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A Pedagogy of Place

Chapter 8

Knowable Places:
The Story of a Place-Responsive Educator

~ Brian ~

This case study profiles the work of a place-responsive outdoor educator. Arthur Curl has coordinated, and taught in, an outdoor education program for nearly twenty years at the same independent primary to year 12 school in Victoria. I have known Arthur for all of that time. Initially we met when Arthur was an outdoor education student in the final two years of his undergraduate degree and I commenced working at Latrobe University in 1990. Upon graduation Arthur began his teaching career and we subsequently kept in touch. We completed several canoe-building projects together, one of which culminated in a long river journey with students. I wrote about this experience in a journal paper titled ‘River … I follow river’ (Wattchow 1998). We also coordinated our programs so that my third year undergraduate paddling students could experience running an aquatic-based camp with Arthur’s year eight students. Catching up gave us the opportunity to discuss and debate ideas about outdoor education philosophy and programming. Both of us were in the early years in our new work places, Arthur in his school and myself at my first university appointment.

Over the years I noted that Arthur developed a very thoughtful and distinctive approach to outdoor programming. It was quite different to other trends taking place in school-based outdoor education at the time, such as increasingly demanding adventure activities being delivered to younger and younger students, international trekking programs, and the outsourcing of camping programs to commercial providers. Outdoor education at Arthur’s school seemed to be based around a strong set of ideals that had to do with how children experience a sense of emergent meaning in outdoor places. At one level the camps seemed low-tech, uncomplicated affairs. At another level they appeared to be built on an evolving set of complex values and ideas. In Arthur’s fifth year at the school I wrote another journal paper exploring how choices made about outdoor equipment fundamentally shape educational possibilities. As part of that paper, ‘A pedagogy of production’ (Wattchow 2001b), I wrote about crafting outdoor equipment and drew on an example from Arthur’s practice where students make rustic timber furniture as part of a camp in East Gippsland. In this paper I quoted a section of a letter (with permission) that Arthur had written to me about the camp. The letter, along with our conversations, confirmed that this school’s outdoor education program was developing a unique pedagogic strategy for working with young people in outdoor places.

There are several reasons why telling the story of a teacher dedicated to an alternative ethos and practice may benefit other outdoor educators interested in place. Narratives about how professional outdoor educators work, their histories, beliefs and practices, are few and far between. Beyond the iconic figures of people like Kurt Hahn, John Dewey and a few others, there is largely silence about what it is actually like as an educator to work with children in the outdoors. While not abandoning the best of the legacy of Dewey and others, we need to step out of the long shadows cast by these historic figures and craft our own stories about local educators working in local outdoor places. We have made a case in this book for the power of narrative to inform in ways that reach beyond the limitations of textual description. Stories do this when they resonate with the reader. The reader shifts between interrogating the words for meaning and listening to the story unfold for its own sake. As a result of developing empathy for the characters in the story the reader may be moved to reflect upon their own past, values and practices. Possibilities may begin to emerge as the listener sees their own story in a fresh light. So Arthur’s story as an outdoor educator is not presented as an instruction or ‘how to’ guide for place-responsive outdoor education. In fact, the intent of this case study is quite the opposite. The reader of the story must draw his or her own conclusions about implications for their practice with the learners and outdoor places with which they
are familiar.

Methodological considerations

Writing Arthur’s story posed a series of interesting methodological challenges. A series of interviews were conducted to collect descriptions and reflections about his practices and values as a teacher. The interviewing approach employed in this study was based on what Seidman (1998) refers to as in-depth, phenomenologically-based interviewing. The goal is to have the interviewee reconstruct his or her experience within the topic of interest, in this case place-responsive outdoor education. The most distinguishing feature of this is the structuring of a series of three separate and distinct interviews. The first interview focuses on the person’s ‘life history’. As the interviewer, my aim here was to ask questions and gather meaningful background material that might help make sense of Arthur’s values and practices as an outdoor educator. This included questions about formative experiences as a child in the outdoors and also his experiences in outdoor programs at school and university. The second interview relates to ‘the details of experience’. The purpose of this interview was to focus on Arthur’s experience of working in the outdoors with students in the way that he does. This includes how he works, where he conducts outdoor programs, how he makes decisions about aspects of programming; in essence, his pedagogic practices. There was an emphasis here on seeking detailed descriptions of events rather than reflecting on their broader meaning and consequences. What I was seeking were rich descriptions of practice. These first two interviews were conducted on consecutive days while camping on Arthur’s ‘rural block’ in South Gippsland. Both interviews were audio recorded and then fully transcribed and the transcripts sent to Arthur for checking. As a researcher, I was already interpreting and attaching significance to Arthur’s statements during the interview and transcription process. While listening intently, I was also making decisions about what follow-up questions to ask to elicit further responses and what to delay until the third interview.

The third and final interview is constructed as a ‘reflection on meaning’ where Arthur was asked to reflect on the meaning of the experiences he had described in the first two interviews. ‘Meaning’ strives to address the intellectual and emotional connections between the participant and the topic. Both interviewer and interviewee came prepared, having read the earlier transcripts highlighting topics, themes to explore in more depth, while also being aware of any significant gaps or relevant topics not covered that might be important to explore. The time gap between the first two interviews and the third was just over two weeks. The final transcript and then, later, a draft version of this chapter were also sent to Arthur for checking.

