As the findings and messages from the Natural Connections Demonstration Project filter out across the sector, Peter Butts, co-ordinator of the project at The Learning Institute, Cornwall’s Hub talks to us about what has really made a difference in the schools he has worked with.
The data tells an impressive story about the Natural Connections Project : significantly more lessons and classes in outdoor settings than previously; more children learning outside; more time given to outdoor learning; a much stronger engagement with outdoor learning across the curriculum. This is all great news but the statistics don’t tell the whole story, as every teacher knows. Importantly, we need to understand what drives and sustains this improvement. We need to find the engine.
Teachers’ attitudes to outdoor learning have always varied enormously along a continuum between the two polarities of unremitting enthusiasm and commitment and steadfast resistance and dread, with most teachers occupying a position somewhere in between. The Natural Connections Project has been successful because it has released a huge amount of enthusiasm and energy for outdoor learning and given teachers permission to take learning outside; and it has done this, quite simply, by increasing their confidence to do so. Confidence, then, is the engine that has shifted a critical mass of teachers towards the positive end of the continuum, and we can see its impact in so many ways.
Outdoor learning is becoming firmly embedded across the curriculum for all ages and abilities in the Project’s schools. Increasingly, it is being integrated into programmes of learning rather than being delivered as isolated episodes without connection to the wider learning agenda. Our schools have been particularly successful in planning outdoor learning so that it stimulates, supports and illuminates learning back in the classroom. So, whilst some teachers plan whole-day or longer outdoor experiences to feed much longer-term learning programmes, others are comfortable using a short visit outside to enhance or secure a particular learning point. Our schools are developing a specific pedagogy for outdoor learning and the best aspects of this are being brought back into the classroom. Teachers have become more experimental and creative and this is having a positive impact, generally, on teaching and learning. In one of our secondary schools, for example, internal monitoring has shown that since engagement with outdoor learning, the quality of teaching classed good or better has improved from 82% to 96%! Our school clusters have become mutually supportive “collaboratives” in which partner schools share expertise on a more equal footing, demonstrating that, using the Natural Connections approach, outdoor learning has become well-embedded in an ever-widening family of schools.
In a clip from the Natural Connections Project Film, Peter talks alongside a Deputy Head Teacher from Cornwall about teacher confidence:
Many factors have fuelled the confidence engine. Teachers who were always enthusiastic about outdoor learning, but felt constrained by various factors from engaging in what they know is effective practice, have been liberated by the Project. They have led the way, devising interesting learning experiences for their pupils in new contexts and demonstrating to more reluctant colleagues, either informally through conversations or more formally at staff meetings or through practical activities, that outdoor learning is manageable, relevant and effective.
Local, Hub-led CPD has played its part, too, in improving confidence. We have provided workshops at conferences and Beacon School meetings and our partner organisation, Wildtribe, has taken outdoor learning to schools and delivered off-site training. Our programme of Beacon School meetings has been particularly instrumental in developing confidence by providing regular opportunities for colleagues to share their fears, concerns, successes and expertise with others. The meetings have been hosted in turn by the Beacon Schools, allowing each to showcase an aspect of its best practice in outdoor learning . These meetings have become a cornerstone of the project and one of the main drivers for growing and diffusing confidence.
Teachers’ confidence has also been bolstered by seeing for themselves that engagement with outdoor learning is having a positive effect on pupils’ relationships, behaviour for learning, achievement and emotional resilience. Parents see this too, and tell teachers, and some seek ways to help. Consumer confidence, thus expressed, is a very positive force.
But none of this would be possible without effective leadership in our schools. In-school outdoor learning facilitators have been crucial to the success of the project because they have focused heavily on building teacher confidence within their own Beacon schools and across clusters. These leaders, who are rarely senior managers, have shown that in supporting colleagues there are no substitutes for initiative, determination, enthusiasm and persuasiveness. Perhaps more important still to the development of a confident staff is the attitude and behaviour of the Headteacher. Outdoor learning has been most successful in schools where the Headteacher encourages experimentation, reflection and collaboration; invests trust in fellow professionals and holds and articulates a clear view of how outdoor learning can help deliver the commonly held aims and vision for the school. When one of our schools was informed by OFSTED that an inspection was imminent, the Head responded that the days designated for inspection had already been planned as whole-school outdoor learning days and that this was not going to change. OFSTED came and saw and judged. The result: Outstanding. Now that’s confidence for you!