My teaching philosophy was largely re-shaped by experience teaching at the Whatcom Hills Waldorf School during a time when I would have gladly put any child into any classroom with any of the teachers who were there those two years I taught Spanish to all grades. The pedagogy of Waldorf Education really emphasizes teaching to age level. One of my mentors from that era was Janet Jewell who helped extrapolate the following information for use in wilderness educational settings.
First, remember that students learn in multiple ways. In Waldorf Education, they call it teaching to the head, heart and hands. Perfect for outdoor education, but also great to remember when teaching math, for instance. I remember the Waldorf teachers having the students clap along (obvious use of hands) with verbal recitation of their multiplication tables (hands and head) after hearing a story (heart and head) about how math is used in life.
Similarly, and depending on subject matter, remember that some people excel at verbal/auditory learning, kinesthetic (action-based) learning, visual learning and the somewhat-related learning through the written word. As in Waldorf Education, all those methods should be used to teach any subject, so that while practicing on their own, students can use any method to deepen into the material. Notably in outdoor education, we sometimes verbally explain things that are kinesthetic experiences, so it’s best to keep verbal explanations to a minimum unless you need to impress a bossy student.
Remember How Old Your Students Are
All students need a healthy, hot breakfast, plenty of sleep, time outdoors, seasonal activities, and meaningful work. However, different ages generally need different teaching methods, except when affected by issues listed in my previous blog article in which case the “age” gets mixed up a bit.
When teaching children under 6, provide them the following experience, presenting yourself as a “benevolent monarch” so they feel a sense of wonder about the subject, perhaps with literally whispered anticipation:
- Pentatonic songs and flute music;
- Physical warmth;
- Natural fibers;
- Time with pets;
- Peaceful atmosphere;
- Simple, consistent routine;
- Long-term bonding opportunities;
- Learning by example, not with verbal expectation: have them simply imitate you – that’s what they do;
When teaching youth between the ages of 7-13 who have not been too exposed to adult themes in their lives yet, so therefore able to still “be kids” then the following learning atmosphere is most healthy. Yes, there is a big difference after age 9 when most kids have started to “awaken” to the outside world and discover that grown-ups aren’t perfect, but you can still get away with unequivocal authority as a “benevolent dictator” and it’s a great time for fast-paced learning, especially outdoors, when this age group is basically as capable as any adult outdoors, yet still willing to go along with what you suggest:
- Loving boundaries, with declarative sentences;
- Ample, skill-building activity;
- Lots of physical exercise, including a lot of swimming or water play;
- Beauty of nature and literature spoken aloud;
- Peer group bonding;
- Dress code including protective clothing but good to expose to the elements by this age;
- Consistency, with compassionate lessons on flexibility when change occurs;
- Indigenous craftwork, making clothing, and learning to use tools;
- Collecting things;
- Structures to build;
- Routines, including short periods of free time;
- Caring for pets and other regularly set chores and small responsibilities to take care of around camp, classroom or home;
- Playing musical instruments – even just using voices or rocks to learn to tap gently along with music;
When teaching teens, there is a big difference between maturity levels, especially considering gender. 15 year olds tend to be as capable as any adult in most regards – just inconsistent due to their frontal cortexes not being completely formed/fused yet. Now you can’t be a dictator, you have to be the president of a democracy which has to deal with a supreme court, congress or parliament that has almost as much power, getting away with a lot the president doesn’t want. Basically, you have to be a great negotiator or you are going to have a coup d’etat. If you’re not going to be an exemplary adult, figure out how to surround teens with exemplary people because except for that 1-in-100 person, they are absolutely subject to the atmosphere they are in. So:
- Respect them with appreciative commentary, and be honest in all information they request, except when it comes to your own emotions, in which case you either have to act cool when you are angry, for instance, or act angry even though you know how to control your emotions, so that the teen learns the lesson.
- Choices and opportunities. Two choices are fine for a 9 year old, with increasing numbers of choices the more capable a teen becomes.
- Demonstrably safe environments, with clear boundaries around bodies, speech and behavior. Stand 5 feet from a the cliff, and let them know that the class will never return to a cliff again if anyone steps within 4 feet of the edge.
- Exposure to experts, and biographies that show what one person can do.
- Facts that challenge beliefs. Just think of all the adults who have not learned to accept facts which contradict their beliefs! We need to learn this about ourselves as teens. Fortunately, we now have tools to show teens how true this can be, like brain-scan studies demonstrating how chemically stupid we are when in love.
- Discussion with humor, and serious moral debates. Sometimes, facts really don’t matter, like with end-of-life decisions. These moral debates are the best way to engage teens. Be ready to challenge them toe-to-toe without offending them, showing them how an adult debates responsibly.
- High standards. Always challenge them to reach higher, like toward a star they can never touch but always must keep in mind to learn more and more. On the other hand, don’t give them a perfectionist complex: reward them when good enough is good enough.
- Do it, don’t just watch it, and this goes for all ages. If you are leading a plant walk, have a volunteer cut the leaves of stinging nettle and put them into the bag, then show them the correct way if not done right. Always have them doing, but not repeating wrong ways so not to develop bad habits.
- Individualization and specialization, even apprenticeships with mentors as they get older. Kids should do group presentations, but teens should be given individual projects to develop.
- Profound music.
- Patience and forgiveness.
When teaching adults, especially young adults, be sure to prepare a lot, because if you promise 100 things and only deliver 99, that’s what they will dwell on. Teens are way easier in this regard because they are used to everyone around them promising a lot and failing a lot. Young adults are idealists and perfectionists, generally not having enough heart-breaks in life yet to forgive others, especially teachers, for our insignificant transgressions.
Those who continue to have a chronic perfectionist complex – like youth with the myriad diagnoses we medicate nowadays – you just have to accept when they give you a 2-star rating, but generally, older adults are wonderful to teach. If they learn 1 thing they can bring into the future, they are happy because they have sat through many-a-waste-of-time-conference and learned that everything is remedial at a certain point, so you just have to find that “one thing they were missing” and as a teacher, it’s up to you to find that for each individual.
When teaching mixed-age groups, something that happens a lot in outdoor education, like when children and parents are present together, things get more tricky and experience – or exactly copying what you observed a veteran teacher do – is finally key. For the first ten years of my career, teaching parents and kids together drove me bonkers, because it was difficult to know when to take leadership with children, and when to allow parents to intervene. Even just knowing what tone of voice to use was tricky.
Nowadays, teaching mixed-age groups doesn’t even phase me, and I’m not sure why, other than having years of experience. Maybe I just see parents and children as equal students, and sensitively know how to gently prevent disciplinary situations. Or maybe parents are different now (discipline is back “in” whereas during the 90s it was all about allowing kids “choices”). Sometimes I prevent awkwardness in advance by asking parents to simply allow me to direct the kids. And certainly, I often remind parents to fully participate in class, rather than hanging back and observing – something that really drains energy out of the experience and causes other problems.