This blog is a copy of a comment I made in response to Sue Cowley who commented on this post about having a content repertoire. She suggested that maybe learning to walk in the hills was a matter of learning through ‘group work’. The irony of this comment is that, in reality, I learnt about hillwalking in a highly structured way, not least because the risks associated with outdoor activities involve death and serious injury. Now I am not suggesting that all people learn about hillwalking and other outdoor pursuits in the way I describe here, but I suspect the model I describe (explicit instruction – observed practice – independent practice) is very common indeed.
The first point to make is that, unlike in reading, maths or history, if people go and do hillwalking without the basics in place, people can die. Mountains are dangerous places and people do die every year. It’s worth reading Mountain Rescue annual reports: sometimes experienced people get hurt, but many of the callouts they get are from people who did not know what they needed to know for the location or conditions. The risks aren’t just there in mountainous regions: I’ve watched Duke of Edinburgh’s Award groups plan a walk along a river (“I think you’ll find that’s the M11”) and to climb across a ‘fence’ (“so that’d be the East Coast Main Line”).
So, with these risks in place, how was I taught about hillwalking?
When I was about 16 I signed up for something called Ten Tors on Dartmoor. They put teams of 6 out on the moor for two days and ask you to navigate a 35-, 45- or 55-mile route. For several months I had to attend lunchtime and after-school classes where we were taught how to read a map, how to use a compass, how to dress, what we needed to carry, how to put up a tent, how to cook on a camp stove, emergency first aid and rescue procedures. We did this over the winter, and each session essentially involved a talk by our teacher, who was a qualified Mountain Leader and a member of a Mountain Rescue team. This was very much an expert giving explicit instruction to novices.
When the spring came about he took us away each weekend, initially for a day, then for the whole weekend. At first an experienced adult walked with us, reminding us of how to navigate, how to use a compass and so on. Our teacher would watch as we practised, letting us make mistakes, correcting these when we got them wrong, and gradually giving us more and more independence as we made the transition from novice to basic competence. Once that teacher was satisfied that we could be safe on our own, we were let out independently, and the teacher would arrange to meet us at various waypoints along the way. Eventually we reached a point where we were able to complete the two-day expedition with complete independence.
After this I went to university and went out walking with a walking club. Here, although in theory I was part of a group, I regularly went walking with experienced walkers who would teach me new things (e.g. scrambling) and correct me when I was making a mistake. Over a few years I went from being the competent beginner to the experienced walker, and I began teaching the new people who joined the club. Nevertheless, whenever I wanted to push myself, I would employ (now at a cost!) the services of a teacher. I wanted bang for my buck (a mountain guide can cost over £300 a day) and again explicit instruction was what I needed. I had explicit, teacher-led instruction on rock-climbing, winter-walking (wearing crampons, using an ice axe), alpine mountaineering, mountain first aid and then (when I wanted to qualify as a mountain leader) in mountain leadership. The process was the same: as a novice the most helpful thing was explicit, teacher-led instruction, which then progressed to the teacher observing me practise, before I was able to practise on my own.
Now this is a model of pedagogy I think we should be using in schools. For novices who know little, the close tuition of a teacher is essential. As time goes on pupils, once they have got some basics, can practise under the observation of a teacher, before gaining more independence. It is normally at the latter stage that ‘group work’ begins to become useful, as each member of the group is sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to correct the mistakes of other people in the group. Now, my experienced friends and I regularly challenge each other on the best course of action, and the reason we can do that is because we had so much explicit instruction early on.
In situations where death and serious injury are possible, this approach to teaching is very, very common.
Yet when it comes to learning academic subjects in school, the stakes are not as high. The unspoken, or even unrealised, assumption is that we can risk illiteracy, innumeracy and ignorance on a teaching strategy that is less likely to be effective.