How can a ‘learn by making mistakes’ approach work for outdoor education teachers?

By Samuel Cure and Allen Hill and Vaughan Cruickshank

Within many contemporary social, workplace and sporting contexts, mistakes are often perceived to be negative, resulting in underperformance and something to be avoided. Within education, in contrast, mistakes are widely seen to be“the essence of learning”. Such an approach is well researched and long recognised, even though it seems in direct competition with the prevalent mindset of ‘helicopter’ or ‘bulldozer’ parents who see mistakes as obstacles on the pathway to success for their child.

But how does the ‘learn by making mistakes’ approach work for outdoor education teachers?  In traditional outdoor education, where risky activities are often a central feature, the role of mistakes in the teaching and learning process has seldom been examined. 

A child making a mistake in the classroom is one thing, but making a mistake in an outdoor education environment is another. Classroom teachers can create safe situations for students to learn from their mistakes without fear of injury. This is much more difficult for outdoor education teachers, as a rock climbing mistake for example, is likely to have far more serious physical consequences than a mistake on an in-class task. In essence, one could be perceived to be acceptable the other simply is not. 

So risk management practices in outdoor education tend to control, manage and avoid authentic opportunities for students to make mistakes. Students become recipients of a learning activity, rather than participants in it. When working in this scenario we, outdoor education teachers, perhaps find ourselves becoming  “helicopter teachers”. 

So, how do schools and teachers navigate this complex situation, especially given the added known benefits of outdoor play in nature?

Our recent research explored how secondary outdoor education teachers perceive the notion that mistakes are ‘the essence of learning’, and how they view the role mistakes have in the learning processes in their outdoor education programs.

Our research

Our research was guided by the following research questions:

  1. How do outdoor education teachers in Tasmania perceive the role of student mistakes accompanied by feedback within outdoor learning processes?
  2. How does risk impact on the creation of a learning environment where mistakes are welcomed?

We learned that when teachers value mistakes, this type of pedagogy can still be applied to the risky activities of outdoor education and one teacher in particular, in our study, managed to make it work quite well.

Our initial research targeted the 73 members of the Tasmanian Outdoor Education Teachers Association, however, the practicalities of the study refined our focus to seven teachers who were willing to be interviewed and participate in the research. These seven teachers came from a range of Tasmanian secondary schools working across the three school sectors within Tasmania (government, catholic and independent). As predicted, all participants agreed that mistakes are an essential part of the learning process. Most participants also believed that student error and accompanying feedback were important, however this belief was not always present in the teaching practice. 

Key themes

There were five key themes that emerged from our research. Through an understanding of these, we believe we can better cater for mistakes in the outdoor learning environment and prevent ourselves from becoming “helicopter teachers”.

Five key themes that emerged. 1) goals of outdoor education; 2)  relationship between mistakes and feedback in the teaching and learning process; 4) learning environments, trust and time in outdoor education programs; 5) the impact of risk on mistakes and teaching and learning. 

When asked to outline the key goals of their programs, all of the teachers involved indicated that their programs aimed to create experiential learning opportunities to develop character traits such as resilience, independence and initiative. 

Some teachers see a link between challenge and opportunities for learning from mistakes. Of course it is important to acknowledge here that a mistake, in and of itself, does not always lead to good learning.  Rather, student mistakes might be better viewed as astarting point, but not the final destination in the learning process.

A common sentiment held by the teachers interviewed was that mistakes are indeed a powerful opportunity for learning, as they often occur in what are considered real and authentic ways. 

But how such opportunities for students to learn from mistakes can be built into Outdoor Education programs and pedagogical practices is less clear. There is a difficulty in teachers translatingtheir belief that mistakes are essential for learning into practice in an outdoor education context.

Most of the participants in this study were unable to align their beliefs regarding the value of mistakes and their pedagogical practice in discouraging them. However they were also responsible for leading compulsory, short-term (often one week being the maximum duration), off-campus programs for all students in their schools. In these settings, risk was used and managed to push students outside of their ‘comfort zone’ and have them overcome a physical challenge with high levels of perceived risk (e.g. abseiling down a 20m wall). The role of mistakes is limited in such circumstances as the consequences of something going wrong are dire. 

The one participant in this research who was able to align their belief with their pedagogical practice was a teacher who taught a year-long timetabled class to the same group of students. We will call him Harry.

Goals in Harry’s program weren’t solely about personal development, but were to (in his own words) “where we can, use the local area of the school. I want the students to be confident and independent in the outdoors. I don’t focus too much on hard skills. I want them to understand a bit more about the places we go. Part of that is understanding a little bit about ecology, and learning to appreciate what’s there and why it’s fragile”. 

