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Evaluating Children's Conservation Biology Learning at the Zoo

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Abstract

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 questionnaires 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. Evaluación del Aprendizaje de Biología de la Conservación por Niños en el Zoológico Jensen.
Contributed Paper
Evaluating Children’s Conservation Biology Learning
at the Zoo
ERIC JENSEN
Department of Sociology, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL, United Kingdom, email e.jensen@warwick.ac.uk
Abstract: 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.
Keywords: conservation education, environmental education, informal science learning, public engagement,
public understanding of conservation biology, science education, zoo education
Evaluaci´
on del Aprendizaje de Biolog´
ıa de la Conservaci´
on por Ni˜
nos en el Zool´
ogico Jensen
Resumen: Millones de ni˜
nos visitan a los zool´
ogicos cada a˜
no con sus padres o escuelas para conocer de
primera mano a la fauna silvestre. La educaci´
on p´
ublica de la conservaci´
on es un requisito para pertenecer a
las asociaciones profesionales de zool´
ogicos. Sin embargo, en a˜
nos recientes los zool´
ogicos han sido criticados
por fallar en educar al p´
ublico en asuntos de conservaci´
on y conceptos biol´
ogicos relacionados, como la
adaptaci´
on de los animales al h´
abitat. Utilic´
e cuestionarios pareados de m´
etodos mixtos de pre- y pos-visita
para investigar el valor educativo de las visitas a los zool´
ogicos para ni˜
nos entre 7 y 15 a˜
nos. Los cuestionarios
recopilaron datos cualitativos de estos individuos, incluyendo opiniones relacionadas con el zool´
ogico y un
dibujo de un h´
abitat con comentario. Evalu´
e los resultados relativos del aprendizaje de visitas guiadas y
no-guiadas por un educador en el zool´
ogico de Londres, ambas en t´
erminos de aprendizaje sobre biolog´
ıa
de la conservaci´
on (medida por los dibujos con comentario) y actitudes cambiantes hacia la conservaci´
on
de la fauna silvestre (medidas con los datos de la lista de opiniones). El 41% de las visitas guiadas por un
educador y el 34% de las visitas no guiadas resultaron tener aprendizaje relacionado con la biolog´
ıa de la
conservaci´
on. Los cambios negativos en el entendimiento de los ni˜
nos sobre los animales y sus h´
abitats fueron
m´
as prevalentes en las visitas sin gu´
ıa. En general, mis resultados muestran el potencial del valor educativo
de las visitas a zool´
ogicos por los ni˜
nos. Sin embargo, tambi´
en sugieren que los materiales interpretativos
est´
andar en las visitas sin gu´
ıa no son suficientes para obtener los mejores resultados de los ni˜
nos visitantes.
Estos resultados apoyan un modelo te´
orico del aprendizaje de la biolog´
ıa de la conservaci´
on que enmarca a los
educadores ambientales como los encargados de hacer herramientas que desarrollan recursos conceptuales
para mejorar el entendimiento de la ciencia por los ni˜
nos.
Paper submitted November 3, 2013; revised manuscript accepted November 9, 2013.
1004
Conservation Biology, Volume 28, No. 4, 1004–1011
C
2014 Society for Conservation Biology
DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12263
Jensen 1005
Palabras Clave: Aprendizaje informal de la ciencia, compromiso p´
ublico, educaci´
on ambiental, educaci´
on de
la ciencia, educaci´
on de la conservaci´
on, educaci´
on en zool´
ogicos, entendimiento p´
ublico de la biolog´
ıa de la
conservaci´
on
Conservation science is a field deeply intertwined with
social, cultural, and political factors. The fact that many
of the most fundamental and intractable problems con-
servation biologists face have human interests, motiva-
tions, assumptions, and behavior as the central feature
(Balmford & Cowling 2006) indicates the importance of
developing and refining conservation education practice.
