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Analyzing the findings of our leaf graph with students inside of IslandWood’s Pond Shelter. (Photo by Elsie Love)

Analyzing the findings of our leaf graph with students inside of IslandWood’s Pond Shelter. (Photo by Elsie Love)


As a graduate student, discussions of researcher bias often accompany critical readings of study and theory, but I realized that this level of analysis rarely showed up in my lessons with elementary-age students through the Afternoon Ecologists program at IslandWood. And why not? Having taken the time to think about Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) connections to each lesson, I know that considerations of scale and proportion are cross-cutting concepts that can be applied to a wide range of scientific investigations and phenomena, so maybe investigating researcher bias with elementary students was just another issue of scale.


I believe researcher reflexivity is an important aspect of any study or investigation. Understanding how I, as the person conducting the investigation and making decisions at every turn, am thereby subtly or in more obvious ways impacting the resulting data that lead to my conclusions. Reflexivity requires constantly assessing these decisions and the way my personal perspective, experiences, and assumptions show up in the research or lesson in order challenge that bias where available, or to hold awareness of the impacts at the very least. In Researchers, Reflexivity, and Good Data: Writing to Unlearn (2000), Audrey Kleinsasser talks about the importance of researchers developing a practice of reflexivity through writing, which “makes researcher thinking about personal and theoretical commitments visible and... open to critical examination of the research process” (p. 155). Kleinsasser goes on to make the comparison of “‘researcher as instrument,’ to show that a researcher collects data that pass through the researcher's theoretical, practical, experienced, and inexperienced lenses” (p. 160). Whether we consider this instrument to be one of music or scientific observation, the result of each is shaped and produced by the function specific to that instrument. Light or air passing through a different instrument might create a different result, and such is the same with data that passes through the figured “lenses” of a researcher.

Now that we’ve thought about why researcher reflexivity is important at an academic level, I want to share a way I have introduced and explored the topic through the framing of an outdoor education lesson with elementary students. Following the lesson outline, I’ll also share some reflections and example responses I’ve heard from students. Because I first tested this activity out in the fall, we used fallen leaves as the focus of study, but this model could be adapted for use with a wide range of other subjects.


Activity Outline

Materials: sticks and leaves

Learning Objectives:

Participants will:

1.     Practice collecting data in multiple ways from the same sources.

2.     Analyze ways in which their decision-making and interpretations impacted resulting data and conclusions.

3.     Consider implications and connections to other decision-making they experience in their lives.

  • Start by asking all students to gather 5 interesting leaves.
  • When they return to the group, have each student share about the leaves they collected.
  • Explain: “Now that you’ve each collected leaves from the forest, we are going to begin to organize these leaves into a bar graph as a way to begin making connections, comparisons, and get a sense of what we collected.” Arrange two long sticks in an x/y axis on the ground and clear the space inside the grid of any leaves and other debris. (If bar graphs are not something you have talked about previously with this group,, it would be a good idea to review their general structure and mechanics.)
  • Ask the group: “How could we organize the leaves we collected into a bar graph?” Some ways that might come up include: by color, by size, or by tree species (these will be three useful categories for the purpose of leading into conversations about researcher bias, so see if you can tease out at least these, along with any others).
    • Demonstrate how to form bars in the bar graph by placing leaves end-to-end in a line to form a single bar.
  • Start with sorting by color. Allow students to each place their leaves onto the bar graph where they think each goes. This might prompt some discussion or debate about what categories the group is using or about which category a leaf fits into, for instance about whether a leaf is more green or more yellow, or where to put leaves that are half and half or speckled. Let the students work through these questions and come to a decision.
    • After they are done graphing, ask students:
      • “What conclusions can we draw from our data?”
      • “What were some challenges you ran into?” This should hopefully bring to mind any discussion about what to do with leaves that did not fit neatly into a category like “green” or “yellow”.
      • “How did you make a decision in those moments?” Listen for where student (researcher) decision-making affected the conclusions they drew from their data earlier.
      • “How did those decisions you made impact our results and the conclusions we drew from our data?”
  • Reset: now graph by leaf size.
    • Since there has already been discussion about how to form categories, students might be quick to recognize that they need a system of measurement for determining how they are organizing by size. Again, allow them to determine this and carry out the graphing process.
    • If they followed the same protocols for creating bars of the bar graph as modeled in the demonstration and used in the first round, they should still be arranging leaves end-to-end to form each bar. If they decide to use a different approach, that’s ok too, but use that as an opportunity to discuss why they made the decision they did.
    • After they are done graphing, begin with the same question:
      • “What conclusions can we draw from our data?”
      • Note here that because we are graphing by leaf size, the height of a bar in the bar graph is not necessarily an accurate representation of comparative value. For instance, in a forest with Big Leaf Maple and Japanese Maple trees, two Big Leaf Maple leaves might easily dwarf 5 Japanese Maple specimens.
      • This provides a good opportunity to discuss the ways that our interpretation of data, as researchers, includes our perceptions of the data.
  • Reset: for a final round, graph by species of tree (this can either be accompanied by field guides for students to look up and check their identification, or can be based on however students would like to identify and organize leaves by type of plant they came from).
    • After they are done graphing, begin with the same question:
      • “What conclusions can we draw from our data?”
      • At this point, students might begin to draw correlations between the leaves collected and the biodiversity of the forest. E.g. “There are a lot of Big Leaf Maples in this forest.” Conclusions like this help bring out a third point of discussion around researcher bias, which connects back to the very beginning of this whole activity.
      • Ask students, “How did we collect our data?” They will likely remember that they each contributed 5 leaves and they might even remember that you asked them to gather 5 “interesting” leaves.
      • Follow up to ask them: “How do you think gathering ‘interesting’ leaves affects the data we have available?”
      • Continued follow-up:
        • “What data are we missing?”
        • “How could we include that data in our study?”
        • “How can we remove our interests, assumptions, and influence from the ways we collect and interpret data or the way we carry out a research study like this?”
  • Introduce the concept of researcher bias to provide a term for all of these factors and mention that this is something everyone can look for and point out as they carry out future investigations during the time together.



