#Letstalkeducation

Timely insights for those in the Outdoor Education scene; A conversation with Mr Nicholas Conceicao, Executive Director of Outward Bound Singapore

20th Oct 2020
#Letstalkeducation

Timely insights for those in the Outdoor Education scene; A conversation with Mr Nicholas Conceicao, Executive Director of Outward Bound Singapore

20th Oct 2020
In today's edition of #Let'sTalkEducation, we have the pleasure to invite Mr Nicholas Conceicao.

Nick, as those closer to him would call him, is the Executive Director (ED) of Outward Bound Singapore(OBS) . He started as an instructor at OBS in 1994 and has now been serving as the ED of OBS for the past 14 years. (Trivia time, did you know that 14 years is also the average lifespan of a Fox! Ok, I'm digressing.)

Under Nick's leadership, OBS collaborated with the Ministry of Education (MOE) to develop the National Outdoor Adventure Education Masterplan. Under this plan, all students in Singapore's public schools will have an opportunity to participate in a 5-day Outward Bound programme. OBS also promoted collaboration amongst OB schools in the region and provided technical advice in the setup of several Outward Bound centres.



Nick, seen second from the right here, being involved in a site visit and providing technical advice ahead of Outward Bound Vietnam being set up
In today's edition, we will break down what outdoor education really means, its usefulness and how to make a career in Outdoor Education(OE). Fret not, we will not let Nick go away without asking him some hard questions. Read on to find out more.
TL;DR
We know that, these days, barely anyone reads through every paragraph. Below are the topics being discussed so that you can jump straight to the section that interests you. See how much we love you! No, there is no hyperlink; you still have to scroll down to the required section. We do not love you that much! Yet...
Meet Nick
Get to know Nick on a more personal level
What is Outdoor Education and its role today
Nick shares with us what OE really means and its place in today's world
What it takes to be an outdoor educator
Short but an on point tip if you are considering whether OE should be a career for you
Thoughts on the education scene and various pedagogies
This is the real meat. Is OE really important? What are the various pedagogies out there? How do they all work together? And some extra golden nuggets that we will let you find out
Feedback from students and parents about the OBS experience
First hand account of what people who went through OE as well as those close to them say about the impact of an OE experience
OE tips to practice at home
Ever heard of "Don't try this at home"? Well, this is the opposite. Tune in, especially if you are a parent.
Meeting Nick
Tesh
Hello Nick, thanks for making time for us. Our readers have a sense of your contributions in the OE sector. Let's get to know you on a more personal level. What defines you as a person?
Nick
Hmmm, I believe that life should be lived to the fullest; happiness is often attained by leading a meaningful life with simple needs. Look for the good in people and try to be helpful to others whenever possible. At work, I'm inspired by the following tenet from Lao Tzu - an ancient Chinese philosopher: A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.
Tesh
That's a very powerful Tenet to live by. Just to be sure, we are not referring to the latest Tenet movie?
Nick
Ha! Ha! No, definitely not the movie! I watched the movie and I certainly don't want to be travelling to and fro endlessly in time!
What is Outdoor Education?
Tesh
Haha, it seems that we have broken the ice, so let's jump straight to the heart of the matter, to you what is Outdoor Education?
Nick
For me, OE is any form of organised learning that takes place in the outdoors with the aim of social-emotional and outdoors-related learning outcomes. Through OE, people may learn valuable social interaction skills and acquire a deeper understanding of nature and the outdoors, our environment and sustainability.
Tesh
It's interesting that you pointed out that, in OE, there is a deliberate planning process to allow organised learning to take place. Some still think that OE is just about chaperoning people into the wilderness. What is your opinion of the place of Outdoor Education in today's society?
Nick
I would say that OE has a much greater need and relevance in today's urbanised societies. Compared with previous generations, advances in technology has enabled people to interact virtually from a young age and in the process, their social-emotional development occurs quite differently. As you're aware, virtual learning alone cannot replace or address the assimilation of critical life-skills which occurs inherently with physical and social contact. In schools, OE has been found to complement what cannot be easily learnt within the confines of a classroom. Studies have shown that a well-designed and facilitated OE programme can have transformative results that are long-lasting both for the facilitator and participants.

