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TEACHERS' EVALUATION OF ZOO EDUCATION

BY STEPHEN P. WOOLLARD

The educational role of zoological collections is broad in scope and focus, with many target audiences. Zoos aim to provide meaningful educational information, activities and experiences for all their visitors. However, in many collections, there has also been a significant education provision directed at the formal education sector, i.e. schools and colleges.

Many zoo educators have reported at national and international conferences, and in informal discussion, that teachers indicate that education sessions offered to school groups using the zoo are a valuable contribution to learning and complement the curriculum. However, few quantitative studies have been conducted and reported upon to support this anecdotal evidence.

Bristol Zoo Gardens education sessions

At Bristol Zoo Gardens, U.K., the Education Department evolved in the 1980s due to the perceived need to provide `education' for visiting school groups. This is still a very important aspect of the Department's work, although the education of other visitors is now also a priority. The zoo employs full-time education officers who are involved in all aspects of visitor education, including offering hands-on interactive sessions for visiting school groups.

The majority of sessions are one hour long and all of them involve small, tame, live animals and `biofacts' such as skins and bones. Each session is adapted to the particular needs of the class and the teacher and there is no set script. The most popular topics are rainforests, conservation, a general hands-on, habitats and classification. Many of the sessions are also complemented by lighting, sound effects and room-dressing.

Evaluation

At Bristol Zoo Gardens the education provision for schools has been formally evaluated by teachers using the zoo since 1995, using a self-completed questionnaire approach. This article reports upon and summarises the analysis of 656 teacher questionnaire responses, 19952000 inclusive, and this response equates to approximately 17% of teachers using the zoo during this six-year period.

A 17% return is considered to be a very good return, not least because the two-page questionnaire had to be completed and posted back to the zoo after the visit. It is also true to say that in any evaluation process, whether it be for quality of service in a hotel or restaurant for example, the questionnaire/feedback forms are often found to be used more by people who want to make complaints or criticism. Therefore, such an evaluation should highlight any areas of weakness or concern identified by the people filling in the questionnaire.

During the period the questionnaires were analysed on an annual (and in some cases termly) basis, and very slight modifications to their content were made, largely to questions relating to the zoo itself, which at the time was undergoing a major redevelopment.

The Questionnaire

The two-page questionnaire was designed to ask specific questions relating to the education session, the zoo, and teachers' opinions. The majority of questions were open ones, e.g. `What was the best part of the education session?', `What was the worst part of the education session?' Some questions asked for a tick box response, e.g. `How did the visit link with the national curriculum, did it help with attainment targets for science/geography/English?'

A series of opinion statements were used with tick box options of: strongly agree, agree, disagree and strongly disagree. Opportunity was also provided for teachers to add any additional comments.

The questionnaire was handed to the teacher at the end of their education session at the zoo, with a request to return it in the post. Each term the responses received during that term were entered into a prize draw (to win a free zoo membership for the teacher).

Response

A total of 656 responses were received between March 1995 and December 2000. These responses related to the different age groups as follows (and reflect the large proportion of primary school children that are brought to the zoo):

primary infant and nursery (37 years): 33.2%

primary junior (711 years): 36.3%

secondary (1118 years): 23.8%

college/tertiary/other: 6.7%

Why do teachers choose to use the services of the Zoo Education Department?

previous good/excellent visit(s) 37.2%

relevance to the curriculum/topic 25%

hands-on experience offered 12.9%

expertise of the education officers 9.1%

recommendation from colleagues 5%

location of the zoo 3.4%

advert/flyer sent to school 2.5%

other (e.g. cost, open day visit, etc.) 4.9%

This response clearly illustrates the importance of good previous experience of the zoo; in fact, booking evidence shows that 56% of the teachers who used the education service between 1995 and 1998 had used the zoo education service before. Anecdotal evidence shows that those teachers who said that they had previous good/excellent experience also felt that the session was very relevant to the curriculum/topic, and felt that the hands-on aspect was an important one for learning and in their decision to use the zoo education service again.

