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A Pedagogy of Place

Chapter 7

Transitions: A Changing Sense of Place

~ Mike ~

The case study in this chapter draws on two interviews with staff involved in a research project1 investigating the development of a place-based approach in two secondary schools in New Zealand. One of the requirements of Teaching and Learning Research Initiatives (TLRI) is to collaboratively work with teachers, as co-researchers, to develop programs that meet the needs of their school community.

The interviews were conducted at the beginning of the project in an effort to ascertain the teachers’ understandings of outdoor education and the nature and scope of their current programs. Understanding teachers’ beliefs about outdoor education is a valuable means of gaining an insight into their practice. As Allen Hill (2007) notes, there has been a shift away from trying to correlate student achievement with teacher behaviour towards understanding teacher beliefs as the key to effective practice. Thus at this early stage of the project efforts were made to explicate teachers’ understandings, as this is seen as a key in any potential change process.

Neither of these teachers was a disinterested party; both were keen to explore different ways to conduct outdoor education in a secondary school context. Both the teachers and the school principal had agreed to participate in the project from the early stages of the research funding application. These interviews were conducted prior to discussion forums and the joint development of new program initiatives.

The intention in this chapter is to elucidate the teachers’ current understandings of outdoor education and to discuss whether these beliefs and practices reveal an appreciation of the role of place in the learning experiences of students.

The setting for the case study2

Mount Maunganui College is a co-educational decile five state secondary school.3 The school is located in the western Bay of Plenty in a beachside township. It is a well-known holiday location and due to its favourable climate, excellent beaches, thriving port and agricultural hinterland, is a growing area popular with families and retirees. The school roll is about 1320, with 60% of students identifying as NZ European/Pākehā; 29% as NZ Māori; 6% ‘Other’ European; and 5% other ethnic groups.

Outdoor education, including whole year level camping experiences, is offered in the junior years (years 9–10) and can be elected in the senior years (years 11–13).

School camps are very much a part of the year 9 program (first year of secondary school) and these camps are staffed by teachers and senior school (year 13) leaders who have received specific training in the delivery of adventure-based learning (ABL).

At present whole year level outdoor education camps are offered at year 9 and year 13. The focus of the year 9 camps is to get students to know each other, as they come from five contributing schools, and their new form teacher. The year 13 leadership camp is conducted in the week before school starts and has a focus on leadership.

The Education Review Office (ERO) report contains a letter to parents and the following are extracts from this document. This is included to provide the reader with a brief insight into the school.

Students have access to a wide range of educational opportunities both within and beyond the school environment. There is a planned approach to assisting students to make informed choices about career pathways, further education and employment opportunities. Performing arts is a strength, the school having achieved regional and national recognition in this area over a number of years. In addition students are able to participate and achieve in a wide range of sports at both a recreational and competitive levels. These programmes and opportunities enable students to pursue their strengths and interests, experience success and become involved in the wider life of the school.

School-wide initiatives … are becoming well embedded and are contributing to positive and respectful relationships between staff and students, and increasingly amongst students … Senior students willingly assume responsibility and undertake leadership roles in supporting other students, and in sporting, cultural, social activities and events within the school community.

Teachers demonstrate a commitment to the learning and wellbeing of students, and many involve themselves in extra-curricular activities with students. School-wide professional learning and development initiatives are having a positive influence on teaching practice to engage students as responsible learners.

accessed 29 June 2010)

The Perry Outdoor Education Trust, a local charitable organisation supports the provision of outdoor education at Mount Maunganui College. The trust facilitates professional development opportunities for school staff and directly funds several local schools to enable students to access outdoor education experiences. The trust explicitly aims to empower and equip teachers to run these camps rather than contracting services to outside providers. Thus camps tend to be run in local areas and do not typically involve technically difficult activities. The trust recognises the benefits to be gained by teachers and students in developing relationships outside the confines of the school classroom. The trust also encourages senior students to take on leadership roles on junior year level camps, thus creating a ‘spiral’ of involvement across year levels.