Part of the challenge as a researcher and a writer, as Anne Bell (2003) elaborates, is to

attend to ways that the more-than-human world spoke through participants’ stories. There is a danger … when focussing on the metaphors and storylines that structure human experience, to forget that our words, as David Abram (1996) puts it, emerge ‘from our ongoing reciprocity with the world’. (p. 101)

Hence, in reconstructing Arthur’s story as an outdoor educator, I have made choices about relaying some stories in considerable depth, and in that way invited the reader to interpret the character of a place as well as the human stories that are unfolding there. Devoting significant word space to this means that some topics and examples discussed in the interviews are not presented here. The story told is partial, but hopefully satisfying, in terms of inviting a reflective response in the reader. An understanding of how an outdoor educator like Arthur first became attuned to the significance of outdoor activities and outdoor places in his life makes a good starting point.

‘An emergent feeling’

Arthur seems to have a predisposition for learning in a way that is well suited to a place-responsive educator. He combines an ongoing child-like inquisitiveness about the world with an active and considered pursuit of a range of ways of knowing something, whether it be a place, a person, a skill, an idea, or a story. Arthur traced this capacity, in part at least, back to early family camping experiences.

In terms of the starting point there, of the connectedness between those childhood experiences and my practice now which, when I read the transcript [of the first interview] was even more clear to me than it had been before, and that was the idea that … a good deal of the planning was about just going to a place. And that was definitely what we did as children. We would just go, and sometimes we were going to somewhere like Lake Eyre because it was in flood and to see the birds, but essentially we were just going there. That’s very much a part of what we do know. That’s very much a part of how I do things. (Interview 3)

Where did this disposition come from and how was it cultivated? We explored this topic at length in the first interview.

There’s a combination of wonderful family camping trips, unhurried. We didn’t go on extraordinary tours. We always went and propped. We’d drive somewhere, to the Flinders Ranges, a lot of them inland up to the Murray. We’d always just go and set up somewhere. A lot less spectacular than the current camps of today with the umpteen bits of equipment. Pretty simple camping and we just took the Valiant and we’d set up and stay in a place, and potter. We just pottered around. I’ve got two brothers and a sister who is much younger … so we kind of had an exploration group, which was great. We were busy in a way that we generated ourselves. Often it was just the kids and often Dad would come with us if we were going somewhere that he thought might be dangerous. He would just come along and it was fantastic, it was an incredible offering to our freedom. (Interview 1)

The interview transcripts suggest that Arthur is able to recall and reconstruct aspects of these experiences in fine detail. The story of one camping experience, when he was about ten years old, to Brachina Gorge in the Flinders Ranges, was described at length. The Flinders Ranges, in South Australia, are made up of a series of dry quartzite bluffs and ridgelines in the semi-arid mid-north of the state. Over five hundred million years of uplift, folding and weathering have produced a particularly visually striking landscape.

Dad’s instruction to go to the Flinders Rangers was to take us to the National Gallery and stand us in front of the Hans Heysen paintings. He said, ‘that’s where we are going’, and we said, ‘Cool, that looks good then’. Also I remember seeing three Namatjiras [the famous Aboriginal artist of central Australia], the three river gum Namatjiras that are in the National Gallery. We looked at those and Dad identified those as being characteristic of this place. It wasn’t so much that we had a sense of the aesthetic as I remember, I remember being immediately struck that this was a place of entirely different colours and I knew, in me, that it was going to feel different. I remember having this kind of visceral sense that when I got there this was going to be a place [where] the air would be different and the ground would be different. (Interview 1)

I remember it emerging on the horizon … out of that vast plain to the east of it, and just seeing this kind of incredibly purpley-blue haze, and immediately going, ‘That’s like the painting! That’s what it looks like!’ Getting in there was hard. I think we got bogged a couple of times to get in to where we were going to camp, which was next to this exquisite water hole. And I remember the texture of the air. It was that incredibly cold, still air of the gorge and just those luffing warm breezes and going, ‘Oh, this is different’. Then looking up to the very red rock and the amazing grass trees. We’d seen grass trees before but not like that. It was a very different aesthetic. That sandstone, I love it. That Upper Devonian, really rich reddish kind of sandstone. I’ve encountered that lots at Mutawintji and the Barrier Ranges and even up in Kakadu, but not in the same way. (Interview 1)

We had a wonderful rickety brown camping table and I remember sitting and having lunch and dinner by the table, and the smell of hurricane lamps. We only ever had hurricanes, and the smell of kero hurricane lamps was pretty much ubiquitous around our camping gear (laughs). Dad loved his hurricanes and so I remember that incredible smell. But the first night I had unbelievably strong and vivid dreams. And I’m not quite sure why, but I remember in the middle of the night getting up and I remember going outside and having this slice of just extraordinary dark sky and stars. Really, really vivid. And going ‘Oh’. When I think of that place there are images … that are just burned into my psyche, I can still see now. I know exactly what colour it was, and I know exactly the feel. There was a spot that we stopped under a couple of trees and I am convinced that it was where Heysen painted that famous painting. I remember sitting there and I can see the contour of the land and the rise that we were sitting on and the arch of those trees and everything – it’s just absolutely in my mind as a place. And I remember, I can remember what it smelt like, that light dry dust, the silky dust in the gorge, and the feel of the warm sand on top and the cold, as soon as your feet sink in it’s cold, really cold and still. (Interview 1)

