Imagine a classroom where the students’ eyes are lifted from their textbooks, as teachers invite them to hands-on and experiential activities.
The students are measuring and calculating the volume of trees in mathematics, writing poems in and about nature or visiting historically significant places or buildings. Each of these activities is actively supplementing the students’ learning processes and they are taking place just outside, in the local and natural environment around schools. This is udeskole. Its literal translation: outdoor school.
Udeskole is a Scandinavian concept. In Norway it is described by Jordet. In a Swedish context by Dahlgren and Szczepanski, and in a Danish context by Mygind, Bentsen and others. Udeskole targets children aged 7-16, and is characterized by compulsory educational activities outside of school on a regular basis, e.g. one day weekly or fortnightly.
Quite similar to the English Forest School in its philosophical approach, the Danish udeskole is more embedded within the national educational system, while Forest Schools tend to be largely an external school service. In fact, in 2014, 18.4% of all schools in Denmark relocated some of their subject-related teaching to places outside the classroom on a regular basis (Barfod, Ejbye-Ernst, Mygind, & Bentsen, 2016). While the growth and support for the practice is incredible, increased attention from the research community, institutions and politicians has driven efforts to formalize udeskole. In this blog, we argue for a balanced development of udeskole between autonomous bottom-up growth and formalized methods.
There is growing interest in udeskole as, among other things, a way of reconnecting children with nearby nature largely in the local and natural environment around schools. In Denmark, politicians support this practice and researchers are investigating its horizons. Around the world, many have asked why it has come to be this way in Denmark.
In 2012, readers of The New Nature Movement blog were introduced to the Scandinavian concept of udeskole as a promising way to include external learning environments as natural spaces within the conditions that exist in schools and institutions. Now, four years later, in this guest blog, we explore the current and future developments of udeskole in Denmark as framed by practice, policy and research. As researchers of the practice, we have identified four current factors supporting the development of udeskole in Denmark, connected through mutual cooperation and exchange of knowledge. These four factors include:
1. The udeskole grassroots movement
Through professional autonomy, teacher-driven udeskole practice has been initiated in schools around Denmark, supported by some of the Danish nature interpreters locally. Unformalized, the udeskole environment has been characterized as a bottom-up grassroots movement with a high degree of openness and will among teachers, nature interpreters and educators to share their ideas and results. Since 1999, the website skoven-i-skolen.dk (connected to the LEAF project), funded by both NGOs and public grants, has offered free “ready to use” educational materials, based on material sent in by teachers and nature interpreters, and popular articles by researchers. Practitioners’ networks such as UdeskoleNet, have provided a grassroots-based forum for this shared interest.
2. Formalized teacher education in udeskole
Originally, udeskole was characterized as a ‘wildflower,’ developing on its own as a bottom-up grassroots movement. However, recently, university colleges, universities, and private organizations have reinforced its formalization. Several educational programs now offer continuing education in udeskole pedagogy, supervision, and coordination. Through this, udeskole seems to be undergoing a process of becoming a “useful garden plant in a garden” – in which the garden is the school system.
3. A recent reform of the Danish Schools Act
In August 2014, new school reform was initiated in Danish schools, which among other things supports movement, physical activity and education outside the classroom, albeit not mentioning udeskole explicitly. Following this, the Danish Ministry of Education and the Danish Ministry of Environment decided to support the development of udeskole with approximately 1.6 million Euro by launching a national demonstration, development, and research project called “Development of Udeskole.” The project generates and disseminates practice-related knowledge about udeskole and thereby supports its development and provision as a teaching method.
4. A strengthened research community
At the beginning of the 21st century, Master’s students and individual researchers began paying attention to udeskole. Originally, questions concerned the characteristics of udeskole, and various psychosocial and academic outcomes in natural environments were suggested. Recently, research on udeskole has formed around a strengthened research community boosted by a widespread awareness of and interest in udeskole among students and experienced researchers. Specifically, the need for more studies exploring effects of udeskole was a product of the willingness of the established research environment and the political interest of private foundations to focus on its health and academic opportunities. Thus, in 2013, the TEACHOUT project was launched aiming to conduct a systematic and structured evaluation of udeskole (Nielsen et al., 2016).
Based on these four identified factors, we argue that there are three prominent tendencies affecting the development of udeskole in Denmark.
1. Cross-sectorial cooperation and dialogue
The research interest has been supported by the historically strong link between practitioners’ networks and researchers. Specifically, UdeskoleNet has invited researchers to meetings and driven a dialogue with practitioners, thereby easing the collection of empirical evidence. Teachers have volunteered for research, and researchers have shown great respect to the participants. Secondly, these relations have afforded a knowledge dissemination shortcut around policy and educational institutions. Finally, the space for dialogue between practitioners and researchers has supported the addressing of research questions with relevance for practitioners, as seen in the aforementioned project “Development of Udeskole.”
