Tag Archives: Outdoor Ed

Resist Teaching

I’m sitting near a smouldering fire leftover from the night before. Behind me the Mae Teng River unwinds like a dropped spool of yarn, slowly passing Pok Koh Lam- a small Karen hill tribe village in northern Thailand. I’m talking to Jen about crippled butterflies, teaching and learning, the power of letting go and trusting kids. We are waiting for the group of students that we have both been teaching for the last few days, to show us that they have indeed learned the lessons we’ve been teaching them all week.

“You’ve never heard the story of the cripple butterfly?” She asks as I poke the ashes with my foot, hoping the red ember might catch alight and stop smoking. The morning is brisk and I am ready for the day of rafting that lays ahead. I shake my head no and look forward to listen to what she is about to tell me. I am hoping the tale will match the philosophy we both share when it comes to teaching kids how to be independent.

Well, there was this young boy who really loved being outside and alone. He would playing in the creek and the woods and gather the flora and fauna and keep meticulous track of it in his home. He was a young scientist of sorts. One day this boy found a cocoon of a butterfly, and the next day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could, and it could go no further.

So the boy decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon.The butterfly then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings.

The boy continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.

The boy asked his dad what had gone wrong and the father told him in his kindness and haste, the boy did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening were a way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon.

Jen finishes her story and the kids start to make their way down to the rafts and soon we are on our way down the rapids, but this story which I have upon some research learned is a Muslim fable, stayed with me.

It has had me thinking, not only about outdoor and adventure experiences, but it also about parent my own kids and how I teach the students in my classes everyday.

How often do we let our students make their own way from their cocoons?

How often do we give-in to the urge to cut them free?

Let me share another story from the last week I spent in Chiang Mai on our school’s annual grade 8 advent trip to Chiang Mai Thailand, where our kids among other things: trek, cave, river raft, set up their own shelters and cook their own food. They start the week as helpless children and with some coaching, teaching and scaffolding, the idea is that by week’s end they are self-sufficient.

Pok Koh Lam is a test of sorts. It’s the night where the students are left to their own devices to set up camp, cook food, clean up and go to sleep. Only to wake up the next day, with a letter of instructions telling them to be down at camp ready to go the next morning.

My story began, with Jen and I, waiting to see if our butterflies would make down to camp without us cutting the cocoon, because we both share the philosophy that for kids to learn teachers must resist the urge to constantly step in.

In outdoor this urge to fix and help is pretty obvious. You observe a group of students arguing about how to scramble eggs, you being an adult and knowing how to scramble eggs, walk over and show them how to do it. It feels good. You are a teacher and this is teaching. Right?

But what if you had already shown them how to scramble eggs a few days ago, and now you just wait to see how they might resolve the issue on their own? This is what it means to resist teaching, when what you really want is for kids to learn.

Sure the eggs might turn out badly, and yes a terrible fight might break out, the list of things that could go wrong are limitless, but what if you weren’t there at all and left the kids to sort it out on their own?

Time and time again on these trips, under Jen’s tutelage I have learned that letting go and trusting that the kids will work it out,  through the process of being left alone, is when they they will do their best learning. Three years running on this trip and working with Jen, and I am amazed at the growth of my kids show at the end of the week. When we set the challenge and give enough support and scaffolding when they need it most, usually at the start, the kids step up to the challenge and break free of their own cocoons and are able to fly in the end.

Where else can we apply this philosophy?

I’m going to mix my metaphors , so please stay with me. Sometimes, usually, there is a bit more nuance between helicopter teaching and a no-hands on approach, especially with middle school learners. Kids between the ages of eleven and fourteen need a sort of manual clutch system of teaching and learning.

Think about driving a manual transmission car- there is a sweet spot between pushing the gas and lifting the clutch. A moment when the car is engaged and ready to move forward and the gas allows it to accelerate.

Middle school learners need this level of support and teaching. If left on their own too many times when success is not possible, they will lose motivation and will not be able to free themselves from the cocoon. If, however, they are given too much teaching, hovered over and not allowed to fail they will expect a teacher to always be there and never be able to fly on their own. They will not learn.

The secret is knowing how and when to administer just the right amount of teaching and when to lay-off and allow them to accelerate. (Fly? now I am getting confused)

In the jungle, I wanted to jump-in every chance I had, but Jen would remind me to trust the kids and our own teaching and to leave them alone. “Let me go see how the cooking is going, let me give them some advice on the bivy, let me, let me….” What I wanted to say was- let me do it for them to make sure it is done right. But doing it for them is not teaching.

Now that I am back from the trip, I am left asking myself how often am I over teaching and getting in the way of the learning? How well am I driving this car?

I am grateful that the workshop model meshes well with the cocoon philosophy- teach the kids early and a lot. Then later confer and see how they are doing and customize your teaching to their specific needs. But even in conferences, so many times when a student is silent or thinking or unsure, I just want to jump in and teach them rather than let them take their time to learn by doing it themselves.

Not sure if this post had a point, but it has been on my mind since the trip and I would love to hear your thoughts? What have been your successes with letting go and trusting kids? What have been the disasters from this method? Or have you had success proactively teaching and guiding students to success?

Please share your your thoughts and stories in the comments below.


Nice To Just Be Outdoors

I have been thinking and writing a lot about nature and the outdoors lately. As I slumber through a post-trip funk, I just returned from Chiang Mai after six days of caving, trekking and rafting with kids, I can’t help but continue to reflect on how valuable those times outdoor are to learners and teachers. I have a mammoth post brewing about my recent trip, but I wanted to scratch out a quick post about a simple experiment from yesterday.

