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Thursday, 2 January 2014

Bushcraft Session Evaluation

What follows is an evaluation of a bushcraft class I taught to a group of countryside management students at Moulton College in May 2013. The evaluation was carried out as part of the work I submitted for the DTLLS teaching qualification.   

This session gave students a chance to use bushcraft skills which we had covered previously in relation to a range of countryside management skills. Bushcraft includes skills such as outdoor leadership, botany, ecology and green wood work to name but a few. All these skills are relevant to people working in the countryside, and the specific skills covered in this session included, plant and tree identification, green woodwork and team work. I am investigating the link between bushcraft and countryside management for my action research, with the aim of showing that practicing bushcraft can improve engagement and attainment among countryside management students. Observations and comments made by the observer were used to support my action research (for full details of this piece of research see the autumn edition of the institute of outdoor learnings Horizons journal or follow this link; ) The activity I chose for this lesson was for the students to try to make fire by friction.

Planning, Preparation and Resources

To make fire by friction using the bow drill method four main components are required and the students would have to source material and carve each of these themselves during the first part of the session;
·         A drill and hearth carved ideally from elder but possibly also from willow or sycamore depending on what the students could find.
·         A bow made from inflexible green wood as long as your arm
·         A bearing block made from hard green wood.
To ensure that this element of the lesson ran smoothly I came prepared with a selection of pre-fabricated drills and hearths which I had tested previously and which I knew would produce an ember. If an individual was unable to produce a functioning drill and hearth they could use on of the pre-fabricated ones so they didn’t fall behind. This meant that the task was subtly differentiated as noted by the observer to ensure all students could be involved throughout the session without falling behind. It also meant that should they make a fire kit that for whatever reason would not produce an ember they could switch it for one of mine which had been previously tested and proved to work. To allow students to make their own friction fire kit I also provided saws and knives so they could collect and carve the materials they needed.
I had planned for the first portion of the lesson to be solely an opportunity for students to prepare their individual friction fire kits. Those who had not finished by that time could use the extra drills and hearths I provided. The second part of the lesson was to begin with my demonstration of how to light a fire by friction. Two essential items which I provided for the students which could have been collected from the wild was a string for the bow and tinder for lighting the fire. The length of this session would not allow for this to take place as to make enough string of a suitable strength and quality for a friction fire bow would take an inexperienced person over an hour. Also tinder collection could have been compromised by poor weather.
To make fire by friction two pieces of wood must be rubbed vigorously together to produce an ember, this ember forms from the charred saw dust created by the friction between the two pieces of wood. Using the bow drill method a drill is spun using the bow against a flat piece of wood (the hearth). The use of a bow makes spinning the drill much more efficient and allows downward pressure to be applied more easily to the drill. To maximise friction at the point of contact between drill and hearth the drill is carved to a blunt point and dry wood of a suitable species is required. Downward pressure is applied to the drill with another piece of wood but at the point of contact between drill and bearing block friction is minimised by using a hard green wood for the bearing block, carving that end of the drill to a sharp point and lubricating the socket with crushed leaves. Once a depression has been formed in the hearth by vigorous drilling, the wood at the point of contact between drill and heart will begin to smoke and char, at this point the drill is removed and a notch about an eighth of the depression is removed with a knife or saw to allow an ember to form from the charred wood dust. Without this notch the ember would not collect or reach the appropriate temperature for combustion. Once the notch has been made drilling can re-commence and once the drill is smoking an ember will begin to build, drilling must continue until the ember is ‘self sustaining’ producing smoke on it’s own with no drilling required. Once it has reached this stage the ember can be transferred to a tinder bundle prepared in advance from dry shredded grass and must then be blow into flame.
Once I had completed my demonstration the students would then use their completed kits to try to make a fire, while they worked individually I could move between them and offer support to those who needed it. As friction fire lighting is such a difficult skill to master it was entirely possible that the students would not manage to produce fire but to ensure that they had as much support as possible so for the final portion of the lesson, before a recap, the students could work as small groups to try and use their kit’s more efficiently to produce an ember.     
My reason for choosing this was that these kinds of bushcraft activities can complement all forms of environmental education, including countryside management, very well. Some previous research that I carried out indicated that general education students engaged better with their countryside sessions when bushcraft activities were integrated with them (Guy, 2011). It has also been recognised in research into the delivery of Forest Schools in the UK this kind of outdoor activity can help students develop personally and socially (O'Brien & Murray, 2006) (Borradaile, 2006). Additionally according to constructionist learning theory (Papert, 1980) as students learn more skills related to their chosen subject of study they can create more links with their existing knowledge and develop their understanding based on more points of reference. In fact this kind of learning which is situated (Lave & Wenger, 1991) in the environment where students will eventually work will prepare them even more for employment that work study which is carried out ‘out of context’ in a classroom. The context of bushcraft in countryside management is not only in its value as an indirect method of teaching plant identification, green woodwork, leadership etc.. but also more directly in the sense that with the increased popularity of bushcraft as a recreational activity many park rangers are asked to run activities to attract visitors to country parks, nature reserves and Wildlife Trust venues and a prospective employee with these skills may well be attractive to an employer.    