Although conservation education has urgent problems to
address among adult populations, improving the long-
term outlook for species conservation requires effective
engagement with children. Millions of children visit zoos
every year with their schools, where many encounter
educational messages relating to conservation biology
alongside live animals. As such, zoos represent a major op-
portunity to engage children with live animals, biological
science, and conservation. Indeed “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 asso-
ciations such as the European Association of Zoos and
Aquariums (Moss & Esson 2012). Moreover, the recent
emphasis on public engagement with science by govern-
ment and scientific institutions (e.g., Holliman et al. 2009;
Holliman & Jensen 2009; Jensen & Wagoner 2009) offers
zoos the opportunity to position themselves as a key
venue for public engagement with both the sciences and
wildlife conservation.
However, in recent years there has been increasing
criticism of zoos for failing to demonstrate their pur-
ported educational and conservation impacts. In particu-
lar, animal rights groups, such as the Royal Society for the
Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), have leveled
criticisms against zoos’ educational claims on evidentiary
grounds. The RSPCA contends, that because keeping an-
imals in captivity has an animal welfare cost “it is not
enough for zoos to aim to have an educational impact,
they should demonstrate substantial impact” (emphasis
added) and that “this does not yet appear to be the case”
(RSPCA 2007: 97).
The RSPCA conducted a literature review in which they
evaluated the level of peer-reviewed evidence supporting
zoos’ educational claims. They concluded that evidence
on the educational value of zoos in the current peer-
reviewed literature is thin.
. . . [Z]oos are only justbeginning to seriously evaluate . . .
the impact their educational programs have on visitors
and whether they are fulfilling their objectives. In this
respect they are lagging well behind institutions such as
museums and science centres (RSPCA 2007: 97).
Reacting to such assessments, Esson (2009: 1), Educa-
tion Programmes Manager at Chester Zoo, describes the
situation as follows:
Zoos are increasingly finding themselves lodged between
a rock and a hard place when it comes to substantiating
claims to be education providers, and the zoo commu-
nity is coming under increased pressure to evidence that
learning has taken place as a result of a zoo visit.
When paired with ethical criticisms of holding animals
in captivity (e.g., Jamieson 2006), the lack of evidence of
learning has been used to call into question the legitimacy
of the zoo as an institution. Antizoo activists have gone
much further in arguing that only negative learning could
result from a zoo visit (e.g., Captive Animals Protection
Society 2010). Thus, evidence of educational impact is
crucial if contemporary zoos are to empirically validate
their role as charities promoting biology-related learning
and conservation.
However, as noted in the RSPCA (2007) report, prior
published research on zoos often eschews fundamental
questions about zoos’ abilities to deliver effective engage-
ment of visitors with science and conservation and fo-
cuses instead on dependent (outcome) variables such as
satisfaction, “stopping power,” “implicit connectedness
to nature,” and visitor behavior within the zoo (Moss
et al. 2010a, 2010b), which are assumed to provide
some proxy information about educational impact. For
example, previous studies have focused on independent
(causal) variables such as viewing area size (e.g., Moss
et al. 2008), visitor density (Moss et al. 2007), relative
credibility of different zoo-based personnel (e.g., Fraser
et al. 2008) and “identity-related motivations” (Falk et al.
2007). Among those previously published studies that
do focus on zoo impacts, most use postvisit only or
aggregate-only data (or both), thus making it impossible
to identify patterns of learning that can be validly applied
at the level of the individual (Molenaar 2004). A range
of methodological shortcomings such as an overreliance
on self-reported data further undermines the conclusions
(both positive and negative) of most such studies of zoos’
educational impact.
Prior Research on Zoo Visitor Impacts
Perhaps the most prominent prior study of zoos’ edu-
cational impact was conducted by Falk et al. (2007) at
4 sites in the United States. This zoo visitor study was
called the multi-institutional research program or MIRP
Conservation Biology
Volume 28, No. 4, 2014
1006 Conservation Learning at the Zoo
(Falk et al. 2007). In this multipart study, Falk et al.
