Vedder middle teachers Chris Falk (left) and Jason Shea have started the Outdoor Education Academy at the school.

Vedder middle teachers Chris Falk (left) and Jason Shea have started the Outdoor Education Academy at the school.

Taking education outside the box

Two teachers at Vedder middle school are changing the way education is delivered as Chilliwack knows it.

Two teachers at Vedder middle school are changing the way education is delivered as Chilliwack knows it.

Instead of teaching in the bricks-and-mortar style classroom, Jason Shea and Chris Falk will be teaching outdoors. Instead of seating their students in uniform rows, lecturing from textbooks, and scribbling notes on the whiteboard, they’ll be hiking mountains, kayaking down rivers, exploring endless acres of wilderness. All while learning about science and social studies.

This is the Outdoor Education Academy.

“These kids are not just looking at books and pictures, they’re actually going to be experiencing the courses hands-on,” said school principal Greg See. “I love the idea that we’re taking kids out of the classroom, that they’re learning beyond classroom walls.

“To me, this is totally exciting. It’s what education should be about.”

The academy, which was approved by the school district last spring, is a move towards 21st century learning – the current buzz word in public education – that would scrap the “one-size-fits-all” form of schooling and replace it with a model designed more to individual student needs and skills.

Shea and Falk believe the Outdoor Education Academy is suited perfectly.

The 27 students enrolled are athletically sound, they enjoy the outdoors, and while some are quite adept in science and socials, approximately 40 per cent are not.

What this course will do for them, said Falk, is provide them with a unique, interesting, hands-on treatment of those subjects.

“Everything they’re going to be learning, they could learn in a book,” said Falk. “But when they’re out in the field, using different tools, and seeing it first hand, now they can see a purpose behind it.”

Instead of looking at pictures of plants in a textbook, they’ll be hiking different terrains and identifying the different plant species native to Chilliwack. Instead of studying astrology from a book, they’ll be camping out under the stars, identifying the major solar system components with their own eyes. Instead of reading page after page on Canada’s aboriginal community, they’ll be discussing local history with Chilliwack Sto:lo.

“We’re in an area that has so much history,” said Shea. “Early explorers have been through here, surveyors have been through here,” and with the Grade 9 First Nations component in social studies, “who better to learn it from than local experts.”

And with Falk and Shea at the helm, there surely won’t be a dull moment.

Shea, who’s nicknamed the “outdoor guru” by his peers, is an avid white water paddler, kayaker, rock climber, hiker, skier, trail runner, backpacker and general mountaineer. His teaching counterpart, Falk, has worked for children’s camps, has designed high ropes courses, coached several sports teams, taught gym class, and loves snowboarding, camping, hiking, backcountry exploring and more.

“This academy is about experiencing new things,” said Falk. “Our job is to take it to the next level.”

Still, the academy is not a get-out-of-school-free card.

Even though students will be engaging in spectacular physical activities – climbing Elk Mountain, white water kayaking down the Vedder River, back country skiing at Manning, and more – they will still be studying the academics, they will still be required to present their knowledge in a variety of formats, they will still be expected to excel.

“We’re not throwing everything out,” said Shea. “We made sure the kids understood they’re still going to be doing classroom work.”

For principal Greg See, the academy, which will alternate between in-class and nature-learning sessions every other day, is a move in the right direction.

“I see this as a way for more students to succeed, for more students to get a higher quality, more sophisticated education,” said See. “It’s real. It’s relevant. These kids are going to be touching, seeing, experiencing new things.”

They’re going to be learning.