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What Learning? What Theory?

Contributed by Katherine Stewart, Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney, Sydney, Australia.


One of the questions we ask ourselves as botanical garden educators is: what is the impact on school students of an excursion to a botanical garden? There are many factors that compete for the attention of students during the short length of time they spend visiting our venues. The social aspect of being with their friends and the myriad possibilities of incidents that may take place on the journey to and from the venue are two areas that could be uppermost in students’ recollections of their excursion. What place does learning have in students’ recollections and what is the nature of learning that happens in a botanical garden?

Research tells us that the learning of factual information – like the learning that would take place for a test, does not appear to be a major component of students’ learning in museums and science centres (e.g. MacKenzie & White 1982) or in natural environments (e.g. Knapp 2000; Knapp & Poff 2001). Indeed the literature clearly demonstrates that if students do recall factual information after their visit to these venues then this information is often incorrect. However research literature is conclusive about the idea that excursion experiences form long-lasting memories as summarised in the findings of a study of by Falk and Dierking (1997):

These findings strongly suggest that museum field trips – regardless of type, subject matter, or nature of the lessons presented – result in highly salient and indelible memories. These memories represented evidence of learning across a wide array of diverse topics.”
(Falk & Dierking 1997) p.216

The research methodology of Falk & Dierking was unable to determine how closely these long-term recollections related to the original intention of the teachers organising the excursions. Hence it is difficult to explore the relationship between a memory of an event and intended learning. As the authors point out “memories alone, particularly all the various kinds of memories that seem to be constructed during a museum experience, do not seem sufficient evidence of learning.” (p212)

This paper presents research findings that uncovers relationships between the learning intentions of teachers organising excursions to the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney (RBGS) and students’ long-term recollections of their excursion. We explore these relationships to build a description of the nature of the learning that can happen in a botanical garden. This work can then be compared to learning theory that has been applied to learning in museums.

This research has resulted in a set of guiding principles for school education programmes in botanical gardens; they will be discussed elsewhere. A number of implications for the design, presentation and maintenance of plant displays and environments in botanical gardens used specifically for educational purposes will also be explored in the Conclusions section.

The Study

The methodological approach adopted in the study was to seek a wide range of descriptive accounts of the excursion experiences of teachers and their students visiting the RBGS. From this data would emerge generalisations and from these generalisations theory relevant to the study could be generated. This methodological orientation was informed by the grounded theory approaches put forward by Glaser and Strauss (1967).

A range of both qualitative and quantitative techniques contributed to the building of a description of the event for both teachers and students. Approximately 60 teachers and over 400 students from primary and secondary schools were interviewed and/or surveyed, either at the RBGS and/or at their school. Case studies of one infants, three primary and three secondary schools that had visited the RBGS on excursion were conducted. The infants class and two of the primary schools were visited seven months after their excursion.

One of the secondary schools included in the study had a long history of excursions to the RBGS and provided an opportunity to interview students up to two years after their excursion – as well as to interview students before and after their excursion. A junior secondary boys school was involved in surveys on the day of their excursion and a co-educational secondary school yielded interviews with teachers and students two weeks after their excursion to the RBGS.

Results and Discussion

Teachers’ expectations for their excursion to the RBGS
The expectations held by classroom teachers organising the excursion to the RBGS were investigated by asking them the reason(s) for their excursion and the learning outcomes they held for the event. Table 1 illustrates the results of a survey item asking teachers why they chose to bring their students to the RBGS.

Teacher response to written survey question: Why did you choose to bring your students to the RBGS?
Response theme* Total n = 42

  • Excursion relevant to classwork 69%
  • RBGS as the excursion venue 57%
  • Excursion as a teaching tool 40%
  • Student experience 26%
    * Denotes multiple responses to this survey item.

The results indicate that over two-thirds of the teachers responding to the survey item were concerned that that the excursion be relevant to the unit of work that they are studying with their students. Griffin & Symington (1997) promote the use of a museum visit as part of a group of teaching strategies associated with a unit of work currently being studied by school students. They cite studies that report that “students who have done work on a topic at school before visiting a museum and who have prepared for their visit, learn most from their experience” (p.765). Furthermore, other researchers conclude that specific learning outcomes can be achieved on excursions when classwork is linked to the excursion experience (Orion, Hofstein, Tamir & Giddings 1997). It appears that teachers visiting the RBGS are concerned with learning and specifically learning that is relevant to their current classwork.

A further survey item canvassed teachers’ opinion of how far the excursion to the RBGS could achieve the the learning outcome that they desired from it. Teachers’ responses to this item demonstrated that they were concerned with content – or what their students would learn – and with the learning processes that their students would experience at the RBGS. Table 2 illustrates the content of the learning outcomes stated by the teachers involved in the survey.