Arthur’s stories of this family camping trip to Brachina Gorge in the Flinders Ranges in South Australia resonate with the sensual saturation of the child. We smell the quirky odours of the campsite. We see the gorge looming overhead and the shining waterhole, reconstructed as if through a child’s eyes once again. We feel the ground through a child’s small and sensitive feet. But other important elements of the experience emerge as well. The locations for the camping trips were often chosen by Arthur’s father for the intrinsic interest of what was anticipated to reside there. It is also evident that Arthur was simultaneously developing a cultural literacy about the Australian landscape; its art, history, geology, botany and so on, through his family upbringing. At another point in the first interview Arthur described his fascination as a child with the expansive collection of natural history books in his father’s library and he could recall the visits of a particular friend of his father who was a botanical artist. We might speculate that, as a child, Arthur experienced a reciprocal loop between learning about ways of knowing outdoor places culturally and encountering them through deeply immersive experiences. Cultural knowing can then be tested and validated, or not, by the child in the outdoors. There are two important threads being drawn together here. The embodied sense of knowing outdoor places combines with a more rational way of learning about them. Experience itself is neither one nor the other, but both of these working in tandem. Arthur describes what it meant to him as a child to blend these two different ways of learning to be in the outdoors in quite an interesting way.

We never had what I see now in the lives of the kids that I teach, the idea of the bush as this kind of vast unknowable. There was never any of those notions of wilderness or remoteness. And often we were in incredibly remote places, but that was never a part of it. For us our experience was always that these were knowable places. (Interview 1)

‘Just to be in the bush’

A similar story unfolds in relation to Arthur’s outdoor experiences through his secondary schooling. One teacher in particular, who also ran the school bushwalking club, emerges as another important role model.

I had some exquisite teachers … some absolutely extraordinary teachers who were unquestioningly teaching from a depth of passion and dedication. They weren’t – there was no going through the process, and not the least Chris Howell. He was my biology teacher. He was just fantastic. Heaps and heaps of narrative teaching. Lots and lots of stories told about something happening … (Interview 1)

In addition, the extracurricular bushwalking club provided Arthur with valuable opportunities that he felt could not be fulfilled within the more formal structures inside the school.

The walks were just fantastic. We just went bushwalking. There was no fluffing around. They weren’t doing great long distances. They weren’t about kind of linking extraordinary places I don’t think. We just went to places. And sometimes we went to quite mundane places. It wasn’t a highly organised, managed affair. There was an element of uncertainty and excitement that anything could happen, and that was a big part of the anticipation. It was a pretty organised culture at the school generally … There was an urge for freedom. It was just to be in the bush, and all of the things that that brought with it. I loved learning the names of birds … some part of it was that I wanted that. I really loved that aspect of going to all of these different places and recognising familiar things in different places. And I loved the process of camping. Having everything on your back and loved the process of packing. Getting all of your stuff out and thinking of whether I’ve got everything and putting it all in there and then the assuredness that you have when you put your pack on and you think, ‘I’ve got it all.’ I really like that. I loved – I think the uncertainty, I think that was a big part of it. It was a place where things could happen. (Interview 1)

The first interview revealed a childhood and adolescence where Arthur had regular opportunities to engage with nature through family camping and extracurricular school bushwalks. There was never a sense that these were organised as deliberate educational programs with sets of learning objectives and outcomes. But significant learning occurred within the ‘space of opportunities’ that these experiences provided.

They [the bushwalking club] were right into sunsets and sunrises and being on top of hills in storms and things like that. They were into the kind of acquisition of experiences. But not at all in terms of there being things to know about a country in a kind of natural history sense. Actually, there was quite a strong kind of cultural history aspect to it. The track notes always had things about a place name, and why it was called that, and what the story was that went with that. That was fantastic. And there was a huge tradition of storytelling. You know storytelling about previous bushwalks or about happenings or about great adventures. (Interview 1)

Arthur’s recollections reveal layer upon layer of experiences. In almost every case there was a parallel, but slightly unpredictable, cognitive learning going on that related to the place. It might be learning about the history of the long abandoned tramways in the Ada Valley forests, east of Melbourne. Or it might be about a particular bird or tree species and how it fitted within a particular environment. This learning was almost always encountered both in the physical world and via a story passed down from someone who had something important to tell. When asked, at the conclusion of the first interview, about how he feels now about those encounters, Arthur replied with the following:

