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Helen Bilton: great teachers inspire great teachers – University of Reading

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  • "I think researchers have a duty ... to the world."

    Professor Helen Bilton

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Helen Bilton: great teachers inspire great teachers

Professor at the Institute of Education and National Teaching Fellow, Helen Bilton is widely regarded as the UK's leading educational specialist on outdoor education but more importantly she is a crusader, an ambassador for using the outdoors as a learning environment. It is her love, her passion, her calling.

"I think researchers have a duty to bang on about something. If they think it's that important they should keep going on about it. They have a duty ... to the world ... to keep the crusade going ... through whatever governments."

a purposeful, planned experience in the outdoors

According to the Institute for Outdoor Learning, the definition of outdoor learning is a purposeful and planned experience in the outdoors. It's a broad term that includes discovery, experimentation, learning about and connecting to the natural world, and engaging in outdoor sports and adventure activities.

Since 1989, Helen has researched and campaigned for outdoor learning. She trained as a nursery school teacher and was completely blown away by her first lecture: Jackie Brunner discussing the nursery school garden.

"I was completely buzzed. Why wouldn't you go outside? It's another space all of us have to exist in. It doesn't matter what age you are. Where does it say that the best place to educate somebody is inside four walls?

"There are so many different benefits to be had from using the outdoors; for example, health in terms of light, fresh air and exercise. Cognitively there is so much to learn about in terms of nature and the environment. When outside, children behave differently and are more competent socially and emotionally. They have more of a can-do approach, so children are successful, academically, emotionally and physically."

Helen was so overwhelmed by the idea of outdoor learning and its possibilities and benefits that she has made it her mission to bring outdoor learning to the masses. Helen has authored/co-authored nine books on the subject, including her debut, which was the first book on early years and outdoor learning since the 1930s.

"If you ask a child who controls the home, they usually say the mum. If you ask who is in charge of the classroom, it's the teacher. Who is in charge of outside? They look at you blankly, because nobody is in charge of outside. So if nobody is in charge of it, in a sense, no one is going to judge you. So there's a sense of I can give it a go I'm not going to be judged, I'm not going to be tested, not going to measured or found wanting. So children are then more confident to try."

Helen always incorporates outdoor education into all of her own teaching, from the nursery school children she taught at the beginning of her career and the PGCE students she trained to be teachers to the qualified teachers she meets at conferences. Come rain or shine, Helen can be found outside universities and conference centres holding her lectures.

Experiencing WWI at first hand

Using a group of teenage students as an example, Helen describes how incorporating the outdoor environment enhanced their learning.

"The students were very interested in WWI. They'd looked at DVDs; they'd read books; they'd been to the Imperial War Museum, but what they really wanted to know was what it was like to be in the trenches. Well, the only way to know what it's like to be in a trench is to dig a trench."

Helen explained how the teenagers started to dig, and how just the act of digging a trench was helping them to imagine what life was like for soldiers in the First World War.

"The pupils dug the trench to help them understand. They didn't get down to 8ft - they didn't need to; just by digging they had an understanding of how hard life was for soldiers in the First World War. And then you could feel the pupils' fear as they understood just what it meant to be standing in a trench. We've all seen the images of the soldiers sticking their heads up out of the trench and then going over the top, but to actually find yourself in that position is really quite scary. As the pupils realised that the first thing to come out of the trench is your head and how that's the most vulnerable part of you it was in that moment that the pupils really understood about life in the trenches in the First World War. It was a really interesting experience."

the impact of outdoor learning

Helen's passion and enthusiasm for her subject is highly infectious and outdoor play has taken her to countries where the benefits of  learning outside are only just starting to be recognised. A recent trip to Portugal resulted in Helen co-authoring a book on children under-three and outdoor play. 

Helen's impact on children has been enormous: enabling children who might not have otherwise learned to love reading, adopting a 'can do' approach, triumphing over the weather, caring for the natural world, challenging themselves - academically, emotionally and physically, using mathematical concepts, learning to persevere and overcome fears, and becoming independent and confident.

"In 2010, Ofsted said outdoor education was critical to young children. You've got a select committee of MPs saying this is important. And I feel I have contributed to that understanding. What's the point of research? It's to be an ambassador or a crusader for something that you feel really passionate about. I go on the radio to talk about outdoor learning. I write books. I try to change the lives of practitioners and children. I try to make a difference.

"Sometimes it's hard work. Sometimes you're on your own; I've had head teachers say: 'why should I bother with outdoors; my SATs results are fine.' But outdoor play is my job, and I feel I have to stand up for it."

Are you passionate about education, do you want to be inspired by academics like Helen who are internationally renowned for their research? At the Institute of Education, we have 37 Fellows, including Associate Fellows and Senior Fellows of the Higher Education Academy (HEA) who are all deeply passionate about their chosen field of research and eager to share their knowledge and expertise with you.

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