The teachers

Jane is the head of the Physical Education Department. She has been at the school for a decade and has been actively involved in outdoor education for much of this period of time. Erin has been teaching in the school for six years and teaches Health and Physical Education and oversees many of the outdoor education camps. One of Erin’s roles is to liaise with the Perry Outdoor Education Trust to prepare programmes and funding applications. Thus both Erin and Jane have been involved in ‘localised’ outdoor education provision for several years.

The interviews and analysis

Jane and Erin were interviewed separately. The recordings were transcribed, returned to the interviewees for comments/amendments and then read through many times by myself with Brian providing a second opinion in regards to the representation of the salient points which I believed emerged from the interviews.

Because it is a small case study no claims are being made in regards to the generalisation of the findings beyond this school’s context. Transcripts were analysed inductively with several pertinent themes emerging. My attention is focused on issues of relevance to understandings of outdoor education and possible intersections or points of commonality with a place-responsive pedagogy. As with any interpretive research, my ‘reading’ of the transcripts will invariably omit and favour particular aspects of the interviewee’s accounts. There is no attempt to feign objectivity or a detached perspective. All parties involved are placed within a collaborative research project that has a stated aim of exploring place-based approaches in outdoor education programming.

Outdoor education: The quest for connection

In the sections that follow I present several themes that arose from my discussions with Erin and Jane. The order in which they are presented does not indicate a hierarchy of importance. I have tried to present the relevant points in a manner which provides some sense of flow, which may of course not be reflective of the order in which the issues were raised by the interviewees in the recorded discussions. The heading to this section gives a sense of the dominant theme to emerge from my analysis of the transcripts. I assure the reader that this heading was arrived at after reading the transcripts rather than the concept of connection being pre-determined and the material selected to fit with it. You are of course invited to arrive at your own conclusions.

The importance of relationships

Both Jane and Erin stated that a valuable outcome for students who participated in outdoor education over multiple year levels was the acquisition of skills to be able to participate in outdoor recreation on an ongoing basis. While valuing the acquisition of skills, Jane also placed emphasis on the context or process involved in learning in the outdoors:

It’s learning in an outdoors environment, it’s learning different skills and appreciation of the environment, it’s learning relationship and leadership skills. All those skills are important, but it’s more the context of learning in an outdoor environment away from the classroom where students are very different in the way they relate to each other and relate to the teacher. (J)

As a teacher, it’s been such a good experience to see students being able to experience the outdoors, and just their relationships, and to really see them grow and getting to see them in a different environment rather than a classroom environment has been really good (J)

Thus the context of learning was deemed to be important in developing a new appreciation of relationships to peers and teachers. Erin provided an example of this change in peer relationships in her comment:

I think they can see it more clearly when they are in the outdoors and they become more tolerant because they have got weaknesses as well as strengths and that it is pretty clear when you get the written evaluations that they are able to see that in that environment, whereas in a classroom if someone is doing something wrong, they are like ‘you dick’; in the outdoors they help them, and that’s something we need to embrace really (E)

Given the importance of the outdoors as an opportunity for exploring relationships that might differ from those experienced in a ‘formal’ school setting; both Erin and Jane expressed a strong desire for teachers to remain as the main providers of outdoor education experiences rather than contracting external experts. Although contract instructors are required for certain activities their role is to support the teaching staff rather than to be the expert who replaces the teacher. Erin spoke of how she saw the teacher–expert instructor relationship working:

I still want to be the leader; I still want to make decisions with them. Like if it was really wet or the conditions were really bad I would not expect them to have turned up, and say they have made the call, ‘we are not doing this’, I would expect, I would make it clear that I am part of that decision-making process together (E)

In a further discussion, about the use of residential outdoor centres with specialist staff, Erin commented that for her, a key aspect of outdoor education is about students developing relationships with their teachers and their peers. With specialist outdoor providers she expressed the following:

the instructors are the ones forming the relationship and that relationship finishes in two days and it’s all over. So I would personally rather have our staff taking the activities, unfortunately sometimes badly, but they are still there building the relationships and getting to know the kids in a completely different place than they would. (E)

