Evaluating Children’s Conservation Biology Learning at the Zoo
In this study of youth zoo attendees in the UK, researcher Eric Jensen attempts to get to the heart of a key question surrounding the existence of zoos: If a central role of zoos is to promote conservation education among attendees, how well do they accomplish this task? In this particular study, Jensen attempts to address a gap in the literature by focusing on youths, who have rarely been represented in surveys that measure the learning outcomes of zoo attendance. His results show that, while there is a potential for attendance at zoos to result in a positive learning experience, this possibility cannot be taken for granted, and could be the result of numerous factors that are more related to the person guiding the visit and delivering information, rather than the zoo space itself.
The link between zoos and conservation education is supposed to be clear and unmistakable. As researcher Eric Jensen notes early in his study, “’keeping animals and presenting them for the education of the public’ is one of the fundamental activities of the contemporary zoo and a requirement for membership in professional zoo associations such as the European Association of Zoos and Aquariums.” Zoos are regular destinations for schools, parents, and many others, but, they are routinely criticized by groups such as the RSPCA, who Jensen quotes laying their critique as plainly as possible: “It is not enough for zoos to aim to have an educational impact, they should demonstrate substantial impact. […] This does not yet appear to be the case.” In other words, if zoos are to be seen as relevant, valid institutions, they need evidence of that educational impact. While some research has been carried out to see how much people learn at zoos, the relatively small amount of literature “routinely excludes children” from their samples. Seeing a gap in the literature, Jensen set out to answer what he feels is “the most relevant question for conservation biology educators: What can one achieve with pupils who are visiting one’s institution?”
Jensen studied nearly 3000 students aged 7-15, visiting London Zoo both on guided and unguided visits. He used an approach meant to be as inclusive as possible: “I designed a survey instrument that asked children to draw their favorite animal where it lives in the wild both before and after their visit or educational presentation. A drawing task, such as this, provides an opportunity for children to express their understanding in a medium that is less reliant on formal linguistic capabilities; thus, it is more accessible to young pupils and those for whom English is not their first language.” His results are initially encouraging: 38% of students showed a positive change in their postvisit drawing compared to the previsit drawing. This included such aspects as being able to accurately label animals’ habitat, accurate positioning of animals in their habitat, better representation of physiological characteristics, and so on. Furthermore, respondents were more likely to show personal concern with species extinction postvisit (18%) rather than previsit (3%). Jensen also notes that while the numbers might indicate that existing zoo education may produce an improved awareness of wildlife conservation issues, it did not result in positively empowering students to believe that they can take action to ameliorate the situation.
These positive numbers, while initially encouraging, do not tell the whole story. A portion of students (16% on unguided visits and 11% on guided visits) actually showed negative learning outcomes postvisit; while a majority of students on both unguided and guided visits showed no meaningful change in knowledge, positive or negative. What the numbers do seem to indicate fairly clearly, however, is that guided tours seem to yield better results. Jensen notes that his study suggests that “it is possible that the teacher or some other unidentified factor was the key to the positive and negative impacts identified in this study, rather than the zoo,” and likewise that this “leaves unanswered the broader policy question of whether zoos are worthwhile conservation education institutions compared with other public engagement sites such as botanical gardens and natural history museums.”
Millions of children visit zoos every year with parents or schools to encounter wildlife firsthand. Public conservation education is a requirement for membership in professional zoo associations. However, in recent years zoos have been criticized for failing to educate the public on conservation issues and related biological concepts, such as animal adaptation to habitats. I used matched pre- and postvisit mixed methods questionnaires to investigate the educational value of zoo visits for children aged 7–15 years. The question- naires gathered qualitative data from these individuals, including zoo-related thoughts and an annotated drawing of a habitat. A content analysis of these qualitative data produced the quantitative data reported in this article. I evaluated the relative learning outcomes of educator-guided and unguided zoo visits at London Zoo, both in terms of learning about conservation biology (measured by annotated drawings) and changing attitudes toward wildlife conservation (measured using thought-listing data). Forty-one percent of educator- guided visits and 34% of unguided visits resulted in conservation biology-related learning. Negative changes in children’s understanding of animals and their habitats were more prevalent in unguided zoo visits. Overall, my results show the potential educational value of visiting zoos for children. However, they also suggest that zoos’ standard unguided interpretive materials are insufficient for achieving the best outcomes for visiting children. These results support a theoretical model of conservation biology learning that frames conservation educators as toolmakers who develop conceptual resources to enhance children’s understanding of science.