Here’s the thing. A new report, published in the journal Psychology & Society, apparently indicates that children aged 9 – 11, really do learn stuff when they go to the zoo.
How do we know? Well, researchers (one who is a visiting researcher at the London Zoo) gave a small number of children a simple test intended to find out how much they knew about the sloth, meerkat, camel and jaguar (by drawing a picture of the species in its habitat) before the children took part in a zoo-based education session at (guess where) London Zoo. They then asked them to draw pictures of the same animals sloths and meekats afterwards to see whether they had learnt anything. (I am not an educationist but would it not be extraordinary if they did not?)
Apparently, a third of the children tested, showed there ‘a notable change in their understanding towards animals and their habitats’.
Only a third? The authors excused the low percentage by claiming that “such a result does not mean that a knowledge change did not occur in the other pupils, it simply means that our methodology has not captured it”. Remember, this study assessed a “formal learning” experience – not the usual informal wander round a zoo glancing briefly at animals in cages (between visits to ice cream stalls).
Of course, they did not take some students, sit them in a classroom, show them a film about meerkats, sloths, etc., and give them an educational presentation to see whether this also had a similar (or perhaps a more comprehensive) result. Nor did not follow up this study to see how long or how accurately the children recalled what they had apparently learnt at the zoo.
As a result of this “innovative” and ground-breaking piece of research, zoos will now claim (as London Zoo does) that they are providing a hugely valuable education resource that is going to deliver the conservationists of the future. They will also use this to justify the many hundreds of thousands of pounds that, for example, the City of London pays to London Zoo for educational services each year.
Sorry, from my point of view, this is ridiculous.
What would be fascinating is to take the same age group of children, ask them to draw pictures of wild animals in the zoo, then give them a presentation about the same species in their natural habitat and ask them at the end of that to draw the animals in their natural habitat and point out as many of the differences as they could find.
That would be really revealing!