Moving Literacy Instruction Out of the Classroom and Into Informal Learning Environments What’s A Zoo Got To Do With Reading? THE N.O.A.H. PROJECT

Nov 13th, 2018 | Category: Faith/Learning, Lutheran Education Commentary
By Marlene Meisels

“You have a Ph.D. in literacy, so what are you doing at the zoo? Teaching the animals to read?” This was a recurring quip I encountered from friends, colleagues, and others when they learned that I worked in an education department in a zoo. After many years teaching developmental reading classes, literacy methods for pre-service and veteran teachers, and using literacy as a catalyst for whole-school change in Chicago’s public schools, I found an offer one day that I could not refuse. The education department of a major zoo was looking for someone with a background in literacy. I was looking for a place to raise awareness about animals without abandoning my years of experience and study in literacy. It was the beginning of a beautiful, though unexpected, experience.While scores of teachers arrange field trips to scores of museums, zoos and other sorts of places, my observation has been that these resources are being underutilized. I’ll explain in a moment, but first I would like to share a short anecdote.

A colleague of mine has a wonderful illustration of a very telling field trip experience. Early in his teaching career, he took a group of elementary students on a field trip to the airport. As soon as the group stepped foot inside the concourse, kids tore loose, running and screaming, bedazzled by the planes close up and waiting for passengers to board. Now in a panic as he had lost control of his students, and worse yet, he may have just lost his students, the young teacher began chasing after them.

“Get back here!” Back here! Now! Everyone get back HERE!!! Maria! Where are you going? Yes, Jonathon! You too! NOW, I said! Alright, are we
all here?”

The kids re-assembled and the novice teacher reviewed the rules for the trip: Stay together, no running, no screaming, and most importantly, stay together. Stay together! He asked whether everyone understood the rules, and all the kids said that they did. Order had been restored and the teacher gave the signal to continue. But with the excitement of the moment, the barrage of stimuli in the shape of travelers, snack kiosks, alighting airplane passengers, again, the kids made a dash down the concourse. “Get back here! GET BACK HERE! I SAID GET …”

The moral of the tale? Environment trumps curriculum (2004, personal communication).

While many teachers may not have had quite the same experience, the challenges to keep order and safety in check, and the decisions about what to do and how to do it in these kinds of informal learning environments are difficult ones. Museum and zoo educators are aware of this, and they are currently engaged in their own examination of how to teach in such environments. I am convinced that rich opportunities for study and learning await students whose teachers take a little extra time to plan for these experiences.

I have had the great pleasure and privilege of watching teachers grow in their understandings of teaching students in place-based learning environments, just as I have grown in mine. I have watched teachers shift from comments like, “You want me to keep my students in front of one exhibit for 45 minutes? Are you kidding? You don’t know Manny. He’ll never make it” to “I can’t believe it. He stayed with it. He worked like the other kids, and he worked with them, too. I never thought he could sit still that long.”

Where This Led Me

In these times when resources are scarce and even when they are not, capitalizing on informal learning environments makes so much sense. We recognize the import in the school-improvement literature of in- and out-of-school learning. Informal learning environments like museums—and yes, zoos are considered akin to museums in the world of informal learning—provide rich opportunities to extend and strengthen in-school experiences. These environments can help students grow and appreciate the splendor of
God’s creation.

It is because I have observed such growth in teachers and students, that I would like to offer a description of a literacy program I developed for an informal learning environment called N.O.A.H. (No One Aspires Higher), which integrated the teaching of science and wildlife conservation, and which used the arts to build reading comprehension skills. The program especially impacted students’ motivation to read.

I would also like to offer a few general suggestions for getting the most out of informal learning environments. Some of these suggestions may sound rather mundane and are based on the kinds of knowledge teachers already possess. But often teachers do not transfer these ideas when working with kids in museums and zoos, and therefore, I believe they are worth a mention.

To begin, I would like to address a concern that some teachers have expressed about conducting lessons at the zoo. For those of you who feel kids should be allowed to have fun and not be required to participate in a lesson: Students can and do have a great deal of fun and enjoyment when they are provided with a structured experience that allows for engagement, creative thinking, choice and exploration. In fact, I regret the numbers of students who have stated disappointment in their zoo or museum field trips—students who were allowed to wander without focus and without support in using zoo and museum resources. Every child has an adventure waiting to unfold, whether in regular or special education classes, and with some advance planning, the child can realize this adventure. But first, I will turn to the literature  of informal learning environments, an area of knowledge development that we in the field of literacy do not usually encounter.

What’s Unique about an Informal Learning Environment?

There are certainly some obvious differences between schools and museums and zoos. Informal environments contain collected artifacts that illustrate, whether living or preserved, representations of phenomena and processes. Learners are faced with many choices—turn left to this exhibit or turn right toward another. Linger and read or experience the exhibit or move rapidly past for a transitory moment of exposure to it.

