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Outdoor Education at UWCSEA: A collaborative approach delivers a best-practice programme

Patrick Read, Former Head of Outdoor Education, UWCSEA
12 December 2017

UWCSEA’s Outdoor Education curriculum  provides a framework of excellence, supported by research and best practice.

How lucky we are to be part of a school that regards Outdoor Education as a core part of the educational programme. Generations of UWCSEA students have enjoyed numerous expeditions and benefitted from the personal development they provide.

Across our two campuses the subject continues to develop, growing as the campuses have grown. The Outdoor Education Department now includes 10 full time instructors who work with teachers, students and parents. The College offers almost 400 overseas trips and expeditions each academic year, equating to around 700,000 student hours overseas! Quantity is obvious, however it is the quality of the experience is of foremost importance in planning our programme.

Best laid plans

The best trips require everyone’s input if they are to succeed; and so at UWCSEA the Outdoor Education instructors, teachers, students, parents and third party providers all work together. Our commitment to this collaborative model saw the founding of the Outdoor Forum for South East Asian Schools (OFFSEAS), which allows providers and educators to share resources, technical knowledge and general good practice. It is also a mechanism for commercial providers and local governments to engage with the education sector to help improve standards for the benefit of students across the region.

In addition to this, the systems developed by UWCSEA to plan trips, as well as the procedures in place during trips and the requirements for follow-up reporting after them have been adapted by many other schools and organisations for their own circumstances. This commitment to excellence was recognised in 2016 when the College received recognition for our innovative travel risk management practices in the inaugural ISOS Duty of Care Awards.

Growth and transformation

From Grade 1 to Grade 11, all students have an outdoor education experience as part of their curriculum. This starts with a sleepover at school and culminates in Project Week. The latter sees students travel on their own to over 120 different locations around the region. However, it doesn’t matter which grade the student is in, the most common feedback we receive from parents is of observing a personal transformation in their child following participation in one of the grade-level expeditions. They are sometimes amazed at the changes, frequently reporting a more resilient, determined, self-assured, calmer and positive child!

So how does this happen in such relatively short period of time? What’s happening? Why does Outdoor Education have such an impact on young people? There are numerous reasons, however, following the frame of the Outdoor Education curriculum, those we believe to be most  salient are:

  • through exposure to nature, individuals can develop empathy and become environmental stewards
  • by recognising and regulating the self, individuals can make decisions that support health and well-being
  • healthy relationships develop a sense of belonging and contribute to individual and community well-being
  • individuals and groups can engage in outdoor activities by developing and applying a set of practical skills - travel, navigation, camp craft, personal and group safety, and leadership, to name a few
  • all the above work toward a sustainable future for us all

There is no doubt that for most schools in the world the last two decades have seen an increasing emphasis on improving academic achievement and raising standardised test and examination scores. Unfortunately this has often seemed to result in a narrowed curriculum where active, experiential, in-context learning has been de-emphasised or even worse, eliminated.

Results bourne out by research

I think we can all be proud of UWCSEA for being ‘resilient’ and holding to its belief in the value of Outdoor Education. The College has committed to a seven-year study of the impact of the Outdoor Education programme on development of the skills and qualities of the UWCSEA Profile. Two researchers from the highly respected Oregon State University are undertaking this study on our behalf. Emerging results are proving extremely interesting, with the expeditions appearing to be having a positive impact on students’ development of the UWCSEA Profile skills and qualities. In addition, small increases in flourishing and connectedness to nature were also observed.

While there is no ‘control group’, these changes after the expedition, in conjunction with qualitative reports from students, offer a compelling portrait of the benefits of the Outdoor Education experience for students’ ongoing character development. Five themes have emerged that will be further explored in the coming years:

  1. freedom to be and to learn in a novel but relevant environment
  2. learning experientially while immersed in real and contextualized subject matter
  3. environmental awareness
  4. learning to take risks
  5. transferable skills

I would like to think that Kurt Hahn would be proud of all of us. However, I am sure he would be the first to tell us not to ‘rest on our laurels’!