‘Contemplations on Learning’ by Christopher Nixon

By May 23, 2013Uncategorised

We are proud to present a recent article submitted to us by educator and researcher, Christopher Nixon. Christopher is completing his Masters at McGill University and is exploring Forest School in both Norway and Canada, and how this can shape health policy. In this article, Christopher reflects on the process of learning, the environments that shape us, and the potential societal and educational benefits that can result from the Forest School model.


As an experienced primary public educator in Ontario and Quebec, and a McGill University graduate research student in Education & Society, I am highly interested in the organization of education in Canada. When I was child going to school I assumed that education was somehow defined by the four walls of a classroom (essentially the space where learning occurs), because this is where it appeared my learning was recognized as valid by society through means of grades and diplomas. This overly simplified perspective I had of education changed throughout my life as I began to question the value of what I learned outside the classroom. For example, when I was a young teenager I attended a school that had a creek running through its property, and I decided one day that I wanted to build my own raft out of logs to travel down it for fun. This was by no means a school project, but something I chose to do on my own. As a result, I learned the scientific and mathematic understandings of calculating density and why it is important in determining whether an object like a log will float or not. Rather than learning about density from examples in textbooks or on a chalk board, I learned the meaning of density through tangible field experience. Greek philosopher Aristotle once said that “anything that we have to learn to do we learn by the actual doing of it: people become builders by building and instrumentalists by playing instruments” (Dasgupta & Stiglitz, 1988, p. 246). More importantly in how this relates to my learning is that I can still remember what I learned from this experience, because it was a defining moment of my childhood that became a piece of the story of my life.

Learning examples like this one made me wonder how I could help to get other children engaged in memorable educational experiences. Professor Elizabeth Goodenough in her chapter of the book Memory and Pedagogy also explains how childrens’ play in the physical space they are in ultimately helps to shape their identity as they are not only influenced by spaces, but leave markings on them as well (Mitchell, Strong-Wilson, Pithouse, & Allnutt, 2010). She also remarks that our cherished childhood memories happen when we are in places we are drawn to and that are not part of our routines (Mitchell et al., 2010). Therefore, how space is used can be understood as part of a mutual relationship of both giving and receiving, including exploration and discovery. I have personally asked myself what memories we might be leaving our children with by the choices of physical spaces we choose for them to learn and grow in.

During the course of my university studies and experience working in primary schools, issues such as poor air quality and childhood obesity have also come to my attention. Physical inactivity has been linked to an epidemic in obesity rates among Canadian children (Tremblay & Willms, 2003) and poor indoor air quality at school have lead to absences as a result of health consequences (Mendell & Heath, 2005). Therefore, might we ask ourselves collectively if changing where our children learn may be one part a solution to these and other problems in our schools. Moreover, may fostering childhood memories in outdoor environments like those used in forest schools be a practical and alternative choice to help shape the next generation?

-Christopher Nixon

Dasgupta, Partha, & Stiglitz, Joseph. (1988). Learning-by-doing, market structure and industrial and trade policies. Oxford Economic Papers, 40(2), 246-268.
Mendell, Mark J, & Heath, Garvin A. (2005). Do indoor pollutants and thermal conditions in schools influence student performance? A critical review of the literature. Indoor air, 15(1), 27-52.
Mitchell, Claudia, Strong-Wilson, Teresa, Pithouse, Kathleen, & Allnutt, Susann. (2010). Memory and pedagogy (Vol. 48): Routledge.
Tremblay, Mark S, & Willms, J Douglas. (2003). Is the Canadian childhood obesity epidemic related to physical inactivity? International journal of obesity, 27(9), 1100-1105.

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