Dierking (2010) writes about Oregon State University using principles of informal learning to revamp their math and science master’s and doctoral programs, acknowledging the importance of free-choice learning taking place in arenas outside of the classroom. Interestingly, while changes in the way we are designing programs are happening globally, she notes that these approaches are “Rarely acknowledged at policy levels, though the centers of this learning revolution are not the traditional educational establishment of schools and universities, but a vast network of informal-education entities: museums, zoos/aquariums, nature centers, national parks and increasingly the Internet, podcasts, and other social networking media” (2010, p. 297-298).

Free-choice learning is being extended in ways beyond what people like Montessori, Froebel, and others discovered that informed the growth of early childhood education. In discussing the nature of learning, Falk (2010) notes the growth in our understanding of the very meaning of what it means to learn. He and others have acknowledged the importance of contextualizing learning in social, cultural, and other environments. He further emphasizes the very personal nature of learning, which is influenced by the context in which it is taking place as well as the collaborative ways in which learning occurs. He writes that “learning is rarely linear and is always highly idiosyncratic” (2010, p.269).

This leads Falk to conclude that we’ve been approaching learning research in a faulty way. Rather than posing the question, “What did an individual learn as a consequence of this educational experience?” he suggests, “A more appropriate way to frame questions of learning would be to ask, How did this educational experience contribute to an individual’s understanding?…In this view, research on learning in general, and environmental learning in particular, needs to account for the fact that learning is always a highly personal process, highly dependent upon prior experiences, occurring within a highly situated sociocultural and physical context and involving multiple sources of experience and information, which collectively contribute to knowledge construction…” (2010, p. 270).

Findings from museum studies on informal learning environments reveal that learning can happen beyond an individual’s content knowledge (about collections). We know now that these experiences can result in developing an acceptance of other cultures, and a kind of social learning that even results in learning about one’s own social group as well as learning ways of discourse among families (Falk & Dierking, 2000). This suggests just a few of the rich kinds of growth that can emerge when informal learning environments are utilized.

In ways that I have not yet fully addressed in my own formal teaching, the words of bell hooks weigh on me when she writes, “In modern schooling the messages students receive is that everything they learn in the classroom is mere raw materials for something that they will produce later on in life. This displacement of meaning into the future makes it impossible for students to fully immerse themselves in the art of learning and to experience that immersion as a complete, satisfying moment of fulfillment;” and further that “students are socialized via conventional pedagogy to believe that their own ‘now’ is always inadequate and lacking” (2003, p. 166). She is especially referring to education at the college level in this quote, but there are implications for working with children as well.

In discussion with a colleague about hooks, he notes that “bell hooks asks us to consider free-flowing thought, the thinking and learning that happens simply through living in the moment—a harmonious exchange between the learner’s mind and the world around him or her. It presupposes…starting where the learner is and validates the lived experiences and knowledge that all of our students bring to the discussion. This idea frames up our current discussion about informal education—both its role within our institution, its relationship to formal education and common schooling practices, as well as its potential in the movement for best practices in education” (Lukasik, personal communication, 2005). Informal learning environments present an arena that invites us to engage in free-flowing thought.

N.O.A.H./The Reading Ark (No One Aspires Higher)

Toward the end of preparing teachers to use informal learning environments, I led a team of educators to develop a literacy program that integrated environmental science, writing, reading and the building of reading competence. Selection for the literacy network of N.O.A.H. schools was based on several criteria. Schools were targeted if they demonstrated:

How our literacy program would complement their existing programs;

A long-term plan to sustain and extend the literacy and informal- learning-environment practices learned by teachers in our program after the initial funding year;

An agreement among Local School Council members—a governing body unique to Chicago schools—the Principal, and the staff to support the project;

School-wide reading scores of 45 percent or below;

A minimum of 75 percent of students in Title 1 programs or receiving free lunch; and

A location that helped us expand the geographic range in which children live who would visit the zoo.

I must admit that asking Principals to write a letter of interest with a statement about how they would sustain practices learned was a bit troublesome. Since we were working with struggling schools, leadership did not always have a vision about how to sustain and share practices. After all, if they had, the schools might not be struggling in the first place. Also, Principals had not yet participated in the program, and so could not effectively address this issue (although an in-depth meeting took place beforehand to discuss the program vision and potential outcomes, our expectations for the program, and the specific logistics of the program). Still, we decided that we would keep this criterion, because it brought up the issue of sustainability even before the first teachers’ session, and it was helpful to have Principals struggle with the possibilities before other formal discussions took place.

The literacy program actually consisted of four components. First, and most important was a professional-development component for teachers who attended all-day sessions on their mandated professional-development days throughout the school year. The beauty of using these existing days was that teachers were free to meet at the zoo away from distractions and crises, and schools were relieved of providing substitutes because students do not attend class on professional-development days. (The drawback: You cannot be in two places at once, and N.O.A.H. teachers were unable to attend professional development with other teachers in other programs. There was always a bit of persuasion needed for Principals, too, to allow teachers to attend all sessions.)

