Blog post

Outdoor teaching: A way to renew practice and our relation with places

November 17, 2020
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By Isabelle Guillard

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"The pandemic is a reminder of the intimate and delicate relationship between people and planet ." World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. World Health Assembly. May 18, 2020.

During the pandemic, technology has served as the predominant option to support the transmission of knowledge while enabling physical distancing at all levels of education. In my previous blog, I considered its advantages for teaching art in public schools and how it should be implemented within appropriate and adequate training. Although, I would like to highlight that technology is not the only solution. Outdoor-based learning has revealed a pedagogical method that can enrich training activities and complement those that are given virtually, as teachers are adopting hybrid approaches combining in-school and online courses. In the literature, Environmental Education (EE), place-based pedagogy, experiential education, and community-based education have all demonstrated that connecting with the land has positive effects on students’ academic achievements and motivation that go beyond reducing anxiety and stress.

These methods have been getting greater recognition since the pandemic began. Sherbrooke University has designed outdoor classrooms on campus, where professors can choose between an open-air landscape or covered playground, depending on the weather, the number of students and needs for presentation materials. Some look like in situ installations or antique theaters with semi-circular shapes and seats made of stone or wood. Others are simply undeveloped spaces that can be used for cooperative work, studio workshops or immersive experiences with nature. A pedagogical guide for documenting the logistical process of outdoor teaching classrooms and supporting other institutions in the management of its implementation is accessible online. In the province of Quebec, several primary and secondary schools have already moved forward, such as the secondary school Le Salésie, with two outdoor classrooms, one as an agora type (rows of tables) for lectures and another as a collaborative type (tables of 6 people). Although equipped with electrical installations, very few teachers took advantage of it, seeking instead to change their practice and share pedagogical approaches that are more inclined with the natural surroundings and the awakening of the senses. The non-profit organization Lab-école, whose “mission is to bring together multidisciplinary expertise to design the schools of tomorrow”, launched an architecture competition in 2019 to promote the role of education in society. In total, six primary school models have been chosen to provide inclusive learning spaces beyond the classroom, with the creation of greenhouses, vegetable gardens, undergrowth or school yards with wild flowers, trees and perennials.

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Open-air schools are not something new. During the early 20th century, leading up to WWII, they were built in northern Europe to prevent and combat the spread of tuberculosis by providing children with fresh air, exposure to natural light and good ventilation. Also called the forest schools, the movement spread among other countries such as England and the United States, encouraging all students to learn outside the classroom walls. In Scandinavia, similar approaches were developed to foster educational activities in nature. To this day, several studies have produced strong evidence of the benefits of nature experiences in academic learning, personal development, and environmental stewardship. With the increase of online course registrations such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and remote teaching due to schools and universities being in lockdown, education has favoured a technocentric approach to the learning experience where social interactions need to be performed and managed through effective modes of digital communication and a virtual sense of community. It is worth nothing that ‘effective’ learning is not always linked to the needs of people, but to that of the dominant structures, in the interests of which technological innovation and economic progress may be prioritized. Moreover, distance education engenders greater responsibilities in terms of technicality and self-organization, and could lead to feelings of isolation or loneliness/alienation. The impacts that an increase dependance on technology with Covid-19 have on our mental health and relation to the environment need to be further discussed, for the well-being of humanity and all other species living on this planet. Land-based activities might be a way to find a balance, diversify the learning contexts, and foster practical skills that are intrinsically linked with the “real” world. There are usually favourable conditions during the spring, summer, and fall terms which can allow us to apply these pedagogical methods in accordance with regulated health measures.

Outdoor pedagogy is not just about connecting with nature; it can be used to study social and natural phenomena where they occur as well as technical phenomena where they are applied, giving students the opportunity to live more concrete experiences and grasp the complexity of certain problems in various domains such as biology, architecture, engineering and psychology. These approaches can also include site visits by foot or bicycle, the observation of an artistic performance, a public reading in a garden or a seminar for discussion and exchange. Although, such activities need to be planned in advance to prepare students for its educational objectives and purpose in regards to the course itself. You may want to look for the institution regulations, as some require specific forms to be filled out by the participants or educator in charge.

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As an activity for my painting course at the secondary level, I have organized a canoe ride on the Rivière des Mille-Îles, situated in Saint-Rose, Laval. With a guide from the park wildlife sanctuary, we explored the ecosystem as students were introduced to the animals and native plants from the territory. We saw many species on that sunny day, such as the grey heron, great egret, pileated woodpecker, and map turtle. The clouds were reflecting on the water and the fall foliage of the trees was beautiful.

Following the activity, students had to create a composition by representing an endangered species in its habitat. This activity enabled students to learn about many different issues related to the river, while making significant links across the disciplines. The Chimney Swift is an endangered bird that almost exclusively uses masonry chimneys for resting and to build its nests. With the decrease of flying insects due to pesticides and the loss of their habitat, the park has decided to build a chimney on one of the islands to ensure its protection. Students were also sensitized to the impact of water pollution and how the sewage treatment plant built in 1986 improved its quality. Knowing that Saint-Rose was once a seaside resort with beaches where people from cities as far as the United States came to find a place to rest and enjoy its beauty, today less than 30% of the river is still preserved and swimming is no longer allowed. All things considered, environmental education is necessary to build an interconnectedness and sense of belonging with the place we inhabit. I truly believe that our educational system should consider this avenue as an essential part of human fulfilment.


About the author

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Isabelle Guillard is an artist, art teacher and doctoral candidate in Art Education. She completed her master from Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Her research interest focuses on the integration of ecological art and environmental education in the school curriculum. She also considers her own artistic practice as a field of research-creation. Her paintings depict natural spaces on the fringes of urban areas, revealing the tangled contradictions inherent in the relation between humans and the environment. Her works are part of public and private collections.


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