The Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles has inaugurated outdoor classroom facilities for its three Gaspesian and Magdalen Islands campuses in fall 2022. The Gaspésie is that region in eastern Quebec along the estuary and Gulf of St. Lawrence. The Magdalen Islands are an archipelago located in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Located north of the 47th parallel, the climate there is quite harsh. For this reason, we wondered what motivation could have driven the region's colleges to want outdoor classrooms.
Josiane Bergeron, biology teacher and head of the ACTES committee at the Magdalen Islands campus, Amanda-Émilie Côte-Boudreau, pedagogical advisor at the Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles and Danka Cormier, assistant director of studies, very kindly answered our questions.
1 - This experimentation benefited from a preparation time extended over more than one year. What were the main drivers that encouraged you to move forward?
Josiane - Personally it was the pleasure of already teaching outside for 15 years and the certainty that it would bring a positive diversification of teaching methods to the campus. Consistency with "life-size studies."
The fact that the University of Sherbrooke was able to implement a dozen outdoor classes on its campus within two-three months was proof that "where there is a will, there is a way." It was inspiring, for sure.
Amanda-Emilie - The desire to always improve the education that is offered to our students and to stay up to date in the development of new innovative pedagogies also pushed and encouraged us to develop outdoor classes.
Diversifying learning methods increases the percentage of retention of information in our learner. Our outside classes serve the same purpose as our active classes: to vary the methods and to engage our students in their learning.
2 - What have been the main reluctances encountered?
Josiane - The costs of fitting out, the maintenance costs, the appearance of new tasks for the maintenance staff.
Amanda-Emilie - Outdoor education is a very specific style of teaching, you have to relearn how to teach. It is not a reluctance, but rather a learning that teachers have had to explore in their practice.
To explain my thinking, it's like if we move away from digital interactives and go back to the green board with chalk, it's an adaptation. But our teaching community is always up for exciting challenges, especially when they know the positive impact against student learning and motivation.
3 - How much of this preparation is necessary for this kind of project to succeed?
Josiane - Super important! You have to take the time to think through the project, analyze our needs, the functions of the outdoor classroom, potential sites. I also think it's worth it to get professional landscapers involved.
Amanda-Emilie - Ask the teachers also what they imagine the outdoor classroom to be, remain that it will be the users. A flexible classroom, a natural classroom, chalkboard or not. Because all this greatly influences the teaching that will be given there. We need to allow ourselves to have a classroom that is in motion, even if we decide on an initial plan, it can evolve, still the primary goal of outdoor classrooms is to best serve the learning of our students.
4 - Your region is known for its particularly cool and windy climate and a harsh winter. How did these conditions influence this project and your expectations?
Josiane - Spring is very late in the Islands, but fall is mild. The classroom can be used until mid-session with no problem in the fall. In the spring, it is more uncertain. From the beginning, it was known that the classroom would be used more in the fall than in the spring. However, this space will be available to the community so it will likely be used during the summer for francization activities, activities with day camps, etc.
Amanda-Émilie - I would add that regarding pure outdoor pedagogy it would be relevant to say that the outdoor classroom could be used year round, there is no such thing as bad weather as bad clothes. Indeed, our reality is a bit different, again more from campus to campus, not all having the same facilities. It's important that teachers feel comfortable going outside and it's especially important that they think about what activity they want to do there. If it's to do math, mittens are less appropriate, but if it's to go get inspired for an art creation why not.
Certainly there are busier times, I think we need to cherish them and shine a light on the activities that happen there so that we can encourage some of the more adventurous teachers to use the outdoor classroom in times that we might consider less opportune.
5 - What do teachers and students expect from an outdoor classroom? Do those who have used them so far express satisfaction?
Josiane - Yes. Several teachers are already using it and enjoying it. Students also enjoy the outdoor classes and the classroom is used a lot during breaks (there are always people in the classroom studying, resting (in the hammocks), chatting, etc.).
Amanda-Emilie - Indeed, the teachers who dared to go outside can no longer do without it, some even miss the beautiful season already and look forward to the next one. This location, as my colleague tells you, serves as a gathering place outside of class. Allows for group cohesion. A sense of belonging to the campus. These are all criteria that increase the engagement of young people in their learning.
6 - What recommendations would you make to those tempted to follow your example?
Josiane - Use the University of Sherbrooke guide: Outside Classes - Training Support Service - University of Sherbrooke (usherbrooke.ca)
Take the time to think the project through. Call in professionals. Do not neglect landscaping and the use of a wide variety of plants in the design.
Amanda-Emilie - Make it your own. And try, push your limits and enjoy the opportunities to get outside. You don't have to start the trial with a 3 hour class, but a welcoming activity at the beginning of the session while the weather is nice will help you tame the class and come away from the experience feeling positive.
7- On what criteria will you evaluate the success of this project?
Josiane - Attendance and appreciation from the college community.
Amanda-Émilie - The willingness on the part of the Carleton-sur-Mer campus to create more space for outdoor education around the facility. There are now 3, one with chalkboard and flexible furniture, one with classic tables and chalkboard, and the last one completely natural, in the middle of a wooded area with only benches.
Outdoor classrooms at Cégep de la Gaspésie et des Îles
Outdoor Pedagogy in Higher Education in the Context of Covid-19 in Canada, A Pedagogical Guide to Supporting Individual Teachers
Outdoor Classrooms - University of Sherbrooke - Education Support Serviceshttps://www.usherbrooke.ca/ssf/enseignement/espaces-apprentissage/classes-exterieures
Thot Cursus articles on the topic:
Persistence enhanced by outdoor learning - Alexandre Roberge
School in the Forest or Education through Nature - Sabrina Marie Budel
Education Under the Trees - Alexandre Roberge
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