Second, a peer-leadership component for Principals was established that brought all Principals together for quarterly meetings at the zoo. The time was used to build theoretical knowledge about literacy, to solve problems related to logistics or teacher involvement, and ultimately, to plan how to share practices with other teachers once the grant period ended.

A third component provided a rich learning experience for students at the zoo, where teachers were expected to use techniques learned during professional-development sessions with their students. Zoo literacy staff assisted and coached teachers, both in sessions at the zoo and back in the classroom. Teachers were encouraged to connect lessons to topics and themes in their curriculum and to align with learning standards. At the end of each session, teachers evaluated their own performance as well.

Lastly, we provided a family-involvement component. As an example, for one year’s culminating celebration, we asked families of N.O.A.H. students to co-author a story at home about animal or wildlife conservation. Families then brought their stories to the zoo, where they began their day by meeting a children’s book illustrator. The illustrator provided a mini-lesson with some quick tips about how to illustrate. Meanwhile, about 20 other professional illustrators were working on-grounds at the exhibits, using the animals as models for their work. The families then took colored markers, pencils and crayons off to the exhibits to make their own illustrations. The artists were available if anyone had questions or simply wanted to observe a professional. Everyone then reconvened to share their stories and illustrations with
other families.

Over the course of a year, teachers learned how to teach students to make scientific observations, collect and record data (“How to Think Like a Scientist”); how to engage students in one exhibit and to extend the experience to poetry writing connected to learning about a particular habitat; how to collaborate on writing an operetta about environmental science (after building some music background from my friend, Rita Simo, a concert pianist); and more. All of these experiences used the informal learning environment of the zoo as the backdrop for this learning.

A Few General Tips

Through my work on the N.O.A.H. Project, I gained valuable insights into the world of informal learning. I also gained insights into the mechanics of planning and providing successful informal experiences for elementary-school students. I have found the suggestions below to make a world of difference in the quality of the zoo or museum experience.

Prepare students in advance for what they will encounter and be sure to link the trip to something students are already studying. Preparation might take the form of a read-aloud, some library or online research by students or simply a discussion asking kids to generate questions they have about the particular animal they will observe at the zoo or an exhibit they will study at the museum.

Select one exhibit to focus on (although consider dividing students into small groups, each at a different exhibit). By exhibit, I am not referring to a house, but rather a specific exhibit within a house. One animal and its environment, for example.

Remember that exhibits are carefully designed to illustrate habitats, so consider observation of what surrounds the animals as appropriate for study, too. (If you are in a museum rather than a zoo, you will need to adjust, since not all exhibits are framed in this way.)

Plan to spend 30-45 minutes at one exhibit rather than rushing to several. Plan to visit or study only a small portion of the museum or zoo. Students need depth, not breadth.

Use the time for students to draw, make notes, and record their observations of animal behaviors, for example. (On one occasion, I asked students to draw detailed pictures of all the birds’ heads in the exhibit they were observing. Later, they discussed differences in bill shapes, the significance of this, and how to guess what foods birds ate based on bill shapes. Even later, they read works of fiction and non-fiction about the birds they observed.)

Get comfortable with sitting kids on the floor in front of exhibits. Be mindful that others want to look, too, but do not worry so much about blocking the exhibit. Usually, when kids sit on the floor in small groups, other visitors have enough space to view as well.

When providing instruction on zoo or museum grounds, look for unusual corners or spaces you can exploit to gather your class together. These kinds of unplanned classrooms abound in informal learning environments.

When giving directions at the exhibit, be sure to ask students to turn their backs to the animals, away from the exhibit and look at you. It is very difficult to upstage an animal. Remember, environment trumps curriculum.

It is these kinds of informal experiences that have the potential to lead to that desired “flow” so well described by Csikszentmihalyi (1990). LEJ


Csikszentmihalyi , M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

Dierking, L.D. (2010). A comprehensive approach to fostering the next generation of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education leaders. The New Educator, 6, 297-309.  (The City Colleges of NY, ISSN: 1549-9243 online)

Falk, J.H. (2005). Free‐choice environmental learning: Framing the discussion. Environmental Education Research, 11(3), 265-280. (

Falk, J.H., & Dierking, L.D. (2000). Learning from museums: Visitor experiences and the making of meaning. New York, NY: AltaMira Press / Rowman and Littlefield, Publishers.

hooks, b. (2003). Teaching community: A pedagogy of hope. New York, NY: Routledge.

Author Information

Marlene Meisels, Ph.D. teaches graduate courses in literacy, with a special interest in whole school improvement at Concordia University Chicago. She currently teaches master’s and doctoral level literacy classes for classroom teachers and administrators including Policies and Politics of Reading, Research in Literacy and Multiliteracies, and Studies in Literacy and Multiliteracies. Her areas of research include effective schools, whole school improvement, teacher development and writing difficulties related to language.