A wild education of which Patrick Pearse would be proud

Rebel leader’s ‘progressive ideas’ again to the fore as to what might have been possible

Scrambling up rocks, shooting weirs or foraging for Mesolithic hazel shells might seem unlikely priorities for a poet and insurrectionist. But Patrick Pearse was one of the first champions of outdoor learning. Had he lived, and pursued his calling as an educationalist, who knows what school system we might have now, says Dr Anton Trant of Trinity College Dublin.

Trant, founder of the university's curriculum development unit, has long believed that Pearse ranks with Pestalozzi, Froebel and Montessori in carrying the torch lit by the 18th-century French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau.

Pearse's 1912 polemic, The Murder Machine, might be best remembered for his condemnation of "state-controlled institutions" producing "hirelings" for the workforce, but he also posed a question as valid now as back then: what was the value of an educational system inherited from Britain, which "grinds night and day" and is "devoid of understand, of sympathy, of imagination" .

Pearse's alternative, developed at St Enda's in Rathfarnham, Dublin, offered a child-centred model focused on bilingualism, individual expression and freedom beyond the confines of four walls.


“Pearse had very progressive ideas,” Trant says. “It was as an educationalist that he was at his best, and even his most ardent critics agree on that.”

Stephen Hannon of Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) concurs. The outdoor education lecturer, who with GMIT colleague Orla Prendergast hosted a recent conference marking 50 years of adventure learning in Ireland, notes how Pearse's century-old ideas about learning reflect mainstream thinking now.

Ironically, Pearse developed his thinking at a time when there was little or none of the disconnect now experienced between the individual and the natural landscape – a disconnect acknowledged as having adverse effects on mental and physical wellbeing.

Hannon credits Trant with picking up Pearse’s baton – coincidentally, around the time of the Rising’s 50th anniversary in 1966. It was more by accident than design, Trant recalls, as “there were a lot of things in the air, and it was a very expansive time”.

The then Fianna Fáil minister for education, Patrick Hillery, was "keen on piloting three new comprehensive schools, although we weren't allowed to call them that," he says.

Trant was appointed principal of one of them, Ballyfermot VEC (now Kylemore) , and, at the age of 32, was given a "tremendously free hand". He had spent several years abroad and had heard about the Outward Bound system of outdoor education in Britain, and decided to introduce it into his curriculum.

"The State's sail training ship Asgard II was on the scene, its captain Eric Healy was very supportive, and so the students would take off on hikes and link up with the ship," he says. "I felt that in large schools you are either going to try to contain a whole body of people, or you are going to try and let them out."

As he recorded in his 2007 book, Curriculum Matters in Ireland, outdoor education offers an opportunity for teachers and students to "relate to each other more like human beings and less like prisoners and jailers".

There were certain factors in his favour, including an absence of litigation, high insurance costs and the health and safety culture that has mushroomed in almost every walk of life in recent decades.

Trant left Ballyfermot in 1972, but extended the outdoor education module to other schools after he helped to set up the curriculum development unit. Outdoor clubs were formed in VEC schools, and in one such, a post-Leaving Cert course was developed by Dermot and Eamon Burke; it became known as the Shackleton Course.

Trant played a key role in developing a diploma in outdoor education for teachers, aimed at integrating adventure pursuits in the timetable and ensuring that most activities could appeal to pupils with both ability and disability.

The Castlebar approach

The growth of State-funded and private adventure centres and the increasing emphasis on full-time professional training led to the foundation 20 years ago of the third-level outdoor education course at GMIT in Castlebar.

"We have about 30 graduates per year," Prendergast says, and the qualifications are internationally recognised. As a result, many are employed in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, although much of it is seasonal and related to adventure tourism.

Job prospects are also improving here in the social care, education and youth work areas, which experienced cutbacks in state support from 2009.

Dr Trant welcomes the increasing professionalism, which provides a career path for instructors, albeit part time for some. However, he regrets that the introduction of transition year at secondary level provided what he regards now as a convenient “opt-out” from his original concept.

“Instead of ensuring there is an adventure sport option throughout the secondary school cycle, it has been narrowed down to something that one does in that transition year,” he says.

Macho element

At the same time, a certain “macho element” has crept in to adventure sports, he says, where some privately run centres tend to put more focus on physical toughness than on developing a passion for the outdoors.

Such an approach also “fails to acknowledge that every child has a different threshold of terror, and no child should be pushed to the limit of that threshold in any situation”, Trant says.

Outdoor learning is not just about acquiring skills, but is also about the benefits of unstructured time, according to Dr Andrew Bobilya of Western Carolina University, who was a guest speaker at the GMIT conference.

He is an advocate of “autonomous” learning, whereby students learn to fend for themselves , with only the most discreet supervision by trained instructors.

“With people’s lives getting busier, an over-reliance on technology and a constant draw to mobile devices, there is a real concern about the overstructured lives that young people live in the US,” he says.

“Yet, all our studies show that when young people are on their own, they learn more, and flourish when they are trusted. There are ways we can structure our programmes to ensure that instructors can shadow, with minimal influence or risk.”

Dr Bobilya believes that there was “never more of a need than now” for outdoor education, at a time when “freedom is really becoming more and more counter-cultural.”

Stephen Hannon of GMIT concurs, and notes that the new Junior Cert programme offers considerable potential at secondary level for opening up outdoor learning beyond transition year .

He cites many pockets of excellence involving children from preschool level up – ranging from butterfly gardens in primary schools and the Burrenbeo outdoor learning programmes (see panel) to Coillte's compass clubs in woodlands, the growth of slow adventure and the success of Foróige's adventure youth diversion projects for teenagers who have been in trouble.

Participants at the GMIT conference have resolved to create a new national umbrella body – the Irish Association for Outdoor Learning – which will harness this enthusiasm and expertise and recapture a vision for a different way of learning.


Áine Bird never fails to marvel at the transformation in teenagers after they have been shown an Ordnance Survey map.

“We ask them to identify features of interest within a 3km radius of their home,” Bird says. “The first reaction is that there is nowhere to go, nothing to see.

“By the time we have finished, they have discovered a whole new world of rivers, woodlands, tower houses, holy wells, castles, cillíns . . .

Bird works with Ireland’s only landscape charity, Burrenbeo Trust, which uses the karst limestone of the Burren in Co Clare as its blackboard. Its place-based learning programmes range from Ecobeo, for primary school pupils, to Áitbheo, a 10-week course for transition year students, and it also runs programmes for teachers.

"When I look at my map . . . I feel more connected and more interested in the welfare of the animals, plants, historical features and really everything in my area,"south Galway student Saoirse Monaghan of Gort Community College recorded in her reflective journal after experiencing Áitbheo. Maria Fitzpatrick of Seamount College, Kinvarra, expressed a "new-found appreciation" for her own coastal area.

The trust aims to redress some of the imbalance identified by American educator David Sobel, who has noted that schools in Ireland and the US have "progressively become isolated from their surrounding landscapes and communities.

“Children learn the nearby is mundane and insignificant; what’s faraway is glamorous and important,”Sobel has said. “Instead, especially in the primary years, education should be rooted in what’s local and unique . . .” burrenbeo.com

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times