I was teaching my grade 7 BTC (Be The Change Class) and I had planned for students to share memorable experiences they have had in the outdoors. Trying to get the kids to realize that it is difficult to care about anything or to take any action if they don’t have actual experience with it, I wanted them to mine their own experiences for times when nature meant something. Armed with Sam Sherratt’s recent post, I wanted a way to build a bit of awe and wonder.

So often, we allow ourselves to over-think how to get kids to shift their perspective and feel curious. I realized that I did not have to plan some huge trip, or create an immense experience to show kids that we are surrounded by wonder. All we have to do is notice it, move amongst it by changing where we work and think and learn. I needed something quick and easy and different.

We have a small patch of green space on our campus (not enough for sure) but it is what we have so I worked with it. I took my class down to the grass and we shared our natural experiences beneath the shade of the trees, the floating clouds and the slightly damp and muddy ground.

Nothing earth-shattering, I know. But you should have see the excitement and ease with which the kids adjusted to this new environment. Read for yourself the affect of such a tiny shift of going outside to learn can have on a student’s day.

I think that going downstairs into the grassy area was not really something we normally do at school, so it was a different experience, but also really fun. It was exciting and surprising to hear everybody else’s stories about interacting with nature and also to share my stories too. A lot of people had stories where they had done similar things that i had done in the past and it was interesting to relate to them with my own experiences (such as interacting with dolphins, whale watching, drinking out of streams, snorkeling etc.) . Additionally it was really nice to just be outdoors and get a bit muddy, relax and just hang out with friends instead of being in the air con all day and working on our laptops like we usually are.

Today was a very different class because we went outside into nature and talk about our outdoor experiences.  I really liked it because I am more of an outdoor person and we got to talk and reflect about how we take nature for granted sometimes.  I found today’s lesson very relaxing, and was fun at the end when we got to chill and play tag. It really taught me how much fun you can have without our expensive things and how we should all help conserve the small amount of nature we still have.

Today in BTC we went outside to a green area, close to the gate where the buses go out. We sat in a circle in the grass, and talked about our experiences with nature, whether it was wildlife or not. I learned that a lot of us had really interesting encounters with nature especially in regard to wildlife. Several people had gotten close up to manta rays, others with lions, and even more to turtles. I recounted when my family and cousins went to Hawaii for a vacation when I was 5, and we were swimming in the ocean when my cousin spotted a green sea turtle. my cousin, brother, and I went over to the turtle and just started swimming along beside it. The turtle didn’t go away and we spent over an hour just swimming next to it. It was an amazing experience. We also talked about how living in an Urban area can cut off our connections to nature and how our senses get dull over a while if we don’t connect with nature. We also talked about how we don’t need aircon all the time, or the environment around us doesn’t have to be clean all the time.

We ended with a short lay in the sun and a quick game of tag. Next time you want to get kids excited about being outside, all you have to do is take them there. It is amazing what a little breeze, some mud, grass and a few clouds can do for a kid. Now I am left thinking about how can I authentically incorporate more experiences like this into what we do on a regular basis. Do you have any ideas or suggestions?


Ubiquitous Exposure

It is the marriage of the soul with Nature that makes the intellect fruitful, and gives birth to imagination.


It is that time of year again. My favorite part of the year actually. Tomorrow, I will travel to Chiang Mai, Thailand to meet my mentor group for five days of camping, caving, trekking, and rafting in the jungle. Like most years, I am ready for a week of disconnecting and really connecting with the kids I teach. I always look forward to getting my nature fix and spending time in my own head, free from the noise of everyday life and routines.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the power of nature and the affect it has on learning when I criticized a Toys R Us commercial. And I have been thinking about the “ubiquitous exposure” to nature ever since. We have spent countless time and energy making sure that every kid who needs access to technology can have it. Through the implementations of 1-1 programs world wide, many students, like their adult counterparts, now use technology without even thinking about it. It has become part of what we do. And this is (can be) great.

What bothers me, however, is that we still are not thinking about a “Nature 1-1 program.” These types of outdoor trips are still an extension of what we do in schools. Even at a school like UWCSEA, where we are committed to the five elements of our learner profile

And Outdoor Education is valued equally with academics, it still feels like a trip like this, one that only happens once a year is only part of our student experience here at school. So how can we change that? Even as I write this, I am keenly aware that our school gives students so many opportunities to go on trips and participate in hands-on-activities. We are luckier than most. I also realize that I need to speak with our outdoor team and learn more about their curricular links to what the kids do on a daily basis. But I cannot help but think about how can people living in urban, technology rich environments make sure that our students are influenced by nature and the outdoors everyday? I am thinking of school gardens, maybe even chicken coups, or outdoor classrooms, regular camping trips closer to home, or weekend hikes to local parks. A school greenhouse or animal center. And how can we make all of these things a reality for all the students–  as part of what they do, instead of an opportunity for some kids who choose to take them on.

From my last post many teachers shared amazing stories of schools in Europe and other places committed to the concept of learning outside, and I love that idea. But how do we transform our schools to function in that way? How do we create schools that give students that ubiquitous exposure to nature? I know that my students will learn so much from the ten days they are in Chiang Mai. We will trek and suffer and feel discomfort, but I also know that we will grow in nearly every aspect of our profile. I just hope that we can continue those conversations and experience when we get back to the urban jungle and back to the daily grind of school.

I guess these are the kinds of things I will think about tomorrow as I feel my feet sink into the mud and the sun shine on my back. Or maybe not, maybe I will just enjoy the river and the fires and the conversations and the kids and our learning as we sleep beneath the stars and be grateful that at least we can go into the jungle once a year.