Jane expressed a similar sentiment:

You can go along (to an outdoor centre) and they have all these enthusiastic young instructors and that’s fantastic and they can build a good relationship with the students and then you leave. They haven’t got that connection with the school and a lot of it, in outdoor education, I feel like you have a real team atmosphere. I think that it is really important that the teacher is there, that you lose a lot if you don’t have those, the people from your school environment with you if at all possible. Yeah I like it to be the class’s experience, not provided from the outside if possible. (J)

Both Jane and Erin expressed a strong desire for outdoor education programs to be delivered, wherever possible, by teaching staff. Both were clearly able to articulate the importance of the student–teacher relationship in the teaching and learning process. The desire for teachers to be the primary deliverers of programs has some obvious implications for the type of program that the school can offer. Rather than narrowing the range of opportunities, the ability to draw on staff expertise in ‘non-traditional’ outdoor education activities has the potential to enrich the school’s program. The Western Bay of Plenty has a strong beach/marine culture, and one of New Zealand’s premier white water paddling rivers. Many of the staff at Mount Maunganui College reflect this ‘outdoorsy lifestyle’ (e.g. they are surfers and are active in the surf lifesaving clubs) and provide a resource to both assist in the running of activities and also a conduit into local clubs and recreational organisations.

The school is clearly responding to the environment in which they are situated. The activities that are being incorporated into the program reflect both the natural resources and aspects of the local culture that have been shaped by the environment. For example, Jane explained

[the school] bought a set of boogie boards4 last year and so they are learning the skills and it is so relevant and meaningful for them. They all go to the beach, so having surf-survival skills and surf-lifesaving skills is really important. And I have just brought some soft top surf boards as well for outdoor education … (J)

The desire to use teaching staff has obvious implications in regards to the necessary competence and qualifications needed to run ‘risky activities’ that often feature in media portrayals of the outdoors and in some residential centres’ promotional material (e.g. abseiling or canyoning). While acknowledging the importance of appropriate risk management strategies and the need to comply with legislative requirements, both teachers emphasised the educational considerations in program planning over the provision of mere activities. When questioned about the role of risk in the provision of outdoor education experiences, Erin cited an example of an activity that encapsulated many of the aims of an effective teaching and learning experience:

… one of the biggest things is not abseiling, not the flying-fox, its waka ama.5 You know what’s the perceived risk there? There is teamwork going on, there’s communication going on, there is a challenge going on … So yeah, I like the idea of them challenging themselves through thinking rather than shitting themselves, which is what a lot of them end up doing. (E)

Similarly, Jane did not see that activities needed to be of a high risk nature (perceived or real) to foster learning:

I would rather that students learn the skills and have an opportunity to practice them and then they consolidate them in the outdoors. It is not about hardship or fear so much. I would rather them be in a situation where they have gained the skills that they can be in the situation that they are confident, that they know that they can do something and so it is the opportunity to put those skills into practice, but not be in a situation where they are scared. Yeah I like it when it is sequential … if they are ready and they have the skills and they love it then that’s what you want not for them to be pissing their pants. (J)

Jane and Erin’s understanding of the role of experiences in outdoor settings as a means to foster improved peer and teacher–student relationships extends beyond the provision of simple get-to-know-you games and team-building activities. The desire to centre teachers and students at the core of teaching and learning process has important implications for what is offered in the school’s outdoor education program and where these programs are offered. Clearly connections to, and between people, are important. It is to the emerging issue of connections to places that I now turn.

Outdoor education as an exploration of local areas and a means to foster positive memories

Erin was overt in her desire for students to experience activities within the school’s geographical area rather than travelling long distances to ‘wilderness’ areas.

