Research Summary

Teacher development through coteaching outdoor science and environmental education across the elementary-middle school transition

Coteaching model increases teachers’ confidence in implementing outdoor learning programs

The Journal of Environmental Education
2020

Outdoor learning is a unique opportunity for students to explore the outdoors while gaining hands-on experience in a natural setting. Research has shown that outdoor learning can allow students to develop a deeper understanding of and build stronger connections with environment. Though there are many benefits to outdoor learning to students, research shows that many teachers do not feel confident or comfortable teaching outdoors. Recent studies have shown that a way to mitigate this issue is to implement coteaching. Coteaching allows educators to work together, learn from each other, and feel less isolated. To have successful coteaching, schools must provide educators with continuing professional development (CPD) opportunities to help them gain the necessary skills and tools to coteach. The purpose of this study was to investigate the outcomes of a blended coteaching model for a CPD opportunity for elementary and junior-high school teachers in Northern Ireland.

This study was conducted in Northern Ireland at local elementary and junior-high schools. Four teachers who taught the final year of elementary and four who taught the first year of junior-high school participated. To establish coteaching pairs for the study, the researcher partnered elementary school teachers and junior-high school teachers. The coteaching program included co-planning and co-evaluating and provided workshops for participants. Workshops focused on topics such as the benefits of coteaching, how it would look if implemented, and the development of a code of conduct while coteaching. All coteaching pairs worked together for the entirety of the program and were expected to plan and implement a blended outdoor learning activity with their classes. The researcher conducted in-depth interviews, requested that participants complete reflective diaries, before, during, and after programming, and recorded videos and photographs during activities. All materials were analyzed for common themes.

Overall, the researcher found that participants felt a greater sense of confidence and excitement in implementing outdoor learning programs as well as an increase in content knowledge after completing the coteaching program. Specifically, the outcomes from the program fell into four categories: cognitive impacts, affective impacts, impacts of the coteaching model, and professional development.

Cognitive Impacts: Cognitive impacts focused on the changes in environmental knowledge, subject content knowledge, curriculum, and teaching practices. The participants felt they had gained new content knowledge, increased their own subject knowledge and learned ways to effectively conduct outdoor programs. For example, an elementary school teacher discussed how they initially relied on their partner to lead the outdoor presentation, but once the program was complete, they felt more knowledgeable and capable to lead future programs.

Affective Impacts: Affective impacts focused on teacher's confidence, empowerment, and enjoyment in teaching outdoor learning programs. The researcher identified an increase in teacher confidence and empowerment to teach science education outdoors. Additionally, there was evident excitement and enjoyment among the teachers during their interviews. The educators frequently discussed their excitement to implement future outdoor programming and how students were equally excited about future outdoor learning opportunities.

Impacts of Coteaching Model: Impacts of coteaching referred to the teacher's ability to share knowledge with one another, and the development of autonomy when teaching in the outdoors. The researcher found that teachers built relationships with one another and were able to effectively communicate and share ideas. These new relationships allowed them to bridge gaps between their curriculums that would make the transition between grades easier for students and enhance outdoor learning experiences in both grades.

Professional Development: Overall, the program resulted in sustainable and long-term changes with the teachers’ own teaching, the school’s science curriculum, and the development of outdoor science and learning in the schools. The researcher found that all schools supported continued implementation of outdoor learning programs.

This study had limitations. The small sample size and location make it difficult to generalize results. Additionally, future long-term studies should be conducted, to determine if these results are sustainable.

The CPD program had many successful outcomes and can be a positive approach towards increasing and improving outdoor learning in schools. Schools that wish to integrate outdoor learning programs should consider providing CPD opportunities for teachers, such as the coteaching model. The study found that the coteaching model improved educators’ content knowledge as well as their comfort and confidence teaching outdoors. Additionally, implementing the blended coteaching model can be beneficial in transitional stages for schools. The researcher recommends integrating the blended format to ease the transition for students between elementary, middle, and high school.

The Bottom Line

This study investigated the outcomes of a blended coteaching model for a continuing professional development (CPD) opportunity for elementary and junior-high school teachers in Northern Ireland. The researcher established four coteaching pairs, each consisting of one elementary and one junior-high school teacher. Each coteaching pair worked together for the entirety of the CPD program and developed an outdoor learning activity for their students. The researcher found that participating teachers felt a greater sense of confidence and excitement in implementing outdoor learning programs as well as an increase in content knowledge post-program. The researcher recommends providing teachers with CPD opportunities, such as the blended coteaching model, to develop more effective outdoor learning programs in schools.