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Real learning in real-life situations

Over the last three weeks I have taken part in two school residential visits. The first was with our P6 pupils and involved a visit to Edinburgh, and the second was to Dalguise in Perthshire with our P7s. Residential visits are seen as a pupil entitlement in Curriculum for Excellence, but they very much depend on the goodwill and ability of staff to plan them and be willing to be on duty 24/7 for the duration of the visit. I feel they are an essential component of an holistic curriculum and learning experience we are try to give our learners. We have thought long and hard about our residentials and have adjusted them to try and reduce costs for parents and to make sure they are accessible for all. We provide financial support for pupils and families that may struggle with the costs, because if we recognise them as important learning opportunities, then we want all our learners to experience them.

The visit to Edinburgh consists of a one night stay in a hotel, and two days filled with learning activities. The first day consists of travelling up to Edinburgh from Jedburgh, with pupils trying to track their journey through the Borders of Scotland, with some of them experiencing this journey for the first time. Most of the first day is taken up at Edinburgh zoo, kicks off with a visit to the education centre and the opportunity to get hands on with some animals as they learn about animal classification and characteristics. This year we had close encounters with an armadillo, a Python and a rat, as well as the opportunity to look at ostrich eggs and different animal skins, fur and feathers to explore their properties and functions. After lunch we visited Edinburgh's famous pandas, gifted to the zoo by the Chinese government. Unfortunately, this year we only got to see the male panda, Yuang Guan, as the female, Tiang Tiang,  was being very reclusive during our visit. However, our P6 pupils were able to see Yuang Guan close up and hear about pandas in the wild as well as the conservation programme set up to try and protect and ensure their survival. The pupils were particularly keen to hear about the panda diet of bamboo and about how the zoo cultivates and grows their own supplies. We then spent a couple of hours touring the zoo and seeing the various animals, which included the ever popular penguins, meerkats, Sun Bears, rhinos, chimps, tigers and other big cats. Whilst I have reservations about zoos, they undoubtedly provide learners with the opportunity to see many animals in real life that they would only otherwise experience through books or film, and they fulfill a strong education and conservation remit.

After leaving the zoo, following the obligatory visit to the shop for souvenirs, which is another learning experience about managing money and budgets, we headed off to the hotel. For a lot of our children this may be the first time they have ever stayed in a hotel. They learn how to check in, use electronic room keys, and even why there is a bible in every room. Then we have dinner in the restaraunt and they learn about engaging with the hotel staff to select their meal and how to interact socially in a public setting. After dinner we head into the centre of the city for the 'Ghost Walk'. This is a tour around the Old Town and area around the Royal Mile. This is led by a guide who is 'deceased', Thomas Clapperton, who tells thems some gruesome stories about Edinburgh in the past, and in particular the Black Death and witches. He is supported by a colleagues who keeps popping up in different places playing the part of a number of infamous former Edinburgh residents. All this is done in an engaging and informative way and each pupil is given a book about the history of Edinburgh at the end of the tour. Then it's back on the bus and back to the hotel. 

By now it's almost 10pm and, as they have been on the go all day, some are starting to flag a little. However when they get a little down time in their rooms, it is amazing how they regain a lot of their energy. Give them their due though, they were all asleep by 11.30 and staff were able to relax a little. The next day began with a buffet style breakfast for everyone, another new experience for many, then packing and check out from the hotel. We and the children thank the hotel staff and head off to the bus, after a final room inspection. Following a group photograph outside the hotel, we travelled to Holyrood for a visit to the Scottish Parliament. At the parliament we were met by a guide who took us round and explained something of the history and the architecture of the building. We visited the debating chamber of the parliament and were able to look closely at the official mace and other areas. After this we were off to Dynamic Earth for lunch, followed by a workshop on glaciation which was informative and very much hands on and active. Then it was back in the bus for the trip back to Jedburgh. A very busy two days, but both were filled with learning experiences, fun and engagement for all learners. Some of the learning was direct and planned, but much of it was indirect and a result of the experiences and the social interactions involved over the two days.

The P7 residential was a longer experience. This was to a PGL centre at Dalguise just north of Dunkeld in Perthsire. This was further away and would involve a journey of over two and a half hours. We left school on the Monday morning at 7.45am and arrived at Dalguise at about 10.45am. The setting in the Perthshire hills is absolutely stunning and we were blessed with three glorious hot days, and this made the three days even more unforgettable. As soon as everyone had got their bags off the bus, we were off to our first activities. My group were taken to tackle 'Jacob's Ladder' which was set quite high up in the trees. They were shown how to put on harnesses and how to belay, and the concept of 'challenge by personal choice' was explained to them by the young instructor. Some were very nervous, and were unsure about heights, but with support and encouragement they all had a go and achieved or exceeded their personal goals. Next was 'Cat Walk', again high up in the trees. A similar challenge, but involving walking across poles stretched high up in the trees. Again, everyone faced their personal fears and apprehensions and gave it a go. Not only that, they encouraged and supported their classmates, especially the more nervous ones. At the end of the activity they explored with the instructor the learning that had taken place, for themselves individually and for the whole group.

