Lessons from a river: Educating through a new lens during COVID-19

Lessons from a river

Educating through a new lens during COVID-19

Lessons from a River

Educating through a new lens during COVID-19

By Chris Filler, PhD Associate Faculty, Royal Roads University

“Our engagement with the idea of a fixed curriculum, a physical destination location in which education dwells as if in a box in which people enclose themselves to learn, and the notion of the authority of the teacher versus the subservience of the student are all in the ring and they are losing. We must and are rethinking education…It is not about learning to live according to instructions now, but coming into being through engagement with education.” (Noddings and Lees, 2016, p.4)

In the field of river hydrology, there exists a magnificently ironic feature called an ‘eddy’. Eddies are formed in response to obstacles which disrupt the flow of moving water. Technically, an eddy is a section of counter moving calmer water. This occurs as a direct result of a disruption (say a rock or perhaps a global pandemic!) in the normal trajectory of the river. For anyone well versed in the world of whitewater paddling, the necessary refuge of a well-situated eddy cannot be overstated. For the paddler, navigating around an obstacle provides a chance to engage with the calm waters of the eddy to find pause, self-assess and plan the way forward. This sanctuary of stillness, this place of philosophical meandering exists solely due to the disruption of the obstacle itself. In this way, we reframe our current experience with COVID-19, as wholly disruptive as it has been and surely will continue to be, as that opportunity to take stock, look around us, and pay attention to the shifts required in the fast-flowing educational course ahead.

Reimagining education at home

As I have experienced the pandemic over the last couple of months, two distinct yet related scenarios have played out in my personal and professional lives. They have gifted me with that chance to slow down and “to notice anew what has gone unnoticed under the rubric of familiarity and ordinariness” (Jardine, 1990, p.114). In the span of a few weeks in April I became both a home school educator for my two daughters, ages ten and thirteen, and began instructing my first course as an Associate Faculty at Royal Roads University.

Chris Filler paddling on lake
Chris Filler paddling on a lake with his family. Photo by Chris Filler.

Although I hold a PhD in Educational Studies, and have been either thinking about education or educating others for as long as I can remember, nothing could have prepared me for the unique requirements of navigating the world of online learning and homeschooling which were thrust upon me at the flick of a switch. For the first two weeks of our shelter in place designation, we were on spring break. As such, our days were filled with baking, playing, house projects, arts & crafts and adventurous journeys close to home. We weren’t following any mandated curriculum. We weren’t even trying to learn anything in particular at all … but learn we did. The days ‘lessons’ were steered by the girls themselves, and my job was simple:

a) to ensure the house didn’t get burned down;
b) to make sure that I supplied enough snacks for our walkabouts or paddles on the lake;
c) to experience the authentic excitement of new discoveries along the way, as a co-learner.

Slow pedagogy and experiential learning

Ferns. Photo by Tia Filler

In lockdown mode, physically distant and socially isolated, we had nowhere in particular to be and no one in particular to see. With time on our hands, we were unknowingly practicing what Payne and Wattchow (2009) refer to as “slow pedagogy”, experiential and embodied learning which “allows us to pause or dwell in spaces for more than a fleeting moment and, therefore, encourages us to attach and receive meaning from that place” (p.16). We were intentionally engaged in learning which placed relationship with the more than human world at the centre of our collective experience.

After those two weeks it became time to go ‘back to school’, or at least it was the time when the girls were supposed to return to their school post-break.  A funny thing happened. While the girls diligently attended their virtual check-ins, continued with their directed readings and required math worksheets, and attempted to follow the new instructions from their classroom teachers, we kept up our daily outdoor adventures, and associated ‘kids choice’ time. In fact, those unstructured times became the highlights of our early pandemic days, and not just for the girls, but for us adults too.

Though once playful and purposeful, our daily adventures and random bouts of citizen science were chock full of good old-fashioned learning.

Whether we were learning how to start a fire with flint and steel, carve a walking stick, navigate traffic on our bikes, identify varieties of lichen, photograph the elusive wood duck, or create a magical unicorn out of loose parts, our time together was well spent. Inevitably and rather accidentally we covered the necessary curriculum. We would seamlessly braid scientific principles with mathematics, and infuse considerations of social and cultural ethics with creative artistic expressions of our learning. Oral and written storytelling would often chronicle our day’s events as shared around the dinner table, or by the fireside.

Wood duck
Wood duck. Photo by Tia Filler.

What I witnessed and experienced firsthand was a chasmic difference between the pre-determined, abstract learning common in school and the active, embodied, immersive and participatory experiential learning which came directly from our own imaginations. Contrasted against the virtual curriculum from the girls’ schools, our episodes of freely chosen, self-directed, loosely structured moments of learning became potently refreshing, intrinsically motivating and endlessly meaningful. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me. I had studied educational theory and philosophy and was instructed in teacher education programs for many years. I also preached the values of child-led emergent and inquiry-based pedagogy. Yet, it served as an eye-opener, nonetheless. In this way, I had a fresh lens on learning, as I “renoticed artifacts and practices that might have slipped into non-conscious familiarity” (Davis, Sumara & Luce-Kapler, 2008, p. 214).

Children learning outdoors
Anya Filler (10 yrs old) and Tia Filler (13 yrs old). Photos by Chris Filler.

Rethinking our ecological trajectory through education

At the same time as being tossed unceremoniously into the glacier-fed whitewater of homeschooling, I had the unique experience of facilitating my inaugural online course with Royal Roads University smack dab in the middle of this pandemic. INDS535 Outdoor Experiential Education was designed from day one to be an exclusively online course, but it took on a stark new flavour with the onset of this unprecedented global crisis as its backdrop. On April 27th, along with twelve brave graduate students who were mainly practicing educators in their professional lives, we dove headfirst into the course. However, our topic of education had been thrown on its head with the closure of schools, the onset of online virtual offerings, and what turned out to be a focussed need for rethinking our own ecological trajectory within the system of schooling.

Many of our early readings together focused on the value of questioning our taken for granted cultural assumptions which serve to prop up a mechanistic, rational, linear and technocratic system of education. A common theme became the need for a new lens, a new perspective, a new set of eyes through which to see and attend to our work of teaching and learning. Little did I know when I set out to design this course what seems like a millennia ago, that the catalyst for this new way of seeing would happen right before our very eyes with the onset of COVID-19.

Lichen on a tree
Lichen on a tree. Photo by Tia Filler.

I pivoted, as one does in response to a pandemic, and adjusted some of our forums to acknowledge and reflect on the paradigmatic shift we found ourselves in and the disruption that came as a result. Participants were quick to reflect on their own connection to personal and professional experiences as they related to the shifts required due to COVID-19. Forum discussions were filled with creative expressions of frustration, reflections of childhood wilderness epiphanies and questioning the value of plodding ahead with schooling as usual. Many of the same conclusions that I came to realize through my experiences with homeschooling were now being echoed through the shared narratives of my participants.

What became fascinatingly clear to me was the connections between their insights as teachers and community educators with my own recent experience in homeschooling my two daughters. Most noticeable was the drive to rethink our purpose, to reconsider where our priorities lie, with an appreciation for the possibility of meaningfulness through experiential outdoor, inquiry-based and student-led approaches to teaching and learning. What Payne and Wattchow (2008) see as a “shift in emphasis from focusing primarily on the ‘learning mind’ to re-engaging the active, perceiving, and sensuous corporeality of the body with other bodies (human and more-than-human) in making-meaning in, about and for the various environments and places in which those bodies interact and relate to nature” (p. 16). While unplanned for, and certainly unprecedented, this pandemic disruption has at the very least provided me with both time and a much appreciated new lens through which to (re)view the landscape and waterscape of teaching and learning.


Davis, B., Sumara, D., & Luce-Kapler, R. (2008). Engaging minds: Learning and teaching in a complex world. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Jardine, D. (1990). To dwell with a boundless heart: On the integrated curriculum and the recovery of the Earth. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 5(2), 107-119.

Noddings, N., & Lees, H.E. (2016). Introduction & This Handbook. In H. Lees & N. Noddings (Eds.), The palgrave international handbook of alternative education. London, UK: Palgrave MacMillan.

Payne, P. & Wattchow, B. (2009). Slow pedagogy and post-industrial outdoor education. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 12(1), 25-38.

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