The General Teaching Council for Scotland

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A natural approach

An understanding that nature is at the root of all science could lead pupils to a new view of STEM subjects

Jenny McAllister, In-service trainer for education consultancy Mindstretchers

With a BSc in Ecology, I am classed as a sought-after STEM graduate primary teacher. Over the past decade, I have worked with practitioners and teachers throughout Scotland and several things continue to take me by surprise.

First, the disconnect between children and nature; second, the disconnect between our teaching of the natural world, Learning for Sustainability, and science, technology, engineering and maths (the STEM subjects); and third, that science is still often thought of as “beakers”, “experiments”, “confusing and scary”.

As an ecologist, I have always been amazed by the world around me and, like a child, I enjoy the learning opportunities on offer. I’m keen to stress to everyone I work with that you don’t need a degree in STEM to work with the natural elements and deliver the STEM curriculum in an engaging way.

I believe that nature is at the root of all science and can provide amazing opportunities to enhance teaching and learning in all curricular areas

So many terminologies, priorities and agendas have teachers spinning plates trying to cover Outdoor Learning, Forest Schools, Ecoschools, STEM, Learning for Sustainability and Health & Wellbeing. The term “Nature Pedagogy”, coined by Claire Warden, pulls it all together. She advocates that Nature Pedagogy is at the root of science, technology, engineering and maths, recognising that the natural world was and still is the context and stimulus for inquiry based thinking. We make predictions, solve problems and think creatively through real-life experiences.

In 2012, Education Scotland published the 3–18 Curriculum Impact Report for Sciences which stated that: “Science education is important for every child and not just for those who may be headed toward a scientific or technical career. Great learning in the sciences encourages young people to make sense of the world around them, to be scientifically literate. It develops skills enabling them to analyse, evaluate, think critically, justify conclusions and be creative and innovative; skills required to thrive and succeed in an increasingly globalised and technological society.”

I would add so-called “soft skills”, including resilience, risk taking, self-reflection and collaboration to this list. To prepare children for the world of work, whatever that may be in the future, we need to provide them with the social and emotional skills to succeed.

Research carried out by Save the Children in 2016 revealed that pre-schoolers were spending four hours a day and 5–15 year olds more than five hours a day looking at screens. With an increase in digital technology in children’s lives, a startling decrease in physical activity, and an increase in obesity and mental health issues in our children, there is an ever-increasing need to spend time outdoors.

Nature and digital technology are not on opposite sides of an argument (I was thrilled to hear that more young people tuned in to watch Planet Earth 2 than the X Factor and hope that this will inspire them to get out and understand nature in their local area). There is certainly a place for digital technology in the outdoors and there is an abundance of nature apps to support investigative studies.

However, I feel that sometimes it is important to unplug and see what is in front of us. Take a minute to consider the awe and wonder and the learning opportunities: investigating the technology of a spider’s web, the engineering of a bee’s honeycomb or Fibonacci’s spiral on the bottom of a pine cone. To me the impact of the real world will always win over seeing it on a screen.


I’m often asked for activities and lesson plans to teach “outdoor learning” and “sustainability”, and I have to explain that these are more than subjects or a set of activities. We should not be looking to spend an hour outside to tick the outdoor learning or LFS box.

Unfortunately, the “outdoors” teacher still does not always carry the same status as the “science” teacher in the staff room and the word nature is not regarded as highly as STEM. As a profession, we need to understand that nature is not a bolt-on to education; it encompasses everything we do, from what we eat and the clothes we wear to the place we live. In understanding this, we can consider what the planet will be like for our children and what kind of children we will raise for our planet. Only by building on a foundation of values and embedding it into practice will this approach to learning be sustained.

I believe that nature is at the root of all science and can provide amazing opportunities to enhance teaching and learning in all curricular areas, in particular the STEM subjects for both the Early and First Level. It is interdisciplinary, free and accessible, easily differentiated and enjoyable for teachers and pupils alike and ticks all of those boxes that we are all secretly still trying to tick.

Teaching Scotland

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Editor contact: Evelyn Wilkins

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