Through the debrief questions after each round of graphing, students are able to reflect on concrete examples of how each different form of researcher bias entered into their graphing experience. This activity provides a tangible, low-stakes, iterative way of exploring and discussing these concepts within the context of scientific investigations. By prompting their thinking about how they arrived at their conclusions each time and the decisions they made along the way, you offer opportunities to practice researcher reflexivity, to question their own process, and to identify points of revision and improvement in the design.

I have led this activity several times now with different students each time and I use each debrief as a formative assessment to gauge how they are processing and analyzing the concepts and where more conversation or reflection might be helpful. During one session, after asking the question, “What data are we missing?” a student thought for a moment, looked up with excitement, then looked up again and pointed, exclaiming, ”What about all of the leaves that are still on the trees!” These moments of realization are what I hope students gain from this activity--when they discover that the answers they thought they’d arrived at are actually just the beginning of more questions and when they begin to see themselves as part of the science rather than separate or removed.


This activity was adapted from a leaf graphing investigation I first learned through Seattle Audubon. The sequencing and discussion of researcher bias is new.



Kleinsasser, A. M. (2000). Researchers, Reflexivity, and Good Data: Writing to Unlearn. Theory Into Practice, 39(3), 155–162. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15430421tip3903_6



lucy1We are asked to model all the time.  Doing so one-hundred percent of the time is unrealistic.  How do we explain the margin of change from one-hundred percent “normal societal” behaviors?  How do we avoid justification, or utilizing an “inherent value of age?”*  In moments of expected modeling, what do we say when we are called out by a student for our non-normative, or expected, societal or classroom behavior?  

Even so, what is modeling one-hundred percent? This suggests normative behaviors and therefore also carries the weight to validate stereotypes.  These patterns are symbolic of issues much larger.  Our efforts to be thoughtful carry ample responsibility and power; to mobilize transparency, we can prepare ourselves to model decision making rather than decisions. Modeling decision making could look as basic as, pausing in front of a snail or a salamander on the trail and deciding whether or not to move the organism from a main thoroughfare-- how, why and for what reason-- and discussing this decision-making process aloud.  Or, after building bridges in the woods out of natural objects opening a dialogue about whether or not we should leave our engineering art as it is, or disperse it; these are great practise moments for students to consider not only their impacts but also the many facets that go towards making a decision. The reverse of this could look like the educator just telling the students what is going to happen at the end of their building time without including them in the dialogue (whether or not you have a goal in mind, the conversation is the rich part of this).  

This article aims to promote explanation versus making excuses during “grey area” times of modeling.  There will always be a grey area; how can be teach transferrable tools and process, rather than absolutes?  We know as outdoor educators that more trials equal better results but how can we express this inherent value of age to someone younger than us?  As educators, we shouldn’t have to rely on inherent value of age as reasoning for our actions, as there are-- and essentially should always be -- specific reasons for asking students to do something.  

