The conclusion but not the end!…

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.

“Winter” Skills Weekend

On Friday 24th February 11 East Lothian Staff gathered at the Outdoor Learning Service Base to get kitted up and head off to Cromdale for some CPD. The aim: to venture up into the Cairngorms for a weekend of winter skills (or as it turned out a general search of any snow!).

We were very spoilt with great accommodation and an excellent chef (in Steff) for the weekend, just not quite so lucky with the weather (or rather the needed winter conditions!). Despite the more spring like weather crampoms and ice axes were packed with gear and off we set. Even though the snow was quickly thawing spirits were not melted! We were ready for action…

From Winter Skills 2012

(Click on the photo above to view a slide show of all the pictures from the whole weekend!)

In a desperate search to find the magical white stuff difficult terrain was undertaken in order to reach the peaks (and hopefully some snow).

From Winter Skills 2012
From Winter Skills 2012

It did appear at first that it may be in vain! It certainly didn’t look (or feel) like winter weather…

From Winter Skills 2012

Steve was determined to find some snow and using some transceivers we managed to track him down along with some snow!

From Winter Skills 2012

We quickly got the ice axes out and had a go at negotiating our way across the snow (y patches).

From Winter Skills 2012
From Winter Skills 2012

There was one particular request which had been made (aside from having muffins to eat at the end of the day and not dying!). Although conditions were not ideal we managed to give Steve his wish…he was finally able to put on and use his crampons…

From Winter Skills 2012

In case you were wondering the other requests were met too with everyone returning to the centre to the sights and smell of freshly baked muffins!

Day 2 turned out to be an even milder day! This did not prevent getting back out and finding more snow to play in. We were even able to find enough to make bucket seats (just!)

From Winter Skills 2012
From Winter Skills 2012

Some great technique work was taught and was able to be put into practice (before running out of snow entirely in some situations!).

From Winter Skills 2012
From Winter Skills 2012

This is just a brief overview of the weekend. Others on the course said it was ‘thoroughly enjoyable’ and a ‘great experience.’ They also noted that they ‘really enjoyed company and getting up to date with skills and equipment.’ ‘Given the conditions (lack of snow) the course was delivered superbly’. ‘It was pitched just right’ and enabled people to feel they ‘could ask questions and that everyone’s needs were catered for’.

Despite the lack of winter like conditions there is at least one brave person who has said they ‘definitely want to come on it again if it’s run next year’. So we hope to see you all (plus more!) next year. Until then we will keep you posted about your suggestions to go to the Alps or invest in snow making machines to take up next time!

Ross High Pupils Reaching High Places

As part of their John Muir Award pupils from Ross High ventured out of school and into the woods.  Here, with the help of the Rangers and Outdoor Learning service, they aimed to discover more about the benefits of the woodlands for themselves as well as the wildlife.  Taking on various challenges they perfected their animal climbing skills (which will be explored later…)

The woods were not a new discovery of a wild place for the group.  On a previous visit to the area they had selected and cut down sections of trees to begin laying down a new path to make area more accessible for everyone.  


 Revisiting this area again they were able to see how their work had been continued.  In further exploring the woods it was obvious that not everybody is as careful and considerate of the woodlands as one would hope or expect.  To help conserve the area and make the woods safer to enjoy for themselves and others (human and wildlife) a quick sweep and litter pick of the woodland floor was done.  There was plenty to be found…


 Having helped make the area cleaner and safe for everyone the pupils had a go at completing some woodland challenges.  The first was to try and get between two large oak trees by balancing on a single line!  Here were some of the different ways.  Everyone managed to get across but maybe not quite as fast or graceful as a squirrel would have!


Next the pupils tried their hand at climbing up trees (well a cable ladder attached up a tree!)  


It was a lot harder than it looked!  Most pupils, however, were able to get all the way to the top and this gave them a chance to see things from and in a different way.

Finally there was a chance to have a go at ‘flying’!

As humans it is great to think about and admire lots of different things.  The pupils decided there were lots of abilities different animals had that they would quite like – including to fly like a bird and have the speed of a cheetah.

Overall it was great to explore more of this woodland area, discover different ways of enjoying it by thinking about how different animals climb around and use the woods, and to make it a cleaner place for everyone to enjoy.  Hopefully you have enjoyed reading about and sharing in this experience and maybe you will get a chance to go down to the woods today (or sometime soon)…