Podcast Episode 4: Critical and Creative Approaches to Walking in Schools

WalkingLab’s podcast series on walking research-creation aims to distill WalkingLab publications and content into audio form. In this podcast, you’ll learn about the complex ways that students can engage in walking as a method of inquiry.


Welcome to WalkingLab’s podcast series on walking research-creation. This series aims to distil WalkingLab publications and content into audio form. In this podcast, you’ll learn about the complex ways that students can engage in walking as a method of inquiry. WalkingLab is co-directed by Stephanie Springgay and Sarah E. Truman. You can find print publications of these podcasts at walkinglab.org. While not necessary the podcasts are designed to be listened to while going for a walk. This walk could take you along an urban river or around a school yard.

I’m Rebecca Conroy, artist and researcher and I will be your host today. 

WalkingLab organizes international walking events, conducts research with diverse publics including youth in schools, and collaborates with artists and scholars to realize site-specific walking research-creation events. WalkingLab acknowledges the traditional and unceded territories on which our work takes place. WalkingLab is accountable to  Dylan Robinson’s insistence that land acknowledgements often operate from a politics of recognition and perpetuate settler colonial logics rather than disrupt them. As will be introduced through the podcast series WalkingLab asks walkers to consider where they are coming from in relation to Indigenous peoples and territories where they live and work, and to consider why a land acknowledgement is important to them.

An outcomes based approach to education is modeled on colonial notions of mastery, and whiteness. Within this framework both the arts and walking practices are incorporated in schools when they can be proven to make contributions to student creativity, attainment, attention, and wellbeing in the service of specific outcomes. This podcast examines two in-school walking research-creation projects that resist outcomes-based models of schooling through a critical use of walking and arts practices. 

The podcast begins with Hannah Jickling and Helen Reed’s Upside-Down and Backwards, which was a month-long artist residency in an urban elementary school and part of a research-creation project called The Pedagogical Impulse directed by Stephanie Springgay. Documentation of this project can be found at thepedagogicalimpulse.com. The artists worked with grade 3 and 6 teachers and the students – who were predominantly newcomers to Canada and socially and financially marginalized – to develop a series of research-creation projects that asked questions about entanglements between nature and culture, citizenship, and belonging. The project also intervened into the sentimental colonial nostalgia for landscape painting and nature that persists in the Canadian elementary curriculum. 

Landscape paintings often present the Canadian landscape as a pristine and unoccupied wilderness, and settler-colonizers as heroic explorers. In Upsidedown and Backwards, Jickling and Reed introduced the students to contemporary art that critically explores the Canadian landscape and offers counter-images. For instance, Cree artist Kent Monkman’s paintings, which re-enact iconic landscape paintings while telling stories of Indigenous genocide; or Ian Baxter&’s reflective souvenirs, which disrupt the binary between the self and the natural, allowing the viewer to see themselves as part of nature. These in-school lessons shaped the basis for the walking research-creation projects. 

Landscape art is often used idealistically, to reconnect students with nature. Similarly, Sheelagh McLean contends that outdoor education programs are often framed as methods for reconnecting students with nature. In outdoors education, students are sometimes presented with environmental problems, such as climate change, but without attending to how capitalism, White supremacy, and settler colonialism are part of environmental degradation. In this way, the uptake of walking in education fails to consider its role in White settlers’ claim to land. Karen Malone suggests that these pedagogical methods situate nature as inanimate, children as seperate to nature, and humans as dominant over nature. Moreover, Malone argues that families and communities who don’t engage with particular forms of nature-based learning are often described as depriving their children. Such problematic understandings of nature and landscape promote particular versions of citizenship, nationalism, and belonging in which some bodies are already marked as either natural or unnatural. McLean contends that while place-based environmental curricula imply decolonization, they are portrayed as a place for white bodies to escape crowded urban spaces and reclaim their innocence. This was reflected in the students personal experiences where landscape was defined as specifically ‘Canadian,’ outside of urban Toronto, and not something that they had personally experienced or were welcomed into.

