Outdoor education has been shown across time and geography to be an effective and safe means of learning. It’s relevant equally to participants from challenged backgrounds as for those who are more fortunate. The space beyond the classroom walls is suitable for the transfer of technical content and is the perfect medium for learning soft skills, such as leadership and resilience. As examples, we can turn look to the Scouts, the Outward Bound Trust or the concept of the traditional summer camp, which is a mainstay of youth activities in North America.
Over recent months, there’s been increasing discussion in Scotland about greater use of the outdoors in schools. A recent debate led by the Education and Culture Committee in Holyrood looked at the benefits to society in general as well as the potential to satisfy the aims of the Curriculum for Excellence. The country is blessed with a hugely varied landscape and, compared to most of the world, a generous attitude towards access for all and for free. In cash-strapped times, it seems criminal not to use the outdoors more.
I believe passionately that everyone should have the opportunity to become the best they can in the domain of their choosing. Achieving self-knowledge is harder for some than for others, and that path can be forced, foiled or facilitated at school. Over the years, pedagogic methods have evolved with technology and fashion – everything from learning by rote (which I received ad nauseam as a student in early 1990s China) to remote, multi-media delivery by Webex. However, despite the internal combustion engine, globalisation and the internet, pupils in Britain are taught subjects indoors just as they have been doing since the Elementary Acts of the late nineteenth century within the same architectural configurations.
The effectiveness of the outdoors as a learning environment is because it is unstructured. Freedom from fixed seating creates liberty of expression; everybody can play director, while the teacher becomes a guide; the whole world becomes the object of study. In the outdoors you can discover physics from watching rivers, improve confidence by climbing mountains, develop communication through recounting stories around the campfire.
I don’t believe that everybody has to be academic to reach his or her potential. Using personal wealth as a benchmark, we can look at the education of the 50 richest billionaires on Slate: many flunked college or didn’t bother at all. In a balanced economy there’s a large percentage of jobs that don’t require traditional indoctrination: for the nation to get the best from its human resources, we should be encouraged to achieve possibilities that match our personal interests, drivers, values. We do not need the dystopian (but unfortunately reasonably accurate) vision of the Alvin Toffler Future Shock society. Our sustainability depends on using the positives of our heritage, creativity and human connectedness.
I’m a fan of incorporating as many learning methods as possible to bring knowledge and experiences to young people. There’s a long list of means to achieve this besides indoor school time, ranging from work placements and apprenticeship schemes to ball sports and adventurous trips. Variety is the key, but it’s not easy to get the balance. Application is more difficult than theory, while success is at least 99% perspiration. The Curriculum is challenging for schools to implement when the bricks and mortar reinforce old ways, teachers are trained to oversee single subjects and budget restrictions lead to difficult choices.
Over the past two decades, health and safety culture has reduced the value of many organised outdoor activities. It has warped the definition of ‘risk’ into that of ‘danger’. I interpret risk as an entirely neutral term denoting outcome based on choice and the application of resources. As reported in the Telegraph recently, the Chief Commissioner of Scouting, Wayne Bulpitt, claimed the movement has benefitted in popularity because “schools have taken a more rigid approach to stopping activities”. Consider the risk of not letting young people get wet and be challenged in awkward ways… erm, perhaps a witless, scared society ten years from now?
However, I’m positive about the future of learning in Scotland. There are many initiatives, private and public, new and old, ready to integrate with schools. Examples include the Adventure Learning Partnerships from WideHorizons Trust and the Duke of Edinburgh scheme. In addition, the media seems to be adjusting its bias against outdoor adventures. So with a new year ahead, it’s my hope that the tide of funding for outdoor youth charities and state-run outdoor centres in Scotland will run full flow again.
Nick Williams may be known best for his Pocket Mountains guides to the Highlands and Islands, but he has also trained as a mountaineering instructor and has thirty years of experience climbing all over the world. He organised the first international expedition to post-Soviet Kazakhstan and written a memoir, Jagged Red Line, which describes adventure and trauma in the Caucasus. Nick works as a coach and consultant, specialising in resilience for individuals and organisations. He speaks French, Mandarin and Russian.