I’m saying this is our direct area let’s try to use it. I think that is huge, because our kids will go back there. We all do just disappear from this town and from this country, but we all come back and those are things that I will go ‘yeah I remember doing that’, that kind of thing. (E)

Erin has touched on several issues that will no doubt resonate with many antipodeans – the belief that the ‘real world’ exists beyond our small communities. The movement of young people from provincial towns to large cities or overseas destinations is a feature of many modern societies. We embark on odysseys for education, employment, adventure and perhaps sheer desperation in an effort to escape the overly familiar and mundane. Yet, in time many of us are drawn back to places, the places of our childhoods, holidays, or places with familial ties. Here Erin draws on her own experience of leaving and returning and her endeavours to engender in her students a connection with place through positive experiences. There is a recognition that many of her students may leave for the ‘bright lights’ but there is also the hope that the creation of positive memories will provide a touchstone in later life.

Erin also spoke of an early version of the year 9 camp that was based at the school. This account is linked to a formative experience from her own childhood and provides an excellent example of how personal narratives are interwoven with professional practice.

We based them at the school Marae6 and they did all these activities around the Mount and on the last day climbed the Mount and learnt the history. We took a scientist from here and one of the iwi ladies I knew, so we had two perspectives. We got this mythology and we got this geography and the science of the, you know, the geography and history and things like that. And I was just blown away at how many kids had not been on the Mount. I was just shocked … over two weeks we had taken 300 kids up the Mount, and that was what they remembered. They didn’t care about all the rest, they cared because they had gone up that hill. They had looked at it for 13 years and never gone on it. And that kind of made me think, why do people go away when we have so much here? It just clicked …

When I was 12 or 13 my parents took me overseas, took us all overseas for a year, and we went travelling and did not go to school, and we came back and we were home for about a week and Dad goes ‘you have seen the world, now you need to see our own place’. He put us back in the car and took us for six or seven weeks around New Zealand. I hated him at the time, but afterwards I thought ‘he is right, I haven’t even seen my own place’ … yeah, it’s probably all come from that. But, yeah I like this, I like this sustainability thing. You know we take students on a tramp down in Lake Waikaremoana. They will have an amazing experience and probably get a taste for tramping and a love for it, but will they go back there? Probably not. You take them up the Mount and they go ‘oh I can walk up the Mount now’ you know and they will do that, yeah that’s what I like. (E)

It is clear from Erin’s story that her early experiences of travel in New Zealand, in her ‘own place’ has been influential in her desire to connect her students to their ‘own place’ in a way that will foster a positive connection. The role of personal experience and beliefs has been identified as a contributing factor in informing teachers’ practice (Fang 1996; Macdonald and Kirk 1999).

Jane also expressed a desire for students to be able to connect with places in an ongoing manner.

Well I like the idea of a journey in your own environment and making the most of your local environment so that you can take your family and friends. It can be part of who you are and your connection to the land. And for me, for my interest in Māori education as well, those links to your whenua7 I think are key and are really important. A lot of people have missed out on feeling they are part of a place … if you feel a connection with where you live and your environment and in turn you have more respect and you have got increased transference and take it on as part of your own identity. (J)

Both Erin and Jane have alluded to the difficulty of connection to places that are distant from the school (e.g. Lake Waikaremoana is several hours’ drive away). Jane has made explicit the link between places and one’s sense of identity. The program’s emphasis on sequential skill development, and utilising local environs that are easily accessible, provides the potential for students to revisit and engage with these places beyond the confines of the school curriculum. This ability for connection contrasts with the difficulty, or inability, to reconnect when programs are conducted in difficult to access areas; at residential centres that require group bookings; or require technical equipment and/or an expert guide.

Jane also mentions what is often seen as the ‘crux’ for advocates of outdoor education: transference from the outdoors to other aspects of life. One of the issues with ‘traditional’ outdoor education programs has been need to show how unique, and frequently contrived activities conducted in remote or wilderness settings, have relevance beyond that setting. As I have discussed elsewhere (M. Brown, 2010), transfer is a highly problematic metaphor that reflects particular ways of understanding learning and what counts as knowledge. This is not the place to enter into a protracted debate, suffice to say that Jane has, perhaps unwittingly, found an elegant and highly practical way of circumventing the issue of proving transfer in her setting. By locating learning in the practices of the day-to-day activities of the community there is little need to prove transfer occurs. Schooling becomes an extension, or complement to, the life of the broader community.

