Tag Archives: voice

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

Whose voice is it anyway: Delivery and Development, what’s the difference and why does it matter?

by Rachel Hunt, School of Geographical and Earth Sciences and Victoria Smillie, Institute of Health and Wellbeing, University of Glasgow

This blog post came about as a result of a postgraduate teaching session at RGS 2015. There, and now here, we have sought to share our views about the importance of the role of the GTA within courses which they help to run.

Those academics engaging with the problem of the GTA recognize that from the GTA perspective there are many positives to our awkward role within the department. Not only does this work boost our wages, communication skills and employability’s (so they tell us), but more importantly provides a much needed break from the solitude that the PHD can bring.

However, Despite advances in the appreciation of postgraduate efforts, and the acknowledgement that GTA’s make up a significant part of the undergraduate teaching team in most universities, the picture is not of universal progress and Linehan’s (1996:107) comments regarding the ‘low grumbling murmur’ of postgraduates continue today. Indeed we can see papers by Linehan (1996), Muzaka (2009), and Park and Ramos (2002), among many others who lament the underpaid, undervalued and under recognised work that many GTA’s undertake.

Many authors report on the specific role of the GTA in shaping courses arguing that we GTA’s should have a role to play in course construction. Yet we are left wondering where to find the time to continually provide and update the courses on top of our phd work, our requirements to publish, to do out reach work, to attend, organize and speak at conferences. The pulls on a researchers time are endless.  As such it is not only diligence above and beyond the call of duty (or scope of payment) which is often expected in terms of GTA involvement, but we would argue that ‘we’ as a cohort are not given the full experience of this ‘apprenticeship’ to use Beesley’s (1979) term.

Despite this, very few authors provide an insight into the messy, in-between status of the GTA, nor really provide any helpful guidance as to how we might redress the balance between wanting to impact upon the courses upon which we tutor, demonstrate or lead, and keeping to our 3 (erm, 4 in our case) year deadline.

Therefore, our aim at RGS and within this blog is not only to voice some opinions from those GTA’s working within the university of Glasgow but also to discuss our own experience of creating a new level one introductory lab. In doing so we aim to make the argument for, and present one example of, the way in which PhD teaching assistants can be given a voice through involvement in the development of teaching materials. Through this we aim to ask questions of delivery and development, focusing on those questions voiced in our title, what’s the difference and why does it matter.

Now, lets hear from 5 of our fellow GTA’s at the university of Glasgow. (available here)

The views expressed here corroborate those within the literature recognizing both the positives and the negatives. Unlike many other departments however we often do have input into our courses. Working as part of the level 1/2 team we receive detailed outlines for each tutorial but these outlines also give points at which we can depart from the written word should our own experiences as researchers be more relevant.

Further to this a team of three GTAs (of which we are two), were given the opportunity to redesign course material for the level 1 introductory lab class, paid of course, giving us an undeniably invaluable opportunity for our voices to be heard. The offer for this opportunity was put out to all of the GTA’s in our department to work in groups to change any one part of the level 1 or 2 course. This amounted to any lab, tutorial or lecture. We were lucky enough to be chosen with our proposal to change a slow and dreary lab which had existed since many of the group were undergraduates.

And with this we created Disaster Island and a two hour task to save the lives and economy of those living on this hazardous place. The lab takes the form of a real time game where students are put in teams, and set to complete a number of hazard based choices. They are given money, people counters, press examples, and maps to aid these decisions.

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This lab aims to encourage students to get to know to each other, get used to the lab environment and appreciate the unique qualities of geography in it’s ability to incorporate human and physical elements.

The process of creating this lab was an enjoyable one. As the images below show, the process started with blue sky thinking, and was gradually narrowed down to include reality or at least a more realistic approach to creating lab materials. We learnt about the practicalities of creating teaching materials, the timescales involved and how to incorporate such work into an existing course, complimenting what was already involved in the level one course while also bringing in brand new material  and with that adding our voice. This was about a new tactile experience, which deviated from the traditional academic process of knowledge exchange, in our department at least.

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We would therefore encourage other university teachers to provide these opportunities within their own institutions, not only for the students, but for the GTA’s themselves. Opportunities such as the one described remain few and far between. It simply would not be economical for universities to offer these opportunities to all willing GTA’s within the department, nor practical to fully redesign courses each year in order to provide these chances.  But this represents an important way to recognize and respect the knowledge, enthusiasm and skills held within the GTA cohort. It is key for us to stress that our immediate, and award winning, teaching team do make us feel like we have a voice, and are not just a face of the department.  However, it is still fair to say that department wide recognition of the teaching team as a whole sadly appears to be generally undervalued. In order to establish a significant role for the GTA within departments it is important to provide opportunities and support for the development of those courses on which we are trusted to teach, a trust we do not take lightly.

What we are talking about with regards to our experience in the development of materials is not the finished article, not by any means, the involvement of the GTA voice could, for sure, be taken further.  Rather our suggestion is a movement towards increased appreciation, rising satisfaction, improved deployment and ultimately better departments which properly equip us for the profession in which we have made our first steps. We worry that failing to do so will continue to allow dissatisfaction to roam like monsters on maps of old. (Linehan 1996:107)

References:

Linehan D., (1996) ‘Arena symposium: teaching assistants’, Journal of Geography in Higher Education, Vol. 20. pp. 107-117.

Mazaka V., (2009) ‘The niche of Graduate Teaching Assistants (GRAs): perceptions and reflections’, Teaching in Higher Education, Vol. 14, pp.1-12.

Park C., Ramos M., (2002) ‘The Donkey in the Department? Insights into the Graduate Teaching Assistant (GTA) experience in the UK’, Journal of Graduate Education, Vol. 3, pp. 47-53.