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Review: Outdoor Environmental Education Research Seminar 2016

I attended the Outdoor Environmental Education Research Seminar 2016 at Broomlee Outdoor Education Centre from 13-15 April 2016 organized by the PhD students based in Moray House School of Education, the University of Edinburgh. Different people have different interests and they pick different things from a seminar or talk. This is my account of what I learnt from the Seminar which might not be the same as other participants. However, I enjoyed these three days to the fullest and would like the conversation to be continued.

Based on my perceptions I grouped my learnings under several headings- impact of outdoor environment, teachers' perceptions, research methods, learning for sustainability, policy impact, publishing research and outdoor activities.

Figure 1: I enjoyed the food in Broomlee Outdoor Education Centre- they kept in mind individual choices and preferences

Impact of outdoor environment- Matluba Khan, Aristea Kyrikou, Jamie Hamilton
Me and Jamie explored the impact of outdoor environment on children’s learning in completely two different contexts- Bangladesh and Scotland respectively applying totally different methodological approach. However, the interesting thing is the findings are the similar i.e. outdoor environment’s positive influence on children’s learning and also teachers’ positive attitude related to taking children’s to the outdoors. Whereas I looked into learning as an outcome of children’s exploration of the environment, relationship with peers, perceived physical activity and perceived motivation to learn in the outdoors, Jamie explored children’s memory, attention restoration, social interaction and physical activity as constituents of children’s cognition. In both research, under-achievers were found to be benefitted from the experience in the outdoors and most children preferred outdoor environment over classroom for their learning.
Aristea explored how schools can adapt the national curriculum through extending the learning to the schoolyard. Schoolyards, irrespective of urban or rural if contain elements (for example- gardens, aquatic features etc) that can enhance children’s learning experiences  Her research strengthens the ground that schoolyards should be designed to accommodate children’s learning of curriculum contents.
One important point that has been brought at the end of the discussion by David, how the teachers can be encouraged to take children to the outdoors considered the barriers related to this aspect. As teachers are the key players, measures must be taken to remove the barriers in other way to encourage the teachers to take the first move. Few research explores the relationship of the outdoor environment and teachers’ motivation however, my research provides evidence that outdoor environment positively influences teachers’ motivation and engaging them in the design of schoolyard might be the first step to encourage the teachers to take the children to the outdoors. This is also supported by  Carey's (2012) study where she compared three potential solutions- altering schoolyard, engaging with one teacher, teacher training program based on reach, time and cost and opted for the development of schoolyard.

Figure 2: I think it's me presenting :-)

Teachers’ perception- Shang Zhan, Louise Hawxwell, John Pierce
John investigates instructor’s role in Irish outdoor education centres and that re-establishes the fact that teachers play the key role in children’s education either being authoritative or giving the authority to the children to be creative, explore the unexplored and push the boundary.
People’s experiences in different culture and contexts are not the same, yet sometimes I get surprised how similar people’s perception about outdoor experiences can be in different climate, culture and context. Louise’s research on first year trainee teachers’ perception of outdoor teaching is quite similar to how teachers in Government Primary Schools perceive this. The perceived barriers related to time, cost and class management in UK primary schools are not always the real picture, as its found in my pilot study in a Scottish Primary School where the teachers once outside are more positive about children’s achieving multiple competences in single outdoor activity and my field research (may be in Jamie’s research too).
I am quite thrilled to find how outdoor education is supported by laws in Taiwanese Primary Schools. All these primary schools are beautifully designed providing so much affordances to the children for diverse activities and being in contact with nature.  The bottom-up educational reform gives teachers much authority in terms of what they are teaching and how they are doing that ( which is also very important for teachers’ motivation and that’s the thing which gives job satisfaction to the teachers as I found in (Sylvia, 1985)). I was interested to learn about more empirical research in Taiwan and what is the motivation behind this educational reform. More research in these contexts can give us useful knowledge on how policies can be influences in other contexts too. However, the design of school contexts and support from parents played an influential role on teachers’ practices which helped to extend outdoor learning from school landscape to the community.

Research Methods- John Telford, Robbie Nicole, Jamie Mcphie, Dave Clarke
Whereas Mcphie and Dave expressed their likeness and also rationale to explore post qualitative methods in the research of outdoor education, John’s presentation exposed the audience to the world of phenomenological research. Architects or environmental designers always have an inclination for phenomenological approach to find how their design influence or shape person’s everyday experiences. Combining phenomenology and ethnography, therefore, ethno-phenomenology can be an appropriate approach to explore children’s and adults’ experiences of learning/teaching outdoors or exploration of a designed outdoor environment.
Robbie Nicole’s workshop ‘You are Never Alone’ was an eye-opener for me in many ways. Its not long when I tried to name these sole experiences of mine- whether its in over-crowded Dhaka city or in Edinburgh. In these solo walks of mine, I was never alone, I explored those untouched subconscious thoughts of mine which I never dare to dig into. I always thought of writing those thoughts and emotions which I could not, however, now a days I think about my PhD research and I try to document in some way those thoughts. Using this into research can bring out those unexplored realm of human life and experiences which might not be investigated in any other way. This activity was followed by a very lively discussion session where various issues emerged related to outdoor education. Its really interesting how ‘we think our culture’s thoughts’ rather than our ‘own thoughts’. Robbie summarized the discussion in few points- 1) the complex, multi-layered and continuous nature of the reality 2) the relation of outdoor education with this complex nature and 3) the thought that there is something wrong with the planet.
The discussion left me overwhelmed about the complex nature of the reality, how ‘outdoor learning’ deeply rooted in the history of Indian sub-continent was in a way uprooted by the introduction of formal schooling system and constraining ‘learning’ inside the four walls of a classroom; though Rabindranath Tagore introduced that in Shantiniketon, how its perceived as an exceptional model and lessons are not learnt from this exemplary institution or even its not evaluated through research for betterment of the model; how my idea of bringing classroom back to the outdoors has been criticized as the import of a westernized model. Yet, there are more rooms for thought here as Jamie Mcphie mentioned about our perception of ‘nature’ and we also need to look into the model of ‘classroom’ which is made by men who are also parts of nature…..

