Written by Heena Dave, LtL Programmes and Partnerships Manager

Written by Heena Dave, LtL Programmes and Partnerships Manager

Towards an evidence-informed approach to prioritising curriculum-led outdoor learning

“The original memory swam up instant as ever, and I shall once more lie in bed, and see the little sandy isle in Allan Water as it is in nature, and the child wading there in butterburs, and wonder at the instancy and virgin freshness of that memory; and be pricked again, in season and out of season, by the desire to weave into art. “

Robert Louis Stevenson, Memories of an Islet

This extract by novelist and travel writer Stevenson provides us with a powerful analogy for learning. It reminds us that at its core, learning is about creating memories. The creation of an isolated memory unconnected to others is insufficient, for without retrieving those memories and ‘weaving them into art’ we cannot create new knowledge or make sense of the world around us.

There can be no doubt that Stevenson’s storytelling was given meaning and brought to life by the outdoors. His personal connection with ‘the little sandy isle in Allan Water’, a meandering river along which he walked during his regular summer holidays in the small Scottish town of Bridge of Allan, ultimately provided the fuel for his classic novel Treasure Island.

The context for this blog in part is the renewed interest in outdoor learning. The DfE’s (2020) latest guidance in response to implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings advises schools in England to ‘consider which lessons or classroom activities could take place outdoors’. This, in combination with The Guardian’s (2020) recent article suggesting that ‘outdoor learning could offer a template for socially distanced schooling’ seemingly offers simple solutions to complex problems. With this spotlight on outdoor learning, the focus of this blog is to explore what we know about curriculum-led outdoor learning, what is it, why is it important and how is it connected to what we already know about learning. The aim is to support educators in pursuing a longer-term, sustainable and evidence-informed approach to outdoor learning. One that should be implemented with rigour, because the evidence paints a compelling picture for the education of our children and not just as a response to the challenges of the current situation.

Understanding the challenge

Curriculum-led outdoor learning is not formally prioritised within the English school system and, at best, is often viewed as the specialist domain of early years teachers. In a report commissioned by Natural England in 2016, former Environment Minster Rory Stewart acknowledged ‘Many thousands of children across England never stepped out into a pure environment, never even set foot on a local beach, park or woodland. Tens of thousands more have never had a chance to build a sense of belonging, rooted in a local area. Our aim should be not only to give all children the chance to experience the natural world, but also to understand it, and respond to it.’

This assertion is supported by Natural England’s survey (2016) who report that children from low-income households are markedly less likely than those from higher-income households to frequently visit urban or rural wild places.

Getting pupils back to school safely is the overriding priority for all educators and we know that utilising outdoor spaces will play an important part of the solution in increasing school capacity. How we use our playgrounds, playing fields and community areas, the intent, implementation and impact of that learning and the importance of the outdoors to the mental health and wellbeing of pupils are considerations perhaps not judged as a pressing priority, but should nevertheless be viewed as an area of importance for educators in which they should develop their expertise.

How is curriculum-led outdoor learning connected to what we know about learning?

Mccrea (2019) reminds us that knowledge is information that exists in our long-term memory. Our knowledge is constructed as mental models of the world. Mental models refer to what we know and how that knowledge is organised to guide our action. The better our mental models predict the world around us, the more effectively we can steer our lives (Berliner, 2004). The aim of teaching is not only to generate a persistent change in the knowledge in our long-term memory (Kirschner et al., 2006), but as Willingham (2002) highlights, also to develop deep flexible knowledge enabling our pupils to develop their expertise.

Our understanding of knowledge is limited to a narrow definition. As educators, we focus on the more explicit teaching of formal skills and knowledge. However, as Beriter and Scardamalia (1993) argue, expertise also depends on a great body of less obvious and often hidden knowledge. They categorise these as:

  • Informal knowledge: An expert’s elaborated and specialised form of common sense.
  • Impressionistic knowledge: Often glorified as ‘intuition’ or ‘instinct’ because it is experienced as feeling rather than knowing.
  • Self-regulatory knowledge: Knowing how to manage yourself to attain goals.

With this deeper understanding of knowledge, we can begin to visualise how curriculum-led outdoor learning, if planned carefully, can support pupils in developing flexible and deeply connected mental models that are built not just on a foundation of visible formal knowledge, but are further elaborated through an acquisition of informal, impressionistic and self-regulatory knowledge. Natural Connections, a four-year project (2012 to 2016) funded by Defra, Natural England and Historic England, and delivered by Plymouth University, provides us with some evidence of this deeper learning in action. For this project, 125 schools were recruited and contributed to the evaluation. Learning took place outdoors in natural environments either within school grounds or within walking distance from school. The focus was on primary, special and secondary schools (maintained and academy) in areas of high multiple deprivation. The project’s evaluation demonstrated that teachers and pupils valued curriculum-led outdoor learning for its contribution to ‘making abstract concepts real’ often for concepts which children found difficult, such as acceleration, shape and area. As one teacher reported, ‘This morning with the numeracy, I know a lot of children would have really struggled with grasping the concept of perimeters, but being able to walk it out made a lot more sense to them’. Many of the schools reported that their involvement related not just to attainment but to behaviour, social skills, health and wellbeing, engagement with learning and enjoyment, all of which were cited as foundational to successful learning. Whilst more evidence is needed on the impact of outdoor learning on pupil outcomes, this study indicates how outdoor environments may provide opportunities for pupils to develop mental models built on informal, impressionistic and self-regulatory knowledge in parallel with formal knowledge.

