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High ropes outdoor education

Perceived risk and unstructured learning: Education in the great outdoors

Children need space to grow. It’s a fundamental concept that continues to come under threat in the contemporary world of population density, helicopter parenting and social sensibilities regarding risk and responsibility. No educator wants to deny their students’ need to explore the world around them, but there remain real issues regarding how best to allow this without putting the school or the teacher in a more vulnerable position.

Yet the benefits of facilitating unstructured, experiential learning experiences remain undeniable.

In April this year, researchers from eight different countries and a variety of academic backgrounds met in Denmark to reach an evidence-based consensus on the benefits of physical activity for children and young people between the ages of six and 18. They produced an expansive statement that notes the evidence for the positive benefit of exercise in the regions of: fitness and health; intellectual performance; engagement, motivation and wellbeing; and social inclusion.

At a similar time, research from Australian optometrists demonstrated that outdoor light plays an important role in reducing the chances of myopia, or short-sightedness, in children. Their findings show that children need at least two hours of natural light each day for optimal eye development.

Even the benefits of spending time in nature are becoming starker. Japanese researchers conducted a study where they observed the physiological impacts of people who spent 15 minutes walking in nature daily, versus those wandering around city streets. Their results found that even a brief walk amongst greenery resulted in a significant decrease of the stress-related hormone cortisol, a two per cent decrease in blood pressure, as well as a four per cent drop in heart rate.

In a bid to discover more about how modern schools are offering outdoor opportunities to their students, Education Matters’ Editor, Campbell Phillips, recently spent time chatting with Richard Thornton, Chief Executive for The Outdoor Education Group.

Campbell Phillips: Richard, what’s all the fuss about Outdoor Education as far as you’re concerned?

Richard Thornton: Well, I may be biased as it’s been my life for the past 25 years, but we believe primarily in experiential learning – that you can learn from doing things. I believe that’s important for a number of key reasons. Firstly, it’s completely meaningful. That means this form of learning is underpinned by real experiences that students take with them in life.

That’s something of a departure from the more abstract learning that occurs in the classroom, which often takes the form of watching, reading and writing. An actual experience may be successful or unsuccessful, but they’re always meaningful. That’s because adventure and challenge is important to humans. What the specifics of that adventure or challenge is can vary greatly; it could be something as simple as spending time in a different context with classmates they wouldn’t normally spend time with. If you can push the students to the point where they start to feel unsure of themselves, then you can give them the space to making meaningful achievements.

We also like to use the term memorable. I sometimes find myself discussing school camps and those kind of experiences with adults. The fact that they may not recall the specifics of what they’d been learning in class, but they did recall what they did on these camps is very telling.

The phrase is a little out of fashion, perhaps, but experiential learning can be described as ‘character building’. When I started working in this field in 1990 the term was used quite often. It’s a term that describes what parents want for their children above all else, that they can find their place within life and learn about themselves, their strengths and recognise the areas they can improve upon.

I recently met a person who had joined one of our programs some years ago. She was candid in telling me that the experience hadn’t been her cup of tea, but that she’d never forgotten it, either. Every time she needed to overcome adversity, she was able to recall her experiences with us and realise she could do whatever was needed to be done.

CP: There seems to be something of a resurgence in the population of Outdoor Education in the past five or so years. Why is that?

RT: People realise that this mode of teaching replaces something that has been lost from modern society over the past 50-plus years. It’s also about learning some of the skills we are continuing to learn as a culture and it therefore gives kids a level of self-reliance that will set them apart from their peers who never have the opportunity to have these kind of experiences.

Education is so often about achievement via tests and exams. I see Outdoor Education as an avenue for providing young people with the tools they need to find work in the real world. Skills like teamwork and leadership ability. At some point I feel parents and schools started making the mistake of spoon feeding kids to ensure they reach a certain level, to make a certain grade. Now there’s a revitalisation of the concept that people need to learn how best to help themselves in life.

CP: How are schools currently managing to offer Outdoor Education?

RT: Some still manage their own Outdoor Education programs, but in some cases there’s an argument to be made for the cost efficiencies and additional value offered by an experienced third party provider. Mostly this is because organisations dedicated to providing these experiences tend to be better equipped to offer them. They can also offer a broader range of experiences as a result, as well as enhanced flexibility should plans have to change at the last minute.

One common reason why we see schools choose not to provide their own programs is simple: risk. By comparison, we have a whole department that just looks at risk management and we’re leading the world in managing risk in perceived high-risk environments. Part of the secret to effective outdoor education is presenting perceived risk and then managing it in such a way that no real risk becomes evident. For school principals, risk and compliance are a significant part of their daily life, so being able to outsource a component that results in a minimal level of risk makes things that much simpler.

There are excellent Outdoor Education programs being delivered from within schools, and some will adopt a hybrid model where a third party like ourselves works in partnership with the school to deliver a specific part of their program. Sometimes we’ll have staff embedded within the school, sometimes they only want us to assist when out in the field. I think that any of those models are fine so long as they do have an Outdoor Education program at all age levels.

