Outdoor Learning Conference 2023
If you are one of the lucky educators who got a ticket to this year’s Outdoor Learning conference, you are likely still feeling the buzz of excitement that comes from being with over 400 like-minded educators in such a spectacular place. Many of you asked for the papers I cited, and to have a copy of the speech I gave as we began our time together in Banff. As you read the following, please remember it was written to be spoken, so is not fully cited, and there are no headings to guide the reader.
2023 Outdoor Learning Conference: Banff, Alberta
Good evening everyone! I’m so honoured to be invited to speak with you all tonight.
I’ll begin by situating this talk within my work as a public-school teacher. Some of you may know my work in a WestCoast garden classroom, which is located on land now known as Steveston. Steveston is situated within xʷməθkwəy̓əm territory and found right where the river meets the sea. I am fortunate to co-teach with my fabulous teaching partner Sarah, who could not be here tonight, along the banks of the Fraser river which generously teaches us the story of how water has shaped the land we are learning with.
I’ve been teaching outdoors for a long time. This is my 25th year of teaching! And even though I get to travel and mentor teachers all over North America, it is my teaching in place that keeps me grounded in the realities of what hundreds of brilliant teachers across the country, many of whom are here tonight, are navigating. A common question, when people learn I teach entirely outdoors, is where do I even start?
Well, many of you who are here tonight have worked this out, but for anyone here who is feeling a bit overwhelmed by it all, my advice is simple:
Work with what you have. Resist the temptation to throw thousands of dollars at organizations that are not already in relationship with your school community and the Lands you learn with. Start small, build slowly, and plan with sustainability in mind- this includes infrastructure like garden beds or sheds, and also human resources!
In my teaching context this means we were able to reimagine what prep coverage looks like in our elementary school. We now have two teachers who teach entirely outdoors, and every child in our school receives at least two hours a week of instructional time during the school day, which is entirely dedicated to curricular learning outdoors. We have the tremendous privilege of being able to learn alongside our students from Kindergarten to the end of their grade 5 year. It’s a fantastic framework for supporting emerging ethics of care and wellness in our young learners and I get to spend my professional working day teaching outdoors. Yes, we are 100% outdoors, even in the sideways rain that we get on the coast. And I can still say without hesitation that I am a better version of myself when I’m outdoors all day! I highly recommend the prep outdoors job! Our outdoor classroom is designed around a pedagogy of play and we still teach across the curriculum from K-7 entirely outdoors.
I feel obliged to pause here and say here for the teachers and non-teachers in the room, that the entire point of outdoor learning is to disrupt the current system of schooling that is so often not meeting the needs of our learners or, quite frankly, the wellness of our teachers.
I want to be clear that the potentiality of what outdoor learning offers us as a pedagogical stance, is entirely diminished when we attempt to replicate the systems and structures already in place inside our classrooms.
That means you can start to let go of the worksheets, the desks in rows, and many of our existing summative assessment practices. When we center reverence, reciprocity, respect and responsibility for the Land in our teaching and learning outdoors we can begin to teach and assess learning in culturally responsive ways that have the potential to entirely transform a child’s experience of school, while still meeting our duty of care as educators.
Now if I’m going to start a critique of outdoor learning, I’d better put on my researcher hat. This podium offers me an opportunity to speak somewhat critically as an emerging scholar about what keeps me up at night in my dual role as a researcher and public school teacher in our little pedagogical niche. Are you ready?
Several weeks ago, two Canadian researchers Melvin Chan (from York University) and Tonje Molyneux (from UBC) presented a paper at AERA (which is a big American education conference) entitled “Towards a hard re-set for social and emotional learning”. Their paper critically examined widespread support and tremendous growth SEL programs have enjoyed over the past 25 years, paired with increasing demand from teachers and schools for SEL resources and programming. What they critiqued in their paper, and what I want to nudge our thinking around in the outdoor play and learning field, is what happens when we see rapid growth in educational spaces. Rapid growth can exceed the ability of actual experts to meet the demand for leadership and mentorship- which creates the perfect storm for capitalist interests to market to teachers and systems of schooling for economic gain. It’s happening in well established areas of practice, like SEL, and I’d like to raise a warning flag about how I see this creeping into our work as well.