Instead of not doing what you believe, or what suits your lifestyle choices -- modeling just to model-- be prepared to articulate your choices.  The very best teacher is adaptable to many situations and is able to practise the power of the when and the how. The when and the how can be discerned through authenticity and discretion: every choice is a moving target.  The most powerful lesson lies in modeling decision making with evidence and experience rather than authority.  An expert leader has a non-analytic, appropriate, and holistic sense of all situations and the repertoire to respond in a prepared, salient way.  

There are various strategies for challenging current stereotypes and inequality in outdoor education, and we need them all. Some of these strategies include:

  • challenging the idea that the generic outdoor participant is a mythical norm that often encodes an assumption of ability, prosperity, whiteness and similar ideas of wildness;

  • improve practical access to outdoor exploration (gear libraries, work trade, childcare, financial support);

  • examine values instilled in basic ideas of the field (wildness, adventure, culture);

  • willingness to question and discuss unjust practises while maintaining positivity;

  • provide innovative tactics to transform ideas of difference through intentional curriculum design (Newbery 3).  

There is built-in power that we carry as educators of youth, and adults alike.  This power can manifest in many ways, however one poignant place where we can stir critical thinking into our work is through ways of modeling.  By being comfortable in our actions, through body language and articulate explanation, we provide strong alternatives to societal expectations and fill in gaps where conversation can begin and students can explore self-identity.    

I believe that demonstrating differences of opinion is a responsibility that every educator carries.  Modeling is a great avenue for breaking down norms and encouraging critical thinking about subliminal societal expectations.  We hold much power in these moments of testing student expectations-- they are observing our every move subconsciously or consciously.  Explaining our behavior, for example, “this was the right choice for me at this time because…,” values variability, consideration of all aspects and flexibility.  Rather than delineating a decision derived from one scenario, this allows our students to re-consider stereotypes, absolutes and norms.  When we create absolutes, we encourage archetypes**; is that something to aspire to?   

*”inherent value of age” is colloquially referred to in this article as, wisdom gained through years of life experience.   

**a statement, pattern of behavior, or prototype which other statements, patterns of behavior, and objects copy or emulate (Merriam-Webster).  

Newbery, Liz.  “Caution: Education Is Very Messy! Social Difference, Justice, and Teaching Outdoors.” Pathways: Council of Outdoor Educators of Ontario Series Winter.  Issue 15 (1) (2003): 2-3.  

daniella1The idea behind emotional intelligence is more than noticing ones emotions. It is also the act of using empathy as a form of communication and understanding between people. Throughout my time in working in the outdoor education world I have seen more and more the importance of emotional intelligence. It is a skill that takes a whole life to develop and master. Even though teaching how to be emotionally intelligent is a difficult task, I think helping students recognize the process and why its important is the best way to go in teaching it. 

daniella2Emotional intelligence is often times an expectation or a skill we work on as we discover, learn and explore together the ecosystems or own personal challenges while being at Islandwood. This characteristic is introduced and framed first thing when I meet the students. I explain the importance of recognizing ones own emotions when they first arrive and then give them the time to assess what to do next. The best moments to bring up in conversation emotional intelligence are after a team challenge, or after a long day of hiking. I reiterate again the importance of emotions. Together in our circle, we say out loud what we are feeling and often times the students jump into expelling why they feel certain ways. If they don’t provide evidence I usually ask for an example. Now in those moments if a stranger would have walked into that moments my students may have not said the same answer as they would have said to me. I set the standard about sharing emotions and recognizing them when they happen. Its something we do everyday especially during debriefs at the end of the day. Even a simple questions of asking, “How is everyone feeling?” and getting real answers in which the students know that you are truly listening to what they have to say. Once this ambience is created there is a sense of trust and respect that is gained. In this setting students become more willing to learn with you and be challenged by you. Working with emotional intelligence allows for your students to do some self reflection, regulation and also self awareness. In their recognition, they then feel more confident in themselves which allows for you to help stretch their answers. Asking a lot of why questions helps them to communicate effectively why they are saying the things they are saying. 

daniella siderbar2Emotional intelligence ties in with social emotional learning. The idea of learning empathy, how to communicate to others how you feel and why are skills that are important to every student. The setting does not matter, but in outdoor education there is the space and tons of opportunities to learn the importance of emotions while learning.  

Yell out “Camouflage!” in a group of environmental educators anywhere in the country, and at least a few will scramble to find a place to hide. The game is ubiquitous in outdoor and environmental education. There are many variations of this classic game, but educators that view it as only a game are missing out on its full potential.   

