Experiential learning is a fundamental learning process for humans that begins when we are born and learn to use our hands, speak, and walk. Experiential learning helps foster student passion and deeper understanding of abstract subjects. There is a movement in America to make education more experiential. This is represented by new pedagogical practices of inquiry learning and project based instruction. Outdoor programs such as NOLS and Outward Bound have been using wilderness based experiential learning programs to help students develop qualities that will help them throughout life. Some of the transferable skills of wilderness based experiential learning include leadership, group dynamics, resilience, self-esteem, the ability to make decisions in difficult circumstances, and respect for the natural world. These qualities, nurtured in students, will help them social and academically at school, as well as with their professional goals in the future.
Experiential learning is the process of making sense from varied experiences. Research has shown experiential learning to be a highly effective progressively driven educational technique. It is also the fundamental pedagogical theory behind outdoor adventure programs such as the National Outdoor Leadership School and Outward Bound. Expeditionary Learning, experiential learning, and other progressive schools have operated successfully in the United States for decades, but mainstream high schools have little innate curriculum that is either experiential or wilderness based. The schools that persevere using the structure of experiential learning use real life scenarios to drive student interest. In most cases these schools also have alternative sources of funding, community support, and certain leeway regarding standardized testing. There are educational benefits to using wilderness based experiential education and the general use of nature as a supporting role in formal education. The real question is what are the characteristics that separate successful students from those who struggle in school? Furthermore, can these characteristics be cultivated though experiential learning in nature and then be applied to the classroom setting?
Students struggle to learn in formal school settings for many reasons including boredom, lack of confidence, learning disorders, behavioral and emotional troubles, and difficult home lives. Experiential learning in the wilderness may not be able to solve all these problems, but it can help students to significantly reduce some of them. Boredom, for example, is a symptom of disinterest. Students who are not interested in the material at hand will have difficulty absorbing that material. “The brain optimizes input by actively resisting meaningless (boring) information, preferring to search for new, interesting experiences which can be integrated into existing structures” (Allan, McKenna, & Hind, 2012, p. 7). Students’ brains shut down when faced with the same curriculum taught the same way day after day. In a progressive styled approach, simply changing the curriculum to include community projects that the students are interested in can be enough to engender greater interest in learning. Taking students out of the classroom into a natural setting is another way to change the learning format. The natural setting needn’t be far from school. Lessons can be taught in the school yard or at a nearby park. Furthermore, if the subject of the lesson has to do with the natural world, of which the students are a part of, then student interest will increase. However, greater student interest is only a small part of the overall student character that can be cultivated through wilderness based experiential education.
The skills learned during experiential learning wilderness courses can be grouped into four main categories: self-systems, group dynamics, personal values, and technical skills. Wilderness based technical skills are not particularly useful for the purposes of engaging students, since the use of these skills is limited to time spent in the backcountry. However, the skill characteristics within the other three categories will lend themselves to developing more emotionally healthy and motivated students. Self-systems include the skills of self-confidence and self-concept. Both self-confidence and self-concept are hugely important with regard to a student’s ability to persevere with academic challenges and to maintain emotional balance throughout the demanding process of learning. Personal values, which include spirituality, environmental ethics, and social justice themes help students to define their own morals, their connection with the world, and their personal motivations in terms of what social or political causes the student will endeavor to champion in their lifetimes. Group dynamics, which includes the ability to work with others, is an invaluable skill in school and even more so in the professional world.
Group dynamics - a skill set with many positive benefits in both the academic and professional world - is richly improved through outdoor experiential education. Historically it can be argued that very first teacher of group dynamics, language, and social order, resulted from individuals exchanging knowledge on how to survive in ancient grasslands in a world of predators (Allan, McKenna, & Hind, 2012, p. 7). A similar type of necessity can be artificially created through wilderness adventure or challenging experiential learning projects. A compliment to these skills, and equally important to academic and professional success, is the cultivation of psychological resilience.
Resilience is an individual’s ability to adapt to stress and hardship (What is Resilience?, 2014). Resilience comes from an “interplay of personal and environmental factors rather then a single quality or set of traits. It is a multi-dimensional construct made up of individual assets and resources which reflect relative strengths in emotional and cognitive competence, social connectivity and physical capability” (Allan, McKenna, & Hind, 2012, p. 3). Students of any age are exposed to pressure to perform in school and many students are exposed to large quantities of stress as a result of troubled home lives. The mental suffering resulting from stress can lead to social and emotional difficulties, misbehavior or lack of motivation in school, and self-destructive behavior such as drug use. It seems self-evident that a student who is abused at home is unlikely prioritize their math homework over the mechanisms of mental preservation they have created. This is an extreme case, but a large spectrum of behaviors can result from stress. What we seek to do as educators is offer students better tools to deal with their stress and hardship so they can perform better in the classroom and make sound decisions in their lives. Psychological resilience is an umbrella term which encompasses many characteristics that make students more successful.
