Dirty Teaching

robertsonRating: ★★★★★

Juliet Robertson. 2014. Dirty Teaching: a beginner’s guide to learning outdoors. Independent Thinking Press. ISBN 978 178135107 9.

Up to now, there’s been an increasingly alarming move towards taking the field out of fieldwork and replacing it with a computer screen. Let’s be very clear on this – fieldwork cannot be replaced by any software. You cannot get the same feeling standing in an ecosystem as you can seeing a video (however good). There’s an increasing body of research that suggests not only is the learning better, but is gets a better (social/psychological) connection with the environment. You can do conservation sitting watching a programme but you won’t get conservationists! OK, point made. As one who has spent a large amount of time in the field, all of this just seems like a non-question, a no-brainer, but people are actually serious. I think a lot of it has to do with issues around perceived  “safety” factors. We could counter by saying you can have accidents and issues in school just as well as in the field but some educators won’t be told.

At last we have help on hand. Many countries are working on, or have, a national curriculum. If you are very lucky, you might have a science or geography strand that expects fieldwork to take place from the very beginning. One example of this is in Australia where the national curriculum (actually, a national one modified by each state – and no, they don’t get irony!) is starting to mandate fieldwork from the very beginning of school. This can be found partly in the science syllabus, but most strongly in the new Geography syllabus. So, rather than have fieldwork in secondary school, you now have it (or at least, soon will) starting when you join pre-primary/kindergarten. Admittedly, this is one of the only rays of sunshine in a very poor syllabus but it is starting to stir conversations in schools about how best to  carry out fieldwork in the primary setting. Gone are the days of nature walks and BBC television with its glossy brochures about nature but now we have a way to reclaim at least some of this. However, the problem remains – what do we do? If you haven’t been near a field in ages and have no idea of what to do, this text might just convince you to change your ways.

First of all, it’s aimed at the primary school teacher with 6-12 years old. Assuming no knowledge, it starts by getting the teacher to consider what might be different between learning indoors and outdoors. What might you see, feel, do, experience? How might your attitudes be changed (and how might your students)? Make the learning mean something and make it so it sticks in the mind! Consider that at this age, students are at their most receptive to ideas of taking care of the Earth, of stewardship and sustainability (fast becoming a curriculum staple, especially in Australia where it is one of three core curriculum principles across all ages and subjects). Secondly, it really does start at the beginning – chapter one looks at the ‘golden principles’ of outdoor teaching and learning. Use your time outside to develop student capacities and respect for the outdoors. An ideal way is to consider the sustainability of your fieldwork – “accidental” lessons like this can be among the most valuable. The next part of the lesson is to prepare. This is not just a question of safety, it’s about getting all students and parents onside about the learning (and probably the senior staff!). This is a great idea. So many field exercises fail because people just go outside and don’t really plan. This is not the perennial safety issue but the real reason (and value) for taking the time to explain to everyone what needs to be done and why. It’s the chance to make a checklist, to ensure your fieldwork meshes with your teaching programme or unit of work. In a word, it’s about being organised!

So, you have your plan and have considered the requirements of the fieldwork and its place in your timetable. Now is the time to get the students outside. Rather than go right into complex fieldwork, the aim is to build up slowly. Start small – get students used to being outdoors. These are younger students with little experience, so start simple – get them to line up and see how this can be done effectively (you’ll never have enough time out of a classroom, so these things matter). After that , gradually build up and increase complexity. Get them to collect leaves, or make a map, or something that connects them with the environment. Now they are outside and confident, get them to work in small groups or even on their own (within sight of others). Start to gather materials and map their spaces. The next stage is to look at the environment as a place of work (as indeed it was before the Industrial Revolution). If possible, build a den or build a musical instrument (logs of different lengths make a great, if somewhat heavy, xylophone !). Now you can start to move them out into some simple field experiments.

Students will still be quite young and their sense of the world quite limited. So, keep closer to home, but use the outdoors for art, music, English etc. Make it seem like one of the natural places to learn.  By now, you are an outdoors expert. You know what you are doing, and why. Time to step up! Younger students have a fine sense of natural justice and a real interest in the environment. Feed this interest with tasks that address the fundamentals behind sustainability. If you don’t have a woodland or other large area nearby, you still have the towns and cities. Look at the buildings and the wildlife around them. Think micro-ecosystems and the possibilities of getting some useful data to use elsewhere in another lesson. There are always opportunities – just look around to see what catches the eye (or create journeys with QR codes.  Don’t just do this once, keep it regular.

The final three chapters focus on the more general learning aspects which is more like a return to earlier work rather than fresh thoughts. There’s section on nagging doubts, so you can check to see all is well and ideas on how to make this ’embedded’ so that fieldwork becomes (as it should be, second nature). A final, brief chapter, asks the reader to see this work in a whole-school aspect.

This is one of the best recent texts of outdoor education. Unlike other texts it starts at the practical and slowly works up to a regime of working outside the classroom. By assuming the reader has little or no experience, the author leads us through the process from the very beginning. All key stages are explained and the rationale behind them is given. Leaving aside it’s great organisational value, this is simply a highly practical book. It’s full of the wisdom you don’t get in field guides but that you need to be successful. It’s not a treatise on field experiments but a collection of a huge number of ideas (literally, they sprinkle the text with things to do!) that would actually work. I would recommend this to any primary school teacher concerned about the outdoors and it should be required reading in education courses. One of my rare must-buy books!


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