2. Instrumentalization of education
Like most Western countries, Denmark has not escaped the neo-liberal focus on performativity and measurable outcomes of school (Waite, Bølling & Bentsen, 2015), new public management of schools, and the tendency to teach to the test. There seem to be two coexisting, parallel strands in Danish educational discourse: a holistic bildung one, and a neoliberal educational one. Side by side, and both being part of the current debate and research, the tendencies are developing in Danish schools. Unfortunately, the testable performance skills are easily measurable, and are essential in the debate; but they must not cover every argument considering more holistic, bildung-related outcomes. The aforementioned reform of the Danish School Act essentially places great emphasis on academic skills and ‘goal-driven’ performance tests. Following this, we observe an increasing instrumentalization of udeskole, whereby it is advocated and used to strengthen academic performance.
3. Striving for standardization
A core characteristic of research is standardization and measurement. An accidental impact of the increased research interest is a strengthened discourse on udeskole as a uniform concept, e.g. one day a week outdoors regardless of the relevance of the program, or ‘closed tasks’, instructor-driven activities. Thus, practitioners must be aware of whether or not they are adopting udeskole in a way that is consistent with their own professional autonomy and the time constraints set up by the researcher.
A development between a ‘round’ and a ‘squared’ discourseWe believe that the udeskole practice movement will continue to grow from the bottom up. However, research interest in, institutional attention to, and political awareness of udeskole have in all likelihood authenticated and formalized the concept. Thus, udeskole is currently constituted between a ‘round’ and a ‘squared’ discourse.
The recent reform of the Danish Schools Act has certainly enhanced the prospect of the involvement of more physical activity and teaching, which takes its starting point in the lived world and society outside the school context. However, anecdotal evidence has shown us that the top-down strive to implement udeskole has led to challenging conditions and reduced teachers’ desire to use it.
Is the pioneering era of udeskole gone? The grassroots movement is still going strong, but must be considered in opposition to the formalization of the approach.
Udeskole is a product of a holistic bildung approach to education, driven by a large degree of teacher autonomy, awareness of their own pupils and a ‘freedom of methods’. Thus, the ‘round’ discourse stands in opposition to the ‘squared’ discourse – the larger cross-national political pressures for educational performativity (Waite, Bølling & Bentsen, 2015), and the uniformity that is necessary when researchers try to assess udeskole outcomes.
For the near future, the ongoing formalization of udeskole will most likely continue. School management will become more aware of udeskole, and more teachers will potentially begin to relocate some of their teaching to natural places outside the classroom.
The holistic bildung approaches of udeskole, reinforced through individual teachers’ engagement, are at risk of being abandoned in favor of formalization and standardization. As a consequence, this could turn udeskole from a holistic, child-led, inquiry-based approach into a more instruction-driven teaching. We hold that the dichotomy between autonomous, bottom-up growth and formalized methods must be recognized and balanced on all levels.
UDESKOLE IN SCANDINAVIA: Teaching and Learning in Natural Places
FOREST THEATRE: A Lesson in Letting Kids Self-Direct
THE SCHOOL OF NATURE: Greening Our Schools May Be the Real Cutting Edge of Education, by Richard Louv
FOREST KINDERGARTEN IN THE CEDARSONG WAY, by Erin Kenny
Earth in Mind, by David Orr
Beyond the Rainbow Bridge, by Barbara Patterson and Pamela Bradley
Sharing Nature with Children, by Joseph Cornell
Problem-Solving in the Classroom: A Case Study from Georgia’s First Forest School by Jas Darland
Barfod, K., Ejbye-Ernst, N., Mygind, L., & Bentsen, P. (2016). Increased provision of udeskole in Danish schools: an updated national population survey. Urban Forestry & Urban Greening, 20, 277-281.
Nielsen, G., Mygind, E., Bølling, M., Otte, C. R., Schneller, M. B., Schipperijn, J. Ejbye-Ernst, Niels, & Bentsen, P. (2016). A quasi-experimental cross-disciplinary evaluation of the impacts of education outside the classroom on pupils’ physical activity, well-being and learning: the TEACHOUT study protocol. BMC Public Health, 16(1), 1117.
Waite, S., Bølling, M., & Bentsen, P. (2015). Comparing apples and pears?: a conceptual framework for understanding forms of outdoor learning through comparison of English Forest Schools and Danish udeskole. Environmental Education Research, 22(6), 868–892.
Photo Credits: Picture 3 and 4: Karen Barfod
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