Teaching Strategies

How—and Why—I Teach Like a Park Ranger

Here are four strategies park rangers use to create an audience-centered experience and establish reasons for learning that could work in any classroom.

December 9, 2021
Tony Tallec / Alamy

During a recent workshop, a teacher talked about how despite her best efforts, students weren’t interested in participating in classroom discussions.

“They just didn’t want to share,” she explained. “The silence was deafening.”

I told her that I had experienced a similar challenge when I led tours at Angel Island State Park in California. The park rangers taught me that the key to lively discourse was starting out by asking questions that everyone could answer, then after everyone was warmed up, try getting into questions that required more thinking.

“That actually might work,” the teacher said. Then, after a momentary pause, she followed up with “What else did the park rangers teach you?”

Classroom teachers can learn a great deal from the educational approaches used in our nation’s public lands. One program, Teacher Ranger Teacher (TRT), was created specifically to forge stronger links between students and national parks by giving their teachers access to training and resources provided by the National Park Service.

The benefits of these partnerships go both ways. Parks make inroads into communities that may not be likely to visit, and they gain a teacher’s perspective on their educational programming. The teachers walk away with new resources for their classrooms, graduate credits, a stipend, and a better understanding of how to teach like a ranger.

While informal learning in a national park might seem like a dramatic departure from brick-and-mortar education, my TRT program helped me realize just how much classroom teachers can benefit from integrating methods used by park rangers to facilitate learning experiences for the people who visit them every year.

4 Key Strategies I Took From My Experience

1. Create an audience-centered experience. A ranger never knows who will be joining them on any given day, so programs are influenced by the knowledge, interests, and participation of their group. While the learning goals remain constant, the way the lesson is taught varies from group to group. This results in an individualized experience where interests and questions guide learning.

In the classroom: Lessons, activities, and projects should always be designed with students at the center. What interests do your students share, and can these be leveraged? If you’re looking to teach your students about identifying themes in a story, can you model this with a popular movie, graphic novel, or television show? Got a classroom full of budding Jedi? Maybe Star Wars is a way to engage students in thinking about literary themes such as the perils of reliance on technology or the power of collaboration.

Occasionally, rangers make use of teachable moments that occur along the way, like chance encounters with animals. Planning connections between students and curriculum is important, but teachable moments occur spontaneously. If you’re teaching about ancient cultures, like those in China or Greece, you might discover students who have traveled to those locations or have family who live there who could play the roles of a guest speaker or outside expert. Be open to their inclusion!

2. Identify a reason for learning through places. Each of the 423 national park units was established because they contained an important natural or cultural resource. Essentially, there is some story that each park tells, and rangers share it through educational programs. Rangers always connect their lessons to something observable or tangible, ensuring that visitor are aware that they are learning for a purpose. This kind of place-based learning is a hallmark of park education.

In the classroom: Try to focus lessons on authentic, observable phenomena or real places. Students shouldn’t learn just for an upcoming test or to ensure good grades. Make class content matter to students by connecting it to the world outside. This creates better engagement, contextualizes the reasons for learning, and ultimately helps ignite and sustain curiosity.

Try starting off units, lessons, or projects with a kickoff that sparks curiosity and gets students asking questions. A video of a rafting trip through the Grand Canyon is a great way to illustrate geologic time scale, for example. Exploring a map of geospatial data from bear sightings in Yosemite provides a real-world example of how sampling can be used to predict population numbers using statistics.

3. Create free-choice learning opportunities. Visitors to national parks learn informally through a multitude of methods. Outside of participating in ranger-led programs, there are visitor centers with exhibits, interpretive roadside panels, and cell phone–based audio tours and apps. This creates a learning ecosystem with a multitude of learning choices based on personal preference.

In the classroom: These kinds of multimodal learning experiences follow the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) framework, creating better learning outcomes for all through greater access.

This might look like a teacher setting up a free-choice experience exploring any topic of their choosing through multiple stations that students rotate between. These stations could include videos, interactive websites, readings, or teacher-led lessons. While each station differs in design, focus remains on the learning goal so that students come away having built the same knowledge while still having their preferences addressed.

4. Invite students into learning. Ranger programs are just one of many activities available to park guests, and participation is optional. A guest can leave at any time, meaning that rangers need to hook their audience and keep them interested or they might end up teaching chipmunks instead. To incentivize participants to stay, rangers use dialogic methods of teaching that begin with easy-to-answer, low-stakes invitations into learning and progress to more challenging discussion-based questions. This approach ensures that the “asks” of the learner increase gradually, inviting further engagement and participation.

In the classroom: Begin challenging lessons or projects with low-stakes activities or icebreakers where everyone will be successful. Collaborative games or watching a short video combined with a See-Think-Wonder protocol can serve as invitations into more difficult or challenging aspects in a gradual, scaffolded way. This also builds a supportive culture where once student confidence is built up, teachers can challenge students with activities requiring critical thinking or collaboration to complete.

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