The Green Classroom

Article by Diana Boswarva - Captain
St Hilda's Anglican School for Girls, WA / 20 August 2018

When educational pioneer Margaret McMillan commented, almost a century ago, that “the best classroom and the richest cupboard is roofed only by the sky” she could have easily have been referring to the benefits of the Australian Army Cadet (AAC) program. These benefits are currently being realised at St Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls, in Perth, Western Australia.

In 2016 the Australian Army sought to “modernise, professionalise and grow” Australian Army Cadets (AAC) via the Transformation Program. One of the primary objectives of the Transformation Program was to grow cadet and cadet staff numbers, as well as to address some of the Australian Army’s diversity objectives. St Hilda’s Anglican School Cadet Unit (SHASCU) is the first all-female cadet unit in the country and was raised as part of the AAC Transformation Program. SHASCU is a school-based unit located at St Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls, in the suburb of Mosman Park, in Perth, Western Australia.

SHASCU ran their inaugural field training weekend on the 16-17 June at the Bindoon Training Area in Western Australia. The weekend was planned and executed by ADF Liaison and Australian Army Reserve officer, Captain Diana Boswarva. Upon completion of the weekend, the cadets graduated from the rank of Recruit to Cadet.

“It was a chance to test the skills we’ve learnt on Friday afternoons during parades,” Year 10 student Prianka Behari said.

“We took part in activities such as navigation, the radio and phonetic alphabet, field signals, camouflage and disguise, and kneeling and walking without making noise. Leading up we were taught how to keep warm and applied that knowledge at the camp as it was cold overnight!”

Captain Boswarva, an Australian Army Reserve Signals officer, St Hilda’s staff member and Old Scholar of the school who became involved in establishing SHASCU in mid-2017. Captain Boswarva works with Mrs Angie Ranson (Head of Curriculum Services and a Defence Approved Helper) to implement the Army Cadet co-curricular program, which includes a Friday afternoon training, a field weekend once a term and an annual nine-day combined training exercise in the September school holidays.

“Coming from an Inclusive / Learning Difficulties background I am a firm believer in the how the learning opportunities presented to Australian Army Cadets can translate into a mainstream classroom and inevitably correlate with enhanced student learning and performance. The AAC program offers levels of planning, leadership, risk-taking and personal development that have not previously been made available to students at the school,” said Captain Boswarva.

The benefits of student participation in Australian Army Cadets as a school co-curricular option are vast, as indicated by current pedagogical literature which heavily advocates the correlation between exposure to the natural environment and an increase in the intellectual and creative abilities of students. The outdoor classroom, a central theme of Army Cadets, is essential for developing capacities for creativity, problem-solving and intellectual development. The opportunity to plan and execute scenarios, that are subject to unexpected outdoor events, such as the consequences of an unexpected thunderstorm, is a key point of difference between the learning opportunities available in a conventional classroom and the outdoors. Uncertainty breeds creativity and resilience.

Alexandra Hughes (Year 10) said it was an information evening last year that convinced her to join the St Hilda’s Unit.

“When I found out we would be learning all sorts of challenging and fun skills, then putting them to use, I could not wait to be a part of Cadets,” she said.

Australian Army Cadets are offered an integrated curriculum opportunity that allows them to utilise outdoor classrooms to support significant student gains in Humanities, Science, Literacy and Maths. For example, whilst students are taught the fundamentals of mapping in Australian Curriculum (Geography) it is not until they implement those skills in the practical learning environment, such as a navigation exercise in the Bindoon Training Area, that students truly learn to appreciate concepts such as contour lines, gradients and scale.

The outdoor learning environment helps to create sustainable relationships between cadets and their environment. It is important for adolescents to appreciate where resources, such as food or wood for shelter are drawn from. The curriculum offered by the AAC helps cadets to build connections between themselves and the natural environment and, in turn, helps to promote a sense of respect and duty of care for the world in which they live.

One of the greatest areas of development for Army Cadets is the opportunity to enhance personal and social communication skills. The Cadet Development Curriculum encourages cadets to take personal responsibility, cooperate and respect the needs of others. The program also trains cadets to extend their personal horizons through a greater appreciation and understanding of the world the people around them. A 2005 study by Burdette and Whitaker found that “Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for learning in the out-of-doors.”

Cadet participation in the AAC can have a significant role in increased physical health and promoting the well-being and healthy living of all Cadets and their networks. Present research from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Centre states that over 25% of 2-16-year-olds are overweight or obese. Children who experience school grounds with diverse natural settings are more physically active, more aware of nutrition, more civil to one another and more creative (Bell and Dyment, 2006).

For Amelia Beck, also Year 10, Army Cadets has helped her overcome challenges and reinforced St Hilda’s values, such as respect.

“I had a really sore back, but I was able to push through in the fitness testing and overcome that,” she said.

“Another challenge I faced at first was remembering to call the Captains and LieutenantsMa’am’ and ‘Sir’, but I’m now getting used to it. I like that Cadets teaches respect. I now call my teachers that sometimes because I’m so used to it!”

The enhanced sensory awareness offered by outdoor learning can translate into improving student performance in the conventional classroom context. Proximity to, views of, and daily exposure to natural settings increases children’s ability to focus and enhances cognitive abilities (Wells, 2000). Contact with the natural world has been reported to significantly reduce symptoms of attention deficit disorder in students (Kuo and Taylor, 2004) and reduce rates of nearsightedness in children and adolescents (American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2011).

Participation in the AAC increases student wellbeing. Outdoor pedagogy promotes a knowledgeable and positive response towards personal health. Cadets are required to regulate and care for themselves and others in a learning environment that requires more maturity and responsibility than a mainstream classroom. A 2001 study by Taylor, Kuo and Sullivan found “access to green spaces, and even a view of green settings, enhances peace, self-control and self-discipline within inner-city youth, and particularly in girls.”

Australian Army Cadets offers a wonderful co-curricular and pedagogical opportunity that seeks to offer adolescent Australians the benefits of learning and peer leadership in the natural environment, as well as a sense of purpose, self-reliance and community. SHASCU aims to complement and enhance the learning opportunities already well established at St Hilda’s Anglican School for Girls.

“The Australian Defence Force considers Cadets a very important part of their future, and it is brilliant that girls are becoming more and more involved,” said Mrs Ranson.