Content focus of teachers’ outcomes for their excursion to the RBGS
Content focus* TOTAL n = 44

  • Plants 48%
  • Aboriginal people & their use of plants 27%
  • Environments at the RBGS 18%
  • Other aspects of the RBGS 18%
  • Develop & practise skills 10%
  • General outcomes (no statement of content) 11%

* Denotes multiple responses

Learning outcomes relating to the scientific study of plants were required by the majority of teachers responding to this survey. Close inspection of these plant-related outcomes (Table 3) indicates that they form a clear, well-articulated ‘syllabus’ for the study of plants in a botanical garden. The results indicate a clear association between the RBGS and study of plants.

Process-focused outcomes for the excursion to the RBGS

Kindergarten - Year Two

At the RBGS students will be able to:

  • See, touch a variety of plants and plant parts
  • Identify different plant types
  • Recognise and show parts of plants
  • Find out how seeds germinate
  • Explain what a plant is
  • Be aware of how plants grow and how to care for them
  • Enjoy their first look at plants

Year Three - Year Six

At the RBGS students will be able to:

  • See and feel plant first hand the plants they have been studying
  • Look at and discuss varieties of cactus plants and their adaptations
  • Identify plants native to our local area
  • Have a better understanding of rainforest plants
  • Be aware of some Australian plants
  • On their return to school students will be able to:
  • Use their understandings to establish a native garden

Year Seven - Year Ten

At the RBGS students will be able to:

  • See and have hands on experiences with a wide variety of plants from different groups
  • Explore plant diversity
  • Use microscopes
  • Observe and study adaptations of plants
  • Identify plant types
  • Complete a unit of work on plants
  • Understand diversity and structure of plants
  • Better understand plant classification
  • Better understand structure and function of plants

Interestingly, the same cannot be said for outcomes relating to the Aboriginal study of plants and to environment-related themes. Both these areas of study are recommended to teachers in relevant school documents. However the outcomes required by teachers involved in this study indicate that they do not take educational advantage of the RBGS in these areas. Outcomes relating to Aboriginal use of plants require student consideration of these plants without consideration of the cultural significance of plants in an Aboriginal life-style. Those outcomes relating the environmental considerations focus student attention on information about environments rather than learning for environments – not for the attitudinal and behavioural change outcomes embedded in environmental education.

Approximately half of the teachers involved in this survey focussed on the hands-on nature of the excursion where their students could see and touch the plants they had been studying at school. Almost one quarter of teachers wanted their students involved in investigative activities involving making and recording observations

Process-focused outcomes for the RBGS excursions

Process focus (multiple responses) TOTAL (n = 44)

  • Experience-based 48%
  • Investigation-based 23%
  • Demonstrate Understandings 27%
  • General (no statement of process) 39%

Student Recollections of their Excursion

The first question in the student survey asked students to write their recollections of the day. Their responses have been considered in the following two tables. Firstly, Table 1 organises the responses according to whether or not they include the outcomes required by their teachers.

Table 1. Comparison of teacher outcomes and student recollections

School A

(70 pupils)

School B

(25 pupils)

School c

(17 pupils)


(112 pupils)

Theme related 87% 68% 100% 85%
Not theme related 11% 32% 0% 14%

Not theme related -

Talking about plants

9% 16% - 9%
Nil response 1% - - 1%


The results clearly demonstrate that for the three primary schools involved in this survey, student recollections correspond to the learning outcomes required by their teachers. Furthermore, for two of these schools, students’ long-term recollections relate to their teachers’ learning expectations.

Table 2 Primary students’ responses to the survey item: Write down what you remember about your visit to the Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney.
Responses *

School A
2 weeks later

(70 students)

School B
7 months later
Rare & endangered plants

(25 students)

School C
7 months later

(17 students)

Session 93% 68% 94%
Plants 63% 92% 65%
Places 69% 68% 100%
Sensory 44% 24% 76%
Animals 24% 0.4% 24%

*Denotes multiple responses

Table 2 demonstrates the nature of students’ long-term recollections. The responses demonstrated that students have clear and persistent memories of their excursion to the RBGS. These recollections relate to the more traditional content-related aspects of the event. Students recalled the plants and places they had visited at the RBGS. For some students specific plants such as the Dragon’s Blood Tree and the Queensland Bottle Tree were memorable, for others the lush, green plants of the Rainforest Garden remained in their memories. The Tropical Centre and Succulent Garden formed indelible memories of places at the RBGS for some students. Another aspect of these results is the students’ resilient and persistent memory of their sensory experiences at the RBGS.

It is an interesting exercise to consider the aspects of the day of the visit that did not form part of students’ recollections. These included other aspects of the day outside the RBGS such as details of the trip. There are no recollections about the weather – which for Schools C and A was extremely hot. Furthermore there were very few recollections of people accompanying the groups – neither parents of students nor the RBGS educator who accompanied the class.