Despite Jane’s assertion that ‘you have increased transference’ both she and Erin highlighted the frustration that outdoor education was still not seen as an integral, and potentially integrative, means to connect disparate aspects of the school curriculum. As Erin commented:

One of the things that disappoints me year after year and I really, really want to work on it, is bringing the learning that we do out there into here and having it flow through the class and the school and into their lives. I just don’t think we do it well.

[There’s an attitude of] ok, so that was camp, let’s move on and do English and maths, and that’s the hugest part of it for me, I want to figure out how to do that (foster) … a cross curriculum approach … I have suggested it to them [other staff] and it just gets kind of washed away, so I think that’s the big point for me, transfer of learning. (E)

This stand-alone nature of camps was also commented on by Jane where she expressed a desire to connect with other curriculum areas:

If we had a more cross-curricula focus and if we have more of the departments on board, we could improve how we follow up after camps as well, so we need to set up an environment where transference is going to happen. (J)

One of the possible contributing factors for this lack of cross-curricula focus may be that the responsibility for camps falls to the PE department.
As Erin stated:

it looks like a PE camp, but it’s not, it’s an outdoor ed camp or an EOTC8 camp, because that’s what happening, everyone is like ‘that’s a PE camp’, another ‘Erin project’ they call it … (E)

Jane made a similar comment in regards to the perception that outdoor education camps are only relevant to PE staff and students within the school curriculum. She stated:

we feel like we are on our own a little bit and the camps are for the whole school and not just the PE department. (J)

These comments reflect tensions in many professional workplaces. It is clear that the understandings and practices espoused by Jane and Erin represent a desire to move beyond existing ways of conducting outdoor education (outsourcing provision, the use of specialised activities requiring technical expertise, and one-off discrete experiences) with attempts to locate teaching and learning within the local context.

As Erin and Jane acknowledged, efforts to locate outdoor education experiences in the local community have not always been successful and this has created inconsistencies between what is an ideal and what can be achieved within the practicalities of funding, staffing and timetabling.

Parked cars are dwarfed by a mountain

“By locating learning in the practices of the day-to-day activities of the community there is little need to prove transfer occurs. Schooling becomes an extension, or complement to, the life of the broader community.”


These semi-structured interviews provided an opportunity to hear from two outdoor educators who are called on to plan and deliver outdoor education and school camping experiences across a number of year levels. Attempts to tease out these teachers’ beliefs about outdoor education is important in regards to the practices that they are likely to encourage or implement. Hill’s (2010b) case study of four New Zealand secondary school teachers found that ‘what teachers believe significantly impacts on how they teach’ (p. 38). Thus the foundational beliefs about the value of connections to people and places, expressed by both Erin and Jane, support the school’s exploration of a move towards a more place-responsive pedagogy in outdoor education. Their beliefs about the value of encouraging students’ connections to others, and to the region in which they live, find support in place-based educational literature (Smith 2002). The selection of sections of transcript highlight the quest of these educators to provide students with experiences which will encourage them to get to know their peers and teachers in a different context, develop skills, and an appreciation and desire to engage with the environment in which they live. Jane’s and Erin’s concern with advancing the cross-curricula potential of outdoor learning is supported by Zink and Boyes’ (2006) research that ranked New Zealand teachers’ beliefs and values in outdoor education. In their study the belief that outdoor education could enrich all curriculum areas attained the highest ranking from teachers.

This is not an idealised account of an exemplary school. Rather it is an attempt to reveal how teachers in an urban, mid-decile secondary school setting, have sought to understand their situation and implement a program that is contextualised to their setting. There is evidence that Jane and Erin are attuned to the particularities of their place. It is clear that they are responding to their locality and their students’ ‘outside-the-school-world’. Bringing the ‘outside’ into the school outdoor education program will provide challenges, and may lead to questioning by other outdoor professionals who view outdoor education as consisting of more traditional activities. A seemingly humble or ‘leisure-time’ activity like boogie boarding or surfing is more than a simple and fun outdoor activity. It would appear to provide an opportunity to teach about important aspects of the local environment and simultaneously have the potential to develop strong links to local community via the surf club(s). These community-based organisations often do a lot of work beyond simply patrolling (e.g. youth groups, charity work, first aid training, even employment opportunities) and this connects to some of the points about place-based education made in chapter five. Additionally both teachers are responding to the multi-cultural character of their school. Acknowledging and incorporating Māori concepts, activities and stories into the program provides opportunities for many students ‘outside-the-school-world’ knowledge to be valued and shared in a meaningful context.

