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Education Outside The Classroom: It’s In Our Nature

In New Zealand we’re taught from a young age to love the outdoors, to explore our country’s natural beauty and connect with the land.

The latest research by Ara Institute of Canterbury academics Dr. Allen Hill (Principal Lecturer, Sustainability and Outdoor Education), Dr. David Irwin (Manager- Sustainability and Outdoor Education) - authored alongside colleagues from Otago University, University of Waikato and University of Canterbury - demonstrates that ‘Education Outside the Classroom’ (EOTC) is very much part of the fabric of schools within Aotearoa New Zealand.

This significant research, funded by Education Outdoors New Zealand (EONZ) and Ministry of Education, is part of a newly-published national study, Education Outside the Classroom in Aotearoa New Zealand – A Comprehensive National Study: Final Report.

Dr. Allen Hill said, “The purpose of this study was to gather an up-to-date sense of the nature of the EOTC that’s occurring in schools across Aotearoa New Zealand, the value that schools place upon it and the challenges they have in providing equitable, quality EOTC.”

A survey of 523 school leaders and EOTC coordinators found that 96% of questionnaire respondents felt that EOTC was extremely or very important to their school; a finding that was reflected in students’ and teachers’ interview responses. The description ‘EOTC brings the curriculum alive’ was a familiar catchphrase used by many teachers to describe how EOTC experiences enriched their students’ learning.

“The key value propositions from schools related to EOTC were that it enriches curriculum, provides authentic ‘real-world’ learning, increases student engagement, and provides significant opportunity for students to develop better learning relationships between each other and their teachers,” Hill said.

“I really believe these value outcomes apply to tertiary education too, particularly the ITP sector. Providing students with the opportunity for ‘real-world’, applied, hands-on learning is crucial for not only improving student engagement but also for meeting the needs of 21st century learning and a rapidly-changing future of work, especially in a post-Covid-19 world.”

Health and physical education stood out as the learning area where EOTC was most prevalent, with 92% of respondent schools indicating EOTC experiences took place in this subject at least once a term. EOTC learning experiences in social sciences, science, and the arts were also common, with over half of respondent schools indicating that students took curriculum enrichment trips once a term to places such as museums, art galleries and historical sites.

Hill said, “In the interviews students talked to us about how engaging EOTC is and how it gives them more ownership and investment in their learning. They also spoke positively about developing better relationships with each other and their teachers, and the opportunity to have new experiences.”

The study found that despite schools placing a high value upon EOTC experiences, there were several challenges facing effective and equitable EOTC provision. The main obstacles were cost and resourcing shortfalls, time constraints and teacher workloads, health and safety considerations and a lack of experienced teachers and parents to lead or assist with EOTC trips. The research found that most of the challenges related to underfunding of the sector - an important finding which reveals the social, political, and economic context in which EOTC is envisioned and enacted.

An extract taken from the report reads, “Teachers value EOTC highly but also strongly felt budgetary and other pressures compromised student learning. EOTC came with considerable costs to teachers and often overloaded their working and personal lives. A lack of curriculum support signposted the fragility of the area and positive political will from the Ministry and Government was seen to be sorely needed.”

What’s next?

This study is the most comprehensive research ever undertaken into EOTC in Aotearoa New Zealand.


Dr. Hill said, “It has been more than a decade since previous research was done on EOTC in New Zealand and the study on which this report is based is by far the most comprehensive ever completed. There has been much anticipation and expectation from individuals and groups such as EONZ looking forward to the release of this report.”

Dr. Hill and his research team plan to use the findings in the study to continue to write articles on the subject which will reach national and international outdoor and environmental learning sectors.

“We do see potential for further research with Māori educators looking at a more detailed investigation of the role of EOTC in kura kaupapa. There are also more opportunities to document examples of good EOTC practice through a series of case studies across different schools.”

Read the full report: https://www.eonz.org.nz/assets/Resources/Research/EOTC-in-Aotearoa-New-Zealand-Final-Report-2020-compressed.pdf

Ara Researchers:

  • Dr Allen Hill – Chief Investigator: Principal Lecturer in Sustainability and Outdoor Education, Department of Humanities, Ara Institute of Canterbury. 
    Dr. Hill joined Ara in July, 2016 from the University of Tasmania, Australia, where he was a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education since 2011. He still holds an adjunct position at the University of Tasmania. Before his transition into tertiary education, Dr. Hill was a secondary school teacher in Aotearoa New Zealand for 11 years. His professional career, in both secondary and higher education, can be characterized by an enduring commitment to the development of people coupled with a strong concern for issues of justice, sustainability, transformation, and place. How education can engage people with meaningful outdoor learning experiences and contribute to a sustainable future through connecting people with each other and with the places they inhabit is at the heart of his research and teaching interests.
  • Dr Dave Irwin: Manager of Sustainability and Outdoor Education, Department of Humanities, Ara Institute of Canterbury. 
    Dr. Irwin has worked at Ara (formerly Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology) since 1999. He originally trained as a teacher prior to extensive experience in environmental and risk management in the tourism sector, particularly for organisations operating within the Department of Conservation estate. His research and teaching interests lie in the exploration of culture, identity and human-nature relationships, education for sustainability, and agency for change within organisations and societies.

Other members of the research team:

  • Dr Chris North – Associate Head of Health Sciences, University of Canterbury.
  • Marg Cosgriff – Senior Lecturer, Te Huataki Waiora - School of Health, University of Waikato
  • Dr Mike Boyes: Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Physical Education, University of Otago, Dunedin
  • Sophie Watson – Educational Researcher and Consultant

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