Recently I had the opportunity to attend the Education on Planet Earth Conference, hosted by the Alberta Council for Environmental Education, and I thought I’d share some of the lessons of that day with our community.
It was an auspicious day… the first snowfall of the year started just as the opening remarks got underway. “A good day for an outdoor workshop” the presenters murmured as they looked down at their Chelsea Boots and cropped pants. Just kidding! Teachers are so practical! Everyone (except me) had their down jackets in fold away pockets, Arc’teryx toques, and very sensible looking hiking shoes. That’s definitely one of the things that sets me apart from teachers; I think it’s a disservice to attribute it to left/right brain type thinking (which has more or less been disproved for the moment anyways). Rather I’d like to give credit where credit is due and show some mad respect for the thousands of hours of preparedness training that teachers get every year. Because when your students comes to you with (insert weirdest craziest problem that you could imagine involving say…a stick of gum, a smart board, and 37 elastic bands) the last thing you want to worry about it your wardrobe.
Anyways. I opted for indoor sessions.
Don’t get me wrong, I love being outdoors, I just also love being warm. I attended the conference with a group of youth that I volunteer with, who also happened to be presenting. Their session was about Indigenous pedagogy and how seeing the world through stories led the learner to a different world view than seeing it through facts. As part of their presentation they incorporated many different instruction techniques (conversation, lecture, watching films, interactive gaming, and hands on learning), and centered most of the action around an installation piece we had made earlier in the week; we moved the chairs into a circle and gathered the participants around our own projected image (and sounds) of a fire.
Okay, full disclosure, this wasn’t our idea. Teaching at the 2012 Cree 8 Success conference in Edmonton, noted Indigenous author Richard Wagamese told his students (including one in Chelsea boots and cropped pants) about the power of the setting for storytelling. He had a little floor light/fan thing with some paper taped to it. He didn’t have to tell us where to sit, he didn’t have to tell us to quiet down, he didn’t have to tell us to listen. We knew. Our experiences sitting around the fire taught us that if we would only patiently wait, good things would come. Setting matters. It impacts how and what we learn.
The folks over at the Devonian Botanical Garden in Edmonton understand this point well. Emma Ausford, who coordinates their school education program led a fantastic session on how they transformed the Garden’s educational offerings from a didactic lecture based model to one based on play. She realized that traditional models of “outdoor education” sometimes just literally take the instruction outside without changing anything else. The value of the outdoor environment for education is in its opportunities for discovery, and the chance to take a risk. We found out how this functions in programming when all of the sudden a room full of conference goers were hopping, prancing, and strutting around the room. To be honest we looked more like a crew of awkward children at a Christmas pageant than a vignette from Hinterland Who’s Who… but who ever forgets what character they were assigned (ubiquitous Christmas Sheep!) and which one everyone always wanted (attention getting angel!) and all those other little details from that one childhood night? Play is part of that process of creating indelible memories.
Setting matters, but what you do with that setting does too.