Q&A with Prof. Nir Orion on Out-of-Classroom Teaching

Prof. Nir Orion Prof. Nir Orion

Science Teaching researcher Prof. Nir Orion  recently returned from Peru, where his award-winning Blue Planet teaching unit was adopted by the Peruvian Ministry of Education

Q: You have been working for many years to get schoolchildren out of the classroom setting. Why?

A: Schools in general and science teaching in particular are supposed to teach children about the world they live in. But they do it in a sterile environment that is disengaged from the real world; and thus many students do not find relevance or personal meaning in the subjects they “learn.”

There are, of course, many types of important, abstract subjects that a child living in the 21st century needs to know well (for example the concept of an atom); these can’t be taught by hands-on experience in the out-of-classroom setting. But most subjects of study include elements that can be directly experienced and investigated in the physical (out-of-school) environment, and built into lesson plans that then progress from the concrete to the conceptual.

This usually does not happen because the fundamental basis of the classic school (all over the world) is the disengagement from the real world. Going outside the school walls to engage with that world is mostly seen as a waste of time and money.

Learning is really an innate instinct that exists in many species. In most species, this instinct serves their most basic survival; but for the human species, the ability to learn is much more than that. It serves our best urges: curiosity and the tendency to look for novelty and challenges. But, like any instinct, the urge to learn is only called into play by a stimulus or need. The classic schoolroom stifles the natural learning instinct of most of its students and thus it encourages boredom, truancy and rebellion. To deal with the 'anti'-attitudes, the classic school must use force and manipulation that ultimately makes it less of an educator, more of a policing body.

Because of its failures, the educational system runs in circles, adopting the latest teaching plans that look, at least on paper, to be very successful. But in reality, none of them touch upon the root of the problem: Most of what is learned in school has no “internal” relevance to most of the students. In the teaching materials that I have been developing for around 30 years, the out-of-school “real-world” approach is an integral element in the curriculum; the research that accompanies the application of these learning materials consistently points to the fact that the correct integration of this method into the lesson plan can contribute to creating relevance for the subject matter among students and thus awaken their learning instinct.

Q: What is unique about the approach of the Blue Planet unit?

A: The Blue Planet is one among dozens of units developed in my group over the past 30 years under the title Thinking Science – Understanding Environment. The underlying concept for all of these units is that they try to awaken the students’ natural learning instinct by making it personally relevant to them. Thus every unit is based on a lesson plan that begins with the concrete and then moves to the abstract, based on a well-considered inclusion of the out-of-school environment into its lesson plan.

The Thinking Science – Understanding Environment program is designed to really advance the development of thinking skills, especially thinking skills that then enable the development of environmental insight. Blue Planet and the rest of the collection in Thinking Science – Understanding Environment is the result of the many years of research and development. The consistent results of this research are what have enabled us to say that what is really unique about the program is the way in which the principles of making the subject matter relevant have been translated so completely into practice. These programs reveal that the student must be the main focus of learning, and the starting point of teaching must be emotional (motivation) – this is the key to generating complex cognitive processes.

Peruvian teachers in the Blue Planet workshop Peruvian teachers in the Blue Planet workshop

Q: Why do you think UNESCO gave Blue Planet the recognition it did? What has this meant for you and your work?

A: UNESCO recognized and rewarded the program because it identified in it the same unique elements that I emphasized above, as well as the uncommon methods of using science teaching as a tool for developing environmental insight.

For me, it was a great honor, and it was very important to me personally. I feel there is a sad lack of recognition in the Israeli educational system, which still bows to the golden calf of international testing -- to the detriment of the students.

Q: Have you had any interesting experiences traveling around leading workshops for teachers on the approach?

A: For over a decade I have been invited to conduct workshops for teachers around the world. I have held these workshops for teachers in Portugal, Argentina, Chile, the US, Brazil, India, Peru, Uruguay, South Africa. The demand for these workshops is increasing from year to year. Next summer, I’ll split my time between India and Peru.

Q: Have you seen any changes in Israeli science education in classes that have adopted the out-of-classroom approach?

A: Absolutely, yes. In every study we have conducted on the development and application of our teaching plans, we see that out-of-school environmental methods become central to creating relevance (motivation) in learning; we can show that lesson plans that are built on the transition from the concrete to the abstract promote the development of complex thinking abilities.

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