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Throughout the six-year period the education sessions have rated very highly, with approximately 90% of teachers giving an overall mark of 9/10 or 10/10. Indeed the few instances where a score of 7/10 or lower was given can be associated with very specific points. For example, teachers who wanted the session to be longer than one hour (because they enjoyed it so much) marked it down on `length'; and one content score of 5/10 relates directly to the session including reference to evolution which the teacher disagreed with.

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These responses indicate that 88.5% of teachers using the zoo think that its educational value is very high (8/10 or more) and 88.1% also believe the zoo has a very important role in conservation. There is a slightly less high score for the animal enclosures, and many teachers made additional comments about enclosure size.

These scores are obviously subjective and from the individual's point of view; however, the large number of responses does allow supported generalisations to be made.

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The responses to these statements provide a good indication of teachers' opinions following the zoo visit. Unfortunately there are no data from before their visits, to compare their opinions before and after the visit, as this would be useful in making firm conclusions about the impact of the educational visit to the zoo, as far as teacher attitudes and opinions are concerned.

However, the data are useful in, for example, showing that nearly 94% of teachers think that without zoos many species would become extinct, whilst interestingly only c. 19% think that if there weren't any endangered species zoos should close. The issue of zoo size and species selection, e.g. at Bristol the keeping of Asiatic lions, is a slightly less clear-cut opinion, with 69% thinking the zoo is too small for keeping big animals like lions. It would be interesting to see what the response would have been if another species had been mentioned in the statement, e.g. elephant, okapi or gorilla. A number of respondents mentioned the lions looking bored (sleeping) and not having much space.

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Teachers' comments

Approximately 75% of respondents added further comments on their questionnaire, and of these comments, approx. 85% were positive remarks about how much they enjoyed the visit. For example:

`The way the facts were presented at a level the children understood was excellent and helped develop appropriate vocabulary.'

`A superb and stimulating place. The new enclosures are wonderful for the visitor and look pretty good for the animals too. The educational value of the zoo is very high indeed and clearly linked to the curriculum.'

The critical or `negative' comments can be divided into two broad categories, those relating to the animals/enclosures and those relating to customer service issues such as toilets and covered/indoor eating areas. For example:

`We think you need more toilets, particularly suited to school children, with sinks and dryers at the right heights.'

`The enclosure for the lions seems cramped and several children commented upon the lion pacing its enclosure.'

Conclusion

The results of this six-year questionnaire evaluation provide clear evidence that at Bristol Zoo Gardens the education sessions and educational aspects of the zoo are greatly appreciated by teachers and recognised as being good learning experiences for all age groups. The fact that 97% of respondents indicate that they will definitely visit again, and the supporting evidence that 37% of respondents actually chose to visit this time because of good previous experience, combined with increasing curricular demands in schools, illustrate that the teachers recognise the value of the zoo visit in supporting learning.

The opinions of teachers do vary; there is from this study, however, a strong body of evidence showing that they support the role of zoos in both education and conservation. The fact that an open-question and `comment' section based questionnaire approach has produced such a positive feedback also suggests that, as far as teachers using the zoo are concerned, the visit is valuable, successful and worth repeating.

This study does not, however, address the opinions or attitudes of teachers who do not use the zoo, which is another area worthy of study. At Bristol Zoo Gardens we have held several free teachers' open days in 2000 and again in February 2001, and these have attracted a large number of teachers who haven't used our services before. The main reasons they give for not doing so have been (a) that they didn't know that what we could offer would be beneficial to their needs, and (b) the cost of a visit.

This study will continue with questionnaires being given to all teachers using the education service. To improve the response rate even more, questionnaires are now given with a freepost reply envelope. In future we hope to conduct further studies evaluating different aspects of education in the zoo. Already visitor surveys have been conducted, not least when major new exhibits opened. The next big challenge is to gain a greater understanding and quantitative data, showing how people's ideas and attitudes can change through experiences at the zoo.

Evaluation is an extra job to do, but it is worth it, as this study has proved!

[All the questionnaires referred to in this report were devised by and analysed by Stephen Woollard.]

Stephen P. Woollard, Assistant Head of Education, Bristol Zoo Gardens, Clifton, Bristol BS8 3HA, U.K. (E-mail: swoollard@bristolzoo.org.uk )