Bringing the outside in: Developing the resilient learner

Category: Anglia Learning & Teaching

27 November 2020

Photo of the backs of a group of people in winter clothing outdoors enjoying a view

Dr Alison Greig, Director of Education for Sustainability (EfS), explains how encouraging her students to get outside resulted in a valuable learning experience for all.

In our rush to take learning online, have we dehumanised the educational experience? Are we fixating on what is technically possible and forgetting that we learn with all of our senses, with our feelings and emotions and that most learning is a social and cultural exercise?

I am in no way criticising the superhuman efforts of staff to provide a coherent learning experience, or the technical wizardry which has facilitated this. However, and especially as it seems more online learning is here to stay, we need to think carefully about how we balance prescriptive outcome-driven instrumental and developmental intrinsic educational approaches. While the former lens can be accommodated well within the technical capabilities of online learning, the latter is considerably more of a challenge.

If we also want to address increasingly common student issues around tiredness, isolation, anxiety, and alienation we would do well to revisit Guy Claxton’s notions of a resilient learner (see, for example, Claxton, 2002). Sterling (2010), also makes compelling arguments about why we need to educate for resilience in the face of a future of threat, uncertainty and surprise. Unfortunately, neither provide much practical guidance in how this can be achieved from within the teeth of said future.

So what can we do? The benefits of learning beyond the classroom are well rehearsed, most notably in primary and early years education. In my search for inspiration for HE I found beautifully crafted ‘virtual field-trips’ proclaiming to ‘let educators take students to amazing places and give them remarkable experiences, without ever leaving the classroom.’

Simulated fieldtrips using hi-res photographs, drone footage, Google Earth, and virtual models, such as the one created by Imperial College are similarly impressive technical exercises. Both, however, sit squarely in the Instrumental camp and Birmingham University go further, arguing for the many benefits to students of learning in such a controlled environment.

It is against this growing tide of Instrumentalism that Dr Davide Natalini and myself designed an outdoor learning experiment for our MSc Sustainability students. Rather than prescribe an outdoor place for their learning we let them choose, which additionally provided a place-based connection to their learning.

Their task was relatively simple: to identify a ‘feature’ in their place (a system component in our terms) and observe it (identify its system linkages) over a period of one hour. To foster a connection to each other and encouraging peer-to-peer learning, students uploaded images of their system and chatted in Microsoft Teams. They engaged generously and honestly, posting their thoughts and feelings in almost equal measure. There was also liberal support and encouragement for students who lacked confidence or were unsure.

Clearly this was learning in the affective (emotional) as well as in a cognitive domain (Sipos, 2008). The constructivist nature of their learning became clear at a reflective plenary session with students clearly seeing the purpose of the exercise rather than just the technical detail. Davide and I learned at least as much as the students.

If you have any thoughts or ideas on ways to improve this learning experiment or indeed any ideas on bringing the outside in, please contact me at alison.greig@aru.ac.uk

By Alison Greig

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