With this evidence in mind, we can begin to define curriculum-led outdoor learning as:

Blending subject-specific knowledge with experiences of the outdoor environment to support the development of enduring mental models, deeply enriched by formal, informal, impressionistic and self-regulatory knowledge.

Is access to curriculum-led outdoor learning a matter of social justice?

As Spielman, Chief Inspector of Ofsted (2019) highlights, high-quality education, built around a rich curriculum, is a matter of social justice. We know that those who are born in more advantaged circumstances get a major head start in life. Spielman continues, the role of education in delivering social justice doesn’t stop at the beginning of children’s education. We know from our curriculum research that it is disadvantaged pupils who are disproportionately affected by the narrowing of keystage 2 and the shortening of key stage 3, or who in various ways become less likely to take more academic subjects in key stage 4. But the consequence of this narrowing is that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds do lose out on building that body of knowledge that should be every child’s entitlement. Natural England’s own survey (2016) demonstrates that it is children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are less likely to visit urban or rural wild places. The side-lining and deprioritisation of the outdoors in mainstream education has created a gap between disadvantaged pupils and their more advantaged counterparts in three main areas (Passy, Bentsen, Gray & Ho, 2019):

  • A narrowing of the experiences that promote pupil engagement with learning, stimulate curiosity and improve social relations.
  • A decline in physical activity, social wellbeing and school motivation.
  • An increasing distance from nature which reduces young people’s sense of responsibility towards the environment.

To fully understand the importance of outdoor places in learning, we must look towards unfamiliar bodies of knowledge like those on place-responsive pedagogy. At its core, place-responsive pedagogy involves the explicit use of outdoor environments to understand, build and improve human-environment relations (Mannion, Fenwick & Lynch 2012). According to Relph (1976) the concept of place is not restricted to a location, rather it is the integration of elements of nature and culture that form a unique fingerprint. This fingerprint distinguishes a place from all other places. As Relph (1976) states, ‘A place is not just the ‘where’ of something; It is the location plus everything that occupies that location seen as an integrated and meaningful phenomenon’. This combination of culture and nature means that places are not merely backdrops to learning but are an integral element in what might be taught and learnt and how this learning might occur.

We can explore a concrete example of this theoretical concept if we turn to Robert Louis Stevenson’s own experiences. He wrote nostalgically about holiday walks along the Darn Walk in my hometown of Bridge of Allan. In fact, it was this walk that inspired Ben Gunn’s cave in Treasure Island (1883). Although it is impossible to know how much influence different places and people had on Stevenson’s writing, the cave certainly fascinated him. In a letter, he wrote ‘There is a little cavern here, by the side of a wide meadow, which has been a part of me these twelve years – or more’. Yet Stevenson’s experiences have limited meaning unless you have walked the Darn Walk and you have knowledge of Ben Gunn’s cave in the novel. The gushing river, the sandy banks and the dank, dark cave where the marooned sailor would store his salted goat meat and mull over his deep obsession with cheese give Treasure Island a concrete sense of place and identity. In this example, being immersed in a place gives pupils the chance to blend their subject-specific, formal knowledge of Treasure Island with their impressionistic and informal knowledge of how Stevenson’s craft for storytelling was influenced by what he saw and how those experiences were used to create a ‘unique fingerprint’. All our outdoor places have their own histories and stories to tell and yet evidence tells us that children in disadvantaged communities rarely have access to this kind of learning. Often seen as frivolous or not situated within the concrete world of retrieval practice, it is often these kinds of experiences that give learning depth, meaning and place.

How can educators develop their expertise in curriculum-led outdoor learning?

There are many misconceptions associated with curriculum-led outdoor learning. It is unhelpful that our discussions about the educational benefits of such learning is rarely rooted in what we know about the science of learning, feeding into the narrative that the outdoors has little to offer pupils within formal education settings. When combined with the fact that teachers themselves are time poor and lack expertise in outdoor learning, it is no surprise that most educators have very little knowledge about the potential benefits of outdoor learning. This was highlighted by Mannion et al., (2012) who found that planning with place in mind was easier for teachers who had spent time accruing a deeper relationship with the natural places visited. Teachers with more expertise about outdoor learning could explain how they did this more comprehensively, whilst novices focussed on the superficial features of outdoor learning, such as safety and physical comfort and viewed the outdoors with an element of danger instead of as a focus for learning.

