Outdoor education: Holistic education has to be done holistically

I’ve been working for the government long enough that I’ve apparently started to use KPI-boosting catchphrases recursively. Ugh.

Anyway, something interesting that’s been making the rounds:

From NMP Dr Ben Tan’s speech in Parliament, 6th March, reported on Red Sports.sg:

“When MOE first pushed for outdoor education, many schools ensured that each cohort would have undergone an OBS course at least once during their school life. Over the years, my impression is that fewer and fewer schools insist on this, with OBS reserved for only selected groups of students, such as during orientation or leadership training. Also the outdoor education may have become too tame, with some schools counting pitching a tent on the school field as outdoor education.”

Finally something I can get behind. My NS mates will tell you that, despite my overall lack of my fitness and my tendency to turn from garang soldier to complete liability after a few kilometres of hard marching, I generally take quite well to the great outdoors, and I will confess unabashedly to enjoying being out in the rough. It’s always something I wish more students took an interest in. I had a great deal of fun last year hiking with students along the Green Corridor.

Even though the proliferation of umbrellas and the general queasiness of most participants regarding their proximity to nature was a bit off-putting…

Umbrellas sprouting like mushrooms, seriously

… the chance to see Singapore from a very different angle was totally worth it.

During the hike, though, I made it a point not to let the experience try to speak for itself. Say what you like about communing with nature, it can be very difficult to “get in touch with your inner goddess” and stuff if you’re being distracted by handheld electric fans and the complaints of your peers about mosquitos and stuff. So I made it a point to try to add value at every opportunity: I pointed out those few specimens I could identify by name, pointing out edible plants like wild yams, and so on.

I think when taking kids out into the wilderness, it always helps to focus their attention on aspects beyond the sheer experience of being outside. Bring in aesthetics, botany, geography, the whole hog. While we like to wax lyrical about the potential of wilderness exposure to bring out a quasi-mystical experience of relaxation etc etc, it also helps to remind students that green spaces aren’t just “out there”: nature is everywhere we are, and not just in gazetted zones that the government sets aside for us to frolic in.

Thinking back on my own OBS experiences, one problem with stuff like OBS is that it can be a little too alien. It can feel like a holiday, or a tekan session, or a kind of rite-of-passage: there’s something very Other about the nonstop activities and the ritualistic conduct of some of the social activities. It sets the experience as something Other, something that exists beyond the scope of your daily activities. That… isn’t always helpful. Our kids are great at compartmentalising activities: one day, they can be pitching tents and staring at the stars and telling you excitedly about their wonderful adventure; the next, they’re throwing litter all over the place.

Even Archer can be educational once in a while

In Singapore, we’re party to a daily encroachment of urban sprawl into pristine green space, even if we can’t see it. We intrude, we exploit, and then we attempt to erase evidence of our intrusion with pesticides and rat poison, a la Bukit Batok. We forget that the city has an ecology all its own, that isn’t limited to humans and those pets we permit. Rats, flies, stray animals, and so on are part and parcel and product of our civilisation, and while we should definitely take action to prevent these things from harming us, we can’t expect to sterilise our urban landscapes either.

This means that outdoor education has to include the city as well as the wilderness. Even when we’re with the students out in the rough, we need to remind that the nature that surrounds them in that moment is everpresent, even if they can’t see it. We can’t expose kids to nature as something external to our lifestyle: we have to get them to see it as something inseparable from our daily experiences and activities. As with many, many things to do with education, it’s not just about quantity, but quality: Dr Ben Tan’s concerns about uptake and implementation are important, but even if MOE looks into it, boosting numbers isn’t enough. You need to give those students a good reason to be there, and an even better reason to remember what they learnt when they aren’t out there.

Which means that we need to diversify who gets involved in outdoor education. The usual suspects are OBS instructors and PE teachers, who, while well-intentioned and usually hard-working, aren’t always the most likely candidates for this sort of philosophical exposition (although there are inspiring exceptions: Mr Isaac Lim, this one’s for you!). Bring other teachers, and heck, bring the kids’ parents along too. Make this sort of learning part of different curriculum elements, not a catchall like “character development” or “leadership” or “CCA”.

Nature is for everyone, not just people who wear shorts as part of their daily work attire.

I leave you with something to Marvell at:

“… Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade…” – The Garden, Andrew Marvell

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