Chronicles of an Educator

3 Things I learnt from Grade 9 UWCSEA Outdoor Ed Programme

21st June 2023
Reflections on a Transformative Outdoor Education Programme
Last week, our Grade 9 East campus witnessed an inspiring journey as 216 students embarked on a transformative 5-day Outdoor Education programme. Grade 9 holds a special place in our hearts as it is the only grade where the entire cohort ventures out together. Moreover, this year, students were given the opportunity to choose from three distinct themes: Cultural, Challenge, and Conservation. As I had the privilege of overseeing the programme, I made some intriguing observations that shed light on the students' motivations and the potential for enhancing our approach.
1. Embracing Challenges: Unveiling the Motivations of Grade 9 Students
The popularity of the challenge option surpassed all expectations. It was oversubscribed, with a remarkable number of students expressing their interest. As I interacted with the students who had chosen the challenge, it became evident that many of them had never experienced anything remotely similar before. However, they eagerly embraced the opportunity. During the program, we even offered them a more moderate version as a second choice, but they adamantly refused. At first, I couldn't discern whether their determination stemmed from sheer stubbornness, ignorance, or a combination of both.

The hike itself was grueling and demanding, characterized by uneven terrain, a humid rainforest, unclear paths, steep climbs, and significant elevation gain. It was apparent that some students were far outside their comfort zones. Yet, because they had willingly chosen to be part of this program, they found the inner strength to persevere. It struck me that the outcome would have been entirely different had the choice been made for them.

This experience has reinforced my understanding that our youth yearn to prove themselves, particularly to themselves. Given the opportunity, they eagerly seek out challenges. So, why not grant them that choice and allow them to take ownership of their own growth?
2. Striking a Balance: Personalized Learning and Inclusive Environments
As educators, we are dedicated to providing personalized learning experiences that cater to the unique needs of our students. However, there are moments when compromises must be considered, and the familiar adage of 'saving the forest while acknowledging we can't save every single tree' resonates. Yet, should we always accept this trade-off? During the programme, I observed that some students who had not chosen the challenge option seemed uneasy in the outdoor environment.

When we arrived at a magnificent waterfall, for instance, half of the students hesitated to jump in, expressing concerns about wet shoes, the need to change clothes, or the chilly water. Taking it upon myself, I stepped in to motivate them, demonstrating how it could be done, and gradually, they embraced the experience. In the end, they expressed gratitude for the transformative journey they had initially approached with caution. This leads us to an essential question: How can we create a supportive environment that accommodates individuals who may require additional assistance in our programme? As George Evans once wisely noted, 'Every student can learn, just not on the same day, or in the same way.'

Considering this, we find ourselves contemplating the question of whether grouping students by ability level is the optimal approach. While this approach can provide targeted support and foster a sense of camaraderie among peers with similar abilities, it is crucial to weigh the benefits against the potential drawbacks. We must also recognize the value of diverse perspectives and the potential for growth that arises from interaction with students of varying abilities.

What balance can we strike to ensure every student receives the support they need while fostering an inclusive and enriching learning environment?
3. The Transformative Power of Cultural Learning: A REAL partnership
One of the most captivating observations I made was while accompanying the cultural programme. The students wholeheartedly engaged in cooking local dishes, learning traditional dances, and even immersing themselves in the local language. It was an authentic and immersive dive into the rich tapestry of the host culture. However, what truly struck me was the sheer joy radiating from our local partners as they shared their cultural heritage. Their eyes sparkled with delight, and their enthusiasm was palpable. It was evident that these exchanges were not just educational but also deeply meaningful experiences for them.

In a heartwarming display of support and solidarity, the families and even the neighbours of our local partners gathered to witness the performances and demonstrations of the students. This extraordinary gesture was a testament to the strong bonds within the community and the pride they felt in sharing their traditions. It was a sight to behold, seeing the locals and their loved ones standing together, and welcoming us in their culture.

This profound display of support further highlights the transformative power of place-based and cultural learning opportunities. As we strive to be a responsible international school that collaborates with partners worldwide to deliver our Outdoor Education programme, should we consider incorporating more place-based and cultural learning opportunities? Rather than mere token gestures (the typical half-day session), I propose a balanced approach where cultural activities and adventurous pursuits are thoughtfully integrated, creating a truly enriching experience for our students and our partners.
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