Growing up keen on sport and being in the outdoors I seemed to almost naturally progress through my school years into studying and then teaching Physical Education in a Secondary School. Now, having a break from teaching to complete a Masters in Outdoor Education at Edinburgh University, I have had the opportunity to work with East Lothian Councils Outdoor Learning Services. I obviously (or maybe not so) already believe in the value of outdoor education. As credit to the staff at Outdoor Learning Services and the work they do I felt it was only appropriate to offer a few words reflecting on my experience and the impact I have seen from outdoor learning.
For the past month I have had the privilege of working with and alongside talent and expertise in a valuable field. A particularly unique quality of the staff in Outdoor Learning Service (OLS) is the prerequisite of a teaching qualification. As a result they are more fully able to use commonly perceived outdoor recreational activities as a means of developing and enhancing more commonly sort after educational values; specifically in terms of the curriculum for excellence these include confident individuals, successful learners, responsible citizens and effective contributors. From an educators perspective I was particularly interested to see how, using my Physical Education background, further outdoor mediums could be used and what effect this had on pupil learning. Having previously worked predominantly with mainstream secondary school pupils it was really good to see the range of groups OLS provide for and the consistency and continuity in provision amongst and through primary to secondary.
Like all companies OLS have a set of aims, which they publically express in the East Lothian Council Outdoor Learning site. At first glance these may appear slightly ‘flowery’ or over ambitious but having been able to work alongside and with the staff at OLS I can affirm that there is real desire within staff to promote and reach these.
As with any work there are barriers to overcome. One of the main obstacle, for OLS, is the limited number of staff. With just three permanent staff working to serve 6 secondary schools and 35 primary schools it does not take a mathematician to work out the limited time they can attribute to schools!
As a result a key (and growing) part of their work is to share the value of outdoor education with teaching staff in the hope that they too will be and feel inspired to further promote this to their pupils. I have had the opportunity to meet some fantastic teaching staff whose dedication to enhancing learning experiences of pupils has meant they have either taken advantage of the OL days allocated to their school and accompanied pupils on a range of activities (getting stuck in too!) or taken part in CPD programmes run by OLS staff to be able to deliver some outdoor learning to pupils themselves.
Having worked in a school myself it has been great to see so many strong links between school staff and OLS staff. As with anything success is, generally, dependent on passion and priority and it is frustrating when you know and see something is good but lack support from others who do not share that view!
A difficulty with working with any changing variable is building stability. Due to perceived CPD staff often change in schools and foundations can be shaken or lost if core beliefs are not filtered as widely as possible. OLS staff do a great job at communicating with as broad a staff base as possible and eduBuzz is a medium which appears to help facilitate this. There are, however, opportunities from OLS that seem to be missed, overlooked or not passed on/shared within schools. So get involved (phone, email or check online) and don’t miss out!
Another area of difficulty faced, particularly in the current climate driven by money, is the focus on outcomes (in schools, this namely, being exams). Unfortunately it is often implicitly or explicitly expressed that unless something can be awarded a credit it is worthless. This need for tangible evidence is often in the forefront of outdoor education.
I looked at potential ways of addressing this during my time working with the Outdoor Learning Service. Being out with pupils, staff and OLS it was evident that (perhaps implicitly) through the medium of outdoors and activities within these that curriculum for excellence was being addressed and met regularly. The problem for me, and I believe staff too, is how this is recorded and maybe more importantly why does it need to be? What will it show and for it to be meaningful does it need to be considered further down the line of learning?
With these questions in mind I began thinking how the curriculum for excellence could be made more explicit in outdoor education and how feedback could be collated relatively instantly after activity (with thinking/justification behind decisions that were being made and feelings that were being expressed) and how this could be reviewed in future to see what, if any, impacts this had had or continued to have. St Mary’s Primary P6/7 very kindly agreed (well their teacher Mr Leslie did!) to try out a different method of reviewing their time on the river Tyne. I will keep you posted as to how they found the activity and what the experience on the river and reviewing of it meant for them!
The integration of outdoor education, rather than an add-on, is an issue I am contemplating. This may be due to a seeming lack of follow up afterwards. There often doesn’t seem to be any prep/build up work as part of the curriculum in schools before or evaluation after. I raise this with no solution of how this can be resolved! A generic pack to complete prior and after may be a possibility but that starts to make learning very prescriptive and take away from some of the experiential elements.
The OLS should be able to make outdoor learning more accessible to any and everyone. Often outdoor education has been (and is) seen as a middle class activity that requires payment to attend sessions and/or money to buy kit in order to do the activity! OLS have a comprehensive stock and store room: able, therefore, to kit out extra extra small through to extra extra large! Despite the ability to be able to offer this this is still not enabling outdoor learning for all. A potential barrier to this is the ratio of staff to pupils for activities. Unlike school class sizes that seem to be able to expand to over 30 in a class (33 was one figure I learnt from a local primary school) staff at OLS are only allowed to work 1 to 12 max and even less for certain activities. This, along with limited number of days allocated to a school, can make utilizing such opportunities difficult and exclude some pupils.
There are always higher goals to strive for and areas of improvement that need to be sought but it is equally as important to recognize and commend good practice and work too. Staff at OLS have big hearts and big visions which they are working within current means to achieve. The concentrated learning I have seen from morning/afternoon or day sessions is proof enough to reaffirm to me that outdoor learning is a valuable tool. This link shows some of the outcomes from OLS sessions. Write ups like these, although attempting to capture the essence of the sessions, just don’t do justice to the genuine buzz/excitement and pride I have witnessed pupils share and show during these activities.
The desire of OLS staff to impart outdoor learning is fantastic and, in my opinion, much needed. Growing projects such as SOAP (secondary outdoor adventure programme – a year-long adventure programme of courses and activities aimed at progressing the skills of senior pupils in a particular outdoor activity) are integral to instilling lifelong learning and skills which, from my experience and observations, is fundamental to the development of well rounded, whole individuals.
I hope my thoughts (albeit inadequately expressed!) will spur on those already involved in work enhancing learning of others through the outdoors and maybe encourage others involved in educating (or maybe purely for personal or professional development) to consider looking into some of the potential benefits outdoor education can have for you. The Outdoor Learning Service is certainly a great place to get in contact with for further information and I wish them every success in their future and educating of and for the future.
A big personal thank you and many thanks for your example.