On Foot - Navigation or Map Reading?
Author: Nigel Williams
Several articles in the last edition of the magazine raise issues of what, when, how and who should teach basic map and compass navigation skills.
So how are we taught navigation, is there a universal methodology and are those teaching it trained to do so?
The Geography teacher has to get pupils through an exam which usually involves a 1:50 000 scale map, plotting skills, symbols and grid references among other things - in other words, a static map reading process. Those involved with outdoor activities require students to navigate on the move, a completely different set of skills and level of confidence because the outcome of an error will have a direct consequence.
Who gets the pupils first may have an impact on their learning to navigate, which is a good reason to start in primary school. Both British Orienteering and the National Navigation Award Scheme (NNAS) have materials and training to support that. However, there is no formal course within the UK education system where a teacher can learn to teach navigation. As a result, there is no universal UK system to benchmark the process of either teaching or pupil outcomes.
Most user organisations such as schools, youth organisations and outdoor training organisations came into being before the 1970/1980s when British Orienteering developed a simple and successful teaching process. However, orienteering was viewed sceptically by others as not being relevant to their established methods and aims. The wearing of something akin to pyjamas, running and perceived club membership probably enhanced that view.
Navigation is taught randomly across many organisations in the UK, largely based on an 80-year-old military methodology. The original focus being to teach accurate plotting skills to pin point trenches and gun positions, accuracy of angles and magnetic variation were vital to avert shelling your own side. Prismatic compasses and mils instead of degrees gave a much greater level of accuracy than our current base plate compasses. The methodology was never designed for outdoor recreation and on the move navigation.
Much of the old teaching requires numeracy skills and is designed to enable the communication of information, little of which is relevant to navigation for recreation. When did you last use a grid reference during a walk in the countryside or need to communicate a bearing? We tend to point at the map and then the direction we want to go in. A simple compass needle to set the map when following linear features is generally sufficient.
Numeracy as a starting point for learning the subject can be a barrier for many learners and later in life may impact people’s confidence to get active outdoors. It may also be a reason why people opt for using a GPS/phone, because it appears to get around the perceived complexities that the teaching methodology has thrown at them in the past. We can’t dismiss grid references but as a starting point it is not going to enthuse.
Magnetic variation currently in the UK is less than the stated accuracy of a standard baseplate compass which according to the manufacturers can be up to 2.5 degrees out. It is irrelevant for beginners and simply adds complexity and confusion. Beginners usually plan to follow tracks and paths where dial turning bearings are not required.
In recent years the orienteering map and its availability has become a huge asset in teaching navigation skills and British Orienteering now have around 560 maps from across the UK on their website which can be down loaded, some free, some for a small payment. Availability of these maps are a game changer for every age group and level of learning. The amount of navigation skills learning and practice that can be achieved in a short space of time is far greater than on any other mapping.
Instead of learning 1:50 000 symbols by rote in the class room, imagine giving children an orienteering map of the school /local park grounds without the key on it. Then invite them to go and discover what the symbols are - active learning and building map confidence within their known environment.
Orienteering maps don’t have grid numbers on and competitors use compasses without rotating dials or numbers on and they are arguably the best on foot navigators in the world. The teaching process is not numeracy based, it keeps things simple, fun and as practical as possible with a teaching methodology and progressions that are consistent and can be benchmarked nationally.
NNAS uses a similar approach of developing skills with orienteering map scales and exercises. Ultimately the aim is to develop the skills needed to become confident and competent with standard recreation scale maps 1:25 000, 1: 40 000 and 1:50 000 as well as combining a GPS or altimeter if required.
The key things both these organisations embrace is a simple set of progressions written on one side of A4 and tutors are required to be trained to teach the subject, a 1-day course usually meets most tutor needs. This is absent in virtually all the other major organisations involved with navigation or the teaching of it. The NNAS awards are also being accredited on the Scottish Credits and Qualifications Framework endorsing tutor competence and a clear structure to teaching the subject.
If a simple UK navigation teaching methodology were to be established and tutors trained to deliver a similar approach, the benefits could be wide ranging from supporting the health and obesity agenda and reducing Mountain Rescue call outs to benchmarking between the many outdoor qualifications and youth skills awards.
Learning skills with an orienteering scale map provides many learning and feedback opportunities without having to walk long distances. The environment is often less intimidating than being in the hills and therefore also supports the learning process.