Why Learning Outside Matters

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Having spent already more than five days this September immersed in the outdoors with separate TALONS groups on Fall Retreats in Howe Sound and Sasquatch Provincial Park, I have been thinking lately of the importance that learning in the outdoors plays in a 21st century education. Opportunities for relevant, authentic learning experiences in the outdoors are able to powerfully combat the disconnect with the natural world that is arguably at the heart of many challenges facing future generations, and which much classroom learning is ill-fitted to provide today’s learners. Outdoor education is specifically poised to provide experiential lessons in:"What we haven't done yet, is have a dance party." - Owl

  • Realizing that we are a community.
  • Experiencing our place in the (local) natural world.
  • Learning self-reliance and accountability.
  • Living in the moment.

As one of the pillars of the TALONS Program and Betts Autonomous Learner Model, the Fall Retreat is constructed from the ground up out of opportunities for group development and community-building, self-discovery, and authentic experiences involving teamwork, problem solving and personal reflection for each member of the community. With trust that time spent establishing group and individual goals and roles in the community pay dividends in learning later in the academic semester, TALONS learners traditionally spend September forming committees to deal with the various elements of trip-planning and implementation joining the program’s new grade nines with grade ten mentors, committee chairpersons, and project managers who consult with teacher-facilitators in bringing the trip to fruition. While fulfilling the class obligation to the Ministry‘s Leadership 11 IRP, the Retreat orients TALONS learners within the ethos of the program and establishes the introductory norms of the new peer group while immersing them in relevant example of real-world goal setting that culminates through the trip’s three days.

Dinner Retreat Shopping

As with many other TALONS undertakings, a glimpse into a Retreat or Adventure Trip meal provides a window into the value of student-centered learning, as learners consult previous years’ menus and shopping lists to decide on final recipes and supplies, arrange for shopping trips to Costco, cookies parties at home and schedules for food prep & delivery once we’re in the field, all before the trip even begins. Trip food needs to be accounted for within the class’ budget (provided to parents by the student-run Finance & Forms Committee), and accompanied by a list of requisite cooking materials (facilitated by the often-sprawling Equipment Committee).

_ALB6055Once on the trip itself, involved committees are responsible for the scheduling, preparation, delivery, and cleanup of the meal, which can involve any combination of volunteer-forces the class chooses to muster up. The incentive of natural consequences (We don’t cook, we don’t eat. We don’t eat (or clean up), we don’t have a campfire.) powers the need for collaboration and communication from start to finish, and fosters relationships and trust within the class community. Bread is only broken once everyone has been served, and it is customary that a few words of wisdom or thanks are shared before the meal commences, and the din of conversation engulfs everyone and everything.

Weather

DSC02264On the west coast, the idea of rain in September is something of an inevitability to the extent that the advent of sunshine on a September Retreat is akin to winning a meteorological lottery of sorts. Survival – or at the very least, comfort – in British Columbia’s natural elements depends on an ability to prepare and share a stable shelter with one’s fellow travellers. Whether in the form of maintaining a fire in the wood-stove for the drying of constantly sodden clothing, or the 4am gusts of wind and rain that find friends arguing with half-hitch knots and headlamps in the middle of the night, the ordeal of an adventure in the woods is an omnipresent demand to see opportunity in crisis, and the glass as half-full (or, more appropriately, overflowing).

The forests of the west are green and snow-capped as a result of the winter winds that buffet our coasts with rain that allow the salmon to swim home, and to deny the necessary beauty of the rain is to deny this place we call home. There are, as my friend Andy Forgrave reminds me, “Two kinds of weather: memorable, and forgettable,” and the rain that seems to find us every year on at least one of our trips is at times of either sort.

“There is also that little-mentioned third category,” Andy adds, however. “Dry.”