(2007) set out to evaluate adult zoo visitors’ motivations
for visiting a zoo and any changes in attitudes toward
or learning about conservation. Falk defines this task
in terms of identity-related motivations. The focus on
these motivations is justified as a prerequisite for pre-
diction of visitor outcomes: “we need to capture the
essence of what motivates visitors so we could [sic]
better predict what they might gain from their visit”
(Falk et al. 2007: 6).
Falk et al.’s (2007: 9) thesis is that visitors arrive at mu-
seums or zoos with “specific identity-related-motivations
and these motivations directly impact how they con-
duct their visit and what meaning they make from the
experience.” He develops this thesis with an audience
segmentation approach that defines visitors as belonging
to one of his 5 categories: facilitators (“desire a social
experience aimed at the satisfaction of someone else,”
such as parents), explorers (“visit for personal interests,”
such as learning), experience seekers (“visit as tourists
[ . . . and] value the zoo [ . . . ] as part of the community”),
professionals or hobbyists (“tuned into institutional goals
and activities”), spiritual pilgrims (attend zoos as “areas
for reflection”) Falk et al. (2007: 13). This identity-related
motivations approach has been called into question by
Dawson and Jensen (2011). Dawson and Jensen (2011)
also challenge the methodological approaches employed
in the MIRP study for a range of fundamental errors in
assumptions and measurement biases. Complementary
critiques have also been published highlighting flaws in
Falk’s approach (e.g., Bickford 2010) and Falk et al.’s
(2007) questionable survey methods (Marino et al. 2010).
The segmentation-based research conducted by Falk,
Fraser, and other zoo researchers—and most other zoo
visitor research in the literature—is almost universally fo-
cused on adult visitors only. There is a surprising paucity
of evaluation research focused on children visiting zoos
(Fraser 2009). Published studies of zoo impacts routinely
exclude children from their samples. One example of
this is Fraser’s (2009) research on parents’ perspectives
on the value of zoo visits conducted at Bronx Zoo in New
York City. Interviews and observations of zoo visits were
undertaken with 8 families (14 adults). Fraser (2009: 357)
concluded, “parents conceive of the zoo as a useful tool
. . . to promote an altruistic sense of self, and to transfer
their environmental values. [ . . . ] They could use these
visits to actively support their children’s self-directed
learning.” However, the study only discusses parents’
assumptions of the impact of zoos on their children—or
what Fraser calls “anticipated utility.” The actual utility
of zoo visits was not investigated, leaving this issue still
unaddressed in the literature.
This lack of direct evidence of the value of zoo-based
education for children prompted the present study. The
case I examined was groups of pupils, accompanied by
teachers and sometimes parents, visiting the Zoological
Society of London’s (ZSL) London Zoo. Visits by students
from state schools, funded by the Greater London Au-
thority, either had an educational presentation that sup-
plemented the mostly unguided (i.e., teacher-led) visit
or were unguided for their entire zoo visit. Indepen-
dent, privately funded schools were able to access the
same educational experiences on a subsidized per school
group fee basis. This arrangement predated the present
research, but it was identified as a unique opportunity
to test whether additional educational provision results
in increases or decreases in learning or enjoyment. Be-
cause the decision about whether to receive an addi-
tional educational presentation is made at the school
or classroom level and the outcomes are measured at
the level of the individual pupil, differences in pupils’
outcomes can be attributed to the zoo experience. That
is, I took advantage of a naturally occurring setting in
which additional educational content was introduced to
pupils on a non-self-selecting basis. This study therefore
provides insights into the impacts of zoo visits through
a comparison of 2 common formats for such visits (zoo
educator supplemented and unguided). The percentages
of pupils evincing positive, negative, or no change in the
annotated drawing data collected for this study provide
the basis for assessing the potential learning value of zoo
visits.
