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From the classroom to the jungle: Middle School Outdoor Education at UWCSEA East

Gareth Barlow, Former Outdoor Education Coordinator, UWCSEA
15 November 2021

“We learnt about setting goals and that really helped in Tioman. While doing the large hike to our cabins on the first day, I set a goal to myself to keep drinking water and to keep going. It really helped.” Akanksha Shukla, Grade 6, East Campus

Meeting many Middle School parents for the first time during parent-teacher conferences, I am often asked what it is that we do with Middle School students at East during their Exploratory class, Outdoor Education: Leadership and Challenge. They are usually quite familiar with the expedition programme at UWCSEA, but are sometimes unsure how outdoor education fits into a classroom-based curriculum.

Theory-based learning

The course begins with looking at how groups function together and the importance of building and maintaining trust, as well as the need to establish effective working norms. We use a variety of activities to support our ‘Challenge of Choice’ philosophy—the participant’s responsibility to choose his or her level of risk-taking in the learning experience—that underpins our whole Outdoor Education programme. A great deal of emphasis is placed on problem solving, cooperation and effective communication. In a world where ‘teamwork’ has become a mantra, we attempt to dissect what this entails and how it can be improved.

Theories of leadership are discussed, practised and reviewed. Classroom sessions are interspersed with mental and physical initiatives, and students spend time analysing and reflecting through discussion and debriefs. As an example, students might be asked to resolve a classic problem-solving scenario, such as moving their group from point A to point B using a set amount of equipment, and trying not to fall into the ubiquitous shark-infested custard that lies beneath them! Such an activity might be framed within the context of studying leadership models, such as Tannenbaum and Schmidt’s Decision Making Continuum. Students observe other groups attempting to work through a problem together and analyse how their roles as leaders may change from democratic to autocratic, depending on the situation in hand.

Practical skills development

Middle School Outdoor Education on UWCSEA's East Campus links experiences outdoors with lessons back on campus.

Another major aspect to this module is the development of practical skills relevant not only to the expedition programme, but also in life outside of school. Orienteering plays a big part within the outdoor education curriculum, building on skills practised in the Junior School PE curriculum. Grade 6 students complete an exercise where they map a part of the campus, before completing an orienteering event around the school grounds, following a campus map and trying to locate control markers. These skills are expanded upon when they attend their trip to Pulau Tioman; part of the week involves navigating their way up a dry river bed, traversing across granite boulders and following a map in order to reach a jungle waterfall and plunge pool.

Students also enjoy learning first aid techniques, such as dealing with common ailments and how they can assist an unresponsive casualty. In the pursuit of lifelong learning, it is difficult to think of a more valuable and altruistic skill than the ability to save a life. Campcraft skills, such as learning to pitch a tent, how to pack a rucksack and cooking a nutritious meal on a small stove, are useful on many of the trips that students undertake during their years at UWCSEA. In tandem with the Leadership and Challenge course, the three Middle School expeditions are designed to encourage students to develop independence and resilience, before they head off on various expeditions in the High School.

Integrating theory and practice

Middle School Outdoor Education on UWCSEA's East Campus links experiences outdoors with lessons back on campus.

During April and May, 172 Grade 6 students visited Tioman Island, Malaysia. Each mentor group was supported by two outdoor education specialists, one mentor and two gap year students. The learning and skills developed in class were put directly into practice through activities including kayaking, sailing, the waterfall walk, snorkelling, beach art, problem solving activities and more. Leadership and teamwork were tested and developed while the practical skills such as orienteering were practised in an unfamiliar outdoor context.

When we combine the classroom-based curriculum with the experiential learning that takes place during expeditions such as the Grade 6 trip to Tioman, all of the skills and qualities of the UWCSEA profile are developed. This integration and focus on learning distinguishes our Outdoor Education programme—and to me, is the true value of outdoor education at UWCSEA.