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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

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Discomforting Education

By Lewis Winks (University of Exeter)

It is no surprise that uncertainty has become a well-used word of late. We live in uncertain times. Some talk of wicked problems – issues so fundamentally big, that they cannot be ‘fixed’ by simple solutions, rather they demand a systemic, holistic approach or ‘nexus thinking’ as the 2016 RGS conference termed it. Every day these wicked problems ping into our inboxes, drop onto our doormats, fill audio feeds and flicker onto our screens. Ecological and social crises are unfolding across the globe – no longer the concern of those deemed to be less fortunate, as Aldo Leopold’s ‘wider biotic community’ continues to unravel at unprecedented speed. Evidenced in widespread decline of species, the spread of disease and invasive species, water pollution, displacement of people, habitat loss, deforestation, war, economic turmoil, and the marginalisation and segregation of vulnerable people…  There is no need to go on – the narrative is one well told – we’re messing stuff up and there is neither clear consensus nor solution. There is only uncertainty. But is this a bad thing? Should we hope to be certain about anything? Is certainty not another word for complacency? Does uncertainty not create fertile ground for unbounded creativity? Can we imagine a more just, sustainable world from this uncomfortable place? I cannot claim to have answers to these questions, indeed – I am unsure anyone does- but it is from this position that I would like to explore the role of uncertainty and discomfort in educating for sustainability.

This is not a particularly new topic. Others have trodden this path and have explored these themes. Of those, I particularly recommend the work of Megan Boler who has for many years written about a ‘pedagogy of discomfort’, which seeks to “invite students and educators to examine how our modes of seeing have been shaped specifically by the dominant culture of the historical moment” (Boler, 1999 p.179) and prompts both students and their teachers “[to] willingly inhabit a more ambiguous and flexible sense of self.. [and to engage with a] critical enquiry regarding values and cherished beliefs” (ibid. p. 176). There is a strong tradition of working with the unknown and unknowable as an aspect of education. In particular, education theorists have long struggled with the paradox of sustainability education: how can we educate for sustainability when we don’t really know what sustainability is? Indeed, some have proposed that it would be far better to give students the aptitudes to think for themselves: rather than teach solid facts about the shape of a sustainable world, it would be more appropriate to create critical competencies and to encourage divergent, creative thinking (Jickling, 1992). The watchword is plurality – but not everyone agrees. Plurality and uncertainty might put off action and lead to exploration of dead ends, it is claimed (Kopnina, 2015). This could be avoided by working to a plan and shifting behaviour in a predetermined direction based on policy and infrastructural changes. These fascinating discussions continue and it is probably fair to say that there is a great deal of sense in each of these positions. However, I wish to draw the focus of this piece back toward a pedagogy of discomfort, as it is there that I believe the best case is found for challenging the underpinning social norms and societal narratives which have locked into place unsustainable behaviours and practices.

Megan Boler’s Pedagogy of Discomfort and associated works have outlined the importance of ‘shattering worldviews’ if significant change is to emerge from an education which seeks to challenge deeply embedded norms. In ‘Teaching for Hope’ (2004) Boler focuses on her teaching of social injustices and the occurrence of inherited cultural perspectives which give rise to racism. Her work with HE students aimed to uncover the undercurrents of racism which prevail within large parts of American society. The work is discomforting to students – it might come across as accusatory, confrontational or challenging – and in part it is all of these things, but it is also painful, upsetting and raises issues of deep uncertainty about student’s positions in the world and their views of themselves. While Boler’s work hinges on the role of discomfort in leveraging social change in the form of challenging social injustices, the pedagogical approach also lends itself to teaching about socio-ecological crises. This year as part of my fieldwork with young people taking part in outdoor environmental education programmes I have witnessed some students shock at damage done to coastal defences after severe storms, their sadness at the rate of species decline on a nature reserve and anxiety at being asked to take part in the butchering of deer or rabbit for their dinner. I have asked myself what the role of discomfort is within these experiences and – should the educator make more explicit use of a pedagogy of discomfort – what the potential is for radically shifting worldviews and uncovering and questioning undercurrents of social and cultural norms as part of these programmes.

This is of course all far from straightforward to implement in practice. Many will read this and be alarmed at the ethical implications of making use of a pedagogy of discomfort, and take issue with causing students the deep distress required to decentre and discomfort inherited narratives – and that the nature of discomforting entails a degree of ethical violence (Zembylas and McGlynn, 2012). It is true that this educational approach does not seek security, but to say that it is not caring would be a mistake. In terms of an ethic of care, it could be the most loving and caring of activities to learn to break free of the inadequate and unjust modes of behaviour which have come to dominate society and to craft new cultural practices in their place. So too, some will cast aspersions at the naivety of such an approach in the face of the ‘student satisfaction’ agenda and the impending TEF, under which it is hard to imagine HE lecturers and educators placing students in positions of discomfort under the guise of long term and deep learning. This remains to be seen, and in many ways depends upon how such an approach to teaching is implemented in practice and how it is communicated and supported by HE institutions. My work has focused on how discomfort operates as a mediator for transformative learning in the outdoors, and I believe that the presence of choice plays an important part in the process of uncovering and rediscovering the identity of self and society. The opportunity to choose to place oneself in a position of discomfort sets this form of discomfort apart from its oppressive counterpart. In addition, discomfort as perceived by and shared with others enables empowerment to overcome previous ways of knowing. The act of sharing and collective witnessing may make discomfort formative rather than destructive (Boler, 1999 p.177).

In sum, wicked problems require more than simple answers. Working with uncertainty seems to be an important part of problem solving, but being able to work with uncertainty requires an unearthing of our own constructed social and cultural histories, beliefs and shared values – especially if those problems are deeply rooted in social practices and norms. The process of becoming uncertain can be discomforting, but this is the work that schools and higher education institutions might have to do if we are to prepare critical thinkers who are able to creatively and confidently step into a tentative future. In short, we may need to become comfortable with discomfort.

 

Boler, M. 1999. Feeling power: Emotions and education, Psychology Press.

Boler, M. 2004. Teaching for hope. Teaching, learning, and loving: Reclaiming passion in educational practice, 117-131.

Jickling, B. 1992. Viewpoint: Why I don’t want my children to be educated for sustainable development. The Journal of Environmental Education, 23, 5-8.

Kopnina, H. 2015. Sustainability in Environmental Education: Away from pluralism and towards solutions.

Zembylas, M. & Mcglynn, C. 2012. Discomforting pedagogies: Emotional tensions, ethical dilemmas and transformative possibilities. British Educational Research Journal, 38, 41-59.