Session Description and Reflection

The students participating in this session had been briefed as to what the lesson would involve the previous week. They had a chance to practice identifying appropriate materials earlier in the term and a chance to practice making the hearth and drill that they would need. They were well prepared for the session which I had hoped would mean that there would be time for at least some of the students to successfully produce an ember by friction.
Each student was able to identify appropriate resources without my assistance and most did this in a timely manner which indicated to me that their tree and shrub identification skills had become well developed. Once they had selected the appropriate wood they began to carve it to the appropriate shape and size for use in their friction fire kits unfortunately some of the students became so preoccupied with making one element of the kit that they had by the end of the first portion of the lesson only managed to make either the drill or the hearth. This would have left them without a fire kit to use in the second part of the session if not for the extra fire kits I had brought along. During this portion of the lesson I could have tried to prompt the students to speed up but due to the nature of the task and the fact that it involved using knives and saws to fabricate their fire kits I felt it was more important to coach them on safe technique rather than try and speed them up and possibly cause an accident. In the past I have always taught friction fire lighting either as an intense day long course or regular short sessions where the skills of making a fire kit can be practiced in advance until they can be performed fluently leaving plenty of time for the actual act of making a fire. When next year countryside students have an opportunity to study a unit titled skills for land-based outdoor and adventurous activities (Edexcel, 2011) the regular time tabled sessions will give more opportunities to practice these skills over a longer period of time and develop fluency.  Some of the students who did work more slowly though did show very good attention to detail and produced kits that would have been very easy to work with and would certainly have produced an ember. Those who worked slower created an excellent opportunity to teach some more advanced knife skills which would speed up their work, this opportunistic learning (Hager, 2011) is something that has been noted as often taking place as employees learn on the job at work where they learn new skills, or develop old ones through performing their duties even if this learning was not a planned outcome. Although not a planned outcome of the lesson I was able to teach students a skill called batoning which requires them to use a short wooden baton to drive a knife along the grain of a piece of wood splitting it and removing large quantities of wood quickly, thus speeding up their work.  
Once all learners had a functioning friction fire kit I demonstrated how to light a fire by friction emphasising key points of my technique which they would need to copy to ensure success. Once my demonstration was complete they began working themselves. At first I circulated among the individuals and coached them on their technique. Some were able to adopt an effective technique with very little help but others required more assistance. Unfortunately although some of the students managed to make smoke with their friction fire kits none were actually able to make an ember which they could blow into flame.
Despite the failure of students to make a fire they were able to perform well in all the skills which the activity supported including tree ID and green woodworking. They were also able to identify how these skills would help them in their future careers. To help improve this kind of session in the future  I would, based on feedback from the observer, ensure  I ask more questions to struggling students to prompt them to diagnose problems with their technique and put it right sooner.   


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Hager, P., 2011. Informal Learning - Everyday living . In: P. Jarvis & M. Watts, eds. The Routledge International Handbook of learning. s.l.:Routledge , pp. 208-209.

Hanks, W. F., 1991. Forward by William F Hanks . In: Situated LEarning . Cambridge : Cambridge University Press , p. 14.

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