Introducing our Head of Outdoor Learning and Adventure Duncan Picknoll

After leading Notre Dame University's outdoor education course and previously teaching Outdoor Education at Scotch College, we're delighted to welcome back Duncan Picknoll as our Head of Outdoor Learning and Adventure. Meet Duncan as he discusses why outdoor experiences are a critical part of education, his greatest adventures and what's next for outdoor learning at Scotch.

Tell us about your journey to now. 

When I was young and asked what I wanted to do when I was older, I never knew. But I always loved playing outdoors. I grew up near bushland and the ocean, and I would often leave in the morning and return in the afternoon because I'd fallen out of a tree or something like that!

I started my career as a health and physical education and design technology teacher before completing a postgraduate degree in outdoor pursuits. For a while, I worked as a freelance outdoor educator and lived out of my backpack for 200 field days a year, which became unsustainable when my wife and I had twins. I was fortunate to be offered an Outdoor Education Teacher role at Scotch and stayed for almost nine years before taking over as the Head of Outdoor Education. I then moved to Notre Dame University, where I spent 14 years building and running their outdoor education programme.

When this role came up, I'd recently met up with Head of Senior School Peter Burt and Director of Co-Curricular Richard Foster and it reminded me of what a lovely place Scotch is, so I decided to apply. Scotch has an excellent Outdoor Education programme with great people involved, so I can't wait to continue strengthening it.

Why is outdoor learning such a critical part of education? 

Outdoor education is a subject area, but outdoor learning is a teaching pedagogy and method found in any subject area or part of school education.

Learning outdoors enables us to incorporate cultural learning, put lessons into practice and explore environments. It creates space to experiment, grow and get feedback in a supportive environment.

Outdoor learning can teach resilience in ways that classroom learning can't. It puts students in group settings or against challenges where they learn to solve problems and develop respect and care for one another and their environment. Wellbeing continues to be a major focus in schools, and outdoor experiences are an excellent way of taking students away from their usual routine to build these skills.

We provide outdoor learning experiences to all our students, from Kindergarten to Year 12. How do the focuses change from our youngest to oldest students? 

Some excellent things are happening at Scotch, for instance, our Junior School's Nature School programme. Creating space and allowing nature to be the teacher is important for students of any age, but the lessons must respond to students' needs and life stages.

Risk-taking is key to self-discovery and a focus across all year groups. We must provide opportunities for our students to take measured risks and learn to fail. We know that kids will always take risks, some good and some bad, but the outcomes can be profound if you balance risk with the necessary skills to combat the situation.

We live in a noisy, non-stop world and are not very good at pausing to reflect and experience silence, even though we know it's vital for our wellbeing. In outdoor learning, we teach reflection in a structured way, with guided questions and journalling exercises to promote productive thinking.

What has been one of your greatest adventures? What did you learn from it? 

After finishing the outdoor pursuits course, I spent 16 days on a mountaineering course in New Zealand with only a guide beside me. I climbed Mount Aspiring and learned a lot about resilience – one day, we walked for 18 hours from the bottom of the mountain through the crevasses towards a cave against horrible weather conditions. It taught me much about weather interpretation and how quickly it can change.

That trip led me to explore mountains in the UK and abroad. This time of my life was a rite of passage and kickstarted my transition into outdoor education teaching.

The best adventures happen because of the people. Places are important, but it's the group of people with whom you have a shared experience that we can never recreate. You may not all be there the next time, the weather is not the same, and you won't be the person you were before.

What's next for Outdoor Education at Scotch?

Great things are happening already, allowing me to develop our programmes further. I'm passionate about journeys and am looking for ways to bring our excellent programmes together to create a whole-school journey with staggered milestones.

We know that our students in the later years have strong skills, so there's an opportunity to offer higher-end adventure-based programmes, like climbing mountains.

I'm working with our Head of Middle School Brad Gill, to identify how we can enhance the formative transition from Year 8 to Year 9 with outdoor learning. I'm also exploring how we can create more wellbeing opportunities with outdoor activities like service and reflection.

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