Still a whole lot of it is about what it was for me as a child, was that places are knowable. And they are knowable in an outward and an inward sense. That you can know them in a naming sense, and you can know them in a cultural, storied kind of sense, but you can also know them in a kind of embodied, visceral, felt sense. And that knowing resides in you in an inalienable way. It is a kind of infection in a way. It answers a kind of relationship that we have with ourselves and with the world, with the land that we live on, with the world that we live in, which is really, really important. That it is definitely about searching for – experiencing belonging. Not as a notion to be explored so much as an emergent feeling. (Interview 1)

‘Inquisitive wanderings’

As mentioned in the introduction, Arthur completed an undergraduate degree in outdoor education at Latrobe University, Bendigo Campus. He also took a year off during his teaching career to complete a Masters in Social Ecology, where he met and studied with John Cameron, Stuart Hill and Martin Mulligan at The University of Western Sydney. Arthur had attended the 12th National Outdoor Education Conference held at La Trobe University in Bendigo, Australia. This is the conference that we wrote about in the introductory chapter to this book, where John Cameron articulated his quiet challenge to outdoor educators to overcome the dualistic divide between wilderness and everyday places. Cameron had provided an important vision for an alternative from of outdoor education practice for Arthur.

But then that, it was an epiphany to hear John Cameron, I mean Stuart Hill was just as inspiring, but to hear John Cameron talking, and going, ‘Yes, yes, that’s it, that’s what I want’. (Interview 2)

Arthur commented upon the value of both his undergraduate and postgraduate studies in introducing him to significant ideas and philosophies about the outdoors, ecology and education. He also mentioned that these were important opportunities to connect with others who seemed to be questioning how society valued and interacted with nature and, importantly, with those who were developing local community and education programs in response to these ‘big’ ideas. The descriptions that follow now focus on his pedagogical practices and are not chronological in terms of Arthur’s development as a teacher. They are largely drawn from the second interview, which was structured as an inquiry into his contemporary practices and which sought rich descriptions of teaching programs. So we pick up Arthur’s story again with the first camping experience that students at his school undertake. School staff and year three students first go camping together in a local coastal park not far from the school. The campsite chosen varies, but is typically on the south eastern shore of the Mornington Peninsula, on the fringes of suburban Melbourne. It is a popular summer time camping and swimming area, and is already well known to many of the children.

The first trip is incredibly simple. We usually go to a beach, ‘cause that’s a very culturally familiar environment for them. We just camp. And the exercise of just camping and establishing a routine and a rhythm is a really big part of that. It’s really just about being in that place and we can probably draw a radius of 400m around the entire trip. There is a real episode about putting up the big tarp for the kitchen and getting the kids to help with that. They all strain the rope up. And there is a real process to establishing our place there. That really helps them to establish a sense of belonging right there. [The big tarp] is somewhere that we go from and come back to, ‘cause we have kind of made it in a way. We are really deliberate in assembling the tents like a little village, so that it is a lived place, quite quickly. (Interview 2)

Once the little village of tents and kitchen-meeting tarp has been constructed, a home away from home perhaps, the experience unfolds around a number of opportunities. For example, the group of staff and students might head down to the beach and reef nearby.

I’d always make sure that they are bare foot and that they are really deeply tactile, engaged in a tactile way. Some of the kids will stop short, they won’t get to the reef, they’ll stop on the sand and start digging in the sand, or collecting shells or whatever and that’s fantastic. So it really is about following their inquisitive wonderings. But kind of drawing the kids around a focus in that. And not so that they are all doing the same thing, but they’ll start walking out onto the reef and the kids who were doing something else will take a little while to catch up. And you just time it so that they are all just there when you start telling stories. Lots of ecological storytelling. Stories about dog welks and urchins and the lives of things lived on the reef, but very much in a story. (Interview 2)

The camp unfolds around the possibilities inherent in the place and the children, and in the capacity for the staff to know what is appropriate to do at any given point in time.

[It is a] beautiful little foreshore camping reserve and immediate access … to a lovely basalt reef platform. Enough crashing waves to remind them that this is a place connected to vast ocean … Just camp and a really strong daily routine. Get up in the morning. I’d get them all up at the same time and go for a walk. And usually that would be a quiet walk, and not a long way. We’d just mosey and meander and maybe stop and look at a banksia and talk about it. Just wander them around and kind of wake them up to the place in a really deliberate way. And then back and have some brekkie. And then slow after brekkie. Good time while your brekkie is going down to clean up your tent and actually know where your hat is and that sort of stuff, which for grade threes can be a bit of an episode (chuckles). So, do that and then talk about what we’d like to do for the day. Talk about where do you think we should go. You know, ‘It’s a bit windy down there but what if we go around the corner kind of thing.’ So include them in the kind of planning in the day. And then pack. Say, ‘Oh I think we should take some lunch’. So pack a lunch and a water bottle and a hat. And usually you would go, ‘Oh, we will take a rain coat just in case.’ That ‘just in case’ ethic is a big part of embedding possibility in the way that they think towards the relationship between gear and experience. So, pack a lunch and off we go and walk all of 200m and sit down. You know if it is a really windy day it is wonderful to have little kids walking … Not a long way … and then find a spot out of the wind to let their little souls settle back again. Have lunch and walk back again. And if you can it’s good to walk back into the wind so it gives you the kind of sense of arrival when you get there … Get them to help to get dinner organised. It depends actually. It depends on the dynamic in the group. Sometimes they just really need to play, to immerse themselves in play, and often it will be quite imaginative play at that time of the day. Then draw them together for a pretty early dinner and then tell them a story after dinner, usually an incredibly domestic story. Often I will tell them about a childhood experience of mine and it will often be enlivening in terms of something that’s a little bit outrageous or a little bit daft … I think it slowly alerts them to the possibility that there a lots of ways to be in places like this. (Interview 2)