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Games

The Albatross LungeWithout the distractions of iPods and text messages, Facebook or television, it never fails to amaze me how quickly TALONS and other teens assemble into naturally occurring orbs of conversation, laughter and friendly competition that (for Dean Shareski) coalesce on beaches, in forests, and on water. With a fire roaring in the wood stove, and voices echoing in the second-growth cedar and hemlock, a group passes more than an hour dissecting the intricacies of a riddle. The same woods are freckled with games of Camouflage, and Ninja. Russian card games. Twenty-five person rings of Stella Ella Ola.

These songs and games are generally learned in elementary, or middle school, and are the stuff of our children’s learning rituals of play – they exist in every corner of the world, and in many cases (I’m sure) mimic one another. That they spring up in BC’s forests, or in hotel lobbies in Cuba, places where we might find ourselves pining for a sense of identity or home, shouldn’t surprise at all. We often think of our culture as being made up of the songs we sing, and the stories we tell; but it is startling to realize that our repertoire of games and riddles is a shared story as well.

Hiking

Looking out on the Salish SeaIn the years that I have been with TALONS, we have hiked on the west coast of Vancouver Island, in the forests of the Lower Mainland, North Shore, and Fraser Valley, as well as across peaks in the Gulf Islands. We have covered urban and rural terrain, wilderness and back countries with go-gear, water bottles and enjoyed countless hours of meandering conversations and Ninja-breaks along the trails and pathways of our provincial and regional parks in rain, sunshine, and fog, wandering for hours only to arrive in campsite we left that morning. Bonds are formed on these walks that are cyclical odes to the journey being important above the destination, and the company we keep mattering much more than what we might be doing with it.

Sometimes, it is enough just to walk.

Night Solos

_ALB6107“How much of our fear of the dark stretches back to our evolved relationship with so many years spent living in the dark?” Mr. Albright asks me during one of our hikes around Hick’s Lake this weekend. The night before, we had marched the class out into the forest surrounding the campsite to participate in a “Night Solo,” where each member of the class sought out a solitary space at a distance (from the teachers’ lantern) of their own choosing. And with lights out we sat in inky silence for more than ten minutes, listening to rain pelting the upper canopy of forest. Our hiking conversation that following day had shifted to human beings’ relationship with fire (learned relatively late in our development as the species homo sapiens sapiens, or, to interpret the Latin, the Wise One).

“If you can imagine what it would have been like to be a human, or one of our earlier ancestors who lived in a world that didn’t yet know fire,” I told the class before we went out into the woods on the evening following the hike. “What you feel as an instinctual rejection of the dark is part of that history, and our story as people. Listen to it. Be with it.”

We walked out into the woods and within minutes were greeted in our silences by the persistent hooting of an owl presiding over the camp for the duration of our solo. Scattered across the forest floor, in a blackness that enveloped all but the distant moon shining off the lake below, the owl rang its voice across the treetops, cradling us all. When I called out finally for the solo to end, seconds swelled and stretched in silence as no one wanted the moment to be gone.

Our ambition as TALONS facilitators is often to nurture these individual worlds, where everything needed for survival, or even thriving, is brought along in backpacks and the people assembled in a given place. Enjoying the peace of sitting in the woods at night alone, a serenity connected to the most basic of human fears of loneliness, made possible in the company of trusted peers. If a more apt metaphor for the autonomy that TALONS espouses exists, I’d love to hear it.

Temperature Reading

Toward the end of every evening around a TALONS campfire, once the songs have all been sung, and our solitudes have been confirmed in the surrounding forests, it is a nightly tradition that the group concludes its evening by offering each member of the class the opportunity to offer a rating for the day accompanied by a brief reflection on the day’s events. Time for laughter, learning, or the airing of grievances, I have seen and witnessed moments of the most awesome honesty and collective triumph in these circular conversations, as each day adjourns with an affirmation of the wisdom that we all might:

Look well on today, for in its brief course lie all the variation and realities of your life – the bliss of growth, the glory of action, the splendor of beauty. For yesterday is but a dream, and tomorrow a vision. But today well-lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness, and every tomorrow a vision of hope. 1

  1. M. Wylie Blanchet’s The Curve of Time

Canadian Conversations

Yup.