Credit: Nicolette Sowder from wilderchild.com
Tesh
If somebody is still not sold by the merit of an OE experience, could you share your best anecdote/story that could possibly turn the person into an outdoor ed advocate?
Nick
By definition, an adventure experience is an undertaking involving some level of uncertainty and sensible risk-taking. A positive adventure experience can realise greater self-confidence, resilience and a sense of achievement in what was previously thought unattainable.

I recall a training attachment I attended in New Zealand as a budding instructor learning white-water kayaking skills. As my instructor shared a metaphor for running a river; he said, "there are 3 kinds of people on the river i.e. those who make things happen, those who wait for things to happen and those who don't know what's going on." He was conveying that life was akin to running a river where you can decide on the path you chose whilst making best use of the water conditions or, you can be led aimlessly by the water flow. The flow of water in the river can be pressurising and may create a false sense of urgency say, in decision-making. I learnt that by back-paddling, I could hold my position against the river flow and think through my options to pick an optimal route. So, in life I can do likewise to take stock of where I am, re-evaluate what's urgent and important to better manage what I do. If there is uncertainty in the path ahead, I can scout ahead on land along the river bank and set up checkpoints where help is available to support me (in running the river, we'd position our buddy with throwbags to assist us if we encounter difficulties). To me, this was a real example of life-skills we can pick up through OE.
Nick thinking through his options as he braces surf like conditions to avoid capsizing
What it takes to be an Outdoor Educator
Tesh
Wow, for the instructor to manage both the activity's safety and real life learning, he/she must be skilled. That brings me to my next question. For people looking to make a career in outdoor education, do you have any advice as to what kind of person this job is most suitable for?
Nick
First and foremost, an outdoor educator must be passionate about the outdoors and have a strong motivation for developing people. Often, the people development skills and experience in applying the outdoors as a learning environment takes more time to master than the technical skills themselves i.e. one can be a competent sailor but it takes more skills for one to harness sailing as a means to develop social competencies. One can start by striving for mastery in one technical discipline as the meta-skills i.e. group management, methods of instruction and risk assessment are eventually transferable to other field disciplines. Most importantly, one must have fun in the process.
Thoughts on the education scene and various pedagogies
Tesh
Those are some good advice that I can relate to. Now, to the harder questions. What are your thoughts on the various kinds of education: mainstream education, alternative education such as the montessori system, and multiple other educational pedagogies such as outdoor ed? Isn't the space too crowded? How does one make sense of all that?
Nick
I believe there is no single pedagogy which holistically encapsulates the developmental practices needed for people of all ages, learning styles and outcomes. Each approach has its strengths and the challenge is for the programme developer to determine the appropriate pedagogy in line with the training needs assessment. The other aspect is also how the various pedagogies may be adapted and refreshed to continue its relevance to emerging needs of the community.
Tesh
I am going to be the devil's advocate here. Since every pedagogy has its own merit and if I don't fancy being in a white water to learn life skills, can I say that I can learn those skills through other mediums and OE might not be suitable for everyone?
Nick
Certainly, one can learn through other mediums; it's just that OE is about learning within and through the use of the outdoors as a classroom. One can also experience learning in a virtual or augmented reality environment and in some applications, this may be optimal. So, probably what's critical is the level of self-discovery (experiential vs rote learning) required for effectively achieving the learning outcomes desired.
Tesh
So, if I hear you correctly, your message is that each person has a different developmental need. OE comes in to provide an experiential approach for self discovery and gain of critical life skills obtained from physical and social contact. And this is what sets it apart from other pedagogy. Is my interpretation accurate?
Nick
OE by definition emphasises learning in the outdoors so this is what sets it apart from other pedagogies; experiential learning is also integral in other pedagogies e.g. Montesorri so it's not limited in use to OE. From what I've read, pedagogy refers to the theory and practice of teaching and there are broadly, four approaches i.e. behaviourism, constructivism, social constructivism, and liberationist. OE seems to be categorised under constructivism which postulates that people learn through experiences and reflection.
Tesh
Thank you for framing the four approaches to pedagogies and where OE sits. It really brings clarity and I must admit that this is something new for me.
Nick
Let me share with you this other link that talks about what educators should know about pedagogy.
Feedback from students and parents about the OBS experience
Tesh
Thank you. Are you able to share what the students say about their experiences at Outward Bound Singapore?
Nick
Anecdotally, I would say most students found their experience at OBS enriching and rewarding; some would have found the going tough during their course but they realised a sense of achievement at the end. Since we launched the MOE-OBS Challenge Programme in 2017, 83% of the students who participated agreed that the programme should be a shared experience for all students. This feedback affirms our aim of bringing youths from all walks of life to share an OBS experience i.e. a rite of passage for all students. About 76% agreed that if the opportunity arose, they would opt to attend another Outward Bound programme. Probably, most of the remaining 24% opted otherwise cos it's too tiring and attending OBS once in a lifetime is enough. That's ok too! - smile-
Tesh
Haha yes! I always have those rare students who told me that they loved it but once is enough. That's like us coming back from a tough expedition and telling ourselves "no more". But two months later, we are planning for the next expedition!
Nick
Perhaps, some lessons are best learnt in the outdoors. Let me share two examples of reflections shared by our participants:
" It is a journey into the unknown. Testing yourself to get the best out of it and also knowing yourself deeply. Leaving to push one's mind to the limit to achieve a goal. It is a once in a lifetime experience to gain knowledge about yourself and what you are willing to do." - participant from 2019 MOE cohort

