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Want to get the best from your students? Show them the great outdoors

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"Stretch and challenge", "resilience" and "grit" are concepts currently in use in most areas of the modern education system. Stepping back in time to the 1930s through to the 1960s, these phrases would have been encapsulated in what was then known as "character building". This was what was in vogue back then, and it became an integral part of the newfound realm of outdoor education, which has become my teaching specialism and lifelong interest.

Part of character building in young people was to allow them to go off in small groups to navigate a route through rugged terrain, negotiating expansive moorlands and scrambling up mountains out of sight of an adult leader. Activities of this nature were tried and tested within the Outward Bound framework, which started in 1941. They were then adopted by other outdoor education organisations in the early post-war period. If the trek was undertaken in arduous weather conditions it afforded even greater character-building opportunities.

When I started teaching 25 years ago I decided to emulate the practices of Dr Kurt Hahn, who developed the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme and founded Gordonstoun School. His educational vision was to support young people's transition into adulthood through the undertaking of significant life-shaping experiences that would lead to what we now term resilience. With this in mind, I devised opportunities for students to engage in adventure walking in an independent way. In the 1990s, remote supervision was one way of doing this: it involved the leader or lecturer being located in the area where the student groups were walking but not having any direct contact. This method was not for the faint-hearted, as this was PMP (pre-mobile phone)! However, I did deploy the remote supervision method on a number of occasions, most memorably in 1991.

The day of the adventure walk dawned and my colleague and I were in the minibus awaiting the students’ arrival. After a kit check to ensure they had the right gear and clothing, we boarded the bus and got under way. The students were excited as we travelled to our destination: the White Peak area of the Peak District National Park. On arrival I handed out maps and compasses to the assembled groups and then asked them to orientate the map and pinpoint their position. Thankfully, at least one in each group found the correct location without prompting, which eased my anxiety a little. 

Each group had a different route so they couldn’t follow each other, but as these routes crossed at certain points they would never be too far from each other (although I would know if a group made it to a check point because they had to answer a specific question about each one). I gave the "go!" command and they were off. I expected them back in about three hours, so my colleague and I sat back and opened the sandwiches.

Three hours passed without a sign of anyone. The four-hour mark approached – still no students. I was concerned and it was time for action.  Just as I was about to go in search of them, the first group arrived and within 15 minutes all the groups had arrived back safely. Relieved, we began the homebound journey.

On the way back my colleague focused on the driving but I reflected on the activity. Was this the worst lesson I had ever devised?  What if I had lost the whole year group in that vast national park?  Did the students actually learn anything? Thankfully the noise in the back of the minibus distracted me from my negativity. Listening as they chatted away about their day, I found that their unofficial feedback was highly positive and the overriding factor was that this activity had been fun.  

Questions ran through my mind: is fun part of Ofsted’s common inspection framework? Has anyone received a grade 1 for a lesson which appears to focus on fun? What would be the outcome, if lesson observations were assessed on resilience and grit, for an activity which stretched and challenged students?

I certainly learned from that nerve-racking experience, but instead of removing it from my scheme of work I reviewed and reflected my planning for the next academic year. I went back to basics and decided to try out remote supervision on beginner orienteering routes at a local country park, allowing the students to go round a set course in a competitive way. These sessions worked well.

With this success under my belt I decided to go for the next phase, taking it back to the Peak District. Here, I put into practice methods used on charity walks and by walking organisations. The walk was split into sections, with all groups starting at the same location but staggering their starts at a few minutes’ intervals and sharing the same check point. This meant I could drive to and wait for all the groups to pass, only moving on to the next check point when I had recorded every student. 

With this method I knew that each group had used their navigation and teamwork skills to get to this check point independently of the others, and if anything did go wrong the geographic area to search was minimised. I used this approach successfully for several years before constraints of actual guided learning hours led to its demise. 

In all the years I facilitated this remotely supervised adventure walk, no one observed the sessions but I was happy with the comments from learners. After all, they all said that it was fun! Neither the students, nor indeed the management, had any idea that this activity engaged one aspect of Dr Hahn’s educational vision: resilience.

Chris Sweetman is a lecturer in adventurous activities, health promotion and public services at New College Nottingham. He tweets at @ChrisAFRIN

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