This manuscript reports on a large-scale (n=2839)
study designed to address the lacuna in the literature
identified above through an assessment of whether zoos’
educational programs deliver positive conservation biol-
ogy learning outcomes. I used data collected from June to
August 2009 on pupils at schools in the Greater London
area. I evaluated and compared educational impact for
zoo visits accompanied by an educational presentation
conducted by zoo educators and for unguided zoo visits.
This comparison addresses the most relevant question for
conservation biology educators: What can one achieve
with pupils who are visiting one’s institution? I used data
from a sample of pupils visiting one zoo to address this
question. I focused on the cumulative impact of zoo visits,
rather than the specific individual elements of such visits
(cf. Marino et al. 2010).
Methods
I directly measured stability or change in pupils’ attitudes
and understanding of conservation biology concepts to
examine whether a zoo visit facilitates conservation bi-
ology learning among school pupils. I also attempted to
determine the extent to which unguided school zoo vis-
its lead to conservation biology learning and whether
educator-guided school zoo visits lead to greater learning
than unguided zoo visits.
One of my methodological aims was to overcome lim-
itations associated with prior research on educational
Conservation Biology
Volume 28, No. 4, 2014
Jensen 1007
impact in informal learning settings. In particular, I did
not rely exclusively on self-reporting measures for learn-
ing as previous researchers have (e.g., Marino et al. 2010).
Instead a mixture of quantitative and qualitative data
were collected, with the present manuscript reporting
on quantitative analyses conducted on this mix of data
genres, which includes thought listing, annotated draw-
ings, and Likert scales, designed to allow for the valid
collection of relevant and reliable data, which could be
robustly analyzed to identify different possible forms of
impact from children’s zoo visits.
Survey Instrument
It is clear from both national and international zoo per-
spectives that a key emphasis for zoo-based education is
promoting understanding of conservation biology. Thus,
I tailored my methods to explore this domain of pupils’
thinking. To accurately elicit pupils’ understandings of
habitats and animals, 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 capa-
bilities; thus, it is more accessible to young pupils and
those for whom English is not their first language.
In a 1-week pilot study, I used 2 versions of the pupil
questionnaire with different formats and phrasing. These
were assessed for the extensiveness and relevance of
pupils’ responses. The version that elicited the most ex-
tensive responses was then used exclusively (Supporting
Information).
The mixed methods (quantitative and qualitative) sur-
vey instruments developed for this study included a pre-
visit form and a postvisit form. Different age-appropriate
variations on these forms were used for primary school
pupils and for secondary school pupils on zoo visits. The
previsit form for primary school pupils visiting the zoo
included the following elements: demographic details
(name, age, and gender); a thought-listing item with 5
numbered lines and the question “What do you think of
when you think of the zoo?”; space to complete an an-
notated drawing, with the instruction, “Please draw your
favorite wildlife habitat and all the plants and animals that
live there. (Please put names or labels on everything.)”
Below the drawing space was a question, “What did you
draw above?” I asked this question to elicit further lin-
guistic clues to their level of understanding.
This pre-zoo visit form was expanded somewhat for
the secondary school pupils in line with their increased
linguistic capabilities. Specifically, the following items
were added (which were carried on into the postvisit
survey form). I operationalized the concept of conser-
vation self-efficacy by asking pupils’ pre- and postvisit
(secondary school version of survey only), “Do you feel
there is anything you can do about animal extinction?”
This is admittedly a modest first attempt to operational-
ize this complicated idea of conservation self-efficacy. I
assessed the pupil’s level of concern about wildlife con-
servation by asking, “Do you feel personally concerned
about species going extinct?” (response options were
yes, no, not sure).
