Let them shine outside

23rd March 2012 at 00:00

Learning Outside the Classroom

By Simon Beames, Peter Higgins and Robbie Nicol

Routledge, RPP pound;18.99

There is a cruel irony that as Curriculum for Excellence is reprioritising education outside the classroom, the combination of the drive for exam success and current financial cuts is having the opposite effect. Outdoor education teachers have largely disappeared and the focus on exams militates against anything unorthodox.

The University of Edinburgh's Simon Beames, Peter Higgins and Robbie Nicol have produced this common-sense guide to changing approaches to learning and health by taking learning beyond the classroom walls. It argues for the integration of personal and social development, environmental education and outdoor skills and a move to more engaging forms of learning.

Learners need to know their own place in the world and explore outwards from there. Whether studying the history or geography of a local community, considering the great issues of biodiversity or engaging in major ethical debates, the classroom is at best a limited and limiting context in which to operate.

Effective learning educates the whole child in real-world experiences, and curiosity is the great motivator of all powerful learning. The widening gap between humans and nature requires a return to roots, in learning and social experience, partly because nature itself is a source of much-needed physical and emotional fitness.

The book therefore stands firmly for experiential, rather than didactic, learning, but, the authors insist, it is not a recipe book of outdoor activities to be cut and pasted into a curriculum.

They understand the daunting barrier of paperwork to teachers keen to move beyond the classroom. They provide solid, sound advice on risk assessment but recognise that much of what passes for risk assessment is bureaucratic necessity. The crucial risk management is the dynamic assessment and re- assessment of real situations continually undertaken by every alert teacher in any teaching situation, outdoors or indoors.

Interestingly, however, the book comes most alive in its final chapters, discussing how best to supervise and support learning in real outdoor situations.

The case for outdoor learning is not based on adrenalin-surging adventures as ends in themselves, but on direct personal experience, collective activity, and on re-engaging with nature, with communities and with a sense of place. Through these experiences, deeper and more meaningful learning in traditional subject content can be achieved. It is also suggested, however, that such experiences nurture and build social skills and capital, especially among those most alienated from learning by traditional teaching methods.

The book's target audience is unclear. The point is well made that outdoor education developed, Topsy-like, without a substantial or convincing body of supporting theory. Rooted in progressive pedagogy, this work seeks to cover that deficit. It genuflects regularly to the stars of the progressive firmament, Dewey, Friere, Maslow, Rogers, Illich. Little new is bought by the system without established academic credentials, but it is unclear whether the purpose is to convince the academic world or classroom teachers.

The book also leaves unanswered questions. Why so little mention of the hugely-improved relationships which teachers and learners can generate when working in challenging, and particularly in outdoor, settings? Even if we accept the compelling case for a more engaging methodology and for learning to follow children's curiosity, what are the key aspects of content that should inform such a curriculum? Or have we accepted the experiences and outcomes of CfE as the last words on what needs to be taught?

This ambitious work is a good start in the search for a new and engaging pedagogy.

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