Yup.

Over the course of the past few weeks, I have had a number of conversations with Unplugd participants Tom Fullerton, Andy Forgrave and Stephen Hurley, as well as #ds106radio folks like @drgarcia and @easegill about the nature of the Canadian experience or identity. Spurred on by the inspiration of attending the first “uniquely Canadian educational summit,” the discussion of just what it means to live in Canada, how the landscape influences our national character, and how the immensity of our country factors into the dreaming and expression of its artists, thinkers, and politicians, has continued to fill my thinking. In advance of our author panel coming up this Thursday evening, I thought I would attempt to synthesize some of this thinking and delve into some of my own piece of the Canadian narrative.

Let me debunk an American myth: I take my life in my hands.

Gord Downie

Canada is a big place. And the creation of that mythological Canadian character, that supreme individual in whom resides the imagination of the country is as immense as the space between our scattered cities.

Margaret Atwood has characterized the chief concern of Canadian literature as Survival, and the breadth of citizens living out this central theme in our national life has ranged from the colonists of Susanna Moodie, to artists such as Tom Thompson, and athletes like Sidney Crosby.

Terry Fox.

Gordon Downie.

Iceage Leftover

Erratic Behaviour

These are people with a vision expansive enough to see the whole country, and channel the exaltation of a people bound to one another and their local communities by distance, weather, mountains, plains, and the scattered tribes of NHL franchises, hometown heroes, and brief flirtations with international notoriety. But for the fringes of ‘civilization’ freckled across the 49th parallel, the True North of long nights and longer winters, of hockey played on backyard ponds, and of an intimate awareness of our cohabitation with a visceral wilderness are the everyday experience in the great wide open that separates us all, in our cities or outside of them. And it is against this sparsely populated landscape that the characters and authors of our national narratives lived and recorded their lives in monuments of necessity and invention, art and social artifact.

There exist in great abundance across the country these ‘soul homes,’ where in the unmolested forests from Haida Gwaii or Gros Morne we can touch, and see, and breathe the dawn of not only our Canadian story, but modern human society, and the birthmarks of the very Earth itself. To experience a sunrise against a mountainside bearing the scars of the most ‘recent’ ice age (10,000+ years ago), or swim in a lake scoured into the surface of a two billion year old rock, is to immerse oneself in the immensity of the Canadian experience and imagination. We are greeted daily with the reality that the Edge – of the province, country, ocean or time itself – (if there even is an edge) is well beyond our ability to conceive of it. Oceans rise and fall. Mountains collide, erupt, and crumble. The glaciers come with regularity, and over time our mammalian cousins evolve to live in the sea, then upon land, only to return eventually to the oceans. Life in Canada, from cedar trees, to orca whales and Prime Ministers, is waged against the unavoidable landscape of immeasurable time.

August 2004

Echoes in a Timeless Battle

And despite the fact that North America’s First Peoples had managed in this tidal cycle of ice and evolution to live productively – if not in many cases quite comfortably – from coast to coast and north of Hudson’s Bay across the arctic barrens, the European settlers who would write the initial passages in our young nation had left a native landscape that had been subdued by the hands of men and machines for centuries. From landed nobility to indentured servants, Canada’s first settlers had little reason to expect that land, even in the ‘untamed’ New World, would do anything but surrender to the development of crops and the sweep of human progress 1

It is into this terse relationship with the land that Susanna Moodie, and later Tom Thompson, wandered out into their own North Woods and created, in paint and prose, artifact and expression of the energy and life force of the very land itself. And while many did, and many still do cling to the cities 2, there have always been Alexander MacKenzies, and Emily Carrs, and Terry Foxes, individuals who have pursued in themselves a relationship – a conflict, really: survival, waged against the country’s wilderness, and the limits of understanding our country’s character.

