Measuring Outdoor Education - 'Lessons from Near and Far' Conference
By guest blogger Fiona Watt, The Trust's Impact and Evaluation team.
We recently attended the 'Lessons from Near and Far’ conference in London, which brought together some of the world’s leading academics and practitioners, to discuss research and evidence around the impact of outdoor education.
Throughout the day, reference was made to the ‘holy grail’ of outdoor education research: proving a causal link between taking part in outdoor education and achieving higher academic attainment.
There is evidence that successful outdoor education interventions can improve students’ ‘character skills’ – such as resilience, self-confidence, relationship skills and engagement with learning and while it seems intuitive that these may positively affect a young person’s performance at school, they’re notoriously difficult to prove. A young person’s development is influenced by so many factors - schools, teachers, parents, and a plethora of programmes and initiatives all aim to increase educational attainment. If a young person improves in this area, it’s difficult to measure the effect any single intervention has had in isolation.
The reason the link with attainment is so loftily described as the ‘holy grail’ is that, in the UK at least, schools are assessed in terms of the attainment of their pupils. Outdoor education organisations often work with young people through schools, hence proof that outdoor educational experiences can impact on attainment, would result in greater investment from schools and more young people across the country having access to it.
At the conference, Susanna Ho, from Singapore’s Ministry of Education, presented a talk on ‘Outdoor Education in Singapore’. When the country became independent in 1965, the education system was re-built from scratch and the then Prime Minster, Lee Kuan Yew, talked of needing to address the challenges facing this new country.
“If you want a nation and a society to flourish and prosper, it must produce leaders. And leadership is not just being clever and writing essays. You need men of action, sportsmen, gymnasts, boxers, Outward Bound school types, rowers, sailors, airmen, leaders of debating societies, organisers of men. In other words, the whole orientation of your education is different. Your purpose is to breed a fighting, effective generation with the guts and the will to survive.”
The Ministry of Education in Singapore has defined its ‘Desired Outcomes of Education’ – and none of them are about attainment. While each of the outcomes (such as confidence, self-direction and being an active contributor) may well lead to higher academic performance, they are, in their own right, qualities the Singaporean education system is responsible for developing in its young people. Outdoor educational experiences are a fundamental part of the path towards achieving these outcomes.
Currently in Singapore, it’s mandatory for every student to go through at least one residential camping experience in primary school and at least two in secondary school. The skills and qualities gained through participation in outdoor educational experiences are considered inherently valuable, regardless of any effect they may or may not have on academic performance.
The quest for evidence of the impact of outdoor education on attainment will no doubt continue – and perhaps one day there will be a way to quantify this. However, Susanna’s talk was an important reminder that the path into adulthood is a period of continual personal development, and while academic success is of course important, our overall success as adults depends just as much on those fundamental ‘character skills’, which outdoor educational experiences can so effectively help to develop.