Heads up – this is a bit of a long post. I really want to share with you the things I am learning. I really miss learning, and this stuff is good learning.
I spent the last 15 minutes of my day madly rushing around and typing furiously. I made the potentially dangerous decision to forgo marking the two classes of books I got in today. I even managed to make the same practical relevant across no less than six different classes, just so I could write it onto the one request sheet. All this, so I could go along to the second outdoor learning PD session.
I seriously considered blowing it off, as is the natural reaction to PD sessions, but I really enjoyed the last one and wanted to go to this one.
The topic for today was behaviour management for outdoor settings. Fellow teachers will know that behaviour management is almost top of the list of stress and anxiety inducing things we have to deal with; before, during, and after lessons. Any help I can get is always appreciated, and I’m always looking for different ways to tackle problems. Also, after realising that ‘outdoor learning’ is technically anything outside the normal classroom setting, I figured it would be useful even if we never went to the farm or forest.
Instead of heading up to Base Camp like we did last time, we walked through the farm (past the pigs who were happily munching on apples, and the goats who were being cared for by some students) to a shed they use when it’s raining too hard to be outside. The inside walls of the shed are lined with hay bales, which, if you’ve never sat on one, are surprisingly comfortable.
We started off with a quick discussion about how outdoor learning is stressful. It’s stressful for the teachers because we are outside our comfort zone (Get it? Get it?!). You start thinking about taking your class outside, and the list of complications grows longer and longer the more you think about it. It’s also stressful for the students – it’s not a normal lesson and often they don’t know how to react to that. Their personalities will shift in all sorts of weird directions, some good and some bad, and they’re trying to deal with their own changes along with their classmates and the very obvious setting change.
After our little intro we jumped right into an activity. Normally PD activities are so dry and contrived that you approach them with something bordering on scorn and sarcasm, but these ones feel different. I’m not sure why, it could literally be the setting, or the fact that they are presented in a completely non-patronising way. There is no feeling in these sessions of ‘I know best because I saw it done or read the research or am being paid to say this’ or ‘you must change your whole way of teaching because it’s wrong and this is better’ or even ‘you should do it exactly like this’. It feels more like sharing ideas with input and guidance from someone who experiences these things every day. It is very refreshing to be treated as the semi-experts that we are – we all teach, we’re not learning this for the first time, and we do have a bit of our own experiences to draw on. Anyway.
Rather than wandering around in groups this time, we were divided into two groups and given a small whiteboard and marker. We were then given a question – what are teacher’s concerns about outdoor learning, and what are things that could go wrong that teachers might not think about. Our group were given the latter question, which we actually found a bit difficult. Everyone was coming up with great ideas, but they all seemed like things that teachers would be concerned about (at least to me).
Our list included things like: allergic reactions, injuries, trespassers (the farm and forest are on the edge of the school property), weather, students starting fires, students injuring the animals, and students wandering off. Some might seem a bit ridiculous, but I feel like that was our aim – think of the unusual things that technically could happen (jokes about tornadoes started, which dissolved into sharknado and then shark attacks and sand storms – all highly unlikely, but technically possible).
The other group, who were discussing teacher concerns, had a long list as well: student reluctance, disturbing other classes, health and safety, equipment, resources, distractions, students wandering off, parent consent, and not producing something tangible to show at the end of the lesson to ‘prove progress/learning’. We joked after the lists had been read that the stress of worrying over all of those things far outweighed any possible benefits, and we should all never go outside again. And for those watching at home who are not teachers, we do genuinely have to worry about every single thing in both of those lists.
After quickly discussing the two lists, we were divided further into pairs and more whiteboards with pens were handed around. Our job now was to take an issue that the other group had highlighted and come up with solutions for it. I found this an incredible idea – rather than sit there and be told how to do it, or be given a generic list of strategies, or worse just move on entirely, we were given the opportunity to use our own brains and experience to suggest solutions. Even better, we were given license to choose the issue we wanted to tackle. We chose to look at child reluctance – every teacher knows those students who are too reluctant to take part in anything outside the normal classroom experience. The reason they won’t/can’t let themselves participate can be literally anything, but as teachers we want to give them the fullest experiences possible. My partner and I came up with a few ways to tackle this one: encouragement and reassurance, making it seem like a lot of fun or like a privilege, making trips outside the classroom in small doses to begin with to build familiarity, buddy/group system to pair them with more confident students, and any number of ways of building confidence.
