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Adventurous learning helps pupils to climb new heights

News | Published in TESS on 22 February, 2013 | By: John Greenlees

Financial cutbacks are putting a stop to outdoor activities that leave pupils of all backgrounds inspired

This is my favourite part of the teaching year. Lighter days, snow on the mountains and an annual visit to an outdoor centre in the Highlands of Scotland.

It's also a "red letter" time of year for pupils, with week-long courses of outdoor activities including canoeing and abseiling. Many pupils talk about their trips for years and they are certainly a highlight of their schooldays.

Taking pupils out of the classroom to learn new skills in less conventional environments certainly works. Confidence and self-esteem are boosted to the extent that when pupils return to the classroom they often do so as more effective learners.

Learning to ski or canoe helps to develop focus, commitment and perseverance. Pupils learn in small groups and support each other more enthusiastically than they do in class. Outdoor instructors provide a different aspect to pupils' learning: they set short-term targets, provide stickers and badges for each attainment and talk about things like "outer strength" and "inner strength". It really does work.

The most impressive results are often with pupils from disadvantaged families from the inner-city who don't have many opportunities to visit places such as the Cairngorm mountains. A few years back, with Scotland covered in snow, I enjoyed a full week of skiing with a group of supposedly "difficult" pupils from some of the country's most deprived families.

Potential was unlocked and the pupils surprised themselves at how much they could learn. "The best week of my life" is how one 13-year-old described his week-long course, during which he learned to master skis and a snowboard.

Outdoor courses also provide opportunities for pupils to get away from their high-tech classrooms to connect with nature and discover that the awe and thrill of outdoor activities easily surpasses the buzz of computer games.

So it is disheartening to see so many cutbacks in the financial support for outdoor activities. Many authorities have reduced the number of courses and closed their own outdoor centres. Many schools now use outdoor centres operated by private companies. Outdoor courses that once cost pupils between £10 and £20 now cost between £200 and £300. Disadvantaged pupils are still supported but not to the same extent and many miss out on rewarding learning experiences.

A number of courses that enabled teachers to obtain qualifications to teach outdoor activities have been discontinued. The cutbacks are helping to save money, but a popular and positive part of pupils' education is being damaged or lost.

John Greenlees, Secondary teacher.


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