CP: Perceived risk is an interesting concept, but one that must be difficult to sell to some educators as well as parents. How do you overcome those concerns?

RT: There’s been some great research recently emerging on this very area from a partnership between the outdoor sector and the University of the Sunshine Coast and Federation University. For example, after a twelve month study of incident data, Outdoor Education has been shown to be safer than playing common sports like cricket, netball and rugby. As with anything, there will always be an element of risk, however studies like the one mentioned above demonstrate that the risks involved in Outdoor Education are very low when compared to, for example, sports played on the school oval.

For Outdoor Education to be successful it needs to be challenging, and part of that challenge is the perception of risk. Take a high ropes course as an example; you can climb and experience the perceived risk of falling, but in reality there’s a safety rope, an instructor and a system designed to secure the climber. This analogy holds pretty much across the board, with any of our offerings from K-12. There’s always a safety rope to prevent an incident occurring, yet the student still perceives enough risk for the program to be worthwhile – so they can feel like they’ve made a real achievement.

CP: What does the ideal Outdoor Education program look like?

RT: The ideal Outdoor Education program is one that’s regular and sequential. It should eventually lead up to at least one major experience each year, culminating in something very significant in secondary school. Of course, not every school has the funds or facilities available for this, but there are often ways of offering an experience at a cut-rate. For example, your typical day excursion could range from something cost-effective, like navigation exercises within a short train ride from the school, to the same exercises performed after catching a bus to a wilderness location an hour or two away.

Getting students into environments that require them to reflect and manage whole group dynamics is key to producing solid educational outcomes. Of course the longer the experience, the better. So small groups, in semi-remote destinations, with an element of a journey, is what we aim for particularly in the secondary sector. The journey can be a metaphor or tool for the social and emotional outcomes that can’t be delivered in school settings. We are asking students to be reflective and evaluative about themselves, their interaction with others and the natural world. It is about learning that has taken place and the behaviour changes the students have identified in themselves. The key to getting this right is understanding the point at which students (and school communities) are able to engage. We need to understand their journey before they can come on ours. Longer experiences can be truly life changing or enhancing, memorable and meaningful but the key is to make the learning transferable back into school and life beyond.


Bangsbo, J., et al. (2016). The Copenhagen Consensus Conference 2016: children, youth, and physical activity in schools and during leisure time. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 2016; 0:1–2. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2016-096325
Read, S. A., Collins, M. J., Vincent, S. J., (2015). Light Exposure and Eye Growth in Childhood. Clinical and Epidemiologic Research, 56, 6779-6787. doi:10.1167/iovs.14-15978
Park, J. P., Tsunetsugu, Y., Kasetani, T., Kagawa, T. & Miyazaki, Y. (2010). The physiological effects of Shinrin-yoku (taking in the forest atmosphere or forest bathing): evidence from field experiments in 24 forests across Japan. Environmental Health and Preventative Medecine, 15(1): 18–26. doi:  10.1007/s12199-009-0086-9

Teacher with kangaroo joey

Teacher-only excursions to the Top End in 2017

Tourism NT is once again seeking expressions of interest from secondary teachers interested in attending an exploratory, familiarisation excursion to the Top End next year.

The trips, which are held each year with an aim of showing educators what the Northern Territory is able to offer schools and their students, combine a mixture of natural and cultural experiences.

A spokesperson for Tourism NT described the opportunity as a “five-day journey around the Top End of the beautiful Northern Territory visiting some of the best educational experiences on offer to students on school trips”.

Trip itineraries are selected from experiences on offer with NT Learning Experiences, a group of local tour operators in the NT that have a passion about education, and have made efforts to align their experiences with the Australian Curriculum. Each teacher trip tries to fit in as many of these experiences as possible within the five-day timeframe.

“Past teacher trips have proved highly successful with many of the teachers falling in love with the NT endeavouring to get their school to visit the NT on a future school trip,” said the spokesperson.

Recent attendees from a 2016 trip had offered glowing feedback on the NT Learning Adventures teacher trips, with Kate Tyndall from Melbourne’s Travancore School saying it gave her her “a better indication of the outcomes, rather than reading about them online or in a brochure”.

“Meeting the activity leaders has also given me more confidence in reaching out to them in the future to discuss potential school trips,” said Ms Tyndall. “Not only was it a great professional opportunity, but I also appreciated the ability to meet other teachers in a different setting, which gave us the ability to reflect and discuss school trips and planning.”

In order to apply, or simply to enquire for further details, teachers are encouraged to email


CBA teaching awards

Nominations open for CBA teaching awards

On Friday, 28 October, the Commonwealth Bank unveiled the results of its latest survey, which highlights the impact teachers have on their students’ lives.

For example, the survey found half of respondents said their career was inspired by a favourite teacher, while 65 per cent believed teachers had a significant impact on their development in general.

