Outdoor Education and Visible Learning – connecting the dots

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This article was originally written for @CBE182 a twitter account where teachers, administrators, consultants from the Calgary Board of Education share out best practice ideas and celebrate the work of teaching and learning in our school division. This article is the full version of the shortened article found on CBE182. If you aren’t following CBE182 yet, I’d encourage you to do so – you’ll find a different educator sharing out ideas every school day of the year.

Here is the extended version of the @CBE182 article published on Oct 30, 2014.

CBE 182 – A Day in the Life of an Outdoor/Environmental Education Consultant – Roy Strum

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Last week I had the chance to get out for a ride with a group of grade 9 students and their teacher from Simon Fraser School. It was the sort of experience that made me reflect about the place for outdoor physical activity in our current education culture. I’ve been reading Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers the last couple of weeks. I’ve been mulling over connecting the dots between outdoor education and learning that addresses both surface and deep knowledge and is a part of constructing new ideas. Can physical learning be an exemplar of visible learning? Or is it merely supplementary to the important learning work that can happen with a passionate teacher within a classroom?

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Here are my observations from my day with Simon Fraser School. Hattie would say that Visible Learning occurs when: learning is the explicit goal; the learning task is appropriately challenging; the teacher and student seek to ascertain whether and to what degree the challenging goal is attained; there is deliberate practice aimed at master of the goal; there is feedback that is given and sought; there are active, passionate, and engaging people participating in the act of learning. Given this definition, I’d say some impactful learning occurred on our mountain bike trip to Nose Hill Park.

Learning is the explicit goal – The teacher had framed the day as a skill development experience focused on cross country mountain bike riding skills. He had planned the use of gps units as a skill building experience. The afternoon was about learning – learning to ride your bike in undulating variable terrain and to be able to use a piece of technology to locate yourself in an expansive natural setting.

The learning task is appropriately challenging – Nose Hill Park provides a variety of terrain to challenge riders – from narrow single track, to double track trails, options for riding on paved paths, or technical sweeping flowy descents. Terrain that would encourage good riding technique and make skill instruction relevant.

There is deliberate practice aimed at mastery of the goal – instruction and demonstration of technical riding skills were offered, opportunities to practice a skill on appropriate terrain were present, such as neutral position on descents, repeated opportunities to practice ascending, flat ground riding, and descending were provided as part of the two hours of riding in a natural area.

There is feedback that is given and sought – Riding alongside students as they ride a big climb provides a teacher to suggest and show them how to move forward on their saddle, or drop their elbows or wrists – as a result, skill level improves for the student and their ease in ascending a long climb on their bike improves. This results in improved student confidence in their abilities and subsequent improved physical skill performance efficiency. In fact, what also happened on our ride at Nose Hill was students began to offer feedback to other students about their body positions, the riding skills; peer teaching what they had learned to peers who needed some more instruction.

There are active, passionate, and engaging people involved with learning – when you’re riding some twisty undulating single track trail, and you’re the person in charge of your bike, you get engaged pretty easily, otherwise you end up on the ground. The teachers from Simon Fraser School shared their passion and interest in spending time outdoors engaged with fun, active physical activity.

None of this really comes as a surprise to me or will it to many others. Cross country mountain biking at Nose Hill Park has inherent appeal to students – there is adventure and novelty and an experience that has immediate effects on later cycling experiences. And let’s face it, for many, many students, getting a chance to improve their cycling skills at school may be the only formal instruction they ever get focused on riding trails on a mountain bike. On top of this, Hattie’s research identifies outdoor education as a significant influence on student achievement. When students are engaged in deliberate practice in a challenging learning task where feedback is offered and tasks are structured so that learners can attain the learning goals then visible learning happens.

I’m pleased to say, some great visible learning happened last week with Simon Fraser School’s outdoor education class and it happened at Nose Hill Park while kids were riding their bicycles. Hats off to teacher John Komori for his great work with his students.

Exemplars of Great Teaching in Physical and Outdoor Education

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This week I’ve picked up Hattie’s Visible Learning for Teachers. Hattie describes characteristics of ‘expert’ teachers.
– Expert teachers can identify the most effective ways to represent the subject they teach.
– Expert teachers create optimal learning climates.
– Expert teachers can monitor learning and provide effective feedback.
– Expert teachers believe that every student can reach the success criteria.
– Expert teachers influence surface and deep understandings.

