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Room to grow in the great outdoors

By Kristie Kellahan

Innovative teachers help students think beyond the blackboard, writes Kristie Kellahan.

Patrick Spiers says teaching at Field of Mars Environmental Education Centre is "fun, adventurous and intellectually rigorous".

Interacting with all ages and grades K-12, the former science teacher has designed several outdoor learning experiences to teach students about the environment in which we live.

Spiers, a high-achieving teacher who was recently awarded the NSW Premier's Copyright Agency Creativity and Innovation Scholarship, seeks to arm students with innovative ways to tackle life's challenges. (The Victorian Education Excellence Awards honour outstanding teachers in Victoria.)

"Many of the tasks or investigations the students face when visiting Field of Mars EEC for an excursion are open-ended, meaning that there is rarely a set answer or outcome which is right," he says. "We design programs this way to stimulate students' use of higher-order thinking skills."

Taking learning outside the classroom allows Spiers to use creative ways to enhance the learning environment. In place of worksheets, students are given an iPad or camera to record their observations. Students from different locations are also encouraged to work together using interactive videoconferencing and simultaneous data collaboration.

Spiers and his students make full use of interactive technology, including social learning networks, internet forums, wikis, blogs and Skype, to promote learning that is engaged and compelling.

"I know content has its place in the curriculum, but in the modern internet age content is generally only a few mouse clicks away," Spiers says. "I'd like to help future generations to develop as creators, networkers and problem solvers."

Spiers will use his scholarship funds for an international study tour to investigate how the best teachers foster student creativity and innovation, especially in the context of education for sustainability.

With a focus on edible gardens, Julie Kennelly teaches students about sustainability at Thalgarrah Environmental Education Centre. She says experiential learning and working outdoors leads to a high level of student engagement.

With funding from a scholarship, Kennelly investigated ways teachers established edible gardens in schools and how they incorporated garden-related activities into the curriculum. From the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) in Britain, Kennelly learnt how to encourage schools to get involved with experiential learning focused on the school garden. "In their model, edible gardening is a whole-of-school enterprise," Kennelly says.

"After visiting RHS, we redeveloped our own school edible garden so that visiting teachers and students could see an example and participate in composting, worm farming and growing activities."

Year 11 teachers
Number employed in year to August 2012: 21,115
Growth in past 10 years: 20.3%
Average weekly wage (full time): $1452
Average weekly wage (full time all occupations): $1144

Full time: 71.6
Average weekly hours full time: 42
Unemployment: Low 

Published: 10 November 2012

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