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outdoor learning

Redefining Potential – getting beyond the walls

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Outdoor learning offers unique opportunities to extend the potential of children through learning in context and through experience and place.  How to devise different a challenging experiences to support learning.

By David Cameron, (chk title: Chair of the Outdoor Connections Advisory Group)

I imagine that there are many other people involved in education who are becoming heartily sick of being challenged to raise attainment. For some reason, it is always a “challenge” and never an “encouragement’ as if, left to our own devices, it would never occur to us to attempt to improve children’s life chances.

The reality is that most of us have been working to raise achievement for all, but particularly for those currently getting least from our education system, for the duration of our careers and it is difficult and demanding.

Fulfilling potential

Outdoor LearningMany of us also recognise that ensuring children fulfil their potential is not always a helpful concept. Much of the evidence that we have suggests that some young people only have the potential to fail. The reality is that for these young people we need to do more than add value, we need to write new narratives and create new possibilities. In my view, we won’t do that with more of the same or more of the same only better or more of something remarkably similar to the same repackaged with a new label and accompanying book and motivating professional development package.

We need to offer young people richer experiences which are more likely to engage them. We need to give them opportunities to find meaning. I see the value of phonics and other decoding techniques and have been closely involved with phonics schemes in Scotland, but if we can’t find understanding and sense in what we read we will never be fully literate. Gaining understanding involves challenge investigation and tasks. It has to involve young people in the active quest for meaning. More than that, it has to involve the development of a sense of identity in learners. From that, comes resilience and the willingness to take the risks that lead to leaps in learning.

One wonders how anyone can belief that we can accomplish that entirely in classrooms. I was working recently with teachers committed to outdoor learning and found myself saying –

“Nature has designed spaces for learning, in schools we have designed spaces for teaching”

There are myriads of challenges that we can create outside. Juliet Robertson’s book “Dirty teaching” is one of the best for identifying these and providing examples for teachers. There are other excellent resources available online and lots of helpful advice and support available from organisations like Learning through Landscapes or Eco-schools. I am not going to summarise or cherry pick from these here.

My intention is simply to make the case that young people can learn formally and informally in a range of different environments and our chances of them learning successfully are enhanced when we offer variety in these environments. Evidence from the OECD is clear that young people whose parents have benefitted from education will buy in to schooling regardless of how dull it might be. Young people from different circumstances need to be engaged, they need to be interested and we need to find ways to unleash that interest. There may be an argument that we can achieve this through strong discipline and traditional didactic approaches, but I cannot accept that this will build the resilience, adaptability and creativity that a complex world demands.

We know that conventional approaches can work well in improving measured attainment. In my oft-used cliché, they can be effective in getting young people over an immediate assessment hurdle, but are much less effective in helping them to complete the race. Moving outdoors can offer exploration and application. It can tax us physically and intellectually and connect us to a world that we need to understand and value.

Why would you ever close the door on that?