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Ecological Approaches to Outdoor and Environmental Education

Free essay example:

Teaching and Program Development

Assignment One

Critically evaluate the implications for using ecological approaches to curriculum and program design in outdoor education and environmental education.

Over the last century there have been constant changes (and opposing opinions) in the way we as a society think education should be tackled (Bowers & Flinders, 1990). This statement is a general one and applies to all facets of education. In this essay, I will focus on the teaching of Outdoor Education and how an ecological approach can have all kinds of implications, affecting individuals, society as well as the environment. To do this I will discuss a range of theoretical perspectives in relation to different aspects of education – that is through teaching and learning and the implementation of strategies to achieve each.

Investigating Reflexive teaching (Brookfield, 1995) is an integral component in assessing and judging different theories of learning. Without being critical and reflecting thoughtfully on our own teaching and learning experiences we run the risk of becoming what Brookfield (1995, p. 1) terms as ‘innocent teaching’ –  “ (which is) naïve…induces pessimism, guilt and lethargy.” I take this to suggest that without taking notice of our own worldviews and asking ourselves questions in relation to such, we become our own worst enemy in the classroom and the field. I will discuss transformative education in opposition to traditional or colonised education (Mezirow, 1997). I will explore the theory of whole systems thinking and whole person learning (Sterling 2004, 2001 & Heron, 1999) and how it requires a balance of intellectual, intuitive and practical knowledge (Heron, 1999). These are all important aspects in the critique of theoretical perspectives in relation to education.

Whole systems thinking is a theory in education that aims to look at ideas in education holistically rather than in parts. In an attempt to break ideas up, and reduce them, past dominant methods of thinking were linear and straightforward and arguably over-analytical. By looking at ‘the bigger picture’ (that is connection, context and relationship to the whole) a greater potential for learning can be gained (Sterling, 2001).

Take the teaching of the ‘water cycle’ in Outdoor Education for example. To some extent, students would be able to learn about this part of nature in a classroom or science lab. A group of students could study a droplet of water, look at it under a microscope, explore its properties and develop some kind of analytical understanding of its make-up. However, without looking at the whole scale of the water cycle – the sky, the rainfall itself, the effect on the animals, oceans and river flows – there would be no understanding of the importance of the whole system and therefore no appreciating for its value. This learning would lead to wider understanding in the society of the importance and value of water. The environment would obviously benefit also. As a teacher, I would explore all aspects of this learning; bring the learning from the classroom, apply practical knowledge, encourage a tacit understanding of the topic and thus allow for less superficial learning (Orr, 1992).

By applying a whole systems approach to all facets of teaching and learning, a more engaging and justifiable experience would be provided. Grinder and Mc Coy (1975) state that young children are ‘eager to explore, discover and learn new things. With this in mind and an ability to deliver a range of teaching styles (Beard &Wilson, 2002) a more engaging and holistic learning experience would be the result.

The above example gives a general explanation of what it means to take an ecological approach to education. The difficult part is establishing what needs to occur in the educational setting for this holistic, transformative result and how can this be achieved.

The idea of child-centred education has been around since 1762 (Sutherland, 1988). This theory, credited to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, is the earliest account of a somewhat ecological theory that I came across in terms of its innovative approach of standing against the dominant culture. Rousseau, back in the eighteenth century, was ahead of his time in thinking it best children learn what is in their capabilities and ready for development, rather than what we as adults deem ‘the right thing’ to learn. In this type of education, it would be the teacher’s role to make the learning environment one that is happy, nourishing and suitably accustomed to each individual. It is accepted by theorists such as Rousseau and Froebel (Sutherland, 1988) that a pleasant and happy place of learning helps knowledge to develop. Wurdinger (1997) agrees that students are more eager to learn when they are given the opportunity to make course content relevant to their lives.

As a group of year eleven students at Sion College (my secondary school) we were invited to participate in an optional outdoor education program. I found this a great trip for many reasons – mostly deriving from the fact that is was optional. We wanted to be there. We were given a large say in the running of the program, where our camp spots would be for example, food we would bring and what we wanted to get out of the trip. Also there was a significant breakdown of the authority we were used to in the classroom. Because of this, it was a relaxed, joyous experience.

According to the explained theory, much would have been learnt. Perhaps much was. To say the truth, I don’t really remember. Now that I look back on the trip though, I cannot be sure much was learnt in terms of environmental sustainability, problem solving, character building or any other ‘jargonish’ terms that so often apply to outdoor education theory. If the program had a strict plan, no lollies were allowed or teachers help a position of ‘over the top’ authority, perhaps the experience wouldn’t have been such a pleasant one – thus creating a negative learning environment, but as this wasn’t the case – the potential for learning was definitely there.

In response to this reflection, I would suggest that child or learner-centred education is far more complex than simply allowing a person to choose what they learn. There are cultures and expectations of western society that put limitations on this approach making it ideological and a little unrealistic – especially in schools and classrooms where a traditional and colonised approach tends to be the norm (Mezirow, 1997). Perhaps, outdoor education with its practical nature allows for a more learner-centred and transformative approach to education. I am inclined to believe that a somewhat child-centred approach would work in outdoor education, but guidance and facilitation from the teacher would be integral to measuring its successes.

