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Outdoor education

By 28 April 2012No Comments

When I started teaching in the early 1970s Outdoor Education was being introduced in a handful of progressive schools.  One of them was Edinburgh’s Craigroyston High School, led by the charismatic Hugh MacKenzie.  MacKenzie was an advocate for Outdoor Education, partly because of his own experience as a geographer.  In these early days the scientists and the geographers were often the champions of ODE, as it became known, because they could see a direct link between it and their subject content.
There were other reasons why those committed to change in these early days of the comprehensive system, backed ODE.  It offered practical, experiential learning rather than traditional book learning.  In deprived communities it often gave children from such areas their one opportunity to spend any sustained time in a rural environment.  It was a wonderful means to build team work and cooperation.  It also provided physical excitement and adventure to adolescents hungry for such experiences.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, ODE flourished in Scotland.  Formal courses, providing a subject qualification, equivalent to that in any traditional subject, were developed as were post-graduate Masters’ courses.
It is ironic therefore, at a time when Curriculum for Excellence should be embracing outdoor education and its wider methodologies, it is in fact in decline.  Many schools have either reduced or abandoned their specific Outdoor Education posts.  Two factors have impelled schools in this direction.  The first is the unremitting drive for attainment and improved examination results.  From every direction, including that of parents, comes the pressure to drop ‘the frills’ and concentrate on ‘the essentials’.  The second is finance.  Not for several decades have schools had to so tighten their belts.
It is timely therefore that a counterblast should be fired in support of learning outside the classroom.  Simon Beames, Peter Higgins and Robbie Nicol all lecture on Outdoor and Environmental Education at Edinburgh University.  Their newly-published book, Learning Outside the Classroom (Routledge, RPP £18.99) puts the case, as the title suggests, for something much wider than the model of ODE developed in the 1970s and 80s.
They argue that learning and teaching outside the classroom brings curricula alive, provides a much-needed understanding of environmental issues and develops health and well-being.  Nor do they limit such learning to the traditional outdoor subjects but see its approach as consistent with both cross-curricular learning and almost all subject areas.  The first assumption is that learning should start local, rooted in the learner’s own community and experience.  It is by moving from the known to the unknown that real and meaningful learning occurs: start by measuring the playground and the journey from home to school before considering abstract distances, whether in maths or geography.
The argument is for learning that is ‘situated’, that students coming to know ‘their place’ is the starting point of meaningful learning and that learning through local landscapes is the best introduction to community education.
Again, in the areas of moral and ethical education, it is asserted that outdoor learning forces the learner to confront and understand the world in terms not merely of facts or statistics but of the interconnectedness of people and people and people and their environments.  It makes concrete the possibility of education for sustainable development.
Beames, Higgins and Nicol have produced a blast against the dryly didactic methodology which still characterises too much teaching and have advocated adventurous approaches which will enhance the pedagogy of even the best teachers.  The one outstanding doubt is that the necessary emphasis on improving methods again seems to deprioritise content.  Beware, it is the Achilles’ Heel of too much educational innovation.
The above article was first published in SecEd on12 January 2012:;category_uid=115;section=Opinion

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