Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.
To me this quote (which came to me via Doug Gleddie I think) sums up a big part of the message behind this week’s blog and exemplifies the messages at the heart of the paper. The other part is summed up by Ferris Bueller who famously said (well famously if you’re my age and grew up in the 80s) “life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
Much is made of the outdoor experience. Of experiential learning and of the power of challenge, hardship, and discomfort in bringing people together and in bonding them. Companies spend large sums of money on taking their staff on away days and putting them through assault course and asking them to build rafts. Schools do the same and, from first-hand experience, I can see why. When it’s done well it can be a great learning experience for those involved and one that often sticks out as a highlight of school. However, it is also a risk.
The school I used to work at took (a probably still takes) the whole of year 9 (grade 8 if you’re in the US) off timetable and away to a residential outdoor education site every year. It was always the week before Easter, and we used to bus about 120 children and twelve staff, all ladened with clothing and supposedly devoid of home comforts, to a five day/four night residential. I remember the expressions on some the kids’ faces when they were told mobile phones, hair driers (and straighteners), and other ‘essential’ paraphernalia would have to stay at home. A few kids opted out – but these were a very small minority – but most faced the week with trepidation.
I always used to say that there were two moments of noticeable transformation in the school lives of the children I used to teach. One occurred after the outdoor pursuits residential and the other when they returned to school after their GCSE exams (taken when they were about 16).
The residential was the first-time many children has been away from home for more than a night and it wasn’t to a hotel but to an eight-bed dormitory and a week of being cold, wet and sometimes scared (uncomfortable at least). I remember their worries faces and the sense of the unknown, but I also remember the screams of excitement and the echoes of laughter as they got ‘stuck in’ to the next challenge.
For most I think it was a great experience, but we can’t assume that. I remember being approached once by a former pupil who blamed me for making her climb to the top of a pole and jump off. I remember the event and had tried to encourage her – so much so she felt that she had to do it. I thought I was being a good teacher, but we need to be aware of the power that we have over our students. They want to please us and are taught to do what we ask them but, in this case, that was to the detriment of that girl’s experience.
While I wouldn’t advocate against such experiences – far from it I thought it was great (the residential not the girl’s anxiety) - we need to be aware that experiences can be both positive and negative. We need to plan for this and try to ensure that we foster challenge while being considerate of others. There’s a fine line between pushing someone to succeed and shoving them. This former student was the exception but the exception deserves recognition as well.
At the heart of Hubball and West’s paper is the idea that enhancement, development and maintenance of spiritual wellness is not the sole domain of “religious or faith-based practices”. They argue that spiritual wellness – “alongside physical, mental, social, emotional and environmental components of personal growth” – is taking on increased importance in the classroom as “a critical component of student growth and development.”
More specifically Hubball and West position outdoor classrooms as sites where spiritual wellness can be developed through both an individual and social context. While they acknowledge that social wellness normally falls under the domain of organised religion, they argue that it means different things to different people and should be seen as a “functional need of human existence.” In making this point they define spiritual wellness as a “world view that provides a sense of meaning and purpose to life in general, as well as providing an ethical path to personal fulfilment through our connectedness and interactions with self, others and our environment.”
Hubball and West feel that this connectedness is often initiated and enhanced when we engage in friendly silence. This friendly silence is achieved with the help of the physical and emotional nearness of others. For example, in switching off flashlights when caving participants are able to feel the emptiness of the dark while still being comforted by the warmth and support of their peers. This silence, in turn, allows for authentic reflection that, in turn, enhances spiritual wellness. The authors argue that such measures allow student learners to become more ‘in tune’ with their own feelings, with the mood and feelings of the group and its members, with their surroundings and their current and ongoing involvement in the experience.
Yet to achieve a setting that facilitates such reflection should not be left to chance. Teachers need to plan for authentic and meaningful learning experiences. Hubball and West suggest that we need to develop a number of interrelated strategies if we are to authentically, rather than haphazardly, advocate for education as a site for the development of spiritual wellness: (a) learning context strategies, (b) predisposition strategies, (c) enabling strategies, and (d) reinforcing strategies.
Learning context strategies is the broadest theme and focuses on the teacher’s willingness (and ability) to create a classroom community that allows for safe, open and inclusive discussions that are two-way i.e. between students and between the students and their teacher(s). This involves, and is facilitated by, the value placed on such discussions and the plans put in place to develop an optimal learning environment that “enhances silence and [allows for] authentic reflection.”
Predisposition strategies can be summarised as the teacher’s ability to “walk the walk and talk the talk.” In other words, it means that the teacher must be willing to emphasise the importance of silent reflection and spiritual wellness through the provision of regular (but not onerous) reflection experiences.
Hubball and West describe enabling strategies as facilitatory actions that, for example, might provide opportunity for critical discussion or quiet reading. Furthermore, it is about developing the right community and varying student groups so that they learn to work with different people. This is not the same as changing the groups regularly or randomly but using the groups to help enhance spiritual wellness.
Finally reinforcing strategies come from the teacher. Hubball and West suggest that these might take the form of recognising students valued contributions and connecting assessment practices to authentic processes and outcomes. Fundamentally it is the students’ interactions with the outdoor learning environment that helps to foster “appreciation, understanding, and responsibility.”
In a rapidly changing society - where competition, consumerism, reliance on technology, and changing urban landscapes merge to create fast-paced and stressful lifestyles - there is a growing recognition of the value of holistic learning. Schools are not only places where exams are taken (at least they shouldn’t be defined in this way). They are places where children and young people need to think about and be taught about different components of their personal growth. They need to be encouraged to “stop and look around once in a while” because otherwise they might miss life such is their need to do the next thing.
What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).
Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use Twitter (@DrAshCasey) to ask a question, seek clarification, maybe challenge the findings.
Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?
Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something, or are looking for help, then please let the community know about it.
I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.
Hubball, H. & West, D. (2008). Silence and authentic reflection strategies: Holistic learning in an outdoor education program. Physical and Health Education Journal, 74: 12-14.