Students as Advocates

I warn my Outdoor Learning students that the assignment is not

  • Ain’t nature a hoot?
  • Why I agree with Nick
  • Children are precious because

and faced with articles such as the ones they have been reading (at my suggestion) they have a bit of an uphill struggle. They look at Helen Little, Sara Knight, Kathryn Solly and see researchers and advocates whose view is already (often but not always) that outdoors is a good place to be. I have a problem here, when I teach: I think so too.  This is in some ways the tightrope all educationalists walk: how to create a class where debate is encouraged but where passion is also allowed? Do we reward passion? Do we reward advocacy? Can we distinguish academic argument from a passion which sustains practice?

I am currently in the cycle with both my Y1 students and my mixed group of Y2s and Y3s where we are outside. Tomorrow morning the Y1s are in the woods with me, as I’ve done before; we may light a fire.  We are fortunate this year that the weather has so far been  glorious, and that walks and sand play and mud play have been embraced (again, so far) wholeheartedly. Years ago I took the view that I would not assess the play of the students, but that they would create a short written piece on their outdoor experiences. With this I step back from being someone coplaying or directing their play or commenting on the homes they have made for the cuddly toys or how challenging it’s been for them to get their hands dirty: I will read their reflections on what worked and didn’t work, and how that links to or contradicts what they have read at a later time. Some will say they “had a great time” – and I may be chilly enough to suggest they step away from the colloquial; some will say they felt it was a waste of time – and I will look and see whether they have made a good enough case to support this. What I hope they will avoid is telling us things such as “It was brilliant” or “boring” without thinking about why, and without exploring the feeling (or the argument) from all sorts of sides.

One of my favourite Grademark markers is one I created called “Not sure if I agree but…” and says “Not sure if I agree but it’s an interesting point. A good essay isn’t about finding ways to agree with your marker anyway.”  So what is a good essay? The dullest answer is to pull apart the kind of generic criteria Brookes and other Universities might use: Knowledge/Understanding; Reading; Synthesis and Evaluation; Standard  of Written English.   And with that ind of scaffolding we can stay safe with our QA guidelines and say this module or that is assessed against something tutors have written as a breakdown of general expectations  to something more subject specific. What does an Outdoor Learning essay look like if it shows good understanding of the subject? How much reading is enough? What the heck is synthesis? This is what we spend a lot of time on as the semester progresses.

So it is possible to read something from a student where they ask if risk is a good thing or not – and provided they make a good case for their argument, I will go along with it.

However, there is another side to all of this. The temptation in Higher Education is sometimes to assume that undergraduate work is the same as postgraduate work and that is the same as doctoral or postdoctoral study or publishing. In this model, the Y1 historian (or linguist, or educationalist) is up for creating something that in 20 years time they will look back on and say “Did I really think this? My recent paper suggests I have moved some way….”  but certainly for the educationalist or an undergraduate in a practice-facing module there is a much more urgent set of questions:

  • How useful is this?
  • Will what my tutor says carry weight in the classroom?
  • How do I make a case for doing this or that?

in other words

How is this course making me a better practitioner? 


I would argue that fire making, or sitting quiet in the woods (or whatever) has a potential to be transformational – and at the worst has the potential of breaking up a course of book-based and class-based study with something that is a different sort of challenge. The tutor writes the curriculum (here is an earlier reflection) precisely so that we can…

…sit, perhaps ambiguously, between the placement modules and the theoretical. What do we mean by challenge, then? Is there a difference between academic challenge and physical challenge? Between physical challenge and overcoming resistance?

(As I’ve suggested before in discussion of the challenge in an academic course in Outdoor Learning)…

Because the challenge is complex.  I am asking the students to do stuff practically that they may take into a setting; I am also asking them to inform themselves, coolly and reflectively, so that when the time comes for them to be advocates they are informed and well as skilful, sharp-eyed for silly arguments as well as practical in the application of their ideas. They cannot be consistently good advocates without a criticality that lets them avoid arguments with holes in.

Enthusiasms will only take them so far; to be advocates for young children learning in the outdoors, they will need to being up arguments from research that checks the methodology; few of them will become academics, but any of them in educational practice (and maybe the fragile world of Early Years especially?) will need to read widely and keep current; they will need (as I hope we will all experience in the morning in the Harcourt woods) to draw breath and look at the sun in the pine trees, or listen to the peeling cry of the Red Kite. They need all these things together for the grey day when no colleague wants to go outside, or a child’s desires for a particular way of pretending have been hard to understand, or a parent doesn’t want their child “wasting their time playing.”

Yes, the challenge is complex. Maybe my task is to ask them to walk the tightrope.

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