I can't remember whether I asked the question of myself during the recent near 'n' far conference presentation by the team from Natural Connections, or whether they asked it themselves. Sadly, my notes are rather unconnected on that point. It's a good question, either way.
Their answer seemed to be that it's [i] learning [in the] outdoors, or [ii] learning about the outdoors. For many (but not all), of course, the outdoors = nature. For others, it's just "outside". Confused? You should be.
As conceptualisations go, this rough and ready approach leaves much to be desired, particularly as you can (if you're determined) learn about the outdoors, indoors – all my school geography was like this – and you can learn about anything (solving partial differential equations, for example), outdoors (think of Forest Schools – not that they do much about differential equations, but they could – given the right reforms).
All this harks back to the about / in / for triptych of classic environmental education – though without the 'for', and so misses something of the point if you're interested in nature. I'm all for requisite vagary at the right time, as it leaves room for creativity and exploration, but surely we can do better than this conceptual morass.
The Natural Connections folk said that outdoor learning is good for everyone (which reminded me of Milo Minderbinder in Catch 22), and that Natural Connections itself was proving a great success (which reminded me of Milo's Syndicate, in the same book). But all this is good to know.
Natural Connections now has zillions of schools involved, many of which are beacons to others – and to other beacons, of course. The Holy Grail, which apparently is the convincing demonstrate of a correlation between outdoor learning and 'attainment', is, like the real thing, proving hard to find. No wonder, as it surely doesn't exist in any absolute sense.
But what did they mean by 'attainment'? My bet is that it just means good GCSE grades, or (inside the DfE at any rate) good PISA scores.
This brings me neatly (as seques go) to Susanna Ho's presentation about outdoor learning in Singapore. Suzanna gave us a brief history of outdoor learning in that city state:
- 1965 – Singapore talked about as a rugged and dynamic society
- 1967 – outward bound courses introduced
- 1980 – outdoor centres developed; residential camps established
- 1990 – an outdoor education department set up
- 1999 – a dedicated unit to oversee outdoor education
- 2004 – now policy to have two camping experiences per year for children
- 2014 – policy now to have 1 primary school and 2 secondary camping experiences
- 2015 – environmental education seen as part of outdoor learning
- 2015 – there's a 'Swiss roll' competency framework (a great pic!)
All this has ministerial support. Ironic, then, that we (that is, the DfE) look to Singapore as a model because of its more formal teaching / learning, indoors. I asked Susanna whether the Singapore government supports outdoor learning because it knows it contributes to good PISA scores. She felt, on balance, that this was not the case.
Indeed – on both counts, I'd say.