The postvisit survey forms retained thought listing and
annotated drawing items in exactly the same form as in
the previsit in order to allow for direct comparisons. In
addition, there were items measuring pupils’ satisfaction
and enjoyment. The question measuring satisfaction was,
“How was the London Zoo lesson?” For primary school
pupils, a 5-point response scale using face drawings from
smiling to frowning was provided; for secondary school
pupils, a 5-point response scale from very good to very
poor was provided for this item. Enjoyment was mea-
sured for the primary school pupils with the question,
“Have you had fun at the zoo today?” (response options:
yes, no, or not sure). For secondary school pupils the
question was, “Overall, did you enjoy your time at London
Zoo?” (response options: yes, no, or not sure). In the sec-
ondary school version of the postvisit survey form, con-
servation self-efficacy and conservation concern items
exactly matching the previsit survey form were also in-
cluded. Data from other items in the pre- and postvisit
survey forms were not used.
Sampling
The Greater London Authority funding pupils’ attendance
at the zoo offered a unique opportunity to study patterns
of zoo-based educational impact without the potential
selection bias of ability to pay that would normally apply.
Moreover, the fact that there was a split in the population
of visiting pupils between those whose visits were sup-
plemented by an educational presentation tailored to the
zoo context and those whose attendance was unguided
offered the opportunity to assess whether such addi-
tional zoo education made any difference and whether
pupils visiting without such supplementary education
still learned anything of value.
I surveyed mostly pupils whose zoo visits were sup-
plemented by an educational presentation (n=1742)
or were unguided visits with their school (n=1097).
There were 890 boys and 834 girls in the education-
officer-guided zoo visit sample (18 respondents did not
specify their gender), making a total sample size for
this category of 1742 pupils for whom paired (before
and after) survey data were available. The age range for
the education-officer-guided respondents was 7–15 years
(mean 10 years). In the unguided zoo visit sample, there
were 470 boys and 607 girls (20 respondents did not
specify their gender), making a total sample size for this
respondent type of 1097 pupils who completed both pre-
and postvisit survey forms. The age range for unguided
respondents was 7–14 years (mean 9.9 years).
Conservation Biology
Volume 28, No. 4, 2014
1008 Conservation Learning at the Zoo
Procedure
Survey forms were administered before and after pupils’
experience with London Zoo formal learning activities.
The purpose of these questionnaires was to capture any
changes in pupils’ thinking about animals and their habi-
tats as they participated in different zoo-related activities.
The use of pre- and postvisit questionnaires was intended
to measure the cumulative impact of the zoo visit on
pupils’ developing understanding of animals, habitats,
and zoos.
The use of a before–after (repeated measures) survey
design in this manner can result in false negatives be-
cause of inflated pretest responses to self-reported items.
However, I used open-ended direct outcome measures
(viz. annotated drawings of animals in habitats) rather
than relying on closed-ended self-reported items, thereby
mitigating the methodological risk typically involved in a
repeated-measures design. The selection of this repeated-
measures design was also weighted against highly fraught
alternatives such as a retrospective pre- and post-test (i.e.,
both administered postvisit), which clearly increases the
risk of a false positive result along with a high risk of
response bias.
Data Analyses
Questionnaire data were entered into a spreadsheet by
research assistants, where it was organized prior to im-
port into the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences
(IBM SPSS) for analysis. All data except for the anno-
tated drawings could be straightforwardly entered with-
out analytic judgment required. The nondrawing data
were analyzed with the assistance of relevant software.
The thought-listing item provided open-ended responses
that were compared from pre- to postvisit to assess ag-
gregate changes in associations between the zoo and
conservation-related concepts.
For the pupils’ annotated drawings (the learning im-
pact measure), the analysis was idiographic (within each
case). A content analysis was conducted using a simple
coding scheme. On the first measure, drawings were
coded as having undergone positive development in
learning (coded as 3), no development (2), or negative
development (1) from previsit form to postvisit form.