In line with the focus of my #Unplugd11 essay and anecdote, I continue to write the story of our country’s/countries’ unfolding narrative with these individual thoughts, and the perspectives of my friends and colleagues. I am able to continue forward from the summit replenished and inspired by time spent talking, telling stories, singing songs, and forging meaning in the ways people of this place have for millennium: beside lakes and campfires, in canoes, and surrounded by residents of a landscape that has shaped each of us.

  1. Of course, they may have also been terrified, scared witless as you or I would be setting out to colonize Mars. But I like to imagine proper French and English gentlefolk encountering the north woods of Ontario with formal-wear and tea sets.
  2. Whose character and value I don’t begrudge or discount, but aren’t the aspect of the Canadian experience I’m after here.

Why Doodling Matters

Why Doodling Matters

Why Doodling Matters by Giulia Forsythe

One of the extra-special pieces of the Unplugd experience was not only being able to spend some time around an actual campfire with #Ds106Radio fire-mate Giulia Forsythe, but being able to collaborate with her in preparing the second chapter of the summit publication, “Why _______ Matters: Voices and Choices.” In addition to being tapped to collect the various chapters’ themes and stories in visual representations and sketches, Giulia’s own essay, “Why Doodling Matters,” took the shape of a visual essay that continued to develop over the course of an afternoon on the couch in the Edge’s Points North cabin (though, to be fair, I disappeared before Giulia delivered a lengthier treatise on the wonders of iPad file storage and transfer).

Giulia’s essay begins at Temple Grandin‘s notion – highlighted in an excellent TED Talk – of the world needing All kinds of Minds, and makes a powerful, visual argument for the necessity of thinking in doodles:

As Temple Grandin says, “the world needs all kinds of minds.” and some of those minds “think in pictures”. Doodling is a form of external thought that allows you to visualize the connections you are making while thinking. In the conscious mind, doodling can assist concentration and focus but even in the unconscious mind, while doodling and day dreaming connections are made. As Steven Johnson says, the “mind’s primordial soup” can lead to “serendipitous collisions of creative insight”. Doodling has allowed connections to be made between people and ideas, the magical space between. These aspects can lead to better problem solving. By sharing my thinking through visual means, my most important connections have been to people, by way of sharing my perceptions of their ideas, presentations and words back to them.

You can download Giulia and the rest of the Voices and Choices author group’s contribution to the Unplugd publication, as well as Giulia’s doodles that accompany the other chapters as they are published over the next month. Our group will also be participating in an author panel on #ds106radio this Thursday evening (6pm PST / 9pm EST), and discussing our individual threads in the chapter’s conversation. In addition to Giulia and myself, they are:

Why Choice Matters: A Story Shared by Kathy Cassidy from unplugd on Vimeo.

  • Kim Gill – “Why the Tool Matters”

Why The Tools Matter: A Story Shared by Kim Gill from unplugd on Vimeo.

  • Rodd Lucier – “Why Irresistible Challenges Matter”

Why Irresistible Challenges Matter: A Story Shared by Rodd Lucier from unplugd on Vimeo.

Why Perspective Matters: A Story Shared by Andy McKiel from unplugd on Vimeo.

#Unplugd11: Why Sharing Our Stories Matters

Why Sharing Our Stories Matters: Story by Bryan Jackson from unplugd on Vimeo.

It was a great honour to be able to share the story above with members of my #Unplugd11 group – Rodd, Kim, Giulia, Kathy, and Andy – and be a part of the inspiring collaborative editing and writing process of the collectively-authored second chapter of the Summit publication, Why ______ Matters: Choices & Voices (pdf). As Giulia noted, it was amazing to work in a group where:

we negotiated meaning through shared understanding. We dug deep to determine ‘the point’. The main ideas were mined, refined, expanded and sculpted. The group was so considerate but challenging too. It was the perfect mix of choice and voice, modeled perfectly- as teachers, editors, learners, colleagues and friends.
Rodd's Group

Voices & Choices author group

As my invitation to the Unplugd Educational Summit arrived during the beginning of the unit(s) mentioned in my canoe story – which turned out to be perhaps the most fulfilling and relevant of the year – it seemed a logical focus for my essay and supporting anecdote around the topic: “Why ______ Matters.”