There is a link between resilience and outdoor experiential based education. (Allan, McKenna, & Hind, 2012, p. 3). The multi-sensory nature of outdoor environments, as opposed to the monotonous nature of a typical classroom, has a profound effect on the brain’s ability to adapt to new and challenging situations (Allan, McKenna, & Hind, 2012, p. 5). People who learn in multi-sensory environments are shown to perform better in a range of cognitive and physical tasks then those who learn in uni-sensory environments (Allan, McKenna, & Hind, 2012, p. 5). This isn’t to say that students need to be thrust into the wild to find a multi-sensory environment. Educators can cultivate a multi-sensory environment in the classroom by changing the nature of the educational process to include experiential lessons based on real life scenarios and challenges. Of course, if the teacher takes the class outside of the classroom, even to a local business or park, the multi-sensory input of the lesson is dramatically increased. As multi-sensory input is increased in the learning process, so then is psychological resilience. Whether it is resilience, self-esteem, or group communication, wilderness based experiential education regularly results in students cultivating skills that will help them during formal education and their lives beyond.
The majority of the evidence surrounding the benefits of wilderness based experiential education are anecdotal or based on self-applied questionnaires. This is problematic from research perspective, however, the quantity of evidence in this area, despite being anecdotal, is indisputable. In the area of self-systems, which include confidence, efficacy, and self-concept, one study from NOLS found that self-efficacy was dramatically increased from their baseline levels immediately after their course as well as one year later (Sibthorp, Furman, Paisley, & Gookin, 2009, p. 88). Increased self-awareness is also reported to be a highly transferable skill resulting from outdoor education (Sibthorp, Furman, Paisley, & Gookin, 2009, p. 88). Another study, with a sample size of 485 participants, reported that 57% of participants gained perspective on how life can be simpler, 41% felt they function more effectively under difficult circumstances, and 37% believed they had new skills with which to function in a leadership role. The ability to function under difficult circumstances might help a student study during finals or to be able to separate a challenging home life from the need to continue learning while at school. Other beneficial skills such as courage and boldness are also gained through outdoor experiential education.
Another study, with a sample size of 296, showed the majority of participants in an outdoor education course felt “pronounced impacts on aspects of taking action and decisiveness including risk-taking, boldness, initiative, and clarity of thought” (Kellert, 1998, p. 45). The same study indicated positive effects for the majority of participants on self-concept, self-esteem, self-respect, inner calm, and optimism. The positive effects were still reported in the follow-up query six months after the course (Kellert, 1998, p. 45). This study also noted sustained improvements in seeing tasks to completion, taking action, problem solving, making difficult decisions, delegating tasks, and leadership (Kellert, 1998, p. 48). Problem solving, perseverance in the face of adversity, and leadership are all qualities of a successful student. If these characteristics can be cultivated as a part of the formal learning process in a high school, students will benefit and are likely to have more success in their academic endeavors. Students’ abilities to work together also play a large role in their capacity to succeed as students and a professionally later on. Fortunately, the skill set of group dynamics is one of the skill sets most enhanced by outdoor education.
One study involving sending out a follow up questionnaire to 950 participants two years after the conclusion of their programs. Based on that questionnaire, the study asserted that “awareness of others and interpersonal skills were outcomes transferred from Outward Bound courses to life post course” (Sibthorp, Furman, Paisley, & Gookin, 2009, p. 88). Another study looked at the results of a corporate adventure training program and found that trust, collaboration, communication, decision making, and task completion were all attributes that were enhanced and perpetuated a year after the course was completed (Sibthorp, Furman, Paisley, & Gookin, 2009, p. 88). In that same study, with 296 participants, the majority reported, six months after the course, that they had acquired many skills that transferred to the workplace including leadership, group participation, interpersonal skills, and conflict resolution (Kellert, 1998, p. 48). Interpersonal skills is a huge factor in determining a student’s success at working with others on a school project or collaborative learning.
The development of personal values may be slightly less applicable to academic learning, but it is important for young people to find their place in the world. That is to say, what do they fundamentally believe in? These personal beliefs will set the tone of their future choices concerning work, environmental impact, and even their spiritual beliefs. In one study of 288 participants, student responses indicated that they felt significantly more responsible for their local and natural environment as a result of their outdoor educational experience (Sibthorp, Furman, Paisley, & Gookin, 2009, p. 89). In a small case study, five participants maintained a commitment to personal activism for over three years after the course (Sibthorp, Furman, Paisley, & Gookin, 2009, p. 89). In an aforementioned study, involving 296 respondents, the majority reported an increased desire to spend time in nature, an inclination to reduce waste and litter, and feelings of spiritual connection and humility towards nature. (Kellert, 1998, p. 40). It is difficult to gauge what effect an increased connection with nature will have on the academic abilities of a student, but consider that we are not just trying to create better students through outdoor experiential education, we are trying to create better people. We want students who not only persevere in school projects, but also feel a connection with the world they live in. These students are more likely to be social and environmental activists. These students are more likely to be driven to change the world we live in to make it a better and more responsible place, and they are more likely to possess the skills to succeed.
