The real experience of learning

Embercombe, a social enterprise near Exeter, runs leadership and development courses for adults, young people and businesses, in the context of creating a truly sustainable world. Jo Clark, head of land-based learning, explains the value of their approach

“Learning is experience. Everything else is just information,” said Albert Einstein. We live in a society however, where we have access to infinite amounts of information and where educational attainment is often measured by how well we can regurgitate information and not necessarily by how we can apply it.

Cognitive learning is much more useful to our growth and development when balanced with an approach involving direct experience.

Through experiential learning in the outdoor classroom, at Embercombe we are cultivating within children an understanding of their interdependence with, and love for, the living world. As they grow into teenagers and adults, I have witnessed this translating into a more responsible global awareness.

For example, all children are taught phenomena such as the carbon cycle. Insight into this can be gained from books, lectures and a computer screen. For some this may suffice, but for others it will seem very abstract.

In Embercombe’s experiential science programme we explore the carbon cycle through carrying out experiments in the garden and woodland and through making charcoal. The latter provides insight into the fossilisation process, producing gas, tar and pure carbon from wood harvested through our woodland coppice rotation.

This fascinating and dramatic large-scale science experiment exposes some fundamental basics of organic chemistry. In a follow-on activity using some of the freshly-made charcoal as fuel, students can then be taught how to forge a simple tool, thus discovering the origins of the iron age.

This type of hands-on activity allows children to discover the world through a creative engagement with their surroundings. The natural and farmed environment becomes a laboratory in which students carry out genuine experiments where the outcome is not known at the beginning and there is no such thing as a ‘wrong’ result.

The follow-up work from this example embraces chemistry, biology, physics, history, geography, design and technology, PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education), and craft – all based on a series of practical workshops.

Children from both city and rural schools visiting Embercombe, have had very little knowledge of where their food comes from. Many when learning to bake bread haven’t known what it’s actually made from and we’ve realised that starting with a sack of flour misses a whole part of the process. We now grow wheat, and bread baking begins with a visit to the wheat field, followed by hand milling and sieving grain to make the flour.

A ‘seed to table’ or ‘source to product’ approach offers a real three dimensional educational experience. Woodwork starts in the woods, pottery by digging clay, textiles with the sheep, and cooking in the garden.

Much that is important in children’s development is beyond their measurable academic attainment: the ability to function as a member of the community, teamwork, leadership and communication skills. Group tasks in the outdoor educational landscape offer the opportunity for children and young people to develop in these ways, while the role of the activity leader is to guide and facilitate their journey rather than teaching them facts.

Embercombe will begin building a new land-based learning centre in March, which will provide new facilities for experiential learning programmes for children and young people. 

Video: Embercombe help school children to build an edible garden at a primary school in Plymouth