The conversation around Truth with respect to the emerging developments in 2011’s Arab Spring movement are seen beginning to take shape in a post highlighting many of the #Talons‘ thoughts from that first week. Megan made for a particularly inspiring synthesis to the class’ thinking:

If what happened in Egypt is any indicator as to what can be accomplished through communication, I think that maybe, I need to realize, or maybe we (and I’m talking to all my fellow youth out there) need to realize that if we organize we can accomplish something big. People may say that children and youth are better seen, and not heard. But you know what? We are the new generation, and we should have a say about what sort of world we are growing up into. So hey, there’s my two cents. Just tossing it out in the world of the internet. But I guess you might say this: I know that it actually matters now. I am a participant in this age of information.

The conversation continued across posts about events in the Middle East, discussions of Canadian history and Louis Riel, and provided powerful inspiration for the class’ This I Believe personal essays, that are the inspiration and support for my Unplugd thesis, “Why Sharing Our Stories Matters.”

Download the preface and first two chapters, as well as the upcoming sections of the Unplugd11 e-book as they are published here, and be sure  to tune into the emerging weekly author panel discussions on #DS106Radio: chapter two authors Giulia Forsythe, Rodd Lucier, Kim Gill, Kathy Cassidy, Andy McKiel and myself will be talking about Voices and Choices this Thursday evening, 9pm (EST), 6pm on the west coast (to tune into #DS106Radio, this link should open a streaming playlist in iTunes or other media players: http://www.bit.ly/ds106radio4life).

Unplug'd 11 – a Uniquely Canadian Educational Summit

Unplugd11 was special and important to me [because] I had the chance to engage in rich discussion with Canadian educators. That was the first time for me that I was at a conference attended solely by Canadians. I wondered if it was the first time ever that a national conference was attended by only Canadians. We need more venues like this to bring together educators from across this great country.

Tom Fullerton

Just back from a cathartic odyssey into the heart of the Canadian North with a committed team of “people who care about education so much it hurts,” I will likely feel for some time yet as if there aren’t words to convey with dignity the continuous emotional, intellectual, and physical immersion in experience this weekend offered. Consider this a first broad stroke in the narrowing of a statement of purpose that might be deigned a manifestation of our collective minds.

For my part, it was invigorating to not only meet, but collaborate and explore the Canadian educational landscape with so many inspiring agents of educational change in – for me personally, at least – the epitome of Canadian Northern landscapes. Each encountering a unique pilgrimage into the heart of our country’s wilderness, Unplug’d brought together a collection of diverse voices in the threads of the story of Canada’s current state of education. We arrived with stories and theses from the edges of our schools, out on the boundaries of learning in our country, and in some ways the gathering served as an affirmation, and inspiration, for those working on the thin edge of Canadian educational change. In one another’s struggles, we were introduced to allies in kind; and in attempting to define the current perimeters of reform, as well as the elemental values by which each of us lives as educators and citizens, we each were refreshed with a glimpse of the hope for our collective future triumphs.

An immense thank you to Zoe, Rodd, Kelly, Alec, Darren, Dean, and Tom, as well as our hosts Todd, Martha, Topher, Alyha (sorry if that spelling is off), Xena (ditto), Greg, and Google at the Northern Edge for allowing such an experience to be realized. An innumerable thanks to each of the Unplug’d participants for sharing of themselves so completely throughout the weekend, either in the service of our stated purpose of creating the artifacts, or the engrossing conversations in between. As the beginning of the story is being written, you each have instilled in me a great hope for what is yet to come. It may be said yet that just as Tom Thompson and the Group of Seven went into Algonquin Park to discover and make record of an emerging Canadian artistic identity, so too might we have ventured into the heart of the North Woods to create a statement of the country’s educational frontier.

It was thoroughly an honour to be a part of it.