A lesson in what should come naturally (but doesn't)

27th May 2011 at 01:00
Teachers are wrenched from their mobile phones in outdoor experiential courses, as Jean McLeish explains

The teachers look alarmed when their watches are taken from them. There's no bell out on the hillside to signal the next activity.

They've come to secluded countryside in Northern Italy to get in tune with their natural environment and rediscover their own senses. So distractions like mobile phones and watches are discouraged.

They worry they won't know when it's time for dinner - the Italian home cooking is not to be missed. But after a couple of days they can judge the time from the sun's position in the late afternoon sky.

Two former teachers, Irene Bews and Ally Sangster, run these experiential learning courses. They too have been used to a timetable punctuated by bells. But now they've opted for the outdoor classroom, delivering continuing professional development courses for teachers as part of their business, AdventuraScotland.

Ally Sangster retired five years ago as head of what was then Pierowall Junior High, now Westray Community School, in Orkney. He has taught for more than 30 years and is an international mountain leader. His business partner Irene has 20 years' teaching experience, most recently at Stromness Primary.

Now, as experiential education consultants, they run CPD courses on taking learning outdoors and reflective leadership. They also provide in-service opportunities for schools and local authorities and offer training, supervision and assessment for Duke of Edinburgh expeditions. They work with teachers from nursery to further and higher education.

"Taking learning outdoors is about giving educators confidence to take their groups outside and to develop their skills of managing people and leading people outside," says Ally.

Irene says: "It's communication, team-work exercises, problem-solving, group dynamics, but it's all coupled with active review and reflections at the end."

The course on reflective leadership is about getting people to think about leadership and the skills necessary to lead.

"We do a series of activities which engage with them," says Ally. "We put them in the place of the learner and let them experience what they are going to do with students. They often find that quite challenging, because we get them to think about what they're doing and why, and reflect on it."

"It's tapping into emotional intelligence," Irene adds. "It's that realisation that you don't have to do anything difficult and scary to get a lot out of being out of doors."

Their courses in Italy and Spain are funded through the British Council's Comenius programme for school teachers and through Grundtvig for further and higher education. Teachers awarded European funding of up to EUR2,500 (pound;2,100) must undertake these six-day residential programmes in another European country.

"If you are from the UK, you can't attend a course in the UK and get funded for it from the European Union. That's one of their rules. The point is to mix with other teachers from all over Europe," explains Irene. The European funding covers course fees, accommodation, food and travel, but not cover for teachers when they are out of school.

As well as discovering how much they have in common, teachers across Europe find that they face very different challenges. On a recent reflective leadership course, one teacher from Romania said teachers there hadn't been paid for three months.

"They do take that experience and range of contact from the different European countries back with them - so they have got a wider understanding of what education is about across the other European countries they have been in contact with," says Ally.





In the seclusion of the mountains of Andalucia, teachers have time and space for reflection. That's built into the sessions on reflective leadership, according to Pauline Friel, 30, who did the six-day residential course last September.

She teaches music and religious, moral and citizenship education at St Andrew's and St Bride's High in East Kilbride, and says: "It was really amazing."

She enjoyed the wide range of activities and the opportunity for personal reflection.

Since her return, she's been researching international partnerships for her school through Comenius and planning a reunion with the teachers she met from throughout Europe.

"We were all so different and from totally different backgrounds, so it was quite interesting to see each other's strengths," she says. "Some folk would get frustrated at group activities because they were more used to working by themselves, whereas I'm used to working in a group and not so much individually."

Another teacher who did the Taking Learning Outdoors experiential course in Italy says she came home bursting with ideas and enthusiasm. "It was a beautiful part of the world and it was easy to switch off from everyday school life away up in the mountains," says PE teacher Gillian Campbell.

She is on secondment to Falkirk Council from Braes High and did the course in Italy in 2007 with funding through the British Council. "I thought it was a fantastic course - a really good mixture of practical activities and time for reflection. I think the dimension of having people from different countries really helped - good to hear other ideas and viewpoints."

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