This is my second post about the Natural Connections event in Plymouth last week. As I noted on Thursday morning, I set off for the meeting with a heavy heart, as the format of the programme suggested they'd learned nothing about organising a meeting from their East London near 'n' far disaster last summer. And so it proved.
It began with a scene setting, although this had more to do with Plymouth and the ESRC than with natural connections. We were meeting in an up-market tent while the wind bashed and crashed outside. Hey, it was almost LiNE!
The first speaker said that outdoor learning was an opportunity to encourage teachers and schools "to teach and learn the curriculum”, and I wondered if anyone knew what that meant. I’m still wondering, but I now know that outdoor learning is an opportunity to "bring children and nature closer together.” If only.
After the scene-setting, the next speaker provided some data. The project has worked with 1600 teachers and 1450 teaching assistants in 130 schools (>90% were primary) and has reached 31,000 students. It has been based around the idea of hub leaders and beacon schools, with every beacon being the inspirational core of a cluster of other schools.
There was then a film, but this mostly repeated what the speaker said. I wrote down that the project had led to "acclimatising children to learning out of doors" – although learning what exactly, was still vague. It’s fair to say there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on the what, but, hey, being outdoors is fun – unless you’re cold and wet, that is, when you can get grumpy. More on grumpy, later. But does it really matter what, I hear you say, especially if it's fun. Well, I bet the DfE thinks it matters quite a lot. More on the DfE tomorrow.
A key session (the third) was about what the evaluation revealed. The headline outcome is that, as a result of an injection of countless £zillions of tax-payer cash, “more teachers and TAs are doing more outdoor learning”. I have to say that I was relieved. There were then a lot of before and after percentages which I didn’t follow all that well. That might not have been entirely my fault, as it wasn’t always clear when the before was, or, indeed, if it really was before.
For example, the mentions of outdoor learning in school documentation had gone up from 68% to 75%, and the number of teachers doing outdoor learning-focused CPD had gone from 55% to 67%. But school spending on outdoor learning fell from 76% to 64% (2014 to 2015), which seemed to be a good thing, so maybe before was after after in some cases – or after, before. Confused? Me too. I hope the final report is clearer.
There were survey results about why there should be more outdoor learning, but we were not shown the questions. No matter, because the results are impressive in an East German election sort of way. Here are the percentages of teachers giving these as reasons for engaging in outdoor learning:
- children enjoy learning outdoors – 95%
- children engage with / understand nature – 94%
- children’s social skills improve – 93%
- children’s engagement with learning (sic) improves – 92%
- children’s health & well-being is enhanced – 92%
- children’s behaviour improves – 85%
- children’s attainment goes up – 57%
The children said that outdoor learning is “fun” most of the time, and I particularly liked this comment:
“We were learning how to use axes and saws and mallets. It was very good.”
Teachers in their turn thought that outdoor learning had a positive effect on their practice and job satisfaction.
Finally, we were told that, as the support of the headteacher is essential, we should get them to experience outdoor learning for themselves. Good plan, I thought. Then, finally, finally, (after an hour and twenty minutes) there were questions, but it’s a pity there were no roving microphones as big tents are not great spaces for audibility, and the questions were hard to hear, and not all were repeated.
I'll discuss the questions in my next posting. I thought this was the best bit of the day.