Act Your Way into Teaching Outside

A three-year-old girl is with her dad at the park down the street from their home on a sunny, autumn afternoon. Her dad brought something he dug out of the storage, something he hadn’t played with in years, it’s his old soccer ball. Finding an open patch of grass, he places the artifact of his athleticism down and kicks it towards his daughter. She laughs as the ball bumps into her shins, excited to see this new toy. She chases it and then swings her leg, her foot connecting to the top of the ball, sending it a few feet away. There are no rules attached. Her dad doesn’t explain the theory of the game, nor are any instructions being given to help understand the intricacies of soccer. The child isn’t thinking about anything other than kicking the ball for the pure enjoyment of seeing it travel in whatever direction it may. In time, she’ll come to understand the game more fully – its rules, its strategies and its ability to have millions hold their breath for that next golden goal. But it all starts with a small act – kicking the ball.

Act your way into a new way of thinking.

Historically, education (in the institutional sense of the word) has often involved students learning the theory first, then putting it into practice. Think your way into a new way of acting.However, schools started discovering that immersing students into the practice earlier led to a deeper sense of learning. McMaster University’s medical school in Hamilton, Ontario, was one of the schools in the late 1960s, who pioneered this as they began to develop this approach with students. Today, they have students meeting with patients right from the beginning of their program. Act your way into a new way of thinking.

The benefits of experiential education are known to teachers and backed by research: having students act their way into a new way of thinking. Over the last couple of months, outdoor learning has come to the forefront in the face of the pandemic, encouraging educators to head outside. This sounds simple enough. But then we overthink and ask: what does this really mean? What does it look like? How can we make it happen?

Yes, there is critical thought needed to help support and implement outdoor learning in our schools across the country, but are we trying to think our way into a new way of acting, or in this case, teaching? At the beginning of Covid-19 when schools shut down, there was little time to think. Action was needed, and teachers across the country adapted quickly to virtual learning. As we attempt to pivot again to outdoor learning this fall, for many, it will require us acting our way into a new way of thinking. This will come with barriers though, perhaps the greatest being the weather. In a summer broadcast of CBC’s The Current, two individuals were interviewed about holding classes outdoors. Hillary Inwood leads the Environmental and Sustainability Education Initiative at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto and Kaviq Kaluraq is an instructor in the Nunavut Teacher Education Programme at Nunavut Arctic College. Early in the conversation, Kaviq alluded to a project called Nuna School in Iqaluit where students are regularly taken outside for their learning in the fall and winter. Hillary later said, “If Inuit students in the north can do it in the heart of winter, we can absolutely do it in the heart of winter in southern parts of the country. The same advantages that Kaviq outlined of hands on experiential learning can absolutely be played out here.”

As educators, we can fear making mistakes. The classroom is comfortable. When we go outside, things may not go according to plan. Like a lesson focusing on numeracy suddenly shifts to adaptation because a student found a caterpillar crawling in the crack of cement beside the playground. There is power in those moments. The act of heading outside consistently with students can pave a new way of thinking about education, a new way of thinking about pedagogical approaches and curriculum outcomes. Deep thinking should and will be required to find long term success. But for now, as we try to keep our heads above water amidst the uncertainty, acting our way into a new way of thinking about how we can most effectively teach students this year is worth the trip outside.

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