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Ms Strachan demystifies outdoor learning

Andrea Strachan teaching

CIS’s most important asset is its distinguished educators. From kindergarten to secondary, all teachers and administrators work tirelessly to meet our students’ learning needs and to excel in their teaching. Andrea Strachan, a Primary School Vice Principal at Lakeside campus is a great example of these dedicated educators.

Outside of CIS Ms Strachan continues her passion for teaching and learning as a third year doctoral student at Singapore’s National Institute of Education (NIE) at Nanyang Technological University. In 2017, Ms Strachan was part of a team to publish research on the challenges and opportunities associated with implementing an outdoor learning environment, based on the experiences of CIS teachers in our outdoor discovery centre (ODC). She was also part of the writing and editing team for a publication based on papers presented as part of NIE’s Distinguished Speaker Series by Dr David Labaree (Stanford University) in 2017.. You can view this publication titled "Navigating the Tensions and Paradoxes in Preparing Educational Researchers”. Ms. Strachan has also been recently nominated for the Dean’s Commendation for Research at NIE.

Our communications team sat down with Ms Andrea Strachan recently to talk about the importance of outdoor learning in early childhood, bridging academic research with classroom teaching, and adapting to 21st century learning needs.

It is a common belief that there is always a disconnect between researchers and practitioners, as researchers focus on deepening their knowledge in theory while practitioners focus on delivering the knowledge in authentic ways in classrooms. As a practitioner and a doctoral candidate, how do you manage to bridge research into classroom teaching?

This is such a great question! Yes, gaps between theory and practice are well documented and are a real challenge in education. I am currently completing my Doctor of Education (EdD), which is slightly different from a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). The main difference is that for an EdD, my dissertation must make not only a theoretical contribution to education, but a practical one as well. I think your question has really highlighted the advantage for schools to have teachers that are also participating in research – as we have access to current research, and then we are able to think about how we can apply it in our own school context. That way, teacher researchers must find ways to bridge theory and practice every day.

During my time in my EdD programme, my understanding of what constitutes “professional development” (PD) for teachers has really changed. Many schools assume that PD should take the form of sending teachers to outside workshops or bringing in outside experts. And yes, these can be important parts of a PD plan as they can facilitate the exchange of ideas, and get people energised and reflecting on their practice. It is important to note, however, that every educational context is different.

What works in one context may not work in another. So it is important that we develop our teachers as professional action researchers – engaging with current research on best practices, and challenging assumptions that we feel do not apply to our community. And by working together in collaborative ways to address the challenges and opportunities that are unique to our own school, the whole school community benefits.

One of the things that I absolutely love about CIS is how innovative we are and open to new ideas. If a teacher comes across a great piece of research or develops a great idea, we support them in trying it out. We have piloted everything from math resources to new pedagogical models. In fact, our integrated arts approach in the kindergarten came from a proposal made by a teacher after her visit to Reggio Emilia in Italy, the hub of the world-renowned early-years learning philosophy that considers all children to be full of potential and possibilities. She drafted and shared the proposal, we provided resources to put her vision into action – and the results were amazing. You see, research does not only happen in universities. There is value to the action research that teachers can do in their everyday practice that reflects on, and improves upon what works in our school, with our students.

During your doctoral studies, what best practices have you learnt and applied to the teaching at CIS? Could you give us examples?

Some of the most powerful learning I have done during my doctoral studies is to engage with research from around the world in ways that has really challenged my assumptions about what ‘best practice’ can look like, and to consider education from a variety of perspectives.

We have to recognise that we all hold our own theories on learning – these are deep-seated, may be difficult to change, and are based on our own personal experiences in school, and in life. But there are many theories out there, and all can hold value. There is not necessarily one “right way” to do things.

At CIS, we have families from over 80 nationalities. Each parent will hold his/her own ethnotheories of learning (beliefs about learning that is connected to culture and experience) – and, within the CIS community, these can be incredibly diverse!

This raises the questions, ‘What influences parent and teacher perspectives on what is considered “best practice” in teaching and learning?’ and ‘How do teachers and parents from such diverse backgrounds come together to negotiate shared understandings of best practice?’ These are some of the questions I hope to explore in my own doctoral research.

We all need to challenge our own assumptions about what education can look like, and understand that our own personal beliefs are most likely based on models from the past. that may not be relevant today or remain relevant in the future. After all we are educating for a future we cannot know, in a world that is changing so quickly. It is especially important that we be thoughtful, forward-thinking and open-minded. So, in regards to your question, even the term ‘best practice’ has to be used in a way that remains flexible and can change. Best practice in teaching can change and look different from context to context, but good learning is always easy to recognise. We have to stay focused on the children’s learning.

How fast can an international school implement change based on best practices around the world? Can you tell us about changes that you have implemented at CIS, and walk us through the implementation process?