In this setting, high levels of perceived risk becomes less relevant. The activity being conducted is simply a vehicle and a location for a different, possibly deeper, type of learning to occur. Spending more time with students also allows the teacher to develop stronger relationships with the group. Combining these different goals with a longer time-frame can aid in the creation of a learning environment where student mistakes are welcomed and can be capitalised on educationally. 

The greatest contrast between these two approaches, Harry’s and the other teachers of short-term courses, is the time available to be spent with students. 

Participants were really clear on the idea that the time of making the mistake is not the actual moment for learning to occur, it is the catalyst for further conversation, feedback and reflection. With greater time comes greater opportunity to learn from the mistakes that happened. Sometimes relying just on increased perceived risk as the key driver for learning can be a bit blunt. That is, it does not allow for the richer learning that may come through employing alternative educational strategies or philosophies that are relied upon in a more traditional classroom setting. 

When students are placed in artificial situations that do not require significant decision-making by the learner, there is little to reflect upon and learn from. How risk intertwines with opportunities for students to learn from their mistakes in ways that result in rich and authentic learning, raises interesting questions about how activities and experiences in outdoor education are conceived, designed and facilitated. 

The one participant in this study, Harry, who managed to cater for mistakes, did so via gradually releasing decision-making processes to students, allowing them to make mistakes and then undertaking a structured process of reflection when they occurred. This teacher did not bulldoze the obstacles, but helped their students overcome them. We believe there is a lot to be learnt from Harry’s approach for teachers, parents and the wider educational community. 

Rather than hovering over an activity and charging through the crowded curriculum, we should take more time to complete rich learning activities. In doing so, we gradually release some responsibility and decision-making to children. As their responsibility and authenticity around decision-making grows, we are encouraging them to learn how to keep themselves safe, whilst being able to make mistakes and learn from them along the way. Rather than needing to always be there to protect them, through gradually stepping back we are teaching them to do it themselves. 

For those who want more Mistakes, risk, and learning in outdoor education

Samuel Cure is an HPE Teacher and Assistant Principal in Tasmania. Sam’s pedagogical focus is aligned quite closely with his research and constantly examines the role mistakes have in the learning process. Sam is interested in the incorporation of digital technologies and 21stCentury Learning skills across the curriculum. Sam is on Twitter at @SCurePE.

Dr Allen Hill is Principal Lecturer in Sustainability and Outdoor Education at the Ara Institute of Canterbury.He has key responsibilities in building research and supervision capacity and capability in theinstitution. He also leads the development of post-graduate qualifications in Sustainable Practice. His role is to provide academic leadership in the Sustainability and Outdoor Education program.

Vaughan Cruickshank is a Lecturer in Health and Physical Education (HPE) at the University of Tasmania and is currently Program Director of the BEd(HPE) and BEd(Science/Maths) programs. He teaches a variety of practical and theoretical subjects to predominantly BEd(HPE) students and is also closely involved in the BEd(HPE) and BEd(Science/Maths) Professional Experience programs. Vaughan’s research interests include the challenges faced by male primary teachers, student centred approaches to HPE teaching, and the potential use of technology to enhance HPE teaching. 

2 thoughts on “How can a ‘learn by making mistakes’ approach work for outdoor education teachers?

  1. Learn by mistakes is something I encourage when teaching computer science project students. These students are undertaking group projects for real clients from industry and government. They can become despondent when things don’t go smoothly. But about three quarters of real world computer projects fail, so it is important for students to learn to deal with difficulties. It helps for students to reflect, to learn these lessons.

  2. Brian Cambourne says:

    Can I suggest you re-frame the notion of “mistakes” and refer to inaccurate or inapropriate responses as “approximations” ? The use of the term “mistakes” invokes the old behaviourist conceptual metaphor that the basics of teaching is reinforcement of so-called ” correct” responses and the ruthless, often punitive extinguishing of so-called “incorrect” responses.
    All human learning involves the learner making approximations which need to be honoured and responded to by those doing the teaching. These responses help the learner adjust their knowledge and ways of behaving till they gradually achieve mastery. Think of the stage of ” baby talk” in the learning-to-talk process. Are young learner-talkers who say things like “Dis daddy sock” making a series of grammatical and pronounciaton “mistakes”? It’s Or is it an “approximation” of “This is Daddy’s sock”? The research I’m aware of indicates that care-givers don’t respond as if this a” mistake” that needs to be “extinguished” . Rather they treat it as an approximation and they respond accordingly.

    Just a thought. Not a criticsm of the great work outdoor educators like yourselves are doing.

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