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Tuesday, 16 December 2014

"Outdoor Learning for Sustainability" the Real World Learning Model

Real World Learning and Earth Education.
I have been privileged to attend all three of the International Conferences of the Real World Learning Network in 2013 and 2014. I was able to give presentations on earth education and give participants experience of earthwalks and magic spots at two of these Conferences. Bruce Johnson, IEE International Programme Coordinator was a keynote speaker at the  second conference in 2013 on Science and Sustainability Through Outdoor Learning at Planica in Slovenia. At their final recent conference in England in November 2014, the Real World Learning Group, drawn from organisations in 7 countries, unveiled their model of Outdoor Learning for Sustainability.
It provides a way of evaluating our provision and learning programmes against a set of criteria that the group have identified as the characteristics of good Outdoor Learning for Sustainability.
Based on a hand print the thumb represents Values and poses the question “Are self transcendent values promoted”?  It was refreshing to see that this was regarded as perhaps the most important element. In the past, earth education has been criticised and misunderstood for promoting the values of:
1.       respect for nature and the state of the planet
2.       equal opportunities for all people to shape their lives.
3.       respect for future generations
Yet these are the values that have now been recognised as being the most important and the most fundamental in learning for sustainability. Respect for nature and concern for the planet is at the absolute heart of all earth education programmes grounded as they are in the principles of deep ecology. The other values are I believe implicit throughout the programmes and embedded in the values of every earth educator that I know! In “Earth Education a New Beginning” which Steve Van Matre wrote back in 1990 there are numerous references to values and written at a time when values were not in the vocabulary of most environmental educators. He even lists 10 green values which encompass all those identified by the RWL model and more besides. Should we seek to address them more explicitly in our programmes?

The index finger represents Empowerment and the question “are learners empowered to shape a sustainable future?” is posed. This is the main aim of an earth education programme but I believe activities such as identifying “environmental bad habits” only do part of the job and are not always given the time or attention by programme leaders that is really needed, despite the “ crafting of more harmonious life-styles” being the most important learning outcome of the Sunship Earth programme. Sunship III, our programme for 13-14 year olds does give significant time to this and culminates in a map and challenge to visit and learn from local individuals and organisations that provide role models and inspiration for sustainable living. Empowerment is achieved not just through  individual activities no matter how well-crafted but over a long period of time, and through the processes of giving learners responsibilities, taking ownership of their own learning and giving them the space and opportunity to be reflective and critical thinkers, not easy within the confines of a short programme. Probably best addressed by teachers as part of the follow through but it is always a challenge for teachers to give sufficient time to this. Much of the empowerment will of course come through the ways in which participants are treated and the programme delivered. One of the learning objectives is to “enable learners to become conscious of inter-connectedness – you, me and the world around”. This of course is right on the money as far as earth education is concerned. Not only do our concept teaching activities such as “Great Specktackle” place ourselves at the heart of the cycles of nature but this is built into most other conceptual encounters. Immersing activities and magic spots further serve to make these connections.
The middle finger addresses Experience with the question “Do learners get in touch with outdoor settings” and even mentions the objective “involve learners with head, heart and hand” a familiar mantra to all earth educators over the past 40 years. In earth education we perhaps take for granted that the most powerful learning experiences take place outdoors in the natural world where they directly relate the experience to the way the planet works. It is encouraging that so many influential environmental education organisations around Europe are recognising the importance of these real world experiences which earth educators have always used.
The ring finger deals with Transferability and asks “are different areas of life included?” The learning objectives include:
1.       Encourage active transfer during and after the experience
2.       Relate to the non-natural environment
3.       Relate to learners communities
4.       Relate to the natural environment
5.       Relate to the learners themselves
6.       Relate to global society
Clearly our concept learning activities embody 1. And 4.  Objectives 2,3 and 5 are addressed at crucial stages of earth education programmes while 6. Is often addressed by looking at “earth our place in space” though I feel that much more can be done in all forms of environmental education to build these global links. Indeed as an Eco-Schools Assessor I often find that the global dimension is the aspect that schools struggle with most. How we ensure that these global links can be fully explored in earth education is an area of discussion worthy of its own blog, discussion group and even a conference or seminar!
Finally we come to the little finger representing Understanding. Again one gets the feeling that those who created the model have either based their work on the principles of earth education or, perhaps even more reassuringly, have arrived at similar conclusions by different routes. For a long time earth educators have been banging on about big picture understandings and emphasising the four main over-arching concepts which address how all life on earth works. We build our programmes around the concepts of Cycles, Change, Interrelationships and Energy Flow.  The “Big Science Principles” of the RWL model are Cycles, Change, Stability and Energy Flow. They describe “stability” as the concept of dynamic balance i.e. interrelationships!
I do not believe that the RWL model should be used as a template for designing outdoor learning for sustainability. It is an attempt to distil 4 years work by several working parties, each comprising members from 8 organisations and 7 different countries and cultures. It does however provide a touchstone for centres, organisations and individuals to evaluate and question their own practice. I believe that earth education and our model programmes measure up very well in this process, at least in the design and intent. It would be a helpful exercise for earth educators to examine their own work and delivery against the RWL model. I think many of us will find that this reflection will help us to refine our actual delivery of earth education programmes. I believe it will also remind us how well-crafted these programmes are and help us to identify the importance of those elements of the programmes that might get overlooked or omitted due to pressures of time or because we do not always realise how important all the elements are to the holistic learning experience. It should also provide encouragement to re-read “Earth Education a New beginning” by Steve van Matre and see how much of what is in the RWL  model was already being encouraged for those of us seeking to design our own programmes.

John Rhymer December 2015 

1 comment:

  1. Reading this methinks EE was so far ahead of the field. Good to read this and ta to John


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