Then we went to reclaim our luggage and faced quite a climb up a fairly steep track to our accommodation. The pupils were accommodated in a room containing either four or six beds and these had all been selected by them at school in the weeks leading up to the residential. They had also voted on the activities they wished to take part in when at the centre. Once they had made themselves at home and unpacked we headed off for our evening meal. There were seven other schools at the centre, so our pupils were given instructions for routines and procedures so that everyone could be fed in a reasonable time. After this meal we were met by our leader and taken off to take part in various team and individual games, that were to last for two hours. After that it was back to our rooms. Staff were very tired, but pupils less so. They were very excited and were making the most of what to them was a sleepover opportunity, so it was after 1.00am before our corridor eventually went quiet and staff could try to sleep.

Breakfast the next morning was at 8.10am and was greeted by some seriously quiet and tired pupils and some equally tired, and possibly grumpy, members of staff. However, by the time breakfast was completed temperatures, spirits and moods had risen and we were all ready to go again. Off to our first activity which was to be 'Vertical Challenge'. This involved the pupils facing climbs up into the trees using various vertical lines of objects to reach as high as they could go. Many reached the very highest points possible and, by now we're pretty expert at belaying and supporting each other. Then we were heading to the 'Zip Wire'. Now this was not just any old Zip Wire, it was massive and went down through the trees to a grassy area below. The kids loved it and the screams they uttered as they hurtled down from the starting tower were more to do with excitement than fear.

After lunch we experienced 'The Trapeze', involving a high climb into the trees again, followed by a leap off a small platform to try and touch a ball suspended in the canopy. All of this, the climb, the clamber onto the platform and the leap, presented different challenges to participants and they all rose to these. This activity was followed by a 'Problem Solving' session, where the whole group had to collaborate and work as a team to solve various physical and practical problems. I thought they might get bored with these but they actually enjoyed them all, and each of them got opportunities to lead and help solve the problems presented. Following our evening meal, we took part in a very loud 'Disco Experience'. Both boys and girls got into their party clothes and danced continually for nearly two hours. I marvelled at the energy levels, but we could see a number sitting exhausted around the walls of the disco room towards the end. We all slowly made our way back up the hill to our accommodation afterwards and it was no real surprise that there was no noise from anyone beyond 11.30pm. Result!

The next morning we packed bags, cleared and cleaned rooms and then headed off for two more activities. The first was ' Abseiling' down a thirty foot tower, and the second was 'The Giant Swing'. Both involved facing more personal fears and challenges, as well as collaborating and supporting each other. Our last day finished with lunch then the journey back to school. 

These two residentials had lots of well thought out and planned learning and experiences for all our learners, but to me a lot of the learning that takes place in such experiences is unplanned and comes about because of the contexts the children are in. Through our curriculum in Scotland we are trying to develop four capacities in all our learners. These are, to become successful learners, effective contributors, responsible citizens and confident individuals. It is my belief that we are most able to develop such qualities in meaningful ways when we take learners and learning outside of the classroom and put it into real life contexts. Residentials, such as our pupils have experienced on these visits, provide opportunities to develop all of those capacities, and more. It is not just through residential visits that we can achieve this, but from every opportunity we can take to situate learning in the environment, and different contexts. We then engage our learners with their community, and vice versa, and can model and make real the connections between school learning and the real world. In my experience, when young learners can see, and make, the links between what they do in school and real life situations outside of it, this deepens and embeds learning further.

Providing opportunites like these residentials is becoming more challenging, due to resource and financial pressures faced by everyone inside and outside of schools, and also because of the drive by some to narrow the curricular focus in schools. But, like the children on these visits, we need to rise to those challenges and face our fears, in order to give all our learners the opportunity to grow and thrive in ways that will equip them throughout their lives and careers. If we really want well developed and rounded individuals, equipped to succeed and contribute, we need to give them the opportunity to develop these qualities as they grow. A first step might be to empty our classrooms, so that more learning happens, and becomes located, where it is to be of use in learners lives. Mind you, you can't measure the benefits of such experiences through standardised tests, only through the personal benefits and qualities developed in each young individual.

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