Adventure and Learning

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The second question of three.

In your experience, how does adventure learning contribute to a student’s academic and personal growth? Please address both types of growth.

Expeditions can greatly contribute towards building strength of character. Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim tells us that it is necessary for a youth to experience events which ‘reveal the inner worth of the man; the edge of his temper; the fibre of his stuff; the quality of his resistance; the secret truth of his pretenses, not only to himself but others.” Kurt Hahn

IMGP0046Recently a colleague has been dealing with a lot of bad luck. Following bankruptcy he had been clawing his way back by building a branding consultancy, just as things were starting to fall into place his partner ran with the money and accounts. Why am I telling you this in regards to adventure education? Well this gentleman used to sail big yachts and seeing him peering over the precipice of depression I decided to have a chat with him about his passion. We shared stories of dealing with duress outdoors and failing in life as depicted by a modern consumerist paradigm. We talked about how being in “adventurous situations” we did not whine, we just dealt with whatever circumstances were thrown at us. We did not find people to blame, we lived as our best selves. When we are functioning well we bring the lessons that we have learned outdoors into this modern conundrum that we call living. As we talked about John the outdoorsman vs John the business man a light started to shine in his eyes. As he remembered who he is outdoors he recognized who he can be in any other situation. He left our conversation with a renewed resolve that was wonderful to watch.

B Tech 1008Kurt Hahn was particularly impelled to bring Outdoor Education into his pedagogy because he believed that society was becoming diseased and that expeditions were one of the best form of therapy for the post industrial malaise he saw growing in Nazi Germany. The Salem School; Hahn’s first opportunity to practice his thinking, set out to to train young people to have moral independence, an ability to choose between “right and wrong,” and an improvement in their physical health. It strikes me that this is just as necessary today in America as it was then in Germany.

“We discovered that expedition training and expedition tests counteracted the unhealthy effect of undeserved hero worship. Not a few specialist athletes revealed in adversity a certain flabbiness of will-power which was well hidden in their ordinary life. The expeditions were sometimes of an arduous nature – long treks in the Alps, exploratory expeditions to Iceland and on the Payenne and the Seima Lakes in Finland. Again and again the average and even clumsy athlete excelled on such expeditions…” Kurt Hahn

IMG_0688This is a large part of my motivation to teach in the outdoors in that not only am I a “clumsy athlete” I also appreciate the contemplative nature of outdoor folk. Nature shows us that we are part of something much bigger than ourself which leads to the Eastern thinking that we are all connected. Anything I do to something or someone else ultimately affects me. This fosters a desire to nurture as ultimately I will also be nurtured. I feel this is the best way to bring about social justice and heal the evident issues we face in the West as demonstrated in an Aurora movie theater last year.

626546211_MzSPU-LA number of years ago Robert Fulgham wrote All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. I feel the same way about the outdoors. Relevancy and reality are amazing motivators when it comes to learning and the outdoors caters to both. I have yet to meet a student who having been advised to bring a jacket because it will be wet and cold, shown how to cook a meal and praised for a cooperative behavior and its benefit to the group does not open to my teaching.

A shared experience outdoors inevitably develops meaning that is understood and a connection between the teacher and students involved. I still feel strong ties to all the teachers who took me outdoors.

IMGP0695The raised level of engagement and cooperation that adventure demands opens a door to explore concepts that may normally be shut out by cultural demands. The idea of “I am not a mathematician” is usually left behind when we introduce math for navigation. Understanding the current group dynamic is brought alive by history and the stories it contains, even if history is deemed useless in another arena.

Adventure though is so much more. Students have to learn to deal with feelings of uncertainty (I argue that this is the very definition of adventure) and the cognitive dissonance it creates. The vulnerability that is felt emotionally is the very same state that creates significant learning and this learning transfers to other areas of life both personal and academic. As soon as someone believes they are a learner they gain the self confidence to learn anything. In particular we focus on problem solving skills, value clarification, communication, cooperation, leadership, decision making and continuums like the distinctions between right and wrong or needs and wants. All of which define both a person and that person as a life long learner.

IMG_0001b (39)I once taught a Canyon Orientation class. In the interest of transparency I need to disclose that not only did I know very little about canyons and traveling through them I also felt completely uncomfortable in a desert ecosystem. When I thought of the arid lands of the South West I was filled with dread as everything appeared prickly, cruel, uncomfortable and full of venom. Obviously this feeling is based on my perception because I knew plenty of people who felt the polar opposite to me. The course was taught over two long weekends and as I drove the bus to Delta for the first time I was worried. What did I have to teach these people when I was a fraud?

IMG_0074We rose early the first morning and walked to the entrance of the Dominguez Canyon. Prior to entering I asked the students to sit silently for half an hour and just be. We talked about the sensations and feeling we experienced in this time and it was obvious that others had felt the same as I had. It was also evident that none of those negative emotions existed any more. Knowing nothing about the natural history, I told them the story of William Smith and the creation of the first geological map, how when he started there were no names or published ideas and yet how observing patterns he had made sense of the earth’s formation. I asked them to walk alone, then in pairs and finally in fours to observe and reflect on the patterns that they saw in the geology. We then came up with questions we wanted answered and expanded those to other areas of the natural history. That week they were all tasked with researching some of the group’s questions and preparing presentations and handouts before our return. The result was incredible.

“It is the sin of the soul to force young people into opinions – indoctrination is of the devil – but it is culpable neglect not to impel young people into experiences.” Kurt Hahn

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