The Latin root of the word education, educare, literally means bringing forth. This seems to be a good description of the teaching and learning style of the camp. Rather than direct instruction the style of learning is about gently leading the child into a field of possibilities. Subsequent year levels continue to develop the subtle approach outlined above; ‘the rhythm is always the same on every trip’ (Interview 2). Year level camps gradually expand the students’ horizons. ‘We do lots of stuff around the Yarra Valley and the watersheds [close to the school], so there is lots of engagement with the very, very immediate local place’ (Interview 2). But there is a deliberate shift in year nine, which is the most intensive in terms of number of camping programs, where choices are made about going to a range of locations
across Victoria.

‘Deepening into place’

In year nine a sequence of camping programs sees students experiencing a wide range of distinctively different locations.

These are places that are the nearest examples of quite marked different kinds of environments … They do some time in the box ironbark forest and they do some time in the limestone and basalt down by the beach. They go to the sandstone country at Grampians and to the Sunset Country and to the red gum forest in Barmah and to the East Gippsland tall forests. They really are remarkably different but characteristic of reasonable spans or areas of Victoria. That is quite deliberate. (Interview2)

This might be described as a kind of experiential geography, where expanding the students’ direct encounter with their broader region is timed with the transitions they are making from childhood into adolescence. Implicit is the understanding that a person can become deeply attached to more than one place. It also teaches that no place should be ignored or taken for granted. Each and every place is considered to be potentially brimful of meaning and value. Places are selected not only because they are geographically distinctive, but also because Arthur and the staff have already established a relationship with the place being visited. What unfolds is, perhaps, a kind of pedagogic role modelling of how to engage with, live in, and value outdoor places.

I want them to have an understanding that there is something to be known here… Always making sure that they realise that these are our favourite places … we introduce the variety of places that we take them to as some of our favourite places – ‘ours’ being the collective group of leaders … it’s a kind of passive modelling of the fact that we have relationships with these places. These are places that are known to us and loved by us, that we know something about these places. I’ve never thought about kind of why, but we always do it. Always talk about it … That you can have relationships with places that you favour. And we would often talk as staff in the presence of the kids about, you know, kind of river people and ocean people and that kind of thing. Not as a borrowing of the saltwater people concept of indigenous fellas. But that there are different kinds of places that nourish us differently. (Interview 2)

When asked whether he could describe these kind of approaches to teaching through a particular example, Arthur paused for some time. ‘It’s hard,’ he said. Not because it was hard to describe a particular camping program, but because it was hard for him to choose one loved place over another. After a while, he began to describe in detail how he came to know a place called Raak Plain, and how he teaches there. Raak Plain is in the far north west of Victoria. Most people would skirt its edge driving on the highway from Melbourne to Mildura on the River Murray. Flashing past their car window they would get the impression of endless kilometres of apparently featureless red sand and mallee scrub. It is still, for most Victorians and Australians, a blank space on the map.

Raak Plain is a place that is a bit of an enigma to a lot of people who visit there. This is west of Hattah. It is an empty place on almost any map that you care to look at. It’s an 80,000 acre salt pan, and we camp on the south eastern edge of it in belah ridge country right on the edge of the mallee scrub … We move our camp a bit every year so that we kind of monitor and watch the impact on the country. My first relationship with the place was to meet this extraordinary old man, Harold McArthur, who, at the time that I met him was about 72. Six foot three. Did all his stock work on horseback, crack shot. Lived in that country since he was 11 years old. Started shepherding sheep, [a] mob of 400 sheep when he was 11 years old for three months at a time – been there ever since. You know he used to go on holidays. Plan a two-week holiday in Queensland and go away and come back after a week cause he missed the place. Probably as close as I have ever come in a whitefella to an indigenous kind of relationship to the place. If the blue mallee weren’t flowering at the right time of the year he went to work out why, and he knew five or six stages of ecological relationships … So, who eats what. If the blue mallee weren’t flowering he would know the insect that fed on that, and if it wasn’t around he would think, ‘Well, what are the birds doing that would be eating that insect?’ And he would go and look for where he knew that they nested, and if they weren’t nesting then he would look at scats and evidence to see what had happened in that cycle. So there was a whole landscape of relationships kind of hovering above the land itself that he was cognisant of. [I] went out there and was utterly enchanted by this old man and his relationship with the place. I was absolutely certain that I needed to take kids out there, and not entirely sure what we were going to do. There’s not a lot there (chuckle). But wanted the kids’ relationship with the place to be engaged with him and began with the idea of wanting the experience in that place to be kind of ethereal, kind of hovering above the land … We went up there on the night train from Spencer Street, the train stopped at Hattah Platform. The train stopped for just long enough to throw the children and their gear off and then off it went again.

