Winterland

As I write, I am on my way back from the Lake District with a group of colleagues from my school. We spent our weekend walking in the mountains. It was cold, boggy, very windy and altogether wonderful.

I find human company taxing at times. I am not prone to make friends at work (or out of work to be honest). Spending a precious weekend with people you work with might sound like a bad idea for someone so obviously anti-social. So why did I come?

Last summer I wrote a post which captured most of what I love about the mountains, and the joy of sharing that passion with others. I titled it The Peaks, a fairly obvious pun which reflects my view that school trips can be the highlight of students’ school years, and of a teacher’s career. I can’t hyperlink through my phone’s app, from somewhere on the M6, but you’ll find it in these pages.

I was reminded of this post as we stayed at the same bunkhouse this weekend as we did last summer; a rural, Christian retreat at the end of a dead-end road. There was plenty of spiritual healing to be had, but none of it to do with deities or organised religion.

We sold this venture to staff, slightly tongue-in-cheek, as a wellbeing weekend. Everyone knows that the walking can be fairly arduous, but we have opt-outs for those wanting a more relaxing weekend. The spa treatments never materialised, but there were plenty of coffee shops and good views from the lake.

To be honest, I find the well-being tag slightly cringy. That’s not to say I don’t feel infinitely better at the end of this weekend than I did at the beginning. I do. But it isn’t why I am here. I’m here because that’s where the mountains are. And I’m bringing others with me because that’s where the mountains are. I don’t want to categorise what draws me, I just want more of it. I want to look at the others who joined me and see in their faces that this is where they wanted to be too. That is enough.

When I take young people in to the mountains I think it changes them ever so slightly. I return them to their parents as a marginally different person. If the purpose of the curriculum is to teach powerful knowledge, the role of the extra-curricular is to provide transformative experiences.

In the curriculum, I want to determine what is to be taught. The curriculum is planned, deliberate, precise. I have an outcome in mind.

But when I step outside the classroom, when I step in to the mountains, I have no outcome in mind. Extra-curricular is the antithesis of curricular: loose, ill-defined, unintentional.

Will the students become more resilient? Probably. Will they learn to appreciate the outdoors? I hope so; but I don’t need to know-so. I’m not here to develop ‘character’, I’m here because the mountains are. No more reason is required.

When we treat the extra-curricular side of schooling as we do the curricular part, we risk destroying its soul. You can keep your checklist, Mr Hinds. We’re here because the mountains are. We’re here because the opposition is. We’re here because the audience are. We’re here because it’s somewhere we’ve never been before, and may never come to again. This experience will mean something different to each of us. This experience will transform us all in different ways. And if it doesn’t change us at all? Well that’s just fine too.

I am proud of the great experiences we provide for students at our school. The term ‘extra-curricular’ demeans the importance of this aspect of education. Perhaps ‘curriculum hinterland’ captures it better? Without this experiential hinterland, how much less rich would schooling be?

One of the few memories of Geography I have from my school days was of colouring in a map of all the high lands in the UK. Full of the arrogance of youth, I asked my teacher “Why am I ever going to need to know any of this?”.

If I could call back through time to my younger self, I would answer simply; because that’s where the mountains are.

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