Category Archives: Sustainability

The Field Trip and the ‘Occupation’ of Outdoor Educator: developing a place responsive approach to professional development in HE

By Danny Towers (University of Cumbria) and Dr Chris Loynes   (University of Cumbria)

 Place responsiveness in outdoor education is a big topic. It became more urgent for staff at the University of Cumbria when we were faced with an international cohort of masters students. The last thing we wanted to be accused of was a neo-colonial teaching of the British ‘way’ leading to the emergence of a globalised practice in places as far-flung and as different in their landscapes and cultures as Columbia, Kazakhstan and the Philippines.

But is it possible to overcome all the traditions, training and expectations of the UK’s iconic outdoor education practices, from adventure activities to environmental sciences, in order to develop a practice largely inspired by the place itself? We took inspiration from Quay and Seaman’s recent book ‘John Dewey and Education Outdoors’ in which they propose Dewey’s concept of ‘occupation’ as an organising principle for a curriculum. We then took the students to a remote (in English terms) valley and posed them the question ‘what kind of outdoor educator could you be here?’

The field trip design

We chose the valley of Ennerdale because as England’s first rewilding project it is already challenging the norms to be found in English landscapes, their appearance, the activities that take place and the way it is managed. We hoped this would give us a head start in challenging any expectations the students might have about how outdoor education ought to be practiced.

After outlining examples and critiques of British outdoor practices being adopted abroad we asked the students to think of the kind of outdoor educator they felt they wanted to become in this place. The intention was to encourage the students to explore the valley, notice their own talents, interests and motivations and consider these in the wider context of their cultural ideas of educational purpose. This, we hoped, would lead them to explore what knowledge and skills they needed so they could be helped to become that particular outdoor educator. The students’ prior experience of what an outdoor educator should ‘look like’, if they had any, is significant in this instance, and, likewise, their emerging understanding of Ennerdale. The important thing to us was to raise awareness of these influences so that the students could balance the three influences of the place, their own interests and talents and the ideas of nature based education in their cultures of practice.

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  1. A sensory exploration of the valley at different scales

Dewey’s concept of occupation

‘Occupations’ are not simply about vocational learning. Dewey’s intention was to connect ‘education’ to the ‘occupations’ of community, family and social life. The experience of ‘occupation’ is holistic in an immediate and aesthetic sense. The concept can be seen as an organising principle, providing a lens through which to explore a wider range of knowledge than typically highlighted in HE.

Historically, teachers as the ‘keepers of knowledge’ or the ‘expert’, determine what particular knowledge learners need to know. We hoped ‘occupation’ could help to change these power relations. We anticipated that the experiential doing and knowing would engage the students in using their experience to construct knowledge valid to them and give their sense of place a voice socially and, ultimately, professionally.

In seeking to develop a place responsive education outdoors we wanted to put less emphasis on the ‘occupation’ as defined by the professional world and to foreground the place, its landscape and culture, together with the individual professionals and their values and interests in determining the form the ‘occupation’ took. To our minds this could produce a more place responsive approach and a more politically engaged education.

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  1. Examining the new woodland from the perspective of the rewilded cattle

What happened

Initially, the students developed a long list of knowledge and skills drawing on their experiences and imaginings of what an outdoor educator did and why. This list was challenged by us to bring it down to skills and knowledge that could be developed in this place, an affordances approach. This led to an exploration of the valley and the hills around on foot and by canoe. The river, the lake, the forest and the surrounding hills became the centres of attention as students explored them and, in many cases, developed new skills in order to do this. The night became a focus of interest, either around the fire, on night walks or on overnight camps out in the forest, a first for a number of students. Interests were diverse.

At one point we watched a group of students at a gorge in the river. People were picking blackberries for supper, bouldering on the rocks of the gorge, swimming and jumping into the plunge pools, chatting by the riverside and sharing a way to listen to the sound of the river as it flowed underwater using the stems of nearby rushes. Meanwhile others were exploring how far they could walk round the mountain ridge surrounding the valley and others were learning to canoe sail on the lake.

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  1. Exploring the rewilded River Lisa from the river’s point of view

Students were exploring how to engage with the valley temporally and spatially. They developed a wide range of approaches inspired by each other, the skills and knowledge of the staff and the valley’s material presence. Engagement was sensual and embodied rather than intellectual. Social opportunities were often a central focus although some solo walks and overnight camps did take place.

What, to us, was missing was a way to engage the students with the deeper environmental knowledge, and social and political aspects of the valley, the knowledge held by ‘experts’ such as the rewilding officer and the farmer. We were only encountering the valley through a narrow lens. Orchestrating these other views in a short time frame and without assuming our mantles as experts was challenging.

A walk and talk with the rewilding coordinator began to develop a deeper interpretation of the valley beyond the material encounter. Moving through the forest following the trails created by the herd of almost wild cattle and wading upstream in the unconstrained river were powerful experiences brought fully alive by the observations of the rewilding coordinator who had the perspectives of time and a larger purpose. She could point to the green fuzz of regenerating trees or tell how, in the last heavy rainfall, this valley was the only one not to flood as the water was held and released in the naturalised valley so much more slowly. She could stand with us on the riverbank and tell the story of how the removal of a bridge had caused the return of several species of fish to healthy populations now their spawning grounds were restored. One such critically engaged encounter opened the door for further explorations of the knowledge about the valley held by others.

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  1. Finding time to be with the forest and its other inhabitants

Conclusion

Our instinct was perhaps right in that a different outdoor educator can emerge when the norms of practice are withheld. The approach was successful in problematizing the ‘occupation’ of outdoor educator amongst the students. They reported that it helped them to explore their own interests more confidently throughout the remaining two years of the degree programme and to be alert to their personal, professional and cultural contexts. Time seems crucial to us. Place responsive outdoor educators needs to experience a landscape in space, over time and with others to develop their own ‘occupation’.

