Outdoor School in Israel Too During the Coronavirus Crisis? Don’t Bet on It

Educators are making a pitch, but remote learning is all the rage and teachers and the Education Ministry might not want to take the risk

Shany Littman
Shany Littman
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Learning on an abandoned ferry in New York City early in the 20th century.
Learning on an abandoned ferry in New York City early in the 20th century.Credit: Bureau of Charities via Library of Congress
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

This week Prof. Nir Orion of the Weizmann Institute of Science sent a letter to education experts he knew both inside and outside the Education Ministry. He was seizing on an idea that is gradually taking hold around the world.

Orion recommended that Israel take advantage of the coronavirus crisis by holding classes outside.

“It is agreed by all the ‘coronavirus experts’ that infection mainly happens in closed places, and the chances of being infected in open spaces is much lower than the risk in the school and home environments,” Orion wrote.

For now, the Education Ministry is considering only two learning environments for the coronavirus era: the school and remote study at home.

Elsewhere around the world, and during other health challenges, public spaces have been used for schools. For example, there are schools in the woods in Scandinavia, and at the beginning of the 20th century, schools in the United States were set up in the open air in an attempt to fight tuberculosis, which hit the poor especially hard.

In 1907, two doctors launched an open-air school in Providence, Rhode Island, to prevent the transmission of TB, taking a cue from Germany, The New York Times wrote in a feature last week.

The experiment was a major success; none of the children got sick. Within two years, 65 open-air schools were operating in the United States. The private Horace Mann school in New York held classes on its roof, while another school held classes on an abandoned ferry.

As the decades passed and outbreaks of infectious diseases became rarer, such schools shut down, with the last closing in 1957.

A few Israeli educators have mentioned the outdoors-school idea since the pandemic began, with little success. For decades, Orion has explored outside-the-classroom environments as a researcher and teacher, and he teaches science in such a setting at a Rehovot high school. So he's trying to spread the idea.

“Learning must be an interaction with the world around us. My starting point is that learning is an instinct that works when there’s an emotional stimulus, interest and curiosity,” he says.

“Schools in their present form are busy repressing this instinct and creating instead a system of conditions and positive and negative responses. This method can also get elephants to stand on their head. But this isn’t learning, it’s training. So a child who goes to first grade is happy and radiant, with a learning instinct and curiosity,” Orion adds.

“But already at the end of first grade you don’t want to get up in the morning. My method rehabilitates the learning instinct, and the out-of-the-classroom environment plays a critical role in the process. I go outside with them to see the world, ask questions, and from there the learning process begins. The process of investigation. There are no lectures.”

Nap time at a school in Rochester, New York, early in the 20th century.Credit: Library of Congress

'The entire perception of learning'

With this approach, Orion achieves a serious change in methodology.

“This is always the main point. It’s not just to learn out in the sun. Going outside in its own right isn’t important, what you do there is important. This is a completely different understanding of how learning needs to take place,” he says.

“Going outside scares the teachers because they’re afraid they’ll lose control. It’s exactly the opposite. When the children are in class, it’s like a soda bottle with a cork. When you go outside, there’s no pressure, it calms down.”

According to Orion, if we say that the coronavirus will be with us for over a year, we can prepare now and allocate resources. “Maybe through the coronavirus that will bring us outside, we’ll understand that the entire perception of learning and schools has to change,” he says.

During the first wave in the spring, the Tel Aviv school administration said it very much wanted to allow studying in parks and beaches, but it did not receive approval from the Health Ministry. Instead, parks were closed and a lockdown was imposed.

The city says it encourages outdoor learning even in routine times and this could be a good solution for the coronavirus era.

For local principals to get this done, the education and health ministries need to show flexibility. The problem is that the Education Ministry has strict rules on children leaving the school grounds; without special permission and other steps, a criminal case could erupt if something happened to a child.

For now, Tel Aviv is waiting for the ministries to make decisions and announce plans for the next school year.

At least one school in Tel Aviv – or more accurately one class – regularly has classes outside the school grounds. In south Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood, one school – which last year only had a first grade and next year will have one second-grade and two first-grade classes – lets the children go out into the neighborhood. Sometimes classes are held in the library, in parks, or even in local people’s homes.

The principal, Shahar Feinstein, calls it learning in the real world and says the view that Education Ministry regulations don’t let kids leave the school grounds is a myth. He says the ministry actually encourages it. “The only restriction is that a staff member is required for every 20 students; that’s it,” Feinstein says.

But he admits that such a solution “needs to be accompanied by work and planning. It won’t happen overnight.”

'Emotional and social response'

Tzufit Golan, the deputy head of the national parents' organization and the coordinator of a team for preparing for the coming school year, has taken part in meetings at the Education Ministry where the possibility of outside-classroom learning was raised. The parents’ organization doesn’t object, but for now it seems remote learning has priority, she says.

“Instead of going outside, they’re talking about going inside. There are a lot of problems with virtual; let’s start with the fact that a large percentage of the population doesn’t have a computer at home,” Golan says.

“It doesn’t matter what plan we do, there aren’t enough computers in the homes, certainly not a computer for every child, and not for teaching staff either,” she adds.

“And this certainly doesn’t provide the emotional and social response that’s so lacking – something that going outside into the open air can solve. It doesn’t have to be the only thing, but it has to be a part. Learning from home isn’t appropriate for everyone.”

The Education Ministry says that in principle it encourages new pedagogical ideas, including new spaces for learning outside, both inside and outside the school grounds. As for the coronavirus crisis, it says preparations for the coming school year are “complex,” in part because a new minister and director general have just taken over.

The ministry adds that teachers don’t like teaching outside the school grounds because it requires complex coordination.

The teachers’ union told Haaretz that “open-air learning is possible and even good in education systems completely different from ours; for example, in Denmark.” It noted that country's many parks and said Denmark has “up to 20 students in a class, and during the coronavirus period they have split into classes of no more than 10 students.

“In Israel there are classes of nearly 40 students, there are not enough places outside and no ability to supervise outside when there is such a large number of students for too few teachers.

“So in an optimal situation, teachers would be happy to teach outside if only the number of teachers were four times higher. Then it would be possible to teach in the open air in groups of up to 10 pupils. In the Israeli reality, this is simply impossible.”

Many educators say the ministry indeed encourages learning outside the schools, but its actions – for example regarding safety and approval – encourage the exact opposite. Thus even the coronavirus crisis might not solve the problem.

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