To further support the work of exemplary teachers, the Commonwealth Bank has partnered with Schools Plus – an education not-for-profit organisation – to launch the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards.

The awards will provide Fellowships valued at $45,000 to each of the 12 award recipients, comprising of $10,000 to be put toward each individual’s professional development, $5,000 for a 12-month secondment and study tour in Singapore as well as $30,000 to go fund a project that improves student performance and wellbeing.

Commonwealth Bank’s General Manager of Corporate Responsibility, Kylie Macfarlane said in a media release that supporting good teaching meant supporting students.

“With Australian kids spending hundreds of hours at school during their lifetime, it was no surprise that almost half (46 per cent) say a great teacher motivated them to succeed.

“But what we also found was that the majority (78 per cent) of Aussies say great teachers are shaping the future of our country, and as we believe teachers are one of our most valuable resources, we couldn’t agree more.”

The results of the Commonwealth Bank’s survey were conducted ahead of the awards’ launch, with respondents drawn from across Australia.

Other results of the survey:

  • 87% of respondents believes teachers can improve a student’s future
  • 27% credit their own success to a teacher
  • Most felt the greatest impact by teachers when in their final years, saying their favourite teachers taught them in Year 10 (31%), Year 11 (29%) or Year 12 (28%)

Chief Executive of Schools Plus, Rosemary Conn said the new awards initiative are “an excellent way for all Australians to recognise their most inspiring teachers”.

Nominations, which are open to teachers from all sectors of the Australian schools system (whether government, Catholic or independent), are open until 30 November this year.

For more information or to nominate, see the Commonwealth Bank Teaching Awards website.

Seminar room, Shutterstock

Geelong Grammar to host Alfie Kohn seminar

Prominent American author Alfie Kohn has written 14 books on parenting, education and human behaviour and for the first time he’s visiting Australia to share his thoughts with local educators.

In a one-day event held at Geelong Grammar School’s Corio Campus, Mr Kohn is expected to lead an insightful seminar on ‘Rethinking the conventional wisdom about curriculum, assessment, and motivation’, beginning at 9.30am, 15 November.

The event is ticketed, with a cost for the full day of $198. However, educators are also invited to attend Mr Kohn’s free parenting lecture, to be held on the same evening.

“Alfie Kohn is one of the world’s leading thinkers on developing well-rounded, resilient and critical thinking adolescents,” said Justin Robinson, Director of the Institute of Positive Education. “He is concerned by many of the trends and practices evident in the majority of school education systems.

“We assume he will challenge some of our current practices and he will certainly provide us with significant food for thought. We hope participants will be inspired to return to their schools with the aim of cultivating the best possible learning environment for their students.”

For tickets, or to find out more about this upcoming event, see Geelong Grammar School’s Training Courses page.


Screenshot from The Conversation.

Gender imbalance: Recruiting more male teachers

This week, Dr Kevin McGrath from Macquarie University’s Department of Educational Studies, published a treatise on the issues and challenges related to hiring more male primary teachers.

His article, titled ‘We need to rethink recruitment for men in primary schools’ and published in The Conversation, summarises the status quo (just 19 per cent of full-time primary educators are male), and goes on to make a case for the kind of positive discrimination that is becoming apparent in other sectors and industries.

Dr McGrath uses two examples of Australian universities advertising for women-only positions within STEM disciplines, which historically have very low rates of female participation.

While these job advertisements have drawn some criticism, it seems they are lawful. As the education academic states:

‘It appears that these universities are using the Victorian Equal Opportunity Act – state legislation – to bypass national sex discrimination legislation and target employment opportunities to women,’ he writes, while admitting this approach is unlikely to be taken up by schools anytime soon. (The reason he gives, interestingly, is that schools should continue to hire based on merit, rather than gender.)

The reasons Dr McGrath provides for why more men should be encouraged to become teachers hinges upon research that he describes as ‘social, not academic’, as well as an appeal to the principles of diversity in society being reflected in the workplace.

‘Education is not “women’s work”, but it sure seems that way if you’re seven years old,’ Dr McGrath writes.

The article concludes with three suggestions for improving male participation in primary schools, which are: setting realistic goals, providing worthwhile incentives and improving the status of the profession overall.

Bronwyn Johnstone, Principal of Capalaba State College in Queensland, told Education Matters that the article reinforces the fact that schools must reflect broader society, and that a healthy balance of genders of teachers has been shown to benefit students.

Ultimately, Ms. Johnstone says, a balanced workforce should not be prioritised above the quality of teachers overall.

“I believe that a balanced work force is highly desirable however, what is most important is that each class has an excellent teacher,” she said. “A teacher who cares about all children in the class and believes every child can learn.”

Overall, Dr McGrath’s thesis is initially compelling, yet with so much work yet to be done in promoting gender equality for female participation in traditionally male-dominated job categories, it’s hard to see whether there exists much appetite for also promoting the opposite.

What do you think about this topic? Education Matters would like to invite primary teachers and principles to have their say on the matter. Email the Editor at