We then came back as a whole group and discussed our ideas, with interjections here and there by the HOD who was leading the session again. It was wonderful to be able to share everyone’s experiences and expertise, and to discuss options for dealing with some of the issues listed. Some of the ideas that really stood out for me were:
Trespassers – staff can do a quick sweep of the area before letting the students in to make sure all is well and safe.
Equipment – have a little pack of outdoor learning equipment made up before the lesson. This could include things like clipboards, timers, whistles, small whiteboards, etc. If outdoor learning is something you start doing often enough, have it as a permanent set ready to go.
Using timers outside seems like such an obvious idea, one that I never would have thought of. We’ve all used them inside the classroom (you have 5 minutes to complete this activity), so why not outside? You literally give a timer to each group, give them a task (probably one involving them walking off for a bit, you are outside after all so there’s no point sitting in rows and ignoring the setting), and give them a time that they have to return by. If they are not back by the set time [insert consequence here]. You would then position yourself in a set place and you don’t leave that set place. It would be very tempting to go chasing after the students to make sure they’re doing the right thing, but while you’re off looking at one group, another group might be trying to find you to get help. And no, they don’t have to stay within eye-sight. Give them a bit of trust. You can remove that trust if and when they break it.
Parent Consent – have a form sent out at the beginning of the year explaining that students will likely be working outdoors at least some of the time, but if the parents don’t sign it then the students will miss out.
Weather – always have a backup plan. The obvious choice is to go back into the classroom, but you could instead go to the library, computer room, hall, or in our case the shed – the students are still getting the experience of learning outside their usual setting.
Students injuring animals – the farm manager is always there when you’re working with the animals, so at least there are two sets of eyes. We also discussed how conversations about animal rights and safety come up often, even to the point of ‘why do you think it’s ok to kill that spider you just squished’ – which apparently gets quite involved when you start discussing with the students about where to draw the line between ok-to-kill and not.
Distracting other classes – still using inside voices even if you are outside was a good suggestion, particularly for groups who are just too loud. Walking in silence to get there was another one, which HOD countered by suggesting you give them the Big Question Short Talk. Realistically they are going to talk anyway, so you may as well give them direction. It doesn’t even need to be related to the topic of the day, but just something to guide their attention in a somewhat meaningful way.
Students wandering off – have a whistle handy, with severe consequences for anyone who doesn’t return within 1 minute of it being blown.
Distractions – the main response to this one was the threat of not doing the activity again, to with the HOD immediately countered with an idea I’d never considered. Turn the distraction into a part of the lesson. If everyone is distracted by a tree, go and stand around it, for example. Or even better, ask the student why are they getting distracted, but not in an open way. If you ask in an open way they won’t be able to give a reason. Instead, give them a choice. Are you getting distracted because the task is difficult or because you can’t understand the content? Any number of choices can be given depending on the situation, but it gives the student something to grab on to for their reasoning. They may not have even considered that the reason they find the building next door so interested is really because they don’t understand the content they’re meant to be making a poster of. So give them the chance to overcome the distraction, or find out exactly why they are getting distracted, instead of just getting annoyed at them.
Not ‘producing something tangible’ – this lead to a big discussion about the forced need to ‘have something to show’. To have ‘proof’ that something was taught and something was learnt. I won’t go into too much detail about it here, but basically there’s always a way around those questions from higher-ups about why ‘nothing was written down today’. (e.g. today was the experience, tomorrow is the ‘assessment of progress and learning’).
Student reluctance – along with the ideas we put forward, we discussed the fact that some students just won’t/can’t participate because of some internal reason. HOD also suggested giving choices here, particularly the choice to sit back and watch and to come join in when they feel ready. Let the student decide when they’re comfortable joining in, instead of having the long uncomfortable conversations trying to make them. They will join when they’re ready, and they will learn by watching the others anyway.
As you can see, we covered a lot of ground. Many of the ideas seem like common sense when you talk about it, but they’re not really things you think about on your own. Being able to bounce ideas around experienced practitioners in such an open, supportive environment is very invigorating. We have one more session next week, stay tuned!