It’s time to talk with Andy Carley, the Director of School Outdoor Learning. Firstly, to learn about his own journey and secondly to pick his brain about the state of outdoor learning. In particular, we want to delve deeper into the provision for secondary school pupils who need outdoor learning as much as their younger counterparts, but don’t always have the time or space to access it.
Tell us about your own professional journey in the outdoor learning world?
I pursued outdoor education after college and worked as an activity instructor at adventure centres in the UK, Australia and the USA. This included lots of water sports such as sailing, water skiing and kayaking as well as land-based activities like orienteering and climbing. Most of this work was with children and young people to begin with and as time went on, I began to work more with adults too.
Next, I branched out and started my own business designing and delivering programmes of leadership development and corporate team building which is still active today. Meanwhile, I also worked in schools leading character education schemes and events. Before long, schools started asking how they could lead their own in-house, outdoor learning provision and looked to us for staff training and resources to do this. And so, School Outdoor Learning (SOuL) was born in late 2011.
We began designing and installing spaces for outdoor learning like outdoor classrooms, natural playscapes, ponds, meeting spaces and more! In addition, we create resources for teachers to use to develop their outdoor learning and teaching for character curriculas, provide consultation and lead training sessions for staff.
Why do you think outdoor learning matters?
It more than matters, it is vital. I personally massively underachieved at school despite my potential – some of this can be attributed to me being a lazy teen, but it’s also got a lot to do with the education system. I didn’t connect with it and it did little for me. Learning for me happened outside of school in outdoor settings. There I thrived with my love of adventurous activities and the natural world.
Learning outdoors is life affirming. We all learn and connect in different ways. In the outdoor classroom, we learn to fail, work collaboratively and, perhaps most importantly, can learn to learn. Pupils can self-regulate in outdoor settings in a way that many can’t in a traditional classroom setting.
Who is the target audience for outdoor learning and why?
As it stands, EYFS is better set up for outdoor learning – many settings have a freeflow structure, flexible schedules and a focus on play. It’s the same in KS1 and, to a certain extent, the rest of primary school. There is simply more freedom to incorporate the outdoors and play into the prescribed curriculum.
In addition, play is easier to connect with at a young age. However, often Year 7 hits and teaching becomes more adult guided and prescribed. There’s increased assessment, pressure on teachers to hit targets and often a teaching to the test culture. But, this shouldn’t and needn’t happen – it shouldn’t be either or (indoors and didactic or outdoors and experiential!) I can be either, or a combination of both. Many parts of the conventional curriculum can be successfully taught outdoors and there is lots of research and evidence to support this approach. The Baccalaureate system is a good example where cross subject and project working meets a student centred approach together with a focus on interpersonal and learning skills.
What impact do you see for secondary school pupils who spend time learning outdoors?
I firmly believe that the gains are just as powerful and impactful as with younger children, However, honestly, we don’t see it often enough. We have different conversations in secondary schools than in primary schools when we visit. Secondary schools look at outdoor spaces to be used for sport/PE or extra-curricular activities more often than not. There is a disconnect at a senior staff level about curriculum teaching outdoors. When outdoor learning does happen at KS3/4 level it empowers and rejuvenates pupils.
There are schools out there who are teaching the curriculum outside with great success. There’s some excellent science-based teaching, art installations and physical geography work for example. These are powerful ways of connecting curriculum content to the real world. This helps the content stick and be better understood.
Where do you hope to see outdoor learning in the future national curriculum for secondary schools?
New school builds and renovations must prioritise outdoor space and its use for outdoor learning, not just for sport and social space. Architects need to be tuned into the flow of a space and access to outdoor learning on site. Right now, secondary school teachers who do want to take their pupils outside often don’t know where to go and don’t have access to viable outdoor teaching spaces.
I’d like to see character education as a subject on the curriculum in its own right. The explicit teaching and practice of Team and Leadership skills to young people of all ages with genuine progression should continue through a pupil’s school career. It’s just as important as the current PE curriculum (perhaps more so) in my opinion. Character education develops skills for life at such as collaboration, relationship building, strong communication, self-awareness, and more. I believe schools are missing a huge chunk of education for their pupils without it.
Where should secondary school teachers start for their pupils?
Luckily there are lots of accessible, and often free, online resources for ideas and inspiration. Here’s one such example from Learning Through Landscapes. Think about your plan for the day, week, term – what are you doing inside that could work just as well outside. Sometimes you can take learning outside with no extra planning at all such as a science experimentation, drama workshops, poetry reading or A-level class discussion for example.
Underpinning concepts work really well when taught indoors in a controlled setting. The next step is to make it experiential, to be sure the themes can be understood. This is when getting outside takes learning to the next level. Have look at our recent blog interview for an on the ground insight.
If you would like to discuss how SOuL might help and support your school with infrastructure, school site design, teaching resources, teacher training or planning for outdoor learning then please contact us.
Continue the conversation with us over on our social media channels or drop us a note. We must keep talking and problem solving to fix our broken education system.
If you would like to feature in a spotlight on outdoor learning in your setting please send us a message here.