On Outdoor Education: Emphasize the Process

Today's blog entry is from St. Michael's graduate student Michael Boyd, class of 2018

Have a conversation with anyone who went to a middle school in the States. I bet it won’t take too long until you find that it is generally an uncomfortable time in one’s life. This notion of apathy and emotional unrest in middle school is not unusual when people are asked about their experiences.

Why is that?

During middle school, students are in their formative years in terms of cognitive, physical, social, romantic and spiritual development, change is hard, especially when it’s all at once. According to the 2013 Gallup poll on school engagement, 45% of students in this age range were disengaged in traditional school-based learning.

It's hard to blame the students!

Their entire world is changing through them, and having been exposed to the same process of education for the past seven (or so) years, they grow apathetic. This is disheartening news to any middle grades educator, but a multitude of evidence suggests implementation of outdoor educational activities can combat this apathy. Educational academics, Joan K. James and Theresa Williams argue in their paper School-Based Experiential Outdoor Education that the Invisible Child (their term for a student who shows apathy towards a curriculum of only traditional learning processes and who tends to be lost in the flock of their peers) benefits greatly from outdoor education that can improve critical thinking skills and lead to leadership positions amongst their classmates.

James and Williams lobby that outdoor education, especially during one’s formative years, is crucial to leveling the educational field for the invisible child. Clearly, adding another environment in which students can learn provides additional student learning dispositions to be accessed, which can benefit a student who falters in more traditional environments.

Examples of this expansive method of education can be seen in programs such as the Willowell Foundation of Bristol,Vermont, or the Chadwick School of Palos,California. These outdoor schools emphasize self-dependency in a supportive setting, exhibiting results that show graduates who are emotionally stable, personally strong and functioning at high cognitive capacities.

These dispositions are invaluable for a student who is transitioning from the middle grades into high school in order for them to make quality decisions in a time when their choices carry more weight and influence.

Here is a great video of an Oregon Outdoor School!

I see outdoor education as a crucial push-back against the ever narrowing lens that modern education seems to be viewed: curriculum emphasizing test preparation. The standards-based, test-taking approach de-emphasizes the elements of personal and active learning that can come to fruition through outdoor education.

With this "modern", narrowed curriculum in place, students fall into the statistics of the aforementioned Gallop poll. This type of narrow education promotes a type of preparation for college/career and pushes the active and experiential learning down the road for the pupils. This fundamentally goes against the philosophy of John Dewey when he articulates that “Education, therefore, is a process of living and not a preparation for future living”. Outdoor education is exactly what Dewey proposes, in that it is education through living, not in preparation for it.
In more appropriate terms for a discussion of outdoor education, Dewey is proposing that the “trail” is the experience, not just the destination. Author, Robert Moor evokes much of this philosophy in his etymological book “On Trails” in which he argues that in our modern society of airplane travel and the zeitgeist of point-A to point-B, we lose sight of the process- our lives shouldn’t be a series of destinations, but many intertwined trails in which we are continually immersed.

This is an apt metaphor for our educational system as a whole (but crucially important at the middle-grades level). We are far too concerned with the tests and the destinations of learning and far less empathetic to students’ need to wander the trails. Education suffers from this lack of adventure and experience because it emphasizes results not the experience. In the words of John Quay of The University of Melbourne, “We need to have an emphasis on the outdoor education process rather than content”.

If one truly considers the possibilities of utilizing the outdoors as a pathway to learning- such as discussing the ecology of local watersheds through the procurement of sediment core-samples as a class, discussing the atomic arrangements of shale while observing rock formations, or discussing the words of Thoreau while wandering the trails of a local forest- it is seemingly apparent that learning can truly be augmented by the addition of the natural environment into classes.

Link To Annotated Bibliography