Positive development was defined in terms of increased
evidence of elaboration of physiological characteristics of
animals, increased conceptual sophistication in terms of
the use of more scientific ideas, such as shifting from de-
scribing a habitat as sand to desert, or improved accuracy
in the placement of animals within their correct wild habi-
tats. Training in conducting this analysis was provided to
the 2 undergraduate research assistants working on this
project. To show how this coding determination worked,
an example of positive development is provided in Fig. 1.
In this case, there was a substantial improvement over the
course of the pupil’s zoo visit and educational presenta-
tion in the labeling of the woodland habitat represented.
The previsit drawing in Fig. 1 shows 2 animals, whereas
the postvisit drawing includes a dragonfly; butterflies; a
generic insect; a pond with a frog, fish, and duck; and a
bird’s nest in a tree. In the postvisit drawing, the addition
of grass, the more detailed selection of an apple tree, and
the representation of a hole in the tree “for squirrels”
were evidence of a more sophisticated understanding of
the environment in which these animals live. Thus, there
was evidence of a substantial expansion of this 9-year-
old pupil’s understanding over the course of her visit to
the zoo, which included an educational presentation on
teeth and diets.
I blind coded a randomly selected sample (n=350)
for quality assurance purposes. A widely accepted statis-
tic for measuring intercoder agreement was employed
(Cohen’s kappa). The kappa value was 0.885, which
is considered a good level of intercoder agreement
in content analysis, particularly for latent content as
in the present case. Differences uncovered through
this quality assurance exercise were resolved through
discussion. Once quantified, the data were analyzed
to compare sample means for education-officer-led
and unguided visits on the drawing-based measure of
learning.
Results
Beyond reporting the percentages of positive and nega-
tive change in pupils’ representations of animals in their
wild habitats, the present analysis focuses on the dis-
tinction between zoo educator-led versus unguided visits
to see whether the addition of a presentation from a
zoo educator affected zoo visit outcomes. The depen-
dent (outcome) variables analyzed in this manuscript in-
clude actual learning (as measured by annotated draw-
ings), personal concern about species extinction, and
conservation self-efficacy (the feeling that one is capable
of making a difference in terms of saving animals from
extinction).
Cumulative Positive Change
The area which most frequently benefited from positive
change following the zoo visit was the learning evidenced
by pupils’ annotated drawings of an animal in its habitat.
In total, 1075 pupils (38%) showed such a positive change
in their drawings in the postvisit questionnaire com-
pared with the previsit drawing (41% of education-officer-
led visits and 34% of unguided visits). Such positive
changes incorporated a range of incremental develop-
ments observed across the annotated drawing data, in-
cluding the addition of accurate labeling (e.g., “canopy,”
“understory,” “rainforest floor”), accurate positioning of
Conservation Biology
Volume 28, No. 4, 2014
Jensen 1009
Figure 1. Drawings before and after a zoo visit in response to the instruction to draw a wildlife habitat and the
plants and animals that live there (female, age 9).
animals within specific habitats, and greater elabora-
tion of physiological characteristics of animals repre-
sented in pupils’ drawings. As with the other results
presented below, this finding of a quantitative shift from
pre- to the postvisit is based on idiographic (within
case) analysis and therefore represents the actual pro-
portion of unique individuals undergoing this kind of
change.
Respondents were more likely to switch from not indi-
cating previsit personal concern with species extinction
to expressing such concern postvisit (18%), rather than
the other way around (3%).
The relationship between perceived ability to do some-
thing about extinction (i.e., conservation self-efficacy) as
measured in the secondary school pupils’ survey forms
in the pre- and postvisit surveys was weak. Pupils were
marginally more likely to switch from having indicated
an inability to do something about extinction previsit to
having indicated an ability to do something about extinc-
tion postvisit (13%), rather than the other way around
(9%). The data suggested that existing zoo educational
provision may be better at promoting scientific learning
and concern about wildlife conservation than empower-
ing pupils to believe they can take effective ameliorative
action.