Comparing these findings with other research, we find that students have not recalled situations of teacher-talk, but have tended to recall practical-based activities (Knapp & Poff 2000; Orion, Hofstein, Tamir and Giddings 1997; Wolins et al 1992). The findings also agree with those of Orion (1993) which concluded that the main role of the field trip in the learning process is to provide students with direct experience of concrete phenomena and materials.

Relating Findings to Theory

Definitions of Learning
The results of this study demonstrate that students have learning experiences when they are on excursion to the RBGS. This learning can be described as ‘experience-based’ learning. This type of learning is that referred to by Dewey (1938) and by Piaget (1937). It is the result of direct, sensory interaction with real, living things. It is not the sort of learning that is required for short-term recall of factual information.

Experience-based learning involves consideration of the interactive processes of learning as well as of content. Definitions provided by the literature that best fit these findings include the following:

Learning: process through which experience causes permanent change in knowledge or behaviour
( McInerney & McInerney 2002 p.57)

Learning is the process of applying prior knowledge and experience to new experiences; this effort is normally played out within a physical context and is mediated in the actions of other individuals. In addition learning always involves some element of emotion and feeling.”
(Falk & Dierking 1997, p216)

The first definition is taken from a general text on educational psychology and the second is taken from the work of museum researchers John Falk & Lynne Dierking. These latter authors have added considerations of place as well as the social and emotional aspects of learning to the definition of learning provided by McInerney & McInerney. Clearly the results of this study indicate that the physical context of learning (ie in a botanical garden) is critical to the long-term nature of students’ recollections and could be added to the first definition. The research reported in this study has not shed light on the social and emotional aspects of Falk and Dierkings’ definition of learning.

Both definitions refer to learning as an active process and infer that the learner comes to the situation with prior understandings. These definitions can be said to relate to a constructivist view of learning, where the learner actively constructs their own understandings rather than a more transmission-type view, where the learner is there to be filled with information. In this instance a constructivist view of learning provides a useful theory to approach conceptualising the learning process.


Hein (1998) proposes a framework for museum educators to consider a ‘theory of education’ that incorporates an exploration of the nature of knowledge (epistemology) and theories of learning. Hein proposes the ‘constructivist museum’ which acknowledges the requirement for learners in museums to select and create experiences that are personally meaningful. However Hein’s theoretical model requires the museum educator to adopt the perceived epistemological roots of constructivism which hold the idealist position that the true nature of the world cannot be known by people. This position may not be appropriate for a scientific institution such as a botanical garden which seems to take a more realist epistemology that we ‘find out’ about the world rather than ‘make sense’ of the world.

Furthermore, Hein’s model does not provide an insight into how a museum can view its own content. Indeed the dilemma of the relationship between the learner and a body of content does not appear to be addressed in a constructivist framework. Science educators, adopting a constructivist view of learning (e.g. Driver 1988) continually face the difficulty of expecting students to construct for themselves the body of knowledge that is the domain of science. However constructivism has provided educators with an orientation towards consideration of the requirements of the learner and of the understandings they bring to the learning situation.
It seems apparent that educational theory that is relevant to botanical gardens needs to involve the following:

  • ways of viewing/organising content – ie curriculum theory
  • learning theory that is relevant to the experience-based learning processes found in botanic gardens – i.e. a theory of experience
  • the influence of place, which includes consideration of access to real, living plants – ie a theory of place
  • the influence of the social context of the botanical garden and its educational purposes – ie social theory.

At present there appears to be no such relevant theoretical perspective. However the work of Falk and Dierking (1997) and Hein has initiated theory-building for museum education and it seems that this area may be developed over the next decade.


This study indicates that the plant displays of a botanical garden used for educational purposes need to be able to enhance the learning experiences of students by having the following features:

  • be physically accessible to groups of students
  • be robust enough to allow handling by groups of students
  • have a wide range of sensory aspects such as different textures, colours, forms, fragrances
  • include charismatic plants such as bottle trees, very tall trees, insect-eating plants and cacti
  • use special locations for the plant display such as glasshouses.

This study also demonstrates that even the youngest students associate the RBGS with learning about plants. This clarity of association provides a focussed educational message. However when this focus changes to other educational aspects of botanical gardens, particularly conservation of plants, then this digression from the main focus on plants needs to be made clear to learners.

The findings of this study indicate that there is a unique out-of-school learning experience for students on excursion to a botanical garden. Students are actively engaged in interacting with plants – experiences that can result in long-term memories of plants and specific places at the RBGS. These long-term memories are influenced by the visiting teacher’s educational requirements and the locations and activities selected by the educator in the botanical garden.


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