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Get outside to study the world in situ

Why sit inside learning about the environment when it is all around us? Direct experience can be a great teacher, reports Judy Mackie

The Education Minister's recent pledge to put "interactions with the environment" at the core of the proposed 3-18 curriculum has given new hope to those who see experiential environmental education as the key to a child's social and ethical development.

No one has welcomed Peter Peacock's proposal more warmly than Allan Paterson, manager and teacher at the Aberdeen Environmental Education Centre.

"Having practical learning and teaching about the environment at the heart of the curriculum is something we have been advocating for many years and the current review presents a wonderful opportunity to put this in place," he says.

Mr Paterson, who has written to Mr Peacock to offer the benefit of the AEEC's 21 years of experience, has some radical suggestions about how the curriculum could be improved.

"I believe the review group should set aside the 5-14 curriculum and begin with a blank page.

"Instead of starting with subjects and thinking about how the environment can be fitted into the different compartments, the group needs to look at the world outside, think about the part we all play in it and how we are affecting it, and then come up with a curriculum that is going to address these issues in a way that is meaningful for children at all stages of their school career.

"The next big step is to take the youngsters out there, into their local environment, to actually experience it for themselves."

While acknowledging that there are several small pockets of excellent practical environmental teaching in Scotland, Mr Paterson and his colleagues have long despaired that the subject has been kept indoors by some education authorities.

"Many schools we have talked to throughout Scotland are not aware of what is on their own doorstep and have not used their local environment for learning and teaching in any kind of structured, planned way," he says.

"Perceived health and safety issues and timecurricular constraints are often the reason for this, but in our experience, these can be easily overcome through basic training and planning."

The AEEC's teaching packages, which are supported by Aberdeen and directly linked to the authority's environmental policy as well as to the 5-14 curriculum, are delivered in and around the centre or in a school's immediate vicinity. They are based primarily on outdoor experience.

Pupils, guided by worksheets, carry out structured investigations into issues such as traffic congestion, the importance and impact on the environment of farming and food production, countryside conservation, town planning and house design, how people were affected by the Second World War and what life was like locally in Victorian times.

Through observation, interviews and the use of artefacts and other primary source material, each child, working as part of a small group, is able to form ideas and conclusions and contribute these to the investigations.

Direct experience, Mr Paterson believes, enhances classroom follow-on work and children's ability to learn key information and make informed decisions about their role in society and responsibilities towards the environment.

He is disappointed that the Scottish Road Safety Campaign's new Street Sense package seems to keep environmental education closeted in the classroom. The material, despite the good production quality and well researched content, appears to provide no opportunity for children to get out and experience the issues for themselves, he says.

Mr Paterson believes many teachers would embrace the idea of exploring the environment with their pupils. Last year, the AEEC taught more than 90 classes on the Second World War and more than 2,000 primary pupils about the Victorians. The centre provides materials and in-service courses for teachers and will soon launch a cross-curricular countryside training and resources package developed with the Royal Northern Countryside Initiative.

"There is a huge demand for environmental education of this kind," says Mr Paterson. "I would not like to speculate on why there are not more centres like ours in Scotland, but I do believe that with the expert training and support they can provide, the opportunities for learning and teaching about the environment in the environment are very exciting."

AEEC, tel 01224

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