously to recognize patterns that could then be worked consciously and verbalized for the students. The researchers explained that the teachers they studied have built their skills over long experience, and that their knowledge about teaching is now implicit. As such, the teachers could not explain how they teach to their students, most of whom will be teachers themselves. But the authors explained, “However, in being there and experiencing how the teachers acted, the students learnt teaching strategies by example.”

The Bottom Line

Experienced teachers learn effective teaching techniques over time, and then use those skills without even knowing it. The authors of this paper studied the teaching techniques of two experienced outdoor educators and concluded that they use a variety of techniques to help their students learn about natural environments. In particular, the teachers were especially skilled at helping the students make comparisons to more familiar objects when encountering something new, and building new sensory experiences for their students that will build their long-term knowledge. The experienced teachers also were deft at changing course as they taught when opportunities arose in the natural environment and in response to their students’ interest and energy level.