Rory Stewart acknowledges that building good curriculum-led outdoor learning takes time. Talking about Natural England’s Natural Connections project, he writes that it takes real skill and experience to turn the outdoors into a classroom. But when it is done properly – as it has been triumphantly through the Natural Connections project – the impact is incredible and extraordinarily valuable.

So how can educators develop their expertise? As with any kind of school improvement strategy, there is no quick fix for embedding effective outdoor learning – good implementation takes time. School leaders are also under immense pressure to get pupils back to school safely and may only look to outdoor spaces to increase classroom capacity. Schools however, can start to explore the possibilities and benefits of developing their curriculum-led outdoor learning offer by working more actively with charities and organisations like Learning through Landscapes (LtL). This is an organisation that has over 30 years of experience in researching and supporting teachers to develop their expertise in curriculum-led outdoor learning. Organisations like this can provide direct support by helping educators to:

Develop low-cost outdoor areas for both primary and secondary schools, to provide stimulating grounds for play, place-responsive pedagogy, learning, environmental sustainability and nature.
Participate in cutting-edge projects developed by academic experts across Europe to enable pupils to become closer to nature and encourage responsibility towards the environment. Getting involved in projects like Natural Nations helps teachers and pupils to understand the importance of pollinating insects and birds within food webs and how to create habitats where insects and birds thrive for the benefit of wildlife.
Learn about subject-specific curriculum-led outdoor learning through frequent and sustained bespoke training. Learning through Landscapes understand that each school’s community and context is unique, so they are committed to working with school leaders to develop training programmes that deliver the best outcomes for pupils.
As an educator whose own pedagogy within the classroom has been deeply informed by the science of learning and what we know about memory – I now start a new adventure with Learning through Landscapes. The aim of this and future blogs is to bring these worlds together by sharing the theory that unifies these often-opposing perspectives on what makes good learning. It will also provide a hub of knowledge in response to the post-Covid world – hoping to provide educators with the expertise on what effective curriculum-led outdoor learning looks like as our own sense of space and place is evolving.

If this blog has left you thinking about what you can do to improve your school’s outdoor learning offer, working with a charity that has both the expertise and a track record of working collaboratively with schools has many benefits, both in reducing workload for teachers and in developing the learning capacity of schools. You can leverage this support by emailing me at Learning through Landscapes. I would also love for you to follow this blog and get involved in the discussion, so that we can develop our collective expertise about the efficacy of the outdoors informal education.

My ultimate hope, as Robert Macfarlane succinctly expressed on Twitter in recent weeks:

‘It would be a tremendous outcome for the country if the benefits of the outdoors became embedded in all schools.’

This post was originally posted on Heena’s own blog

Coronavirus (COVID-19): implementing protective measures in education and childcare settings (Updated 12 May 2020), Department for Education [Online] https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-covid-19-implementing-protective-measures-in-education-and-childcare-settings/coronavirus-covid-19-implementing-protective-measures-in-education-and-childcare-settings

Scotland eyes outdoor learning as model for reopening of schools (2020), Brooks, Libby., [Online] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/may/10/scotland-eyes-outdoor-learning-as-model-for-reopening-of-schools

Natural Connections Demonstration Project, 2012-2016: Final Report and Analysis of the Key Evaluation Questions (NECR215), Natural England [Online] http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/6636651036540928

Monitor of Engagement with the Natural Environment: a pilot to develop an indicator of visits to the natural environment by children (2016), Natural England [Online] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/498944/mene-childrens-report-years-1-2.pdf

Learning: what is it, and how might we catalyse it? (2019), Mccrea P., [Online] https://www.ambition.org.uk/research-and-insight/learning-what-is-it/

Willingham, Daniel. (2002). Ask the Cognitive Scientist. Inflexible Knowledge: The First Step to Expertise. American Educator. 26. [Online] https://www.aft.org/periodical/american-educator/winter-2002/ask-cognitive-scientist-inflexible-knowledge

Amanda Spielman at the ‘Wonder Years’ curriculum conference, 2019 [Online] https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/amanda-spielman-at-the-wonder-years-curriculum-conference

Passy, R., Bentsen, P., Gray, T., & Ho, S. (2019). Integrating outdoor learning into the curriculum: an exploration in four nations. Curriculum Perspectives, 39(1), 73-78. https://doi.org/10.1007/s41297-019-00070-8

Mannion, Greg & Fenwick, Ashley & Lynch, Jonathan. (2013). Place-responsive pedagogy: Learning from teachers’ experiences of excursions in nature. Environmental Education Research. 19. 10.1080/13504622.2012.749980.

All sources of information about Robert Louis Stevenson informed by http://robert-louis-stevenson.org/stirlingshire/

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