"I have understood how important it is to preserve our heritage and environment like the heritage landmarks and wide biodiversity of animals and plants in Pulau Ubin. This has aroused my interest in visiting Pulau Ubin with my family some day" - participant from 2018 MOE cohort
Tesh
Do you have any feedback from parents or teachers who might have seen positive lasting change in the students?
Nick
I think it would be presumptuous to attribute positive lasting behaviour changes in the students solely from their five-day OBS experience. We conceptualised the National Outdoor Adventure Education Masterplan with MOE to introduce the benefits of outdoor learning to all students over a progression of three cohort camps from upper primary to Sec 3. In between these camps, schools reinforce the learning of critical skills through their PE and other outdoor activities. So, it is really the combined efforts of all the outdoor educators involved who contribute to the change.
Tesh
I see this as a beautiful plan to bring all stakeholders onboard. I would still want to know though what's the feedback from teachers and parents
Nick
What I can say is that parents and teachers have told us that when the students attend OBS with their peers from other schools, they make new friends and develop a deeper understanding of working with students from other walks of life. For many students, this experience is humbling and they develop empathy for the less privileged or disabled; for others who are less confident, they learnt that they have strengths and abilities which can contribute to the team too.
Tesh
I can relate to that. I had a student who, after 5 days, shared to the group that it was his first time he ever felt appreciated. First time, can you imagine what that means.
Nick
Let me show you this letter from one of the parent too
Dropping you a note to say thanks for the awesome experience that the school coordinated last week.

My son who is usually quiet and reserved came back with many beautiful stories to share. We were pleasantly surprised that he came out of his "shell" during the past week in Ubin, taking on roles that he never would have signed himself up for.

We never knew he is capable of leading and coordinating since he usually prefers being the "flower pot"
OE tips to practice at home
Tesh
You are also a proud parent of 4 kids, do you practice this OE pedagogy with them? Are there some tools/pedagogical methods that you used with your kids that you think others can easily practice?
Nick
At an early age, children need the space and opportunity to experience and try many new activities helpful in their holistic development. The innate skills that come from exploration and experimentation is indeed valuable as kids acquire critical learning skills i.e. how to learn-by-doing, learning through failure and learning how to excel. Where opportunity allows, I make it a point to highlight a learning moment e.g. when we're on vacation overseas, watching a movie or even in physical activities. I'm also conscious of continuously learning myself e.g. in playing a musical instrument as I hope this sets an example to my children that it's never too late for one to pick up new skills.
Bonus Questions - For those who read thus far!
Tesh
Thanks Nick for spending some time with us. I can really sense your passion for OE through our conversation. I wish that your Tenet that you live by is felt through your leadership. Before you go, can you entertain us by replying to the next two random questions? Are you a beach or mountain person?
Nick
I enjoy both being in the water and in the mountain; however, my strength is more oriented towards the sea as my early experiences in the outdoors started there.
Nick on the sailboat on an expedition from Singapore to Lumut
Tesh
Lastly, what is the one gadget that you bring with you no matter what kind of holiday you go for?
Nick
I always have a small pocket knife; it's a handy tool useful in many situations. Having said that, I'm mindful to also be sensible in where I carry one so as not to get in trouble with local authorities.
Tesh
It's something that many outdoor person swear by! Thanks again Nic for your time and sharing with us your take on the education scene.
Nick
It was my pleasure.
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