In large-scale public systems often curriculum decisions are developed in a place, and with people, who are far removed from the everyday classroom (this is especially true in the US, as referenced by Dr David Labaree). If you want to change something in your school, there could be a lot of ‘red tape’, to go through in a large-scale educational system.

In contrast, an international school like CIS provides an amazing context to really explore cutting edge developments in curriculum and pedagogy. We are limited only by our imagination and creativity – we are really only answerable to ourselves and our community. Yes, we must follow guidelines provided by our accrediting bodies, but how we define what practice should look like in our school is largely for us to decide. We are free to develop our school based on what works best for our students, teachers, and families.

At CIS, we can come across an innovative educational idea, develop it, present a plan to our academic board for review and approval, procure necessary resources, and begin implementation reasonably swiftly. Our amazing Chinese English bilingual programme is an example of this. We identified an opportunity, researched it, made a plan, started with a pilot in the lower grades, and grew it from there. Development from idea to initial implementation was around one year. And from there, we have continued to research, reflect and refine this programme so that it is now identified as the very best of its kind in Singapore, if not the world. This is because we have had the freedom to improve our programme, by changing and adapting it as necessary. Our globally recognised innovative outdoor discovery centre is another example of a great educational idea that came from our teachers.

Tell us about your collaboration with Prof David F. Labaree from Stanford University? What was the Distinguished Speaker Series about, and how did you get involved? What were the key findings on the education ecosystem in Singapore, and are there any changes you’d like to apply from this toCIS?

I feel so privileged to have the opportunity to study at NIE. Singapore has a world-class reputation for education and as a result, NIE draws top educational researchers from around the world to support in discussion, collaboration and innovation in education. Each year, NIE invites a leading global educator to present a series of papers to the education faculty and students as part of their Distinguished Speaker Series. In 2017 the Distinguished Speaker was Dr David Labaree from Stanford University. As I am part of the Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Academic Group I had studied Labaree’s work in one of my doctoral courses at NIE.

So, I was thrilled to be invited by two of my professors to be a part of the writing and editing team that would create a publication, based on Labaree’s papers presented at NIE during his visit. I also had the opportunity to meet him and attend his series of lectures during his visit.

I feel there are connections between Labaree’s observations on some of the strengths of Singapore’s education system, and our educational context at CIS. Labaree commented on the positive benefits of how connected NIE is to the Ministry of Education (MOE), and as a result how quickly Singapore can put research into practice in its schools. This is a strength and opportunity that large-scale education systems do not always have, and an advantage that we embrace at CIS. And I am not the only one, as several of our teachers are taking part in graduate programmes through NIE and other leading universities. All of us are engaging in educational research, and bringing it back to our school, to implement innovative ideas and initiatives.

You published another paper on the first year of implementing an outdoor learning environment, from an early childhood educator’s perspective. What were the challenges and opportunities of implementing the outdoor learning space at CIS?

When we designed and implemented our outdoor discovery centre (ODC) at CIS, we knew that we were on to something special. To say that it has transformed our teaching practice would be an understatement (especially within our Kindergarten programme). But to get it up and running, and have teachers and children fully engage with it was challenging, at first. Implementing any new curricular initiative can be challenging. And yet, after the first year we felt things were going really well and that there was something others could learn from this process.

I had the privilege of working with doctoral students from NIE to facilitate a reflection process with our teachers regarding the challenges and opportunities associated with implementing our nature-based outdoor learning environment (OLE).

These challenges included safety and supervision, managing the elements (given Singapore is hot and humid), managing the materials in the space, and overcoming children’s fear of getting a bit sweaty and muddy!

But what also emerged from our research was an understanding that nature based OLEs, like our ODC provide rare opportunities to nurture an appreciation of nature, to model and support children to take calculated risks, and facilitate the development of 21st century learner competencies (eg self-directed learning, critical thinking, problem-solving, calculated risk-taking, creativity, collaboration and environment education). The importance of collaboration while implementing this new initiative within our school. (collaboration amongst the teachers, but also between parents and teachers) was also highlighted. We are proud that our small-scale pilot study on implementing our ODC was later published in the educational journal Learning: Research and Practice.

You mentioned that students and teachers co-designed their new outdoor learning space? How did they go about it?

When it comes to great pedagogical practice, I believe that students and teachers should always be co-designers of any learning space. This means that teachers and students work together to decide how their learning space will be used, how materials may be organised, the shared rules and agreements within the space, and the potential learning opportunities that will take place within it.

When we implemented the ODC, we started by simply bringing the children into the space and observing how they interacted with it. What did they like? What did they not like? What were they drawn to? What challenged them? Where were the opportunities to embed our articulated curriculum outcomes? We listened to what the children had to say – their imaginings but also their practical ideas. Teachers then worked together and with the students, to develop how the space could be used, and to facilitate learning within it. The teachers were constantly responsive to the needs and interests of the students and this transformed the ODC from a simple garden to a powerful learning space. Thus, they were co-designers of their learning space.

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