Next I will discuss the experiential learning aspect of education.  Although I would not class experiential learning as a strictly ‘ecological teaching approach’ I do believe it has important elements to address. Experiential education is a relatively recent theory of learning. John Dewey was one of the first to introduce the topic with his theories on progressive education and ‘learning by doing’ (McLaren, 1989). The idea is simple: the more practical, relevant experience gained, the more knowledge and learning occurs. While experiential learning can occur in a traditional educational setting (provided correct facilitation occurs), there are aspects that definitely apply to an ecological one – particularly when we observe the teaching method taken. Take rock climbing for example. On a recent rock-climbing trip (I was the leader introducing novice climbers to Arapiles for the first time) I found it appropriate, almost inevitable, to construct an experiential learning setting. Theory was taught, practiced, understood and learnt – at least temporarily. What made this an ecological learning approach was my attitude towards the first year students I was leading. Although I was the obvious holder of the knowledge, there were no unnecessary authoritive behaviours on my part. We were in small groups, which helped me to build rapport with the students, be flexible, and most importantly, structure the learning so that it was relevant to individual needs of the students. With the small group we were able to bring “into the relationship a sense of friendliness and caring” Bowers & Flinders, 1990, p. 23). As a result, I believe each student felt safe, and learnt at their own pace. This was reflected in the evaluation forms they filled out.

I came upon a model of teaching that Nick Zepke (2003) discusses. He refers to it as teacher narrative. Teacher narrative as I understand it, has been a part of the tradition classroom for centuries. It was insisted that a “…narrative had to be rational, with logical structure, facts and argument being more important than the personal or language and with a conclusion flowing from reason”. (Zepke, 2003 p.205-206) This approach is a traditional one. Zepke however, adapts this approach saying that intuition and tacit knowledge as well as acknowledged ignorance are important, making it an ecological approach for education. By providing open-ended questions and opportunities for student/teacher discussion, learning potential is increased.

Role-playing would be an example of this. On our education in the outdoors preparation trip at Mt Kooyoora last semester, Alison organised us into small groups. We acted out role-plays, depicting possible outdoor education scenarios and discussed them as a group. The issues included things like, getting lost, students smoking and drinking alcohol, injury and concerned or scared students. By seeing the issues in a role-play form, rather than just being lectured by Alison, we were engaged and I think, learnt more as a result. Now that I reflect on the activity, I am aware of how little Alison needed to do the activity to work. She didn’t speak much, but rather asked open-ended questions to encourage group discussion (Bowers and Flinders, 1990)

By encouraging students to critically reflect and construct meaning from the activity, this model as described by Zepke (2003) is an effective one, giving students the opportunity to see the bigger picture, and relate teachings to the world in which they live.

By taking an ecological approach to education, students are able to learn in a way that suits them as an individual. Although aspects of ecological pedagogy might be idealistic, if done well there can be huge positive implications. By individualising the curriculum, incorporating different teaching styles, offering varying teaching methods and breaking down the authority when appropriate, ecological approaches can work to meet the needs of individuals, society and in the case of outdoor education – the environment.


Beard, C. and Wilson, J.P. (2002). The Power of Experiential Learning, London:


Bowers, C. A. and Flinders, D. J. (1990) Responsive Teaching: An ecological         approach to classroom patterns of language, culture and thought. New York         and London: Teachers College.

Brookfield, S. (1995) Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco,

        CA: Jossey-Bass 1-27.

Grinder, A. and McCoy, E. (1975) The good guide: A source book for interpreters,

        Docents and Tour guides. Arizona: Ironwood Publishing.

Heron, J (1999). The complete facilitator’s handbook. London: Kogan Page

McLaren, P (1989). Life in Schools. An introduction to Critical Pedagogy in the

        Foundations of Education. New York: Longman Inc.

Mezirow, J. 1997. (Transformative learning: Theory to Practice. New Directions for        Adult and Continuing Education (74, summer), 5-12.

Orr, D. (1992). Ecological Literacy: Education and the Transition to a Postmodern        World. Albany: State University of New York.

Sterling, S. (2001) Sustainable education: Revisioning learning and change. Foxhole,        UK: Green Books.

Sterling, S. (2004). Thinking systematically. In Tilbury, D. & Wortman, D. (2004).        Engaging people in sustainability. Gland, Switzerland: Commission on        Education and Communication, IUCN, 77-93.

Sutherland, M. (1988) Theory of Education. The effective teacher series. New York:         Longman Group.

Wurdinger, S. D. (1994) Philosophical Issues in Adventure Education (3rd ed.).

        Iowa: Kendall/Hunt.

Zepke, N. (2003) Teaching and Learning in the Global Village. In Zepke, N., Nugent,        D., & Leach. L., Reflection to Transformation. A self Help book for teachers

        (pp. 196-212). Palmerston North: Dunmore Press.

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