Seven conservation-related ideas were identified in
pupils’ pre- and postvisit response for comparison. The
total previsit frequency count for these conservation-
related ideas was 170 (extinct—18; extinction—
43; endangered—24; save—15; saved—0; saving—
66; conservation—4). The postvisit total was 259
(extinct—16; extinction—76; endangered—27; save—
10; saved—7; saving =118; conservation—5). There-
fore, on this measure there was a 34% increase in
aggregate conservation-related thoughts from pre- to
postvisit.
Comparison of Zoo Educator Guided and Unguided Visits
Pupils on education-officer-led visits showed consistently
more positive outcomes (41%) on the annotated draw-
ing measure of learning compared with unguided visits
(34%). Those on education-officer-led visits were also sig-
nificantly less likely to have an overall negative change
in their drawings (11%) than those on unguided visits
(16%).
Although education-officer-led and unguided visits
both evinced significant gains in learning (no impact
would be a mean of 2), education-officer-led visits
yielded greater aggregate learning on this measure (mean
[SD] =2.297 [0.659]) compared with unguided visits
(mean =2.180 [0.686]).
Discussion
My impact evaluation study focused on the overall effec-
tiveness of zoo education aimed at enhancing understand-
ing of conservation biology for children visiting with their
schools. The first headline finding in this study was that
34% of pupils in the study on unguided visits showed
positive learning, whereas 16% showed negative learn-
ing. This is a net positive for unguided zoo visits but in-
dicated poorer educational impact when compared with
the education-officer-led visits, where the ratio of positive
to negative learning was 41–11%. The 7% differential in
positive learning impacts and 5% differential in negative
learning impacts between guided and unguided visits may
seem modest. Yet, given the millions of children who visit
zoos and similar institutions every year, the prospect of
increasing the level of positive learning impacts (while
reducing negative impacts) by this proportion is impor-
tant. It also establishes the principle that zoo education
interventions may be able to make a positive difference
Conservation Biology
Volume 28, No. 4, 2014
1010 Conservation Learning at the Zoo
in children’s conservation-related learning outcomes. Al-
though such learning outcomes may not fundamentally
change conservation-related behavior, conservation bi-
ology learning may establish the basis for further en-
gagement targeted at fostering proconservation social
change.
Zoos’ claims to serve a vital educational and engage-
ment role in persuading publics of the importance of bio-
diversity conservation and involving them in this cause
cannot be simply accepted at face value. As Moss and
Esson (2012: 8) argue,
for many years, they have confidently promoted them-
selves as education providers particularly with regard
to the conservation of biodiversity; perhaps even used
this educational function as part justification for their
existence. Because of this, the burden of evidencing ed-
ucational impact falls squarely on the shoulders of zoos.
Yet the research undertaken thus far (and there is a sub-
stantial amount) has clearly not been universally accepted
as an effective demonstration of zoos’ positive impact.
My study was designed to assess whether and to what
extent zoo visits can help to develop such positive im-
pacts by employing rigorous social scientific impact eval-
uation (also see Wagoner & Jensen 2010; Jensen 2011).
My study is the first large-scale effort to quantify the
potential educational impacts of zoos for children, and
my findings broadly support the idea that zoo visits can
deliver proconservation learning and attitudinal impacts.
However, there are some important limitations inherent
in my study. The most significant limitation, given the
study does not employ an experimental design, is the
uncontrolled risk of confounding variables, the most ob-
vious of which is the role of the teacher (and accom-
panying parents). Although the results of this study are
consistent with the explanation that the zoo visit yielded
aggregate positive learning outcomes, 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. For example, one alterna-
tive explanation for the educational impacts I observed
is that teachers used the zoo experience as a platform for
delivering conservation biology learning. This research
also leaves unanswered the broader policy question of
whether zoos are worthwhile conservation education in-
stitutions compared with other public engagement sites
such as botanical gardens and natural history museums.
This broader policy question may be addressed by fu-
ture research, which would most likely need to employ a
quasi-experimental or microgenetic evaluation (Wagoner
& Jensen, 2014) approach to better control for confound-
ing variables.
