Today we had a very enjoyable PD session. Our school has a small farm, reptile room, rodent room, and forestry. There is a whole department dedicated to this, along with associated subjects and extra-curricula clubs and activities. We had the opportunity today to learn exactly what outdoor learning is and how it can benefit any and every subject/topic/etc.
We started off by meeting at the farm. It was a lot of fun to stand in a patch of sun and observe the pigs, goats and ducks while we waited for everyone to arrive. Once we were ready to go, we set off through the school towards the forestry – a section of the school grounds specifically kept for this purpose. We walked into the forest by a wooden sign, and after meandering for a short while we find ourselves at the ‘base camp’. We all sat around a camp fire on purpose-built benches, eager to learn about stuff while being outside. Then it hit me – if a bunch of teachers are excited about learning about something outside (hell, we are giving up our planning/free time to do this!) then imagine how the students would feel!
The presenter, who is the head of that department, started off by describing the area around us. He then launched us straight into an activity, one I am keen to replicate with my students. He called it ‘big question, short walk’, and it is basically that. You ask the students a big question (ours was ‘how is outdoor learning beneficial’) then you either lead the students or let them walk off on their own for a short while. The point of the walk is to go slow and just discuss the question – going off on a tangent is completely normal apparently, and the vast majority of the time the tangent is actually extremely relevant to the question. At the end of the walk, which can be as short as a couple of minutes, you bring everyone back together and report on what you discussed. You can even specifically discuss the tangents everyone went off on, as they usually provide a deeper insight.
We walked around randomly through the forestry, some staying close to base camp and some seeing exactly how far away they could go before being called back. Our answers for our question ranged widely – it can be beneficial for students who don’t have access to a garden, gives students who prefer movement-based learning a chance to do just that, sets a very real-world context for topics, and allows sensory learning. Our tangents largely included remembering our own times learning outdoors, something everyone seemed to remember with joy.
After this we had a bit of a discussion about the research around outdoor learning, which generally comes down to the fact that it’s awesome and can benefit everyone. We also discussed how clinical classroom learning is, and how we usually remember things we’ve done more than things we’ve heard or seen or written down. This then moved on to a discussion about intrinsic and extrinsic motivators – extrinsic motivators (money for example) generally inhibit creativity, and intrinsic (fun, curiosity, etc) are much more powerful. If students think they’ll have fun doing something, they are more likely to put in effort than if they are offered a reward for relatively boring work.
The second activity we did is called a ‘literacy window’. You literally get a frame, or make one out of paper, and put it on the ground, or in a tree, or anywhere really. The students then have to confine their thinking to that space and, for example, describe using specific words what there is (animals, how it looks, etc). You can really make the purpose whatever needed to suit your topic – ecology is one that works nicely, and so is basic or specific literacy.
We then moved on to the important stuff – hot chocolates and roasted marshmallows. We were told that was the end of the session and we could basically do what we wanted at that stage, but we all hung around the fire roasting marshmallows and discussing what we’d learnt. I felt it was a very successful, informative, and yes even fun, PD session. We’ll be doing two more of these over the next month, focussing on behaviour management and pedagogy. Here is part two.