The great outdoors
The crucial importance of experiential learning
Nicholas Chaddock asks if it isn’t time for all international schools to bring outdoor education in from the cold and give it parity of esteem with ‘academic’ subjects.
Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience (Kolb, 1984)
The question is, exactly what should our schools be doing to guarantee the quality and breadth of this experience post-Covid?
A difficult few years
Outdoor education has not had an easy ride in the last few years. Provision in the UK has certainly regressed with the Covid pandemic. The cost of living crisis and a lack of state support isn’t helping. Many people wonder if outdoor education and experiential learning is set to become something only accessible in private schools in the UK and overseas. Is this already the case?
In an international school setting, is Outdoor Education something that is always guaranteed? How quick have our schools been to recover their outdoor education provision after the pandemic? If the recovery is under way, there is another question to ask – how do international schools measure the quality of their experiential learning now it has returned?
Contradictions within schools
I also wonder if schools think carefully enough about the philosophy of outdoor education. In a recent conversation with a school leader I was asked about how we incorporate the 17 Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations into our outdoor education pedagogy. At North London Collegiate School, Jeju, Korea we are based on a beautiful subtropical island with UNESCO World Heritage sites and a National Park. We have made many positive steps over the past decade in terms of best practice to minimise our environmental impact as a school. Yet in the very same conversation that school leader went on to describe how excited their school was to be flying pupils 9,000km to Europe to ski, with no apparent sense of irony – this despite lots of skiing options close by.
Outdoor programmes: not just a marketing tool
There seems to be a lack of joined up thinking. The inherent desire to take trips overseas is something that all international schools should take the time to examine. Outdoor education should be done well and be at the centre of what we do for young people. So much effort is put into inspecting the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom throughout our schools, yet so often outdoor education is left on the periphery when assessing a school’s educational provision. One could be forgiven for thinking it is often something simply used as a marketing tool for international schools.
Studies suggest that the development of soft skills is as important as academic endeavour for our young people and this seems to be reflected in every international school ethos across the globe. Therefore, given the contribution experiential learning makes in this area, shouldn’t it be prominent in all school inspection reports and long-term school development plans?
Shouldn’t the quality of experiential learning be examined as closely as a Mathematics Department or an English Department? Shouldn’t those trusted with implementing curriculum-compliant outdoor education, soft-skill development and mental health provision be held accountable, just as a Head of Biology is scrutinized over exam results?
On the surface the situation regarding outdoor education in international schools might look much healthier than it does in the UK at the moment. However, if we scratch the shiny well-marketed surface and really examine the quality and depth of provision, I believe many schools fall short of their potential.
But why should an international school improve their outdoor education provision if it is operating near capacity, making a profit and the parents are not demanding it? There is now a mountain of evidence to say it is essential for our pupils. Yet more often than not it appears to be left to individuals to push for the quality of outdoor education provision in our schools. One feels if they didn’t, complete programmes would simply not run for lack of support.
Parity of esteem
I would like to see outdoor education and experiential learning viewed side-by-side with mainstream subjects in inspections reports. I would like to see outdoor education and experiential learning prominent in school development plans. It is not unreasonable to demand that outdoor education and experiential learning pedagogy be just as well planned and implemented as the development of language learning or mathematics. I would even like to see outdoor education leaders sat next to PE teachers, art teachers and music teachers at parents’ evenings discussing soft-skill development in their pupils. I believe our children need this more than ever.
Meanwhile, back in the UK, Hyundai, the Korean car company, having commissioned a study into British school trips and experiential learning in the UK, are spending £1 million to send 25,000 British pupils on school trips in 2023. The study suggested that because of the cost of living crisis and a lack of funding, teachers are now 60% less likely to organise a trip than five years ago, and that many families cannot afford them when trip costs are passed to parents. I am glad a Korean car company recognizes the importance of experiential learning, even when some of our political leaders appear oblivious.
“School trips are an integral part of a child’s education. Not only are they a fun day out but allow children to properly cement their learning outside of the classroom. I firmly believe in education as a facilitator of social mobility, so it’s shocking that our younger generation is missing out on this opportunity due to circumstances outside of their control. I’m thrilled to be involved with this programme and feel that it is exceptionally timely, not to mention necessary, to put school trips firmly back on the agenda.”
Tim Campbell, Hyundai’s Educator in Residence
Nicholas is from York in the UK, but is very happy to call Jeju island, South Korea home. Second language pedagogy and the acquisition of academic English, along with outdoor education and extra-curricular programmes, have been the main focus of his teaching career. Nicholas currently works at North London Collegiate on Jeju island.
All images kindly provided by Nicholas.