“The concept of a ‘21st century skill’ makes no sense to me. What intrigues and inspires me is how being outside can encourage and facilitate the development of these skills in a more effective way than being stuck inside a classroom.” – Juliet Robertson, Scotland
With digital learning becoming more and more mobile, the definition of a “classroom” is broadening. And this opens up a world of new possibilities for learning – both inside and outside the traditional learning environment. For Julia Robertson, those possibilities are limitless. Robertson’s passion for outdoor learning is evident in her work as an education consultant and through her cleverly titled blog, “I’m a teacher, get me OUTSIDE here!” Along with past Daily Edventures interviewee Ollie Bray (@olliebray), Robertson also co-authored a resource called Teach-IT Outdoors. “It’s all about using technology outside and providing a range of ideas and guidance to support teachers through the process,” Robertson notes. “It is the only resource of its kind on the planet!”
A former head teacher, Robertson started her business in 2007 to provide creative Support, Training, Advice and Resourcefulness (STAR) as an education consultant. Her business is a social enterprise, which means any profit is reinvested back into the company or into projects that support getting children outside. Robertson has helped many teachers and school leaders develop outdoor education programs through her books, speaking engagements and in-person school visits. She has said that “Humanity has spent most of its existence outside in natural environments. We’ve evolved to survive and flourish in green spaces but have come to live – and study – in little boxes. It’s just not natural.” It’s hard to disagree with Robertson, and even harder not to get excited about the opportunities she’s uncovering by taking learning outside the classroom. Enjoy today’s Daily Edventurewith Juliet Robertson.
What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you?
In 1987 I received a travel grant from the London Society of Friends (Quakers) to go to America and “do something that William Penn would approve of.” I spent a long summer working at Norris Square Neighborhood Project in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Philadelphia. I assisted a staff member in creating and running a summer program of outdoor activities for 11- to 14-year-old boys. In spite of the violence and high rates of crack and other drug addictions, I saw that this center was offering stability, hope and a sense of pride in being Puerto Rican through its work in the local community, especially on garden projects, cooking and street murals. It gave the young people options and possibilities. That’s what education needs to do for every child. Provide a sustainable future of many possibilities where hope exists. Schools need to be at the heart of every community.
Can you tell us about a favorite teacher, or someone who made a difference in your education?
When I was in Grade 5, my teacher was Miss Newson. She taught over 30 of us in a tiny classroom that was too small for tables so we worked on clipboards whilst sitting on the floor for a lot of the time. She was very respectful even when I was naughty. She had very high expectations of everyone in the class. She also experimented. I remember her training me and several others to design our own timetable for completing basic ongoing tasks.
Please describe how your professional achievements have advanced innovation in education. What has changed as a result of your work?
My company, Creative STAR, undertook the research and groundwork required to kick-start the Glasgow and Clyde Valley Forest Kindergarten Project. This innovative project helps early-years settings in Scotland’s most urban areas access natural spaces for play and learning. We have also developed a low-cost system of training practitioners. It relies on previous participants supporting new practitioners into the program. So it is very empowering for all involved.
Creative STAR has ghost-written a number of key outdoor learning publications and other work for the Scottish Government including: Outdoor Learning: Practical Guidance, Support and Ideas for Teachers and Practitioners in Scotland and Building your Curriculum Outside and In. These documents are unique in that contact with nature and the value of free play outdoors are themes constantly running through both documents. I do not know of any other country which recognizes the true value of both within their education systems. Do you?
I wrote the Experiences and Outcomes Guides to identify where outdoor learning is most valuable within the curriculum areas. I also train, work with and undertake keynote presentations which bring me into direct contact with around 2,000 educators each year. I remain impressed at the creative capacities of educators who take my ideas, adapt them and make them so much better when taking their own classes outside.
My blog is a source of inspiration for many as I often refer to natural materials or unwanted items available for free. I particularly like the posts which focus on the use of sticks. Sticks have negative connotations in education but I have shown many positive educational uses for sticks. For example go and find a small stick and break it into five pieces. Now try and put those pieces back together. Most people find this a lot more challenging than a five-piece jigsaw and more absorbing, too. Even if only one percent of visitors to my blog take their classes of 30 children outside for a lesson just once, then 30,000 children benefit. That is the potential impact of a blog.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
I think through my blog and other uses of social media I prove daily that learning outdoors and technology complement rather than compete with each other. I demonstrate that collaboration and cooperation online can lead to more educators feeling inspired and able to take their classes outside to learn – with and without technology.
In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?
