Interview: Joe Walker

Published: 23rd May 2016

Education Scotland's Joe Walker talks about outdoor learning in education, connections with spirituality and John Muir's relevance today

Is there a place for the outdoors in the modern school curriculum?

Very much so. Outdoor learning is embedded in Scottish Education and Education Scotland is committed to supporting practitioners in providing the highest quality learning and teaching experiences indoors or outdoors. Outdoor learning covers a range of contexts and experiences for learners and the Education Scotland website has a range of great learning and teaching ideas and approaches related to outdoor learning - whether that’s in the school’s own grounds, places nearby or in wild places. 

As Education Scotland's Senior Education Officer for Religious and Moral Education, how do you think outdoor learning relates that subject?

Religious and Moral Education (RME) is concerned with assisting learners to understand themselves and their place in the world. This also means helping learners consider their relationship with the natural world and their responsibility for it. Key to RME is reflection on the meaning and nature of things and on the whole concept of interrelatedness. RME is there to support learners in reflecting upon a range of matters related to beliefs, values and issues and practices and traditions. So for example, in RME learners will explore a range of beliefs and viewpoints – religious and secular - and reflect upon their own beliefs in light of this. They will examine values and the complex issues involved in making moral decisions. As a result of this, learners will be likely to consider their actions – how do their beliefs and values lead to actions, and what are the consequences of these actions for themselves, others and the natural world. This again, highlights the fact that RME is there to support learners in investigating, exploring and understanding and acting upon their understanding. Read more about RME and outdoor learning.

How did you come across the work of the John Muir Trust?

My first degree is in Theology, but my second is in environmental science /geography – a slightly topsy-turvy way of going about studying I suppose, but I had fantastic teachers at Clydebank High School in the 70s. The thing is, those individuals inspired me to love learning – about everything. So while I am passionate about RME, I’m also passionate about the environment, psychology, english, drama, music, sport... I genuinely find no topic boring since there’s always something to learn and get excited about. So the environment remains an interest of mine and while I was teaching I built up connections with the John Muir Trust.

What interests you about John Muir in particular? 

The key thing about John Muir is that he was a man of great conviction. He saw nature not as something to be tamed and controlled but as something which could help us get in touch with our deepest thoughts and beliefs. He viewed nature as not something ‘out there’, but something that we are intrinsically linked to. I think he reminds us of the important connections between life on earth – and how important is that when so often it seems that the focus is on the divisions in our world. For me, one of the key features of RME is its ability to help learners explore our shared humanity. This can be achieved through examining the lives and beliefs of a range of figures, including people such as John Muir.

What changes have you seen in education in recent years?

I think one of the key changes is that education has moved to a much more exploratory process. I remember a lecturer at my teacher training college (not an RME lecturer I hasten to add) stating that education was about 'getting what’s in your head into the pupil’s head'. I found that a rather sad assertion since it suggested that education was about no more than passing on mounds of ‘stuff’ from one generation to the next. While passing on our understanding and learning is valuable, it is also important for each subsequent generation to challenge and expand our knowledge and understanding as well as challenge what we have passed on to them. Education today is about developing the skills of investigation, analysis, exploration, enquiry and reflection – and is about what we do with the knowledge, skills and understanding we have. I became a teacher to make the world a better place – 30 years on I haven’t lost that enthusiasm for doing so, and for helping learners to do so too. For me, Curriculum for Excellence frees up learners and practitioners to focus on skills, attributes and the mechanics of learning – allowing these qualities to be developed in a variety of contexts as best suits learners and practitioners 

Why has the John Muir Award become of interest in your work?

All our Senior Education Officers at Education Scotland are committed to supporting outdoor learning through their own curricular areas. I have seen a number of examples of the John Muir Award in action, and it is good to see young people engaging with the outdoors in a variety of contexts. I still think there’s room to expand learning in and through the outdoors across a wider range of contexts though – we have to ensure that outdoor learning is meaningful and appropriate and not artificial. Just doing something outdoors which you can equally well do indoors does not, for me, make it outdoor learning.

What would you like to see as a result of you and your colleagues spending time with various practitioners?

The really exciting thing about Scottish education is that practitioners at all levels are ‘in it together’. Since joining Education Scotland I have had no sense that my organisation’s role is to get out there and tell practitioners ‘how to do it’. My role as a Senior Education Officer is to support, inspire, and enthuse practitioners towards better learning and teaching so that we maintain the high quality of learning and teaching for which Scotland is rightly internationally acclaimed. I work with the teaching profession and with learners and we all learn from each other. I’ll finish by saying that the result of it all should be making the world a better place for there is no greater fool than the s/he who does nothing because s/he can only do a little.   

An edited version of this interview appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of the John Muir Award News.