Jane’s and Erin’s efforts to empower teachers (and year 13 students at times) to deliver outdoor programs which are enjoyable and encourage ongoing engagement with friends and family in places that are accessible is illustrative of a program in transition. As Jane explained, outdoor education has not always been practised in this manner at Mount Maunganui College.

Before I got there, [outdoor education] was like boot camp, almost army style and students felt happy that they had got through it, but they did not want to go back into the outdoors again, but I do really like how they learn the skills and they build on those skills and they feel confident that they can do activities safely and a lot have got their family into things as well and a lot of them have got into multi-sport and carried on with it, so yeah that is the biggest kick … (J)

It is clear that there has been a change in how outdoor education has been offered at this school. What is also clear is that these two teachers are keen to continue this process to investigate ways in which cross-curricula links can be forged and new ideas in regards to place-based approaches to outdoor education can be incorporated into their school’s program.

As discussed in earlier chapters the notion that outdoor education consists of a series of generic activities, that if followed would constitute ‘good outdoor education’, is highly problematic. As we have indicated previously there is also no simple or generic recipe for implementing a place-based approach. Erin’s desire – to ‘see a school that has it sorted out’ – is a reasonable
enough request:

a school that takes their subjects on camp and then brings their camps back into their subjects, I would love to see that. If someone has got it sorted then I would go ‘tell me’ I would really, really like to see how simple it can be. (E)

However, there is no prescription that will meet the needs of different schools in different communities in different places. The challenge for Erin and Jane (and their colleagues) is to continue to develop a program that responds to their place; a place that is constantly changing, both physically and culturally. There is little doubt that urban development, migration and the changing educational policies and priorities of government will require constant attention to the changing landscape in which the school, and the surrounding community, functions.

It is worth remembering that while there might be an imagined ideal outdoor education program; there is no perfect program. Just as place is unfolding and emerging so too will programs that are designed around the principles of a place-responsive outdoor education pedagogy. In many ways both Jane and Erin are well on the pathway to implementing a place-responsive approach in their practice; both recognise the importance of connection, the centrality of place to program design and the oft overlooked, in outdoor education, role of place in identity formation. Several years ago Robyn Zink and Mike Boyes (2006) questioned how teachers understood the outdoors and ‘how clearly they are able to articulate the role the outdoors has in student learning’ (p. 20). What is clear from these teachers is that they are highly conscious of the role that the outdoors, or the place(s) where outdoor activities are conducted, has in student learning.

The issues and challenges that Jane and Erin face are those that we all face as we attempt to make teaching and learning relevant in changing times. This case study documents the start of a process, an ongoing process that we are all required to tread as we respond to the place(s) where we live and/or conduct our programs. Yet as Hill (2010b) found, when there is consistency between teachers’ beliefs and pedagogical practices, teachers considered it more likely that they would be able to make a positive contribution to the lives of their students. It would appear that the development of a place-responsive pedagogy may sit well with the espoused beliefs of these two inquiring teachers.

Cite this chapter as: Brown, Mike. 2011. ‘Transitions: A Changing Sense of Place’, in A Pedagogy of Place: Outdoor Education for a Changing World, Wattchow, Brian and Brown, Mike. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. pp. 144–157.

© Copyright 2011
All rights reserved. Apart from any uses permitted by Australia’s Copyright Act 1968, no part of this book may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the copyright owners. Inquiries should be directed to the publisher, Monash University Publishing.

A Pedagogy of Place

   by Brian Wattchow and Mike Brown