As I read and reflect, I can picture this type of teaching most clearly in the world where I have spent the most of my career energy – physical and outdoor education. Teaching motor skills is a natural platform where exemplars of Hattie’s description of expert teaching can take place. Great PE and OE teachers have suffient content knowledge to know how to break down a skill, put together a learning progression, and use learning technologies to advance skill acquisition. Master PE and OE teachers possess integrated knowledge. Teaching a motor skill is bigger than just learning to put your body in a certain series of positions, it is about integrating concepts from other disciplines to create new understandings. Introducing concepts such as drag forces and propulsive forces become deepen understandings when learning about how to climb a hill on cross country skis. Expert teachers in PE and OE seek negative evidence – looking for who is not learning. This is an easy task when teaching motor skills – its evident who gets it and who needs a different strategy for achieving the success criteria. For example, kids learning to descend on mountain bikes whose feet aren’t in neutral position are going to have a tougher time with balance and responsiveness to terrain. Expert teachers also maintain a positive belief that every student can learn the content. Having a deeper understanding of the skill and the context for using it allows expert PE and OE teachers to change other variables in their teaching to respond in the moment to the learning context. Changing the teaching terrain, or the learning task, or using peer teaching are all ways that expert PE/OE teachers respond to the situational learning needs presented by students. Expert PE/OE teachers help students learn.

Great PE/OE teachers create optimal climates for learning. Learning a physical skill is different for every person – a unique combination of nature and nurture. Risk taking and failure are what it takes to learn a new motor skill. Having an environment where its ok to make mistakes is something that expert teachers do. In these kinds of PE/OE learning spaces, kids thrive because they know its ok to fall down, its ok to struggle, its ok to not be an expert performer in the first hour or 50. Improvement in skill performance takes place as a result of time and effort, instruction and feedback. This learning occurs in PE/OE much more successfully when the teacher has created a climate where error is ok. Lets face it, people put themselves on the line in a very visible way when engaging in physical activity. Its why so many of our young people stop being phyiscally active – it is immediately obvious to those around you that you are in a learning place. Great PE/OE teachers create safe spaces for kids to take risks when learning physical skills.

Every learner needs feedback to improve. This is the case in learning to read, to write, its true in learning math skills, or learning a new language. Feedback is also a crucial piece of learning a motor skill. Expert PE/OE teachers canonitor the current status of skill learning in each student and provide them with the indiviual feedback to move them closer to the success criteria. Giving every student something different is what expert teachers do based on their individual performance of that skill. One student might need to bring their shoulders closer to their handle bars when ascending on a mountain bike, while for another student, the more appropriate feedback might be move your bodyweight forward on your saddle. In learning a motor skill, sometimes it is plainly evident to the student that something isnt working right in their skill performance. A deficiency in an aspect of a motor skill can make it alot harder work. For example, not paying attention to the biomechanical principal of using core muscles before extremity muscle groups makes it much more tiring when double poling as a cross country ski skill.

Hattie states that expert teachers believe that every student can achieve the success criteria. One of my own experiences when I was a high school student, and something that led me to believe I can be an athlete, was a grade 11 phys ed teacher’s tenacity, patience, and belief that I could learn to do a forearm pass, that I was capable. I did learn to do a forearm pass, even though it took a while, and I am still not the most expert volleyball player in the world. The language and the interactions of phys ed and outdoor ed teachers when teaching a physical skill have both short term and long term influences on students lives. As a club cross country coach, I have worked hard to send the message to every athlete that they are capable of being a master performer of a skill.

Expert PE/OE teachers foster deep and surface learning when it comes to motor skill acquisition. Putting a skill into the context of a game, using tactical situations to learn a skill, give opportunities for deeper understandings. In the case of outdoor education physical activities, putting the skill into the context of the terrain provides opportunities for the development of deeper understandings of that skill. Understanding the biomechanical concepts or the physics of physical activity provide the deeper understandings that can positively influence skill acquisition. Surface learning happens easily with motor skills – put your arms in this position, bend your knees first, etc. Great PE/OE teachers start with the surface learning and then move into deeper understandings so that activity becomes more efficient, less taxing on the body, and more enjoyable.

Reading Hattie makes me realize I have lots to learn. It also reinforces that visible learning concepts apply equally to physical education and outdoor education learning. Great teachers have alot in common.

Roy Strum
CBE Outdoor Ed Consultant