Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Outdoor Learning

This year in Grade Three, my colleague and I decided that we wanted to head outside to engage in some activities, problems and inquiries. We took the inspiration from our Early Years department who have embraced outdoor learning as a daily part of their program. Recent educational research has indicated that outdoor learning programs can increase student achievement by almost 50% over the course of a year. One of our Vice-Principals is an authority on all things Early Years and she gave us some good ideas to start with. We were also aware that many schools in the UK already have outdoor learning programs. So we thought we'd give it a crack ourselves.

During the this first semester that we've held outdoor learning the students have:
  • Practiced their navigation skills to find their way around the school and crack codes.
  • Explored the pond area and made some fascinating discoveries.
  • Developed teamwork and communication skills by working together to solve problems.
  • Tested and re-tested theories in order to make conclusions.
  • Explored ways of building knowledge in group environments.
  • Reflected on shifts in thinking and understanding.
  • Created Andy Goldsworthy inspired art.
  • Predicted, collected, analysed and explained mathematical data.
We've been lucky to have some parent helpers each week and this has allowed us teachers to document the learning. This is another thing that has come from the Reggio-inspired program of our Early Years team. Individually, us two teachers have noticed some interesting things about each student during outdoor learning. But I report on my class and she reports on hers, so we need to find time to meet and discuss our findings. Plus the real power of documentation comes in the discussions held by the observers. It is the combination of these different viewpoints that helps build a complete picture about each child.

Being a new initiative, we're still perfecting the setup. We started off very open - playing in the sand and documenting research skills. Each week, however, we seemed to become a bit more focused with the tasks - measuring the perimeter of a playground area, for example. This may be because at our school we need to report on outcomes so we need to provide opportunities for the students to engage in tasks that allow us the chance to assess their understanding. Perhaps our mind has subconsciously been tracking back to this. 

A few weeks ago we gathered some feedback from the students about how they felt outdoor learning was going. From the start we wanted this to be about the student's learning so we felt it was important for them to be involved in the planning process. Some said that they felt everything was going fine. To our surprise, though, quite a few said they were becoming less interested in outdoor learning because they felt the tasks were becoming too regimented and organised. They preferred the freedom of greater choice and exploration. I'm glad the students felt comfortable enough to share these opinions - it really helped us. The teachers also shared their concerns about the students behaviour during outdoor learning. We felt that some were forgetting about the second word in the title. This feedback encouraged us to make a few changes to our setup. So far they've been well-received.

Some students just flourish outdoors. Maybe they find the classroom walls restrictive - I'm sure there's a number of reasons. It's been great to see these students come more alive with their learning. Others are equally as comfortable in the classroom and outside. Some only prefer the indoors. At least this way we're opening up the scope of access to more students and differentiating our approaches to the learning profile of our students. Most importantly, the students are participating in some interesting learning engagements. And I reckon they're having a bit of fun too.