Why Learning Outside is always best (and doesn’t need a minibus)

A recent research paper published by Yale University in the journal “Neuron” confirms what many have believed for a long time, that the brain benefits from change. What’s more, the sort of uncertainty that a changing environment brings boosts the speed and level of learning.

In short, if we always learn in the same place, the brain sees the situation as non-challenging and so puts fewer resources into handling the situation. If the environment is not dangerous or frightening, but simply different, then the level of brain activity rises, and so does learning.

The technical explanation is that in unusual situations there is more activity in the prefrontal cortex which oversees complex behaviour such as analysing and planning when the situation around the individual is different.

In short, if what is happening is deemed by the brain to be the normal run of events the prefrontal cortex doesn’t take too much notice. If the environment is different, is becomes involved and throws resources at whatever is going on.

And if what is going on is an educational process, then that learning is more deeply absorbed and longer retained – irrespective of what the environment was, just so long as it was different.

Thus the amount a person learns is not only dependent on how the information is presented, and that individual’s motivation, but also on how new the environment is. A new environment is difficult to predict and so the brain is much more active, and the learning becomes more successful.

The report implies that if we can find new situations to stimulate brain activity we will learn more. This suggests that simply having pupils and students learn in new environments can be enough to ensure that learning is more active and is retained for much longer than learning which takes place somewhere totally familiar, such as the classroom.  

Indeed it has been observed that students revising for their degrees who take themselves off to unusual places to revise (for example, going to a quiet park or sitting by a canal) can find the learning is more profound and remains with them much longer than if they spend another day with their books and notes in the library.

These ideas have now been backed up with a series of animal studies in controlled environments, and the same observations have been made.

In short when the environment is uncertain (because one has not been there before) the brain becomes much more active. As the review of the research says, we learn more in situations where we’re not sure about the environment.

The uncertainty about learning in this way in this different place makes us much more focussed on the signals around us – be that the displays in the museum or the book or computer we have taken to an unusual place.

This is one of the first pieces of research which indicates why learning outside the classroom works beyond arranging visits to unusual places which are themselves of interest or having camps which encourage new forms of social interaction.

Both of these, of course, work very well as has been shown many times. But through this research we can see what many advocates of learning outside have felt for a long time – that the simple fact of being somewhere different can enhance the process of learning, even when there are no other issues (such as a tour guide or social interactions) involved.

In short, the more we can get pupils and students outside the classroom and into different environments for their regular learning, the more they will learn and the faster they will learn.

Some schools have started to use this approach either because of necessity (because they don’t have room for all the pupils or students because of concerns about the health situation) or because of their own shortage of space, or simply because the research is of interest.

Generally speaking, the results are very positive indeed. As a result, for all companies that supply schools it is worth considering if this approach to “learning elsewhere” can be used in your advertising.

If you would like to explore this idea in relation to your product or service please do call 01604 880 927 or email Stephen@schools.co.uk with details of the product or service you offer to schools.