The reality is that teachers have very little time to mentor and support each other off the sides of their desks. And just like critiques of SEL programs that are not grounded in theory or practical expertise, I’m seeing a significant number of self-proclaimed social media experts emerge as outdoor learning influencers with no actual teaching experience, no pedagogical anchors to their ideas, but lots of marketing and business savvy.
These pay to play ‘online circles of learning’, Instagram influencers, and teachers pay teachers accounts entice us with simplistic answers to really complex challenges in our work. And they distract us from the messy work of coming into relationship with the actual Land we are learning with, and from, and on.
The hard truth in this type of teaching is that our collective funds of knowledge, which are specific to outdoor learning, are developed and refined over time. They are influenced by our lived experiences and show up in how we navigate curricular decisions. Teacher knowledge and expertise is situated within the relationships that exist in our unique teaching environments. So, relationships with our particular set of learners, the colleagues with whom we teach & the Land itself are unique and not meant to be replicated.
Strong relationships with the Lands on which we teach are necessary to pick up a one-off lesson that was successful in one context of place and replicate it in another. And that’s I think why we see some teachers say that they struggle to teach outdoors, because they’re jumping into performative activities, having entirely sidestepped the critical first steps of building relationships with place.
Knowing this is happening in practice, outdoor learning is increasingly being critiqued by those who we tend to hold at the periphery. Multiple Indigenous scholars have called for relational accountability in outdoor education and outdoor learning spaces. This includes providing more accurate representations of Indigenous ways of knowing that are not oversimplified or distorted through our own settler experiences. We are asked to engage with the Lands our schools occupy in ways that are relational, not extractive (Brooks, Sabzalian, Weiser-Nieto & Springer, 2023).
Indigenous scholars have long emphasized the importance of positioning ourselves as co-learners with the Land. The relationality of this work matters. How we position ourselves as interconnected to the ecosystems in which we teach matters. In a 2012 paper, ‘decolonization is not a metaphor’ Tuck and Yang make a very specific point that efforts to decolonize teaching in performative ways actually perpetrates settler colonialism.
Nxumalo and Cedillo (2017) argue that the proliferation of outdoor learning in our schools is rooted in idealized and romanticized notions of nature and childhood belonging together, and these narratives often ignore the real and actual harm that children can cause in natural environments. They argue that real engagement in this work requires an understanding of how the more-than-human world, Indigenous stories of place, ontologies, and histories of place are all entangled in our place making process. The argument they make, that I want to underline here tonight, is that simply taking kids outdoors to learn about the natural world reinforces settler perspectives that humans are separate from the natural world. We are being urged by Indigenous scholars to reject practices that perpetrate erasure and superficial engagement. We are being called to learn with the Land instead of about the Land.
So what does this mean in practice? Well, place conscious pedagogies invite us to consider the history of the lands we teach on. What happened here, what is currently happening here, and what should happen here going forward are important questions. The answers to these questions are unique to the very schoolyards we are teaching on and can not, and should not be reduced to a singular reproducible activity. There is an intentionality to outdoor learning that I encourage you to consider.
Are there brilliant minds creating fantastic kits, and podcasts, and books, and blogs that you should support with your limited energy and funds? Of course! I can tell you from my close work with many of the fine people who do thoughtfully and responsibly work to support teachers in this space that the curation of quality and authentic resources is not something they take lightly.
