Outdoor Education(s)

New Horizons

An English friend working abroad visits home occasionally. After a recent trip he commented that it should not be outdoor education any more but outdoor educations. His point was that the practice has become so diverse it is no longer a single idea and has even lost touch with it˘s roots.

When I spent some time as an outdoor management trainer I was introduced to a model of leadership I was meant to use. It was cheekily known as John Adair˘s three balls, three overlapping circles representing the task, the team and the individual as the elements in the leader˘s scope. For years I presented this model placing whichever of the three elements came to mind first in the top circle. It was only when I was asked to use the model to teach other trainers that I went back to the text book to find that there is a right way up to draw the model and a good reason for it to be that way up (task on the top if you˘re wondering. I˘ll leave you to check out why!). From one point of view you could say I had lost touch with the thinking behind the model and misrepresented it all those years. In my ignorance I had disempowered the model˘s voice. From another perspective I had noticed that my groups often got into conversations about the uppermost circle and why it should be the one it was (whichever I had placed there). Some useful insights were generated and some new ideas set running that were not to be found in the original explanation.

Modern outdoor education is just over 50 years old, the normal life expectancy for a social movement I˘m told. Several generations of leaders have passed through in that time. For some programmes you might argue that they have lost touch with their roots, as I had lost touch with the ideas behind John Adair˘s model, and they are going through the motions with no connection with that which made the work speak to the participant. The multi-activity course runs the risk of falling into this category. For others you would conclude that their distance from those roots has been liberating and their niaive approaches have led to some exciting and radical new projects.

These new roots have taken us away from the technological approach of the last ten years; all that programming, sequencing, processing and framing that made it all feel like a production line set up to deliver the pre-determined outcome - guaranteed. The new projects I˘m coming across emphasise the imagination rather than thought. Some have already appeared as case studies in Horizons.

There was Eden Community Outdoors working with principles of sustainability, camping in yurts and creating environmental arts work, vibrant youth led youth clubs and adventure camps with a difference.

We also reported on Swedish work with primary school children using fantasy stories outdoors in which the children became involved. These programmes were delivering curriculum content six fold faster than classsroom approaches. The latest news is that the retention of learning seems also to be enhanced.

We have also reported on the contempory rites of passage for young people project combining adventure and environmental education with the arts, music and traditional ritual. They are determined to contribute to a reduction in youth suicide and will be piloting this year.

In September I took part in a Hero˘s Journey for senior managers. After days of preparation the group set out on a fantastic coastal traverse to reveal the hidden secret of the coast and the hidden treasures of their own learning. I will long remember one man who thought heroes were only found in armies who discovered in himself the desire to become a hero as a father, a decision that kept a family together he had contemplated leaving.

Tom Price said it for me. ░Outdoor education is simple. That doesn˘t mean to say that it˘s easy.˘ The technological approach was necessary time for us to rationalise our work. It certainly needed a defence. This time coincided with Lyme Bay and drastic changes in centre funding that led some of us to say ░outdoor education is dead.˘ But of late the creative spirit of our field has transformed us again. Centres are full and imaginative projects are turning up all over. There is even hope for funding through teenage summer camps, a return of OE to the Scottish curriculum and a revitalised youth work agenda. I think we can now say ░long live outdoor education!˘ We can revisit that simple formula of helping people to find a dream and supporting them to learn the skills to realise it.

There are still issues. As we explore the many meanings that can be attached to experiences in nature the question will be, ░who˘s dream is being realised?˘ We have published critical pieces that have named some of the dreamers; the market place commodifying the outdoors and the activities in them; society attempting to create good citizens to their own design; academics interpreting our world in terms of personal efficacy or adreneline hits as though that were the whole story; the profession tied to its institutionalised badges and sports. All have a dark side to their good will for outdoor education.

Outdoor education is a political world and these politics will occupy our minds and consciences in the years ahead. Let me nail my politics to the mast. I˘ll use a quote to help the source of which is unknown to me:

░If you have come to help me then you are wasting your time but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine then let us work together.˘

My own research has touched on the core experiences that motivate outdoor leaders to be in this work. After some five hundred interviews all but one had no hesitation in naming a profound moment in a remote location, usually in solitude and wrapped up in a deep sense of nature and self combined in one.

I have a feeling that these many outdoor educations still are one field and that in many new ways we will make sacred again the people we work with and the places we work in. We will allow enough time for the dream to emerge, we will have enough compassion to help people to realise these dreams and we will have enough heart to celebrate with them when they are achieved.

Sail on outdoor education.

Chris Loynes