It has to be learning outside. We have barely begun to see, let alone explore, the educational possibilities of learning outdoors, especially in combination with continuous advances in digital technology. It’s turning education inside-out! When you begin to think and teach outdoors suddenly the classroom seems too small.
Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?
No, the concept of a “21st century skill” makes no sense to me. As humans we have always needed to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, communicators, collaborators and creative. What intrigues and inspires me is how being outside can encourage and facilitate the development of these skills in a more effective way than being stuck inside a classroom.
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
When learning outside, our main tools are ourselves and the surrounding environment. The more natural the environment, the richer “learning resource.” Thus I would give every child a mature native tree in their school grounds. This would provide:
- Shade and shelter when working outside
- A bountiful supply of sticks and leaves which can be used for all sorts of math and technology
- A stimulus for creative writing, critical thinking and philosophizing
- A place to play in and around, climb, jump and swing from
- A friend to talk to and hug
- Homes for other species of animals, plants and fungi which would lead to many more real science and field study opportunities
- Seeds that we can plant so we can grow more trees elsewhere
- A metaphor for many things — especially around continuity, change and developing a sustainable lifestyle
It is the education equivalent of providing a fishing rod and showing someone how to use it rather than handing them a fish on a plate. Even this analogy supports learning outside. Hey!
What is your country doing well currently to support education?
Scotland has a remarkable, progressive and well-thought out approach to learning outside which is a core part of our Curriculum for Excellence. It recognizes that a broad range of frequent and regular outdoor experiences are needed as part of any high quality education provision. The recent report on Learning for Sustainability has put forward a key recommendation that every student must have daily access to nature. This is based upon the increasing evidence of the cognitive, social, emotional and physical benefits that time in nature brings. All this has come about as a result of much good-hearted collaboration and communication between educators, politicians and partner organizations. I am proud to have played my part in this process.
How must education change in your country to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?
I hate to say this but I think we think we are doing much better than what we actually are in Scotland. The reality is that education has not changed enough in the right direction to meet students’ needs and aspirations. My son, who is 16 years old, remains puzzled at the irrelevance of most of the work he is asked to undertake in his courses. Naturally, more real-world learning in a community context would help.
What is the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome to ensure students are receiving a quality education?
Whilst a teacher, educator, child or politician makes a decision based on fear then it is hard for emancipation to happen. As Richard Bach stated in the book Illusions, “Argue for your limitations and sure enough they are yours.” We need an education culture based upon freedom, not fear. The only way to change this is for each and every one of us to believe in and to think and act from a position of freedom. I say this on the basis of the perceived barriers and issues which teachers cite when telling me why they can’t take their students outdoors.
How can teachers or school leaders facing similar challenges implement what you’ve learned through your work?
Be prepared to experiment. I am not an “outdoor learning expert.” I’m an ordinary teacher who experiments with possibilities. I also believe that experiments never fail.
About Juliet Robertson
- Birthplace: Cumbria, England
- Current residence: Near Aberdeen, NE Scotland
- Education: BSc(Hons) Environmental Science, PGCE (Primary), Scottish Qualification for Headship
- Website I check every day: My blog: I’m a teacher, get me OUTSIDE here! Twitter, Facebook
- Person who inspires me most: Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods. Not only did he write a book that inspired a movement, he is actively involved in supporting this globally through his organization, Children & Nature Network.
- Favorite childhood memory: When I was eight years old, I walked up Place Fell in the Lake District in my swimsuit and sandals, feeling hot and tired. At the top I got an amazing view. In that moment I realized our planet is beautiful and precious and needs to be loved and looked after.
- Next travel destination (work or pleasure): I’m looking forward to three days training on the Western Isles and working with practitioners who have to deal with gale force wind and weather which batters you daily in the winter. We are looking at improving math and literacy through the outdoors.
- When was the last time you laughed? Why? When I read this question. I laugh a lot and often at inappropriate times. Oops!
- Favorite book: Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. It helps me remember that educators can play their part in creating a positive, sustainable, global future for our children and future generations. It also reminds me why we need nature in our lives.
- Favorite music: I am shockingly mainstream. At the moment, I am really into Emeli Sandi, who was brought up in a nearby village. She sang at the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics.
- What is the best advice you have ever received? It was from my step-father. He told me years ago to “hope for the best but expect the worst” and to always “panic tomorrow.”
- Your favorite quote or motto: “Think outside. No box required.” I saw it on a T-shirt a few months ago and thought it very apt for my work. I’m always encouraging people to “think outside.”
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