And this is the good news. Because outdoor learning is universally receiving positive attention from researchers, teachers, parents, and, yes, all those Instagram influencers on the internet! And by the way, if you are a teacher teaching outdoors in Canada, you should be on Twitter and Instagram. Because when you share what works for you in your space and with your learners you ignite that spark of possible for a colleague who will build on your ingenuity and make it work in their context. This normalizes outdoor spaces as shared places of learning in our schools, and shifts the narrative from outdoor learning as an extra curricular singular event, to an intentional core practice that benefits all measures of wellness in the school context- while populating social media feeds with real examples of real teachers working in real schools.
So, what I want you to remember from my talk tonight is that pedagogies of place can not be easily replicated. When we are looking for resources, programs, or initiatives to support our work, I urge you to shop with a critical eye. Ask yourself who envisioned this resource? Does the resource seek to strengthen and enhance an environmental ethic of care, or does it perpetrate and promote human exceptionalism that positions us as somehow separate from the natural world? If a picture book includes Indigenous stories of place, was it written by an authentic voice? Who is profiting from the sale of the resource? Not sure? Look at whether the entire blog, website, podcast, or social media feed is one big sales funnel to entice you into a pay to play scheme that takes advantage of teachers.
Does the author of the resource position themselves a teacher or educator? If yes, do they hold any actual certifications or qualifications as a K-12 educator, or are they a subject matter expert who maybe doesn’t understand the complexity of the job we do?
Was the product created by certified teachers, for teachers? And if teachers were involved in the creation, were they paid for their efforts or were they somehow convinced they should be flattered by the invitation to give their wisdom away for free?
And if certified teachers are involved in the creation of resources, and they are being paid by the organization or faculty they represent, do these teachers have any recent or relevant K-12 teaching experience in outdoor play and learning?
So often the experts that we look to for mentorship have not been in an actual classroom with actual kids day over day, week over week, in a VERY long time. And, again, I think this unnecessarily frustrates the process of empowering our colleagues to get out there and give it a go when simple procedural questions go unanswered by experts with subject matter expertise or marketing mastery, but no praxis with which to anchor their advice to real teachers in actual classrooms bumping up against real challenges.
So, if you’re taking notes, here is the call to action:
- Indigenous leaders have asked us repeatedly to move from performative land acknowledgment towards real acts of reconciliation. Teaching children to love the Land through time spent in relationship with the Lands we are learning with is an excellent first step. Lift up and make visible Indigenous stories of the Land you occupy.
- Advocate for district-level-teacher-led mentorship for outdoor play and learning at the school board and ministry levels. In every research study I have been involved with over my five years as a doctoral candidate, this shows up in the data. If we want to reimagine where and how learning happens in our schools, we must commit to local, place-specific leadership by expert teachers to support our colleagues as they navigate the complexity of challenges that emerge when we commit to locating our curriculum outdoors. These teachers exist across the country. They are excellent. Find them and make a role for them mentoring and supporting this work. Many of them are in this room tonight!
- Have fun. I’m totally lifting this from Ms. Frizzle, but get messy. Make mistakes. Discomfort is where growth happens. And when we teach outdoors, our professional learning lives in our failures and powerfully models for our students what spirals of inquiry can look like and feel like.
As I conclude, I want to acknowledge my gratitude to work in multiple capacities, on multiple projects, in so many professional, academic, and community partner circles because of the generosity and sense of community that colleagues and friends I see here tonight have extended to me. We are better together. I do not take our relationships for granted. Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you tonight.
ReferencesBrooks, S. D., Sabzalian, L., Weiser-Nieto, R., & Springer, S. (2023). “we should have held this in a circle”: White ignorance and answerability in outdoor education. The Journal of Environmental Education, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/00958964.2023.2169897
Chan, M.C-H.,& Molyneux, T.M. (2023, April).Towards A “hard re-set” for social and emotional learning [Paper presentation]. American Educational Research Association 2023 Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL. ResearchGate
Nxumalo, F., & Cedillo, S. (2017). Decolonizing place in early childhood studies: Thinking with Indigenous onto-epistemologies and Black feminist geographies. Global Studies of Childhood, 7(2), 99-112
Tuck, E., & Yang, K. W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, 1(1), 1–40.