'Be prepared' -- should schools take lessons from scouts?
Kids can learn more from activities outside school. Kim Bielenberg reports
Published 11/12/2013 | 23:32
They pitch their tents in the woods, make camp fires, cook, and go on hikes. They work in teams under patrol leaders, solve problems, and try to support each other.
John Lawlor, the chief executive of Scouting Ireland, believes passionately his movement offers a model for Irish education in the 21st century.
When I met him at the Scout's National Training Centre in the middle of the woods at Larch Hill, on the edge of the Dublin mountains, he had just stepped off a plane. He had been speaking at a conference on scouts and education in Hong Kong.
Scouts are now keen to emphasise that there is more to be learned from their movement than the skill of tying different types of knots. It is no longer about quirky slogans like "Dib, Dib, Dib . . . Dob, Dob, Dob".
"We keep hearing that we need now are problem-solving skills, teamwork and creativity," says Mr Lawlor. "These are essentially the skills that are taught in the scouts."
In its literature, Scouting Ireland now describes itself as a "voluntary, uniformed, non-formal educational movement for young people".
The uniform has changed. Shorts and military-style shirts have largely been replaced with hoodies and combat trousers. 90pc of Irish scout troops in Ireland are now mixed, and 40pc of the youth members are girls.
John Lawlor emphasises research showing the importance of the 80pc of time that kids spend out of school in their educational development.
He highlights the attitudes of the founder of the scout movement, Robert Baden-Powell, and how he was a supporter of Dr Maria Montessori.
Baden-Powell said: "(She) has proved that by encouraging the child in its natural desires, instead of instructing it in what you think it ought to do, you can educate it on a far more solid and far-reaching basis.
Not all of Baden-Powell's principles are likely to be taken seriously in the staffrooms of Irish schools.
Baden-Powell urged boys: "Sleep with your windows open, summer and winter, and you will never catch cold. A soft bed and too many blankets make a boy dream bad dreams, which weakens him."
He himself lived by his word and is said to have slept on a balcony for 18 years.
In many ways, scouting has not changed all that much since Baden-Powell took 20 boys to camp on Brownsea Island off the English coast 100 years ago.
He recalled afterwards how he taught them "camping cooking, observation, deduction, woodcraft, chivalry, boatmanship, lifesaving, health, patriotism and such things.''
In other ways, scouting has changed dramatically. Until nine years ago, there were Catholic and Protestant scouting organisations in Ireland, but these were merged in 2004.
According to Mr Lawlor, scouting follows an educational programme which liberates the learner.
"If you take a simple task for a group of scouts such as making their own dinner. You may have four patrols, and they are each given the ingredients.
"They may get it wrong cooking the meal, but eventually they learn from each other how to do it right."
He believes that if you give children more control you increase their motivation.
"When I was 14 and in the scouts, they made me a patrol leader. I was given a cash book and keys to the scout hut. I had to learn budgeting, and plan a weekend for the patrol."
There are currently 36,000 young members and 10,000 adult volunteers in Ireland.
According to John Lawlor, scouting is increasingly seen as a recession-proof escape from the sedentary world of computer gadgets and games.
"It appeals to kids' sense of adventure. You can be outside camping in the wild and cooking fish on a board."
John Lawlor believes that while scouting is in tune with modern educational practice, schools are stuck in a Victorian time where a good class is a quiet class.
"Unlike many classrooms, the activities take place in mixed-ability groups. You wouldn't dream of putting all the smart kids in one patrol but that is what happens in formal education.
"One of the benefits of scouting is that it is non-competitive. There are no subs benches, where young people are stuck on the sidelines.
"Everybody gets to take part. They enjoy incredible freedom in a safe environment".
Scout and about
* There are more than 28 million scouts around the world from 216 different countries and territories, with 46,000 in Ireland.
* Baden-Powell's book Scouting for Boys, first published in 1908, is fourth in the all-time world bestseller list, trailing the Bible, the Koran and Mao Tse-tung's Little Red Book.
* Twenty six of the first 29 astronauts -- including the first man on the Moon, Neil Armstrong -- were former scouts.
* The Scout motto "Be Prepared" derives from its founder's initials.
* Some of Baden-Powell's advice was quirky. Boys were told to breathe through the nose, rather than through the mouth.
* Chemistry teachers seem to have mixed feelings about the hit TV show Breaking Bad.
The show focuses on a teacher who makes money by producing the drug Crystal Meth.
On the plus side, at least some pupils are now perking up in chemistry class. It has given the world of test tubes and flasks a dark glamour.
On the other hand, it helps foster an image of chemists as sinister types who are up to no good.
One chemistry lecturer at an Irish university was taken aback when first year students excitedly asked him when they would be making Crystal Meth.
They seemed put out when they were they were told that they would not learn that skill until final year.