My results indicated that pupils visiting the zoo were
significantly more likely to evince positive conserva-
tion biology learning impacts when they attended an
education-officer-led presentation than when they visited
the zoo unguided by teachers. This finding is consistent
with a Vygotskian theoretical explanation: Zoo educa-
tors may be assisting pupils’ learning within a “zone of
proximal development” as theorized by influential devel-
opmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky. On the basis of his
research, Vygotsky argued that there is a zone of potential
assisted learning that can occur above and beyond the
autonomous learning potential of a pupil.
My results suggest the zoo is a setting in which this
distinction between a proximal zone of potential assisted
learning and a zone of autonomous learning (i.e., un-
guided) is applicable. Vygotsky’s social development the-
ory proposes that learning is inherently connected to
social relationships and communication. Most relevant in
the present context is his argument that learning can be
assisted by a “more knowledgeable other,” who can pro-
vide support or guidance through the learning process. In
this case, the more knowledgeable others were education
officers who helped pupils develop their scientific and
conservation learning. The provision of conceptual tools
relevant to the zoo context yielded enhanced learning
outcomes, beyond the level that could be achieved au-
tonomously or by nonspecialist teachers.
A further direction for theorizing the present research
results connects to the work of another influential devel-
opmental psychologist and learning theorist, Jean Piaget.
Piaget’s (1957) classic theory proposes that learning takes
place when children face new situations that existing
mental schema are not set up to process, thereby lead-
ing to cognitive disequilibrium. To reequalize, children
must extend their existing schema. Thus, in the present
context, children are confronted with new stimuli at the
zoo animals they have never seen before. These stim-
uli may cause disequilibrium in pupils’ existing mental
schema relating to animals. If facilitated effectively by zoo
interpretation and education, the reequalizing process
mayextendpupils’thinkingaboutanimals.However,at
this point in the zoo learning process, my data support
the Vygotskian explanation regarding a zone of proximal
development. That is, on the basis of the present data
I argue that viewing new animals in a zoo may result
in a form of cognitive disequilibrium as theorized by
Piaget. However, the assimilation of new ideas into a
pupil’s existing mental schema for understanding animals
and habitats can be significantly enhanced through assis-
tance from a more knowledgeable other (in this case
a zoo educator).
Thus, my results support (but do not confirm) a theo-
retical model in which new stimuli (viewing live animals)
create the potential for the assimilation of new infor-
mation about conservation biology into existing mental
schema, as predicted by Piaget. However, this assimi-
lation process is more likely to occur and likely to be
better elaborated with guidance from a more knowl-
edgeable other (i.e., a conservation educator or tailored
Conservation Biology
Volume 28, No. 4, 2014
Jensen 1011
educational materials). In sum, regardless of the pre-
cise nature of the learning facilitator, my results support
Vygotsky’s (1987; Vygotsky & Luria 1994) argument that
the facilitator plays a vital role in drawing children’s atten-
tion in useful directions and providing conceptual tools
that allow children to develop their conservation biology
learning. In other words, this theoretical model places
conservation educators in the role of toolmakers, seeking
to develop the most effective explanations possible to
provision children for the process of developing a higher
level of conservation biology-related understanding.
Supporting Information
Pre- and post-test questionnaires for primary and sec-
ondary school students (Appendices S1–S4) are available
on-line. The authors are solely responsible for the con-
tent and functionality of these materials. Queries (other
than absence of the material) should be directed to the
corresponding author.
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Conservation Biology
Volume 28, No. 4, 2014
... 2019). The majority of the public are children, either accompanied by their families, or in school groups (Baratay et al., 2002;FPZSP, 2018). In this context, these spaces play an important role in science education and have the potential to encourage the formation of habits and positive attitudes towards environmental conservation (Bizerril, 2004;E. Jensen, 2014). ...
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