The Great Outdoors – is it turning learning inside out?

We’ve seen lots of talk about outdoor learning when pupils return to school. To be honest, unless they have an abundance of otherwise un-timetabled classrooms, we can’t see how schools will be able to accommodate a full cohort of students without use of their outdoor spaces.

And whilst the current talk here in the UK is of only some year groups returning imminently, inevitably, and most likely in September, it’ll be necessary for schools once again to be welcoming all learners back. It’s what everyone wants and what society needs well before an effective vaccine will be available to everybody.

But there’s also been significant nervousness about outdoor learning from teachers. “It’s a lovely idea” commented one teacher in response to the concept being raised on Twitter; “but the learning is minimal – limited resources, limited concentration”. “It seems like a good idea but it doesn’t work” said another, continuing “the wind takes the teacher’s voice away. Also it ruffles pages and makes it very hard to read/write.”
That said, one teacher countered “Unless we applied a more creative definition of learning – down with worksheets, up with nature, problem-solving, exploring etc; could combine with more formal online learning. Perhaps challenging to coordinate but worth considering – current schooling model is outdated anyway.”

And that, surely is the point. Outdoor learning may not be as successful it we try to shoehorn a formal direct-instruction didactic lesson into the middle of the football pitch on a blustery autumn afternoon. But a covid-aware society is rapidly questioning so much that was supposedly set in stone before the pandemic. Terminal examinations, one of the lynchpins of Michael Gove’s educational reforms was one of the first things too that was scrapped, at least for this year. Professor Stephen Heppell always observed that so much of formal education was to teach children what to expect. “The students turn over their [exam] papers” he commented in an essay published in 2008 (here), “nervously hoping for ‘no surprises’ ”. And yet the skills children need right now – in the middle of 2020 – is to be able to react to what was, for most of us, a complete surprise. Right now it’s literally more important that young people learn strategies to avoid catching Covid19 than French irregular verbs.

From a pragmatic perspective, outdoor learning will to some extent or other inevitably be present in many schools in the short term. From an idealistic perspective, perhaps too it’s where we should be heading. Our design for a covid-aware learning space that we entered into the A4LE Design Challenge included the outdoors as part of the solution and we’ve been looking at which items of our furniture collection are suitable for outdoors, whilst at the same time looking at new solutions too. Perhaps, if we’re honest, we were looking through the wrong end of the telescope at BETT this year when we showed a stand full of oxygen-emitting plants. Perhaps instead we should just have headed off outdoors.