By the numbers: Why matric marks could grow on trees
A new study has suggested a more natural way of improving school marks in low-income schools
What if improving matric results were as easy as planting trees in the schoolyard?
According to a new study, it might not be that simple. But greening could certainly be a major part of the solution.
The study, by Ming Kuo at the University of Illinois, found that schoolyard tree cover predicted maths performance in high-poverty urban schools. This has major resonances for SA.
The research, published in Frontiers in Psychology, investigated the link between greenness and academic achievement in 318 of Chicago’s public elementary schools.
According to the researchers, previous studies have “documented a positive relationship between greenness and academic achievement”. But until now, nobody had examined “the relationship in high-poverty schools”.
Said Kuo: “The goal was to see if the greenness-academic achievement relationship holds for poor, urban schools because that’s where it matters. That’s where educators and policymakers are desperately trying to find ways to help kids reach their potential.”
She said the test confirmed schoolyard trees positively predicted maths scores. Reading scores tended to be better with more trees, but the effect fell just short of statistical significance.
“There are consistent hints throughout the history of studying the effects of greenness on people that trees matter more than grass, so this finding was not a big surprise.”
Mike Pierce, a programme co-ordinator at Food & Trees for Africa in Johannesburg, said the Chicago study resonated in SA, where a study had shown that trees at school improved high school pupils’ concentration as well as their perception of their campus as an attractive place to be.
He said a study by environmental scientist Charlie Shackleton and his team at Rhodes University showed a “correlation between woody-plant species richness and learners’ self-rating of ability to concentrate”.
The study also showed a correlation between woody-plant species richness and ratings of attractiveness of the grounds.
So while this research did not look directly at academic performance indicators, “there is a strong correlation between an abundance of woody plants and pupils’ feelings of being able to apply themselves effectively”.
The SA study focused on small and medium-sized towns in the Eastern Cape.
“The poorer communities had fewer and smaller public [and private] green spaces than the more affluent towns [as a result of higher density of housing],” said Pierce, adding that greater green infrastructure in school grounds within poorer communities was likely to have a profound impact on pupils due to the paucity of green spaces in their communities in general.
“A greater sense of mental well-being has been shown to correspond positively with the level of green infrastructure [trees and shrubs, not grass] at an institution,” he said.
Another spinoff benefit that could improve learning at school is the cooling effect of green spaces.
A study from Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, has also recently shown that green spaces have a significant cooling effect on nearby built-up areas, and the effect is positively related to the size of the green space.
That, said Pierce, “could suggest a multifaceted, positive connection between greening schools and academic performance – in other words, greater mental acuity in greener schools coupled with more aesthetically pleasing grounds and the ecosystem service provision of cooler midday temperatures [up to 9°C cooler than nearby built-up areas]”.
So should greening be a top priority? According to Equal Education, about 3,500 schools in 2012 did not have electricity, 2,400 had no water supply, about 900 did not have ablution facilities, while about 11,500 were still using pit latrines. About 23,000 schools did not have stocked libraries, while 21,021 had no laboratory facilities.
Greening may thus seem secondary, but according to the researchers at the University of Illinois, greening is a cost-effective intervention that doesn’t require major work. It doesn’t mean no other solutions are needed, but it is a worthy starting point.