How Gordon gets the most out of the moor

26th September 2003 at 01:00
It's the final week of the summer term, Challenge Week. I take a party of Year 7 and 8 students for a day's walk on Dartmoor with local naturalist and retired primary head Gordon Waterhouse. We go in search of Tolkien's Ents, and find instead, deep in the woods, the true spirit of teaching.

Gordon appears wearing an enthusiastic grin and a large rucksack with two long plastic poles poking out of the top. He tells us that we are going to have fun, find out about the natural history of Dartmoor and search for the Ents, those wise, moss-covered old trees that live in the ancient woodland.

But first he gives us a crash course in walking on a compass bearing, and appoints two young hobbits to lead the way across the moor to locate a Bronze Age burial chamber.

It's a bare pit, a metre deep, lined with stones. Gordon makes us crouch around it, insisting that we are all in contact with one another. Then he weaves a magic web of words, taking us back to the Bronze Age and the burial of a man here 4,000 years ago. We all sit silently to think about the man around whose grave we are gathered.

Then two new hobbits lead us through the Dead Marshes, where Gordon tells us we will find dead bodies, the life sucked out of them by the deadly plants. He's right. There are tiny flies trapped on the leaves of the sticky bog plants. He gives us a list of other plants to look for. "If there are lots growing, then pick one and keep it. You're more likely to remember it then and respect it. Find a way to remember its name. Roger, this is the most common plant on the moor. Think of the name of the rocky outcrop, a tor. This is tormentil. Now you'll never forget it." Down to the stream for lunch: Tim splashes across.

"No one is to go into the water until I've talked to you about safety," said Gordon. As a punishment, he sends Tim back across the stepping stones and tells him he has to find a completely different route to return - praising him fulsomely when he does.

Two nets appear from Gordon's pack, ready for dipping the water for creatures. Gerald, meanwhile, is due for his Ritalin and is determined to eat his lunch perched precariously up a tree. Gordon stations himself under the branch. "You've got to let them take risks if you want them to learn, haven't you?" he beams, never taking the corner of his eye off Gerald. It's time to find the Ents. Gordon reads from Tolkien: "Two great trees stood there, one on either side, like living gateposts; but there was no gate save their crossing and interwoven branches, and all their leaves quivered and rustled."

We break off from the path and penetrate the ancient, undisturbed woodland.

Sitting under a gnarled oak, which is draped with moss and sprouting with ferns, Gordon hands out paper and invites us to write a poem about the Ent, just seven lines long. We read our finished pieces out, with reverence.

Peer leadership, citizenship, spirituality, positive behaviour reinforcement, explicit learning objectives, kinaesthetic and accelerated learning, modelling, scaffolding, chunked tasks for boys, coaching, literacy across the curriculum, not to mention subject expertise in biology, geography and the rest... listed separately, the skills feel thin and inert, like a set of criteria or specifications. Only when embodied, seemingly effortlessly, naturally and organically in a master teacher, can they begin to be of use in inspiring the kind of learning that lasts.

So let us beware the cloned consultants pouring out of Saruman's mines below Sanctuary Buildings - spend a day watching a Gordon in action instead.

Roger Pope is principal of Kingsbridge community college in Devon

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