There are a couple of main concerns surrounding the incorporation of outdoor experiential education into a formal school system. The first concern is the nature of the research itself. The second concern focuses on the transferability of soft-skills in terms of how we know that students are learning the skills that will make them healthier students while engaged in an adventure course. And last, from a logistics standpoint, a class trip into the wilderness costs money and requires additional staff with a different set of expertise than is commonly possessed by high school teachers.
The benefit of outdoor experiential education is difficult to research. The sample sizes are often too small for rigorous studies and the larger studies are often based on questionnaires filled out by the participants months or years past the date of the course. This is problematic because testers may lose significant data based on who chooses to respond and who doesn’t. I might argue that only those who had a positive experience on their wilderness course and subsequent life choices would take the time to fill out and mail a questionnaire about their experience. A further complication is the fact that the same people who report how the skills they learned on their course have impacted their lives have also had other life-changing experiences between the time of the course and the time of the questionnaire years later. It is hard to accurately gauge which skills came directly from the course and which skills were learned after the course. That being said, there is research surrounding what skills do transfer, but there is difficulty in ascertaining the magnitude of the particular skill transfer (Sibthorp, Furman, Paisley, & Gookin, 2009, p. 89).
Mezirow, an American sociologist from Columbia University, defined the concept of Transformative learning. Transformative learning is defined as creating a “deep cultural shift in the basic premise of thought, feelings, and actions” (Kitchenham, 2008, p. 104). Transformative learning comes about when a student’s current experiences are at odds with their old knowledge. Their minds search for a way to organize the new information to make it fit in with the previous constructs of the old information. As this process occurs, learning takes place (Amato & Krasny, 2011, p. 239). Transformative learning begins with a bewildering dilemma, which is followed by critical self-reflection, social interaction, and the formation of a plan of action. The success or failure of the plan of action leads to the formation of new roles and understandings (Amato & Krasny, 2011, p. 239). I posit that experiential education brings about transformative learning by creating scenarios where previously held knowledge conflicts with new information. This might happen during an experiential learning project near school and it will definitely happen when students are faced with the rigors and challenges of the wilderness. There is much anecdotal evidence surrounding the transfer of skills from a wilderness based experiential course. Researchers have seen this as evidence of transfer, considering that students who have participated in wilderness based education have reported and shown evidence of the enduring qualities of these new skills (Sibthorp, Furman, Paisley, & Gookin, 2009, p. 87).
The final concern of logistics and funding is a real concern in a typical high school run by the state. Some state run schools have a lot of extra money donated by parents to be used for extra programs for the students or better facilities and resources. But many community high schools lack the support of parents or the parents lack the wealth to contribute to the school. In other words, any school that incorporates wilderness based experiential education must have additional funding, above and beyond what is doled out by the state. There are examples of alternative high schools in the United States that incorporate these types of programs into their curriculum. Most of these schools are private or have alternative source of funding. Eagle Rock School is one such example. Eagle Rock is completely free for its students and 100% funded by Honda. It is possible to find funding for individual schools that are interested in shifting to include elements of outdoor experiential education. And some experiential education is not expensive, like a walk to a local park. However, there would have to be a cultural shift in America towards funding education if every school wanted to add experiential outdoor education to the curriculum.
These findings are important because of their potential to change the learning process taking place in our current educational system. In some cases students are getting an excellent academic education without any type of experiential education, in other cases they are not. However in both cases there is a question as to whether we are teaching students how to incorporate their learned knowledge in responsible, relevant, and practical ways (Kellert, 1998, p. 75). Furthermore, one might argue that our nation’s youth is facing a crisis of values. Family and community connections are eroding which can foster a sense of rootlessness and declining civic participation (Kellert, 1998, p. 75). Wilderness based experiential education is shown to be successful at reconnecting young people with nature and their responsibility to protect and improve their natural and home environments. Additionally, any experience which is revealed to develop character, responsibility, confidence, and optimism are potentially important for student success in school and beyond.
The educational approaches of high schools in America are diverse in many situations. However, there are a few generalizations that most American high schools fall into. Most high schools emphasize abstract and non-experiential learning. Most high schools stress specialization within each discipline. That is to say that different course subjects are segregated from one another. Last, most high schools provide little opportunity for outdoor education (Kellert, 1998, p. 76). Outdoor components to educational programs provide the opportunity to bring experience and connectedness back to the learning process. This doesn’t have to happen hours away in a national park. The natural environment