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  1. Telling the geological story of the valley from the pebbles in the river

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  1. Tales of the forest – the human interpretation

Quay, J., & Seaman, J. (2013). John Dewey and Education Outdoors. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Sense Publishing.

Acknowledgements.

The MA Transcultural European Outdoor Studies is an Erasmus Mundus MA provided in partnership by the University of Cumbria, the Norwegian School of Sport Science and Marburg University. This blog is partly based on a presentation made at the HERG session at the 2015 RGS International Geography Conference at Exeter University. Photo credits: Chris Loynes

Bright Futures

By Cherish Watton (History student, Cambridge)

From the 1st to the 4th September 2015, the Royal Geographical Society ran their annual international conference programme, this year entitled ‘Geographies of the Anthropocence’. As part of this, I had the great pleasure of presenting on the Bright Futures a programme, a 2½-day residential held at Holt Hall Environmental and Outdoor Learning Centre in Norfolk. The programme, aimed at high school and college students, focuses on energy education and real-life consultancy opportunities offered by Sheringham Shoal Offshore Wind Farm. This case study was one of five presentations on university engagement with issues of community and sustainability in a session sponsored by the Higher Educational Research and chaired by Rebecca Farnum, PhD researcher at King’s College London

The session focused on thought-provoking discussions around how individuals personally react to issues surrounding international research, volunteering and climate change. This was highlighted particularly by Marisa Goulden (University of East Anglia) in her paper on transformational learning and supporting students to be agents of change. Marisa’s presentation raised the issue that university staff and students alike are encouraged to emotionally detach themselves whilst undertaking and studying what is frequently depressing work. It is largely expected by academia that individuals ‘keep calm and carry on’, but this is easier said then done and needs greater consideration. Marisa highlighted the benefits of supporting individuals to enable them to come to terms with their experiences, and utilise these productively, yet sensitively, to bring about a change in values.

The discussion called to my mind a particular moment on the Bright Futures programme where personal responses to climate change are particularly evident amongst the high school participants. Using the “Best Foot Forward” carbon footprinting cards, they are asked a series of questions regarding their lifestyles (on transport, consumption, and the like). Each response is given a score and students tally up their numbers to get a total that links to the number of ‘Earths’ that would be required if everyone lived as they do. Most Norfolk high school and college students learn they use the equivalent of 2 or 3 Earths. At this point, we see visible signs of consternation, regret, confusion, and reflection, as students’ impact on the Earth is brought home in a pertinent way. After being given time for reflection, we encourage students to look at what small actions they could take to improve matters, starting with their individual lifestyles and then considering actions within their homes and schools. Recognising and acting on this reality is one of the first activities on the programme, inspiring change from personal responsibility and conviction. As Marisa emphasised, we can not shy away from discomfort: sometimes this is what is needed in order to change. It should, however, be carefully facilitated.

The session also raised questions about scaling up. How do the successful case studies in one or two departments begin to transform the entirety of the university system? A presentation from Kate Baker (King’s College London) on the Intrepid Explorers model demonstrated the significant impact of a student-run group in sharing learning and experiences from field research over a variety of disciplines. Oriel Kenny and Su Robinson (Leeds Beckett University) highlighted the diverse opportunities offered to university students to participate in volunteering as part of their university experience, particularly in the Politics and Applied Global Ethics programme that requires volunteering as part of its degree. The key message from presenters, as introduced by keynote Professor Tim O’Riordan (University of East Anglia), was the need for collaboration above all. The projects presented are united by their multi-disciplinary approach to bringing together groups and individuals. Bright Futures’ multi-tiered mentoring makes use of the connections between high school students from both Norfolk and Norway, university students from the University of East Anglia, Marshall Scholar postgraduate and PhD students, and local businesses and charities. Mentoring takes place at every level, enabling everybody to learn with, and from, each other in a supportive and inspiring environment.

All of these programmes develop the universal skills and confidences needed to tackle sustainability – teamwork, communication, leadership and collaboration. At the heart of these experiences is the aim of, and need for, equipping the next generation to adapt and be creative. This is central to the Bright Futures programme, whether it is via team building activities in the shape of cheerleading rock, paper, scissors or young people presenting on the impacts of climate change and how they want to reduce energy usage back in their schools. Young people are eager to seize these opportunities. It is the responsibility of the university and ourselves to provide and link up opportunities in the emerging green economy so young people feel equipped to deal with the challenges of tomorrow. In the words of a recent participant: “I think that this is a valuable experience that should be offered to more pupils; when we become adults sustainability will be our problem, and it’s important that we have the chance to understand it more now.”

To read a dialogue between Rebecca Farnum and Cherish Watton on the thinking behind Bright Futures, please visit https://beyond2015.acu.ac.uk/submissions/view?id=123

To view the Prezi presentation given in the session, please go to https://prezi.com/flmwmjsgvicq/bright-futures-presentation-september-2015/

 

For more information about the Bright Futures programme, visit their website at http://brightfuturesnorfolk.wordpress.com/

Cherish Watton

 

Cherish Watton is currently in her second year studying History at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge. Before studying, Cherish set up in a business, working as an eco-consultant and social entrepreneur for Cherish Watton Enterprises in Norfolk. Her work has focused on running environmental residentials, evaluating programmes and developing opportunities for young people to seize the potential of the Green Economy based upon their interests, passions and experiences with environmental issues at school and college. Cherish also founded and runs http://www.womenslandarmy.co.uk, a website on the work of the British Women’s Land Army during World War One and Two. Cherish is developing the website so it becomes the national online hub for information on the Land Girls and Lumber Jills – sharing original documents, magazines, photos and videos.