In Camouflage, one person is the predator and everyone else becomes prey.  The prey have approximately 30 seconds to hide while the predator closes their eyes. As the prey must always be able to see the predator,  participants work to camouflage into their surroundings and remain still and quiet.  The predator tries to spot prey, but must stay in one place; the predator can, however, pivot on one foot or crouch down to get a different perspective.  Prey that are sighted are out for the round.  Once the predator has searched for a few minutes, they make a designated call and all remaining prey emerge from their spots.  The winner is the prey player who was able to hide the closest without being found.  

Really though, everyone wins with Camouflage when an instructor plans for learning!   Below are my top 5 ways to use Camouflage to augment your teaching, but there are many more.  Get creative, have fun, and find a place to hide! 

  1. Camouflage is a tool to compare ecosystems. Camouflage in the forest is pretty easy, but have you ever played camouflage at the beach?  It can be much more difficult to hide, and students will have a visceral experience as they try to find a suitable spot.  You might even hear cries of, “This isn’t fair!”  Use this as an entry point to discuss the plant communities of different locations or the habitat needs of different species.  Playing Camouflage in a field can also be illuminating for students as they scatter to the forested edges and build their own understanding of how animals could be affected by human clearing and development of ecosystems.  

  2. Camouflage is an introduction to adaptations.  Students often choose to take off bright jackets, as they realize those in duller colors are having more success.  Others will focus on finding a spot where they can comfortably stay still and quiet, or even move leaves and debris to better cover themselves.  Occasionally, a daring student will try to hide right behind the predator. After playing a few rounds of camouflage, students will be excited to explain the strategies they used. You can build discussions or lessons around  the importance of and mechanisms for adaptations, the difference between physical adaptations and behavioral adaptations, or examples of adaptations around you.    

  3. Camouflage can quickly change student state, increase excitement, and give you time to organize yourself.  Whenever students start to get antsy, yelling “Camouflage!” gives students a chance to run (moving their bodies) and then sit quietly (focusing themselves).  Conversely, if group energy is flagging, a quick game of camouflage gets the blood pumping.  The anticipation of future games of camouflage can keep student excitement high throughout the day.  If you need a minute to regroup your thoughts, you can either do this as the predator while counting down or you can designate someone else as the predator.    

  4. Camouflage is a way to increase mindfulness and presence.  After you’ve played camouflage one or two times, try giving students extra time in their spots before you begin searching. Guide them through a mindfulness exercise to tune into their senses. Be sure to tell them that you will keep your eyes closed during this part. Ask a series of questions and prompts that address the students as a prey species, pausing between each question.  The ‘squirrels’ (or whatever species you choose), need to quiet their breathing and heartbeat after racing to evade the ‘coyote’ predator.  Encourage all of the squirrels to listen quietly in their spots.  Ask them to pay attention to their hiding place - if they, as squirrels, had to stay in this spot for a long time, would the ground be comfortable to stand/sit on? Are they upwind or downwind from the coyote? What do they smell? After the mindfulness activity, give them 10 seconds to get resettled in their spot, and the game is on!  

  5. Camouflage encourages students to be aware of their surroundings.  As we move into new ecosystems, I often overhear students murmuring to each other things like, "It would be hard to camouflage here!"  "Look at all those stinging nettles, don't hide there" or "Look at that dead tree - that would be a perfect place."  You can foster this awareness, and build anticipation, by occasionally asking students where they would hide as you enter a new ecosystem. Encourage students that find something interesting during camouflage to share it with the whole group – even if it means pausing the game. Because we are dispersed, quiet, and paying attention to our surroundings, some of the most awe-inspiring wildlife moments I’ve had with students have been during camouflage. 

While some might think of Camouflage as just a game, it incorporates many of the primary tenets of experiential learning.  Used wisely and creatively, Camouflage is a fantastic and fun learning experience.      


Tips for playing Camouflage When you play for the first time with a group, choose a place where it will be fairly easy to find hidings spots among brush, rocks, logs, or other parts of the ecosystem. Pick a spot, at least for your first few rounds, that is an especially safe environment to run and hide in.  Avoid areas with lots of branches and sticks, slippery logs or mud, nearby hazards like water or roads, and plants that can sting, scratch, or irritate.  As you get to know participants better and they become more familiar with the game, you may decide to choose more challenging environments. As the instructor, you do not always have to be the predator.  Participants will enjoy the opportunity to fill this role, and playing alongside them can help build rapport.  You also have an opportunity to introduce different topics by using tricks, such as hiding under backpacks or hiding in plain sight.  This may lead to claims of “cheating,” which will lead to more impassioned discussions of behavioral adaptations.   It is likely that participants will ask frequently to play the game.  A way to minimize this is to explain that as the predator, you are always trying to surprise the prey.  Or you can simply be transparent with students about your need to find the right locations and fit specific learning objectives.





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