In this post, David A. G. Clarke reflects on his experience of teaching in outdoor spaces and provides valuable tips on how to bring our teaching outside the classroom. David A. G. Clarke is a Teaching Fellow in Outdoor Learning and Sustainability Education at the Moray House School of Education and Sport. This post is part of the September & October Hot Topic theme: Revisiting the Hybrid Teaching Exchange.
Next year, Moray House School of Education and Sport will celebrate having offered postgraduate courses in outdoor and environmental education for 50 years. With this post we draw on this experience as we share some resources and thoughts for learning in outdoor places and spaces. We know that teaching across the University is already happening in diverse outdoor contexts. Colleagues across the three Colleges are making the most of the educational, community building, sustainability, and physical and mental health and wellbeing benefits of stepping outside the classroom, lab, or lecture hall. Learning is taking place in campus grounds, in Granton, in Holyrood Park, on the Royal Mile, in St Andrew’s Square, at The Writers’ Museum, in Parliament Square, and many other places around Edinburgh and further afield. As we all plan for next semester, where there will be a greater focus on in-person teaching, we wanted to share some tips and resources we developed prior to, and during the pandemic, to inspire you to take learning outdoors across the city of Edinburgh and beyond.
- Learn anywhere – Thanks to the Scottish Open Access Code you can work with your students pretty much anywhere. You can work in any of the beautiful outdoor spaces of the University campuses, but also any space which is accessible, save for a few exemptions. There are no rules against taking learning outdoors, and there are no special skills or equipment required. Outdoor learning is complimentary to indoor and online learning, rather than being oppositional to them. We encourage you to think about ways you can combine the three for an extended form of hybrid learning in places (e.g., Little, 2020). This can mean asking students to step outside their own homes for directed and online activities, even when these are far from campus and other students.
- What/who is local to you? Consider your programme and course aims and outcomes and think about places that might bring these topics to life. You might start by thinking about topic relevant places, events, or organisations that are accessible for you and your students. There’s no requirement to meet on campus when face-to-face teaching, so ask your students to meet you somewhere different but relevant. While there, you might start by simply doing what you would normally do – lectures, seminars, workshops – in a place appropriate setting. From here you might think about how to adapt what you are already doing so that students are actively engaged in places and spaces – whether with organisations, communities or landscapes – in a way that is experiential and which helps develop the University’s Graduate Attributes.
- Supervisions and Tutorials on the go – As a simple way to start moving learning outside, why not ask students you are supervising or personal tutees if they’d be interested in a walking tutorial. Try a few circular walks near your usual teaching spaces, perhaps a 30-minute circuit and a 1-hour circuit for different meeting lengths. Aim for quieter spaces, like the campus grounds, public squares, or local green spaces.
- Small groups – Walking can also be great for group tutorials and workshops. You can provide groups with seminar questions to consider as you walk/travel to locations for plenary discussions or use breakout groups for discussing readings. A top tip is to ask students to bring something warm and waterproof to sit on. Or, when this becomes something you do regularly, consider getting hold of a few old camping mats and cutting them into sit mats which you bring along with you. Groups can also ask questions about what they find around them, make connections between what they see in these different places and what they have learned online or in previous lectures/tutorials/workshops.
- Large groups – If your classes number in the hundreds of students, you might think of ways to get learners outside which don’t rely on you being there at the same time. Consider podcast lectures in which you encourage students to visit appropriate locations as they listen – resources like Curious Edinburgh, are great for this, but you might also make your own resources. You might ask students to meet up in small groups in different topic relevant places to engage in group activities and discussions which they then report back on, blog or vlog about, or present in workshop groups.
- Thinking about equality and safety – Besides the pedagogical benefits there are obvious safety benefits to outdoor teaching. One of these is the reduced risk of contracting COVID-19. Other benefits are those to mental and physical health and avoiding prolonged periods of sitting. Along with these benefits we should consider possible risks, guidance for which can be found here. As an issue of equality, we need to consider that some students may be unable or unwilling to take part for any number of visible and invisible reasons – so it’s important to consider how to make reasonable adjustments or how students will be supported to meet associated learning outcomes.
- Thinking about logistics – Students generally shouldn’t need any more specialist equipment than they would usually take on their normal journey to campus – but you might want to remind them to bring appropriate footwear if you intend to head somewhere like the Meadows, for instance. It’s also important to communicate clearly what the plan and timings are, as students might not be used to meeting off campus. This needs to include communication with timetable administrators. One top tip is to include a map and guidance on where to meet, highlighting local public transport and other useful facilities like public toilets. When considering the weather, try to timetable key excursions for the warmer months. Check more than one weather forecast on the lead up to the day to get an overview of the likely weather. Most of the ideas suggested here can still be done in light rain, but do consider the cold and especially combinations of cold, wind and rain/snow – it’s fine to cancel and make alternative arrangements.
- Do a light touch review – A review can empower you to do more and become more adventurous. You can do reviews by self-reflection, or by talking with colleagues or getting student feedback. As a start, keep the review simple and consider if the intended leaning outcomes have been met, if there are any improvements to be made to the risk assessment, and whether the activities could be made more accessible.
- Make the most of serendipity – One major attraction of the University is the rich cultural, historical and geological history and landscape of Edinburgh itself. It’s a city where things happen and with learning outdoors there is an added benefit that things will happen around you and your students as you learn. Whatever these things may be there is often a possibility to link them to the topic at hand, indeed students often make these connections themselves and want to share them.
While learning outdoors may feel novel at first, we hope it will soon become a part of your everyday practice and that you will wonder why you didn’t start sooner. We suggest starting simply and enjoying the process. We have found that when we take learning into outdoor places and spaces, the affordances of those spaces and places enrich student experiences in ways we couldn’t have imagined.
With thanks to Heidi Smith, Beth Christie, Robbie Nicol and Pete Higgins for their contributions to this blog post.
Little, A. (2020). Take your online teaching outside. THE Campus. Retrieved from: https://www.timeshighereducation.com/campus/take-your-online-teaching-outside
David A. G. Clarke
David A. G. Clarke is a Teaching Fellow in Outdoor Learning and Sustainability Education at the Moray House School of Education and Sport. He is based in the Outdoor and Environmental Education section of the Institute for Education, Teaching, and Leadership where he contributes to teacher education and postgraduate courses. His research interests focus on intersections of creative methods of inquiry, life experience, ethics, and environmental concern in all areas of education. You can find out more about him here: https://www.drdavidagclarke.com