Arthur’s story about Harold McArthur living on Raak Plain as an eleven-year-old and the fact that the school students taken there are roughly the same age is not, I think, a coincidence. There is a palpable sense here of deliberate choices being made about how students would arrive, physically and emotionally, at start of the camping experience on Raak Plain. After the noisy, rolling, rollicking journey on the night train they suddenly find themselves ‘thrown’ into a dark, quiet and undeniably remote location. I have encountered similar situations in my own travels, both alone and with students. You briefly feel suspended between one world, now vanishing down the train tracks, and another. It is a transitory moment and the effect is one of sudden shock with the unfamiliar.

And then Harold picked us up in his cattle truck in the half light and drove us out to the middle of nowhere, to a seemingly nondescript spot and drove off. So, had these kids kind of arrive, having stayed awake ‘cause it was exciting on the train a lot … Initially the kids did what most people do in that kind of country and go, ‘There’s nothing here. What are you thinking? This is ridiculous. What are we going to do while we are here?’ No tents. Just put a truck tarp up on in the trees and mostly slept out from under it. Had a fire. And again, just like on the primary trips, established a rhythm in that place. It is an incredible place because the way that our relationship to it works is that we expand out to it in these kind of increasing radiuses. So in the first day we just circumnavigate the camp about a kilometre distant in a loop. Visit the mallee sandhill country, have a look at the bulldog ants and go and look at the belah trees. And lie down under the belah trees and listen to the breeze and the sound on the shore and all those kind of familiar little stories that for me are like mates. You know, you get back there and you go, ‘Oh, g’day mate. Whoa, listen to you!’

For Arthur, returning each year to Raak Plain is like catching up with a cherished friend. For the students the relationship is just beginning.

A bit more breeze on a day under a belah tree is just this incredible thrill, and you can see it rippling through the children. It’s just incredible. They relate to this place and go ‘Oh, this is fantastic.’ So, they begin to discover interest and excitement in the minutiae in the country. There are these tiny happenings that become satisfactory. Partly because the place is lacking grand mountain ranges or the crashing of waves or that kind of stuff. They just get there and are confronted. It makes you feel small inevitably, with that huge sky. You know it is a massive sky. It feels like it drops below the horizon on both sides. So we just do a walk around the campsite, and on the next day we do a longer walk out onto the salt plain. Just walk, barefoot, carrying stuff all gear, usually wrapped up in a sleeping bag cover or you now make a backpack out of your raincoat kind of thing. And wander out onto the saltpan and just expand that experience of the place. Make a big thing out of looking back to where we have come from. You don’t need to get very far out till you can’t see where we have come from. That kind of experience of vastness is just incredible and very confronting when you first get there. But after a couple of days of kind of moseying around the kids get right into it. We go out to this spot, a little island of mallee scrub out in the middle of the thing. It has got a bit of a saltpan out there, and we just play all day. Walk out there in the early morning and walk back as the sun is setting and for me the experience of taking children to this place is about watching them almost sink into the landscape. You can watch them just immersing, just deepening into the place. For these kids the demands for entertainment are pretty high. They don’t put their ipods in their ears on half volume. The world has got to come at them pretty bright and pretty loud. And you watch these kids and they will be kneeling down in the sand lifting the little trap door up on a trap-door spider’s nest, looking at this trap-door spider’s little space and trying to sit there and wait and watch a trap-door spider come out and grab something. And it’s not out of that bloodlust of watching something kill something. It’s about the kind of excitement about these incredibly intimate little happenings that are observable in this place. So they just deepen into it. By the last day this place that they thought they would be entirely unimpressed by, has just crept into [them]. It has got under their fingernails in a kind of way. (Interview 2)

That which was strange has become familiar. I think that there are deep lessons about what it takes to begin the process of making connections with country, of taking the first steps to learning to empathise with a place. Students are led, even gently coached, through a deceptively simple journey between the vast immensity of the place and the intimacy of its detail. The place that was silent and empty begins to fill with happenings and stories.

You can see our own footprints from the previous year. So it is an incredibly simple trip to unfold. It’s a place that I love because there is incredible richness in the ecological happenings. So there is a real depth of stories to be told. And I really love telling those stories and engaging the kids in that. For me it is really nourishing, because in some places where there is really spectacular happenings, it can be pretty hard to get kids to care much about [the] kind of happenings in trees and that sort of stuff. It is a very nourishing place in that way. (Interview 2)

Stories of the place can be about intimate details or more expansive narratives that connect the students’ experiences to more than just their immediate surrounds.

