My Outdoor Learning

Last weekend (the final weekend in Oct 2016) I went outside.

Not to the allotment, and not to the Kalahari: a sort-of-adventurous outside for a 59-year-old academic who was a great hiker in his early teens but since then…

Well,  this is where we went.


And the “we” is Mat Tobin and I.

The notes of the work leading up to the trip and then the weekend’s notes are here:

It’s very obvious what we did well, and equally obvious what I didn’t prepare for properly.  Ah well, it was a first go. Others have also attempted it – cf Emily Morrison. There are even YouTube clips. As Garner and Langland say we “blostrede forth as bestes ouer baches and hulles,” and saw, and learned and came back.

What I want to think about here is how children’s experiences of “going out of their comfort zone” might parallel mine. I am struck by an impressive autoethnographic study by another colleague, Jon Reid, whose imaginative leaps have compared the metaphorical journey into doctoral study with physical travel.  It would be too cheeky – not to say intrusive –  to use his ideas verbatim, but let me just pull up one idea: that learning is very easily translated into journey imagery, and that the relationship is so intimate that “outdoor learning” might even seem a tautology.

It isn’t, of course: I’m not saying that no-one learns indoors, or that learning outside is automatic, or something so process-led that merely travelling is to arrive.  I simply can’t (yet?) get my head round the learning we did, since it was bound up in three elements:

  • Who I am and the past that brings me here, both positive and negative;
  • The experience of planning, doing, seeing;
  • Peak experiences.

“What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?” What did we go out to see? What do we ask children to do when we take them outside? There is a challenge, maybe even a hint of sarcasm in Jesus’ question to the comfortable bandwagonners in Matthew 11. What attracted me to the weekend? A love of being outside, a sense of challenge, a friendship. What did I go out to see? I went to find Thoon and found Lud.

The planning taught me a lot of skills, from Digimaps to revitalising my small skills with OS on the ground. The doing – the emailing for a taxi, sorting accommodation &c., &c. – was small beer compared with the journey up, the staying in Cheshire. I could have stayed for a week, repeated the visits we made, taken a lot more time over every aspect. I talk a lot to students about the value of first-hand experience, but here I was out doing stuff  myself: the verge by John Turner’s stone; the oddness of Jenkin Chapel; the wet underfoot past Gradbach and the sound of the water on the stones – the clonter. A series of little things making one big event of discovery.

And the huge experiences. The face in Ludchurch, the struggle to Thursbitch, the hardness of the journey from the valley to the Tor (and Mat’s driving us back to Oxford). I feel – as I suspect Garner intends us to – torn between the opinions of the scientist Sal whose mental state is allowing her the insights in Thursbitch that drive her story, and the hesitation of her devoted companion, the Jesuit medic Ian. Where they discuss “sentient landscape” encapsulates my own dilemma:

“Are you telling me, after all we’ve seen and done here, that this is just any old gritstone anticline?”

“I’d say that it’s a powerful and dramatic sub-Alpine environment. But what I accept as appearing to be strong atmosphere is no more than our projection of our own experience and emotion onto a circumscribed place.”

“How can a man with your job talk such crap?”

And this brings me to my pedagogic questions: do we take children out for peak experiences or something more subtle? When we talk about the “learning journey” where does this metaphor (here it comes again) lead us? Is there a spiritual dimension to the week-by-week going to Forest School – and does it need actively fostering or is it just there? What do we send children out to see? Reeds shaken in the wind or something bigger?



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