The Outdoor Classroom

Learn why Morton Asfeldt braves the cold to bring his students place-based, experiential learning in the North.

By Olivia DeBourcier

Snowshoeing, canoeing, and dog sledding sound like things you’d tackle while on break from school. But for Augustana Campus students, adventures like these can all be right in the classroom.

Morten Asfeldt takes students from across Alberta and brings them into the backcountry of Canada’s North. Students learn practical outdoor sporting and survival skills, while engaging in narrative writing, understanding group dynamics, perspectives on leadership and philosophies of human-nature relationships.

Asfeldt tells us all about his adventures and the lessons he’s learned from teaching outdoor education over several decades.

I have some friends who live out on the east arm of Great Slave Lake on a wilderness homestead. Since 2005, we’ve been going out there in February for a couple of weeks. The folks that live there, they take half the students out on dog sleds up to the treeline and just beyond for seven days. I stay at the homestead with the students and do a whole variety of activities at the homestead and focus a lot on writing — and then halfway through we swap.

I think for an experience to be really educative, we need to have an experience and then we need to have a reflective experience that helps them make connections between the [course] content and their experience. So I do ask students to keep a journal on our trips. I never read their journals; sometimes I give a participation grade.

On the dogsled expedition, one of the primary assignments is to write a personal narrative of their experience. So before we go up there, we study personal narratives from a literary perspective. Then at the homestead, students have an hour of dedicated journal writing every morning. And it’s wonderful. It’s just sacred time. And we do a series of different workshops in the morning, usually aimed at writing. In the afternoon, we go out and do all kinds of things outside. Whether it’s fishing or hunting or hiking or cutting wood. That is good grist for the writing mill.

When the students come home from the course, I do a series of writing workshops where they are massaging their journal entries into a personal narrative that is usually four or five chapters. I think students are sometimes resistant to it and they’re surprised at how satisfying the writing part can be, at how much it can add to their experience.

Most students find the style of teaching and learning refreshing. We’re doing stuff together as a big group, whether that’s going to do a canoe trip for five days, or a backpacking trip for eight days, or an Arctic canoe expedition for 21 days or a dog sled expedition for two weeks.

In some ways, what they take away from it is just a passion for learning and an excitement about being in a special place. I think post-secondary institutions in North America, in the last 10 or 15 years have really made a move towards innovative, hands-on, experiential learning. I think that’s what the best kind of education has always been.

The first part of it is basically– here’s how you stay warm, let’s go snowshoeing, let’s set these wall tents up and teach you how to build a fire. Then we go on a seven-day snowshoe expedition up by Lakeland Provincial Park. And it’s beautiful. You can walk on lakes, it’s in the boreal forest. And really the goal is getting students out and spending time in winter and getting away from technology, immersing them in that place and in that style of living. I have been impressed by students who have never been out and maybe never slept in a tent before. And a couple of times on that January journey we’ve had −40°C weather!

I’m guessing that there’s a range of impacts, certainly. Some of the research we have done on our own program suggests that students claim that they are more environmentally aware. Whether that translates into pro-environmental behaviour or not, I don’t have evidence that I can say yes or no to that.

I think if there’s a takeaway, it’s that I’ve hoped students use these expeditions as a way to connect to a Northern place and feel what it means to really think intentionally about their role in a particular environment. Then compare that to how they perceive their home in Canmore or Lethbridge or on the farm. I think that people have come home from these expeditions and seen their own home through a new lens and they have gained an appreciation for a place that they’ve taken for granted. In that sense, I think that leads to sustainability in that they’re thinking differently about how they live in the world and what their interaction is with a place.

One thing that I think more and more about and find both exciting and challenging is decolonizing the colonial settler relationship.

On the one hand, I look back on my career, and I’m really proud of the way I’ve shifted my thinking and tried to be open to teaching differently, considering the land differently, and really challenging our historical Canadian perspective. But it’s also really intimidating work, because I’m not a First Nations person, you know, I am a white, male, European immigrant. I know that it’s work that we need to continue to do.

I spent a lot of time thinking about that, and reading about it, and considering how do I take people to this place and not perpetuate those myths and stereotypes. I’m sure that unintentionally, unconsciously, I probably still do in some ways. I want to be careful that I don’t try to speak for people that I can’t speak for.

Morton Asfeldt is a professor at Augustana Campus and an affiliate of the Sustainability Council.

Learn more about how you can become an affiliate: https://www.ualberta.ca/sustainability/research-teaching/affiliates.html

Meet the students and academics who are discovering solutions to our climate and sustainability challenges. Writing from Edmonton-Amiskwacîwâskahikan, Canada.