Learning for sustainability- Rebekah Tauritz, David Somervell, Lewis Winks
Rebekah’s research explores teachers’ strategies to enhance children’s uncertainty competences. The study is really intriguing as this aspect of learning is completely new to me. I am very interested to learn the outcomes of the research in terms of dealing with issues like global warming or water conflicts and learning for sustainability. Lewis’s designed outdoor activity of re-presenting the participants’ perception of self, community and the world made some of us discover how similar we can be in our perceptions regardless of origin, culture and research field. However, I am looking forward to the evidence generated from this study on how residential outdoor learning experiences combining theory and practice can impact children’s learning for sustainability. David’s observation based on the experience of working in HEI for a long time regarding the potentials of outdoor education having footage in other disciplines and how it can promote interactions between and among disciplines for creating a sustainable environment was inspiring.

Figure 3: My perception of self, community and the world

Policy Impact- Natalie White, Juliet Robertson, Pete Higgins
It was great to meet Juliet again after two years who I first listened in a seminar organized by Parent Spark in Prestonfield Primary School. Juliet’s talk was motivating as she told the story of her journey in supporting outdoor education and  gave a broader idea about using the outdoors for teaching. Mentioning ‘The Book Approach’ seemed quite intriguing which emphasises the need of more empirical research producing evidence related to learning in the outdoors. Natalie’s speech focused on communication and change in the realm of outdoor education. The topic of how to motivate the teachers to take children to the outdoors was raised again as she emphasized on producing empirical evidence regarding children’s academic attainment that can positively influence teachers in outdoor teaching. Natalie focused on change based on Kurt Lewin’s model of change.
I was always trying to find the answer of the question ‘So What’ related to my study, however, this whole seminar provided me the rationale for conducting my study. Following Professor Pete Higgin’s account of working in outdoor education and also influencing policy, I asked for his valuable suggestion on how I can influence the policy making decisions in countries like Bangladesh. Pete also advised of research that can create empirical evidence and suggested sharing the findings of the research in medias which are more accessible to public (i.e. newspaper). This can be easily related to Simon Beame’s talk earlier that morning on a publishing strategy- publishing a easier version of the scientific article in another media- blog or newspaper.
It was great to learn how the outdoor education centre worked on the written evidence on OL which was submitted to Scottish Parliament and how the national implementation group worked for Vision 2030. I need to look into the report ‘Learning for Sustainability, One Planet Schools: Connecting Schools and Community’ to check on the developing countries which were included in the study and how these countries are connecting schools with community.
Pete Higgin’s speech reminded me the speech of Michael Russel in the Policy Stories program organized by Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities. I shared my research with Mike and asked for his suggestions on how I can influence the policy. Mike suggested conveying a simple single message to civil servants (however, I might have got confused here- who would I convey the message- to the politician himself?), but what if the civil servants are not sympathetic to the issue? Another thing that struck me is ‘to attack’- this actually can help PhD students at various stages- to ask the research question other way round. ‘Why Indoors?’ Instead of ‘Why Outdoors?’ can bring different dimension to the research.

Figure 4: Researcher to Policy makers (adapted from Pete Higgins at OEERS 2016)

Publishing research- Simon Beames
The first thing I need to do just after finishing the first draft is ‘to publish’. I will remember Simon’s advice on writing for different audiences. What if I publish the handbook I made in Bangla as an ebook? Seems like a good idea to me.

Outdoor Activities- Roger, Mark

Figure 5: On our way to the top of Pentland Hills

Orienteering, Solo walk in the woods, From self to society, Hill Walk, Exploring town
I cannot appreciate an Outdoor education seminar without outdoor activities. I really enjoyed the orienteering activities by Roger Scrutton. The interesting thing is I did it right the first time, but I was kind of lost in the second and third time. I enjoyed the hi ll walk to the fullest- everybody else did so I think. May be the first thing I need to do after coming back to Edinburgh is to buy a pair of hill walking  boots. But I am more comfortable in my trainers. I always try to capture the moments and  the beautiful landscape in my eyes and the eyes of the camera that slows me down during forest walks or hill walks. However, I always try to remember somethings I read in wanderlust – Its not about competition how fast I could climb or reach the destination, its about the experience throughout the journey. That might be applicable for our PhD journey, though we need to take account of the time, the most important thing of doing a PhD to me is to enjoy the whole process, experiment, explore and then reaching the destination would feel much more meaningful.

Figure 6: My poor trainers at the end of Outdoor Education Seminar!
Carey, L. A. (2012). Little classroom on the playground: increasing student academic achievement through integrating the playground into academics.

Sylvia, R. D. (1985). What Makes Ms. Johnson Teach? A Study of Teacher Motivation. Human Relations, 38(9), 841–856.


  1. That's a comprehensive summary! Well done and thanks for capturing the conference.

    1. Thanks very much Juliet for your comment.

  2. Sounds like an interesting and exciting range of talks.... has certainly given me a lot to think about. This idea that we "think out culture's thoughts" rather than our own had never occurred to me before, yet is so true.... therefore it's so important we share our ideas and experiences as widely as we can. The conference seemed like the perfect opportunity to do that! Outdoor activities look like a lot of fun!


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