A renewed focus on outdoor learning

The pandemic can be a catalyst for genuine change, says Dr Daniel Sturdy, principal, Wotton House International School, and Simon Dawson, head of The Wilderness Centre

For the past few decades, it appears the focus of our education system has been on academic achievement, on equipping our children with qualifications to enable them to progress through a prescriptive system of attainment.

What has been lacking has been the nurturing of character, those Aristotelian virtues including courage, emotional strength and the ability to learn from failure. Once, schools prided themselves on producing children of character. We believe that the pressures of league tables have left less space to do this.

Aristotle’s emphasis was on all people learning to live a fulfilled, flourishing life based on virtues which would enable everyone to find their own path forward and make a contribution to society. This is something the outdoors industry, rooted in its origins of the Outward Bound movement, and its several representative bodies have been arguing for many years needs to happen in a more structured way.

Backed by research from the likes of the Education Endowment Foundation and Learning Away, with the support of the Institute of Outdoor Learning and the Association of Character Education, it has been encouraging to see Ofsted becoming aware of this issue. There is a growing appreciation of character education and there are now plans to build assessments of a school’s development of the character of its pupils into its gradings from next year.

And more widely, the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting enforced social distancing have generated more appreciation of the benefits that being outdoors can bring to us all.

As Albert Einstein said: “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” One of the few positive outcomes from the coronavirus outbreak appears to be greater appreciation of the wider benefits of spending more time with nature.

outdoor learning
Dr Daniel Sturdy, principal at Wotton House International School

 

There are three aspects to consider regarding the educational benefits of outdoor learning.

Firstly, there is the general purpose of education, as touched on already. Progressive schools like ours in Gloucester, which is affiliated with its own outdoor centre at The Wilderness Centre in the Forest of Dean, espouse an educational ethos which aims to prepare our pupils for lives in the wider world rather than focusing on grades and status.

The second element to consider is the contribution that regular outdoor learning can bring to performance back in the classroom.

There is evidence that children learning outdoors have better attitudes to failure, improved mental resilience, more confidence, greater self-awareness and enhanced communication skills, which can in turn benefit their performance during examination.

This was something which recently came up in conversation with a former General of the British Army who highlighted how a noticeable fear of failure among new officer recruits and their resulting avoidance of risk needs to be overcome in training if they’re to be successful leaders.

He attributes their attitude directly to the modern education system where failure isn’t encouraged or explored. Instead, he says, there’s an unrealistic expectation of having the right answer first time, even in the most complex of scenarios. Problem-solving and teamwork in a less pressurised, outdoor environment, where trial and error is a way of working, could certainly empower pupils with greater resilience here.

There are therefore a number of different strands which support the argument for outdoors learning. The challenge for schools is how to fit that into a very demanding curriculum

The third and final beneficial aspect of being outdoors is the psychological and wellbeing side of things. Lockdown has made us all appreciate the mental health benefits of exercise and nature, and there is neuroscience research which shows people think differently when they’re outdoors, too.

This is more than simply feeling relaxed. The evolutionary psychology perspective is that our brains have evolved to be outdoors, it’s where we are at our best in terms of learning and problem solving, both individually and as a team.

So, there are therefore a number of different strands which support the argument for outdoors learning. The challenge for schools is how to fit that into a very demanding curriculum. We tend to host schools for relatively brief, irregular visits, especially in the state sector.

Diversity and social equality are issues, too. The outdoors tends to be enjoyed more by the more affluent sections of society and there is a problem with perception in the BAME community. Some research in this community indicates the outdoors is seen as the preserve of white, male and middle-class people. These are obstacles which need to be addressed.

It is a real shame – for our business and for society at large – that the Department for Education has restricted use of outdoor learning centres in September and October. It means that we cannot welcome schools back until the new year and our concern is that the opportunity to create sustained culture change may be missed altogether. Since the DfE’s decision there has been considerable lobbying from many different bodies to effect a change of mind, but so far there’s no sign this will happen.

This sorry episode can be a catalyst for genuine change and, while not all schools will want to embrace the concept, we believe that pupils at many schools could benefit from a more holistic approach.

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