There is a sense to participating in a kind of cultural icon, in terms of the experience of laying under the stars in the vast inland. That inland Australian sky is almost like a character in your experience there. It is a huge part of how you experience that place. To lie down at night time under those stars, it’s wonderful, and you do it and realise that you are participating in an experience which has characterised the lives of people throughout Australia’s history. There’s not a lot of difference lying there now than there was 150 years ago … I adore it because of the depth and longevity of my relationship with that place. I know there are trees that if I go and knock on them during the day a pink cockatoo is going to poke his head out at us. And I know that there is another tree there that if I go and knock on a mallee ring neck is going to poke its head out of a hollow. And there is another tree there that I know if I sit and watch it for ten minutes the flocks of wild budgerigars will come and go from it … I can go there and have an idea of things that are happening and you take with you a kind of knowing, and when that is reciprocated by happenings in that place that is incredibly nourishing in terms of the relationship with the place. I really love it that it is a place that isn’t burdened by any of the danger stuff. You could walk barefoot there for two years and nothing is going to happen. (Interview 2)

For Arthur the meaning of Raak Plain is ‘incredibly locked into a fabric of stories’ (Interview 2). Stories, whether they are ecological, cultural or even personal in their genesis, ultimately are not the possession of any individual. They reflect broader culture traditions as well as the more-than-human world. It is not a one-sided telling either; ‘You kind of let the country walk on you.’ (Interview 2). Stories come from country and people and, for Arthur,

The currency of those cultural stories is really important to me. I really know that it is not OK to be a receptacle for them. You have to be a conduit. You receive them and you pass them on, and you recognise the importance and the integrity. (Interview 3)

Arthur believes that such an approach, shared amongst the staff, brings richness and diversity to the program that cannot be manufactured. It can only arise out of long-term associations between staff, students and places.

The storytelling is distributed. I think that way there is a great deal of richness in that. Certainly the other staff adore returning to the same places, that is something that is universally celebrating the work … and they bring different aspects of joy to the return to places. There are different things that sparkle for them in different moments and different places [and] to see that variation across the staff group is a really rich thing. (Interview 2)


As we have described earlier in the book, place is best understood as an emerging phenomenon. A place is always in a state of change. It is experienced in particular physical locations and is a combination of meaning that is inherent in that place and the ideas and desires that we bring with us when we go there. To be responsive to this phenomenon requires the educator to connect their knowledge, experience and intentions for the educational encounter with an equally deep knowledge of the learner. In the case of Arthur’s school program this occurs across a range of sites throughout Victoria; some very close to the students’ homes and some in the far corners of the state. In each camping program the place itself is considered a crucial character in the unfolding story. Keeping the programs ‘uncomplicated and not very busy’ as Arthur says, creates the space for the constant negotiation between staff, students and place to occur, so that learning is emergent. All of these elements come together in practice. Making the local significant and meaningful involves letting go of some of the grander narratives of outdoor education.

I don’t do things for the social psych reasons and that sort of stuff, but the nourishment to a person’s sense of identity arising out of being cognisant of, and able to meet, their own needs are an important part of their own experience in nature … And we’re not as persuaded by all the challenge stuff. That is not a part of it. (Interview 2)

But equally, it involves letting go of another deceptive distraction that often makes it difficult for outdoor educators to be responsive to the educative moment with young learners in outdoor places.

There is a kind of vortex of practicalities, particularly in outdoor work. It is incredibly easy just to slip into making sure that that has happened so that this can happen. There is a kind of logistical whirlwind, which you can easily be caught in. (Interview 3)

The camps that Arthur and his colleagues conduct seem to have used a different starting point in terms of values and ideas, a different logic, than much typical outdoor programming. What seems like a simplification of the usual requirements of outdoor programming (such as adventurous activity, risk management, the technical demands of equipment and skill acquisition and complex program logistics), might be better understood as a release from the grip of those traditions so that negotiated practice can be pursued authentically.

[You are] reminding yourself back to what is there to be responded to. What’s emerging in the moment, either in the kids … or in the place … the extent to which those kids can be drawn into another level of engagement, another level of deeper experience of that place. Sometimes that is through something practical, like a solo or a slow walk, or just listening, or even just a walk, and other times it’s talking to them and reframing what is going on and you can’t do that when you are preoccupied by the machinations of the day. (Interview 3)

This is hard, labour intensive work. It requires constant attention to what is unfolding.

I guess in endeavouring to be open to what is going on in the place and in the children I am also making a deliberate choice to be vulnerable to rising and falling, to what is going on … The kids would never have a sense that they were being progressed through a program, or through a sequence of planned events such that if this doesn’t work then the next thing will be coming anyway. The kids are very much aware that we are kind of working it out as we are going along. They perceive themselves to be participants in that … to be agents in that change. (Interview 3)

Without doubt one of the requirements of the educator in being able to work in this way is to have a deep experience and knowledge base with both the learners and the place, and a sense of trust and respect for both. For Arthur and his colleagues this trust and respect starts on the year three camp and continues right through the students’ camping experiences at each year level of their schooling. No camp programs are out-sourced. Few of the programs include ‘adventurous’ activities that require an excessive focus on technical equipment or skill development. The familiarity with the children and the places engaged with on an annual cycle generates an educational space quite different in potential to many typical outdoor adventure programs. John Cameron (2001, 32) has written about the potential contained in this alternative place-responsive approach.

Open attentiveness, the willingness to suspend judgment and ‘listen’ to a place, the capacity to reflect on both affective and intellectual responses. These are abilities which are best communicated by the presence and attitudes of the educators themselves – by how they are rather than what they say when they are outdoors with the students. It sets the outdoor educators on just as much a journey as the students; always broadening and deepening their relationships with places.

Such an approach does, however, place quite different demands on the outdoor educator. He or she must continue to learn about both the children who they teach and about the places where they teach them. Staff must be genuinely interested in the students and the outdoor places on a long-term basis. Arthur is quite conscious of some of the processes he employs to respond to both learners and outdoor places. For the learners:

You are actually actively teaching every individual. So you run through every kid in your mind before you go to sleep and think about where they are at and what is happening for them. Everyday. (Interview 2)

In terms of the outdoor places, Arthur has always sought out role models who have something he senses is significant that he needs to learn about a place. It could be the history of a working life on the land or an aspect of a place’s ecology, geology, or botany. These are all parts leading towards a whole. Some of his knowledge comes from books and formal study. But in the main the most valuable learning comes face to face, with both people and places.

Some part of it is deliberate questioning, but I don’t think that is the main thing. I think I have probably become more aware of it as I have got older. I realise that I do watch the world very carefully and in a deliberately kind of inquisitive way. I am watching to learn things … Some part of it definitely comes with ways of being valued as a child. I operate with the belief that I can know and understand most things. (Interview 3)

Arthur and I discussed several important role models he had learned from and that had, in various ways, influenced how he thinks about and practices being in the outdoors with children. And he continues to seek out connections with people in the places that he teaches.

Part of it is also that I just chat. I just chat to people. Kind of seeking people out … It’s a very lovely thing that I would often seek out is to go and spend some time in a particular place with someone to whom that place had enormous meaning, like Harold at Raak Plain. And we’ve had an incredible network of those people all over Victoria … These people are actually involved in trips wherever I can coax them along, or get them to come and meet us in their tinny, or drive their truck down, or whatever it is. That is certainly my preferred, my favourite way to come to know them. I really love the kind of intimacy and the slow nature of reading things, coming to know things through literature, but I’d never substitute [it for the] the real experience. (Interview 3)

Bringing together the ability to respond to both children and the unfolding phenomena of a place requires a very different set of skills and values as
an educator.

I am conscious of some of what has gone before in terms of what might prevent or draw away from an emerging possibility on a trip. But also all the things that have gone before that might point towards, or be fertile ground, or might be raw materials for another experience. It also means that there is not as much loaded on an individual moment. I don’t have one moment in which all the bells and whistles have to go at the same time. There are kids who just are not able to be present in a given moment for all sorts of reasons. They will be a part of it, they will be witness to it, it will be a part of their memory, but it didn’t touch them. And I don’t have to think that it was my only chance. I have got lots and lots more trips and in some cases those things reside in me as something that is ahead. I can anticipate a trip and know that a particular child is coming on a trip and that this is another opportunity to be with that child in a particular way. I guess I keep mining for the potential for them and a place to meet in the depth of an experience. (Interview 3)

Ultimately, there seem to be two underlying pedagogic priorities in Arthur’s work. The first is an unfailing belief in the worth in countering broader societal values about nature. He sees this as vital in providing students with a more optimistic basis on which to nurture their relationship with the
natural world.

I think we have made some extraordinary mistakes as a society in the way that we have framed the possibility for a relationship with nature in the broader sense, not just places. And a lot of it has been around fear and danger – this place could kill you and this weather could kill you. And we have lots of that kind of dialogue happening. We’ve got lots of change for the worse kind; climate change, pollution. So much dialogue associated with the potential for nature to fail us in terms of her sustenance. And all of that rhetoric is already part of what kids bring to the moment of an engagement with a place. We’ve done so much telling our society to not trust nature in a way … But to me I think part of it is about pursuing a culture of care, pursuing that reciprocal relationship with places. That’s about love. It is about loving those places and them finding a way into our heart. (Interview 3)

The other fundamental principle that appears to guide Arthur’s teaching is that he believes it is educationally legitimate to craft a rich opportunity for children to learn about the world in a way that comes to them naturally. Experience of this quality, even if momentary, is considered rich in possibility. These encounters are shared between staff and students, places where stories are seen to unfold and are unpredictable in their educational outcomes. They have intrinsic worth. They require children to be inquisitive, to work with their hands and feet in the dirt, attuning themselves to ecological happenings that emerge before them, and within them. Then carefully crafted stories provide engagement with the broader context of culture and the land. Experience, thus enlivened, is exquisite and connected. Collectively, the world becomes knowable precisely because it is experienced as a world made up of particular places.

Arthur Curl standing in a semi-arid landscape

“I think part of it is about pursuing a culture of care, pursuing that reciprocal relationship with places. That’s about love. It is about loving those places
and them finding a way into our heart.”

Cite this chapter as: Wattchow, Brian. 2011. ‘Knowable Places: The Story of a Place-Responsive Educator’, in A Pedagogy of Place: Outdoor Education for a Changing World, Wattchow, Brian and Brown, Mike. Melbourne: Monash University Publishing. pp. 158–179.

© 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