Margaret Somerville and Monica Green contend that posthuman place-based and environmental educational research requires an attention to intimacy, to counter the idea of nature as distinct from culture. In Upside-Down and Backwards, the teacher and artists started from the proposition of intimacy. In one project, students walked-with round mirrors the size of an average child’s head: Students posed for photographs with the mirrors in front of their faces to reflect landscape, sky, or other objects such as brick-walls. This resulted in a series of student portraits, in which faces became entangled with nature. Intimacy here is not a human-centric model of care, where students got to know their local environment, or learnt about sustainability. Rather, intimacy becomes acts that intervene and make visible students’ entanglements within a landscape. This contests the idea of nature as White, innocent, empty and separate. In another example, students walked Toronto’s Don River. The walks meandered through familiar paths and neighbourhoods. Typically, nature-based learning, as explained by Malone, asserts that nature is something distinct from culture, urbanization, and humans. Landscape, in the Canadian context, is often associated with the wilds of national parks, not inner-city spaces such as the Don River. In walking-with the Don the students moved with the intimate contours of landscape. 

In another project, the classes walked to Brickworks Park. The students walked-with Elinor Whidden’s Rearview Walking Sticks. The Walking Sticks consist of discarded rear view car mirrors attached to large tree branches, which allow the user to see behind them on the path. They symbolize walking on rugged terrain where additional support is necessary. However, using them on human-made boardwalks and paths seemed absurd. Similarly, as navigation devices, looking behind you while walking forward obscured the student’s sight, complicating issues of safety and orienteering. 

Jack Halberstam argues that success, mastery, and heteronormativity can be countered with approaches that “embrace the absurd, the silly and the hopelessly goofy.” Halberstam contends that, in education, seriousness, rigorousness, and disciplinary training confirms what is already known in advance. The walking sticks were unnecessary in a gentrified parkland, yet disrupted the assumption that there is a need to know how to behave, to know in advance how to walk in landscapes. These absurdities were punctured by the students’ reflections caught in other student’s mirrors. Not one student with one reflection, but a multitude of diffracted bodies interrupting the landscape and walking. In contrast to dominant images of landscape as wild and empty, Upside-Down and Backwards swarmed with children’s bodies moving, walking, dancing, talking, laughing and sometimes screaming. The students’ portraits and their walking-with experiments explore land and body, nature and culture, not as severed, but as entangled with colonization, immigration, urbanization, and pollution. 

Working against the history of Canadian landscape where landscapes are captured devoid of humans, the walking-with events contest notions of citizenship and identity, and the easy separation of nature, self and culture.

Let’s now explore the second in-school project.

Sarah E. Truman’s Dérive through these Charter’d Halls was a four month in-school research-creation event with a diverse cohort of grade nine English students in Cardiff, Wales, United Kingdom. The students examined the relationship between walking as a method for generating content, as a narrative device, or a literary theme. They also critically challenged outcomes-based approaches to walking in education, where walking is framed as a method for inciting creativity and for improving literacy.

Rather than structuring the project around an outcome-focused assessment of literacy, the research-creation events of the project focused on the ethical-political concerns that emerged through the students’ walking, reading, and writing. Students would walk while completing readings and writing related to different prompts. On one project, the students walked-with the idea of the dérive or ‘drift’. Many walking scholars and artists have used versions of the dérive, borrowed from the Situationists, to re-map space. The students were intrigued by the notion that within a dérive the idea is to drop usual ‘relations’ and set out to explore ‘appealing’ and ‘repelling’ places. The students were eager to try this out in their school, although, as one student noted, the places of repulsion may outweigh the places of attraction. Several students also commented that deliberately walking or ‘drifting’ in some places in the city and at certain times of the day may be dangerous – particularly for racialized and gendered bodies – and acknowledged  how walking scholarship (and schooling) still assumes the cis-white-enabled male body as the norm. 

During the student’s drifts through the school they created literary maps of their affective experiences of space and place. Mapping is a common practice in school curricula, where students might for instance map the topology of school space using drawings and place names: such maps are usually representational. The students’ literary maps, on the other hand, are created using a variety of literary devices including: metaphor, assonance, lists, exaggeration, rhyme, and synesthesia: they can’t be easily used to physically locate oneself within the school. Rather, they are ‘counter-archival’, in that they mark out the students’ sensory and subjective understandings of place, and are open to constant modification. You can find out more about counter-archiving and counter-mapping in previous podcasts in this series. The students’ literary maps point at the multiple tensions of walking-with inside and outside of school space, illustrating how bodies at the intersection of gender and race are already marked as out of place and as such how walking and movement are always constrained, disciplined, and codified. 

One of the literary devices used to create the narrative maps was synesthesia, which is when writers use one sense to describe another. The students’ synesthesia dérive disrupted the habitual use of language to describe smell, taste, touch, sight and sound, and instead conveyed students’ experience of place in complex ways. For example, one student scribbled on their map: Salted sweat grunted out of limbs. Another wrote: The air takes on a different taste, sweet and hazy. Splinters of the soft brown shades linger humid on my eyelids.

Other literary devices included listing. The use of listing as a literary device links seemingly disparate agents into a tense unity. For example, one student mapped a stairwell in the school’s interior:

Thunder of feet

Rough Walls

High climb

Food falls

Spider webs

Peeky holes

Cold air

Bell tolls

Lists function similar to Deleuze and Guttari’s partial objects. Partial objects are “pieces of a puzzle belonging not to any one puzzle but to many, and so simultaneously hint at both gaps and connections.” The synaesthetic maps and the lists reveal the ways that students understand institutional space and its effect on student bodies and learning. 

Another walking and mapping technique included the re-naming of school spaces. For example, the office became ‘swivel chair blues’ and the examination room became ‘Data Source’ with ‘No-exit.’ These humorous descriptions evoke what Halberstam calls the “toxic perversity of contemporary life”, where success and progress continue to marginalize students labeled as at risk, urban, and outside of mainstream culture. As Sara Ahmed notes, to be affected by an object is not just to experience that individual object but also whatever surrounds that object. In this way, chairs and stairwells, which might seem less important in school than standardized tests and assessment reports, move into the centre and link up with other connective devices on the maps. 

While the field of literacy studies in education has expanded to include environmental literacies, as well as emotional, and place literacies, literacy still functions through an inclusionary logic where particular people are deemed ‘illiterate.’ Like the discussion of  landscape above, which continues to demarcate nature as White and neutral, and as such marking racialized students as unnatural, literacy in the west continues to function as a White civilizing process that neutralizes, sanitizes, and commodifies language skills. Literacy in schools in the west is built around a White supremacist monoculture. To be literate means to know in advance what literacy is, and how to perform literate acts. 

The students’ literary maps of the school mapped students’ understandings of how language functions to control and dehumanize students. Walking-with in the school became a method for exploring inside and outside of school place collectively, to consider the ways that language is already pre-supposed and pre-determined in advance. Walking-with, as a mapping practice, shifts literacy from its concern about particular ‘coded’ meanings toward intensities and their effects. The students’ maps create intimate diagrams of school places that don’t represent place, but rather entangle their relations with learning, institutions, and literary practices. 

Walking-with can be a significant and important method for working with students in educational contexts, but only if it is used critically. Walking is sometimes taken up as a slow, antiquated, and embodied way of moving through space, in order to counter what is perceived to be the negative effects of digital technologies on young peoples’ lives. Walking becomes a way to reconnect with place and people, and is valued because of its affiliation with understandings of health and environmental consciousness, purity and its perceived accessibility. Moreover, in pandemic times, educators are increasingly looking to outdoor models of learning, including walking, as a ‘safer’ way to learn. Yet, as we discussed in podcast 2, discussions of place rarely take into consideration the ongoing dispossession of Indigenous peoples, people of colour, and ethnic minorities.

In Truman’s project, the intersectionality of gender, race, and ethnicity was discussed by the students as limiting where they could safely walk, including on routes to and from school. When walking is valued for its health benefit, or inherent relation to creativity, or used to promote ‘green’ initiatives in schools, the legacies of walking as White, male, autonomous, and as part of ongoing settler colonialism remain intact. As discussed in Jickling and Reed’s project, walking and nature rationalized through discourses of ‘disconnection’ and ‘reconnection’ is part of the production of White subjectivity that continues to re-inscribe a separation between nature and culture, human and nonhuman, landscape and Other. Walking is never simple, slow, or benign. Walking-with is complex, unruly, and political.  

Thank you for listening to WalkingLab’s podcast series on Walking Research-Creation. 

You can find out more about the projects discussed in this podcast at thepedagogicalimpulse.com and walkinglab.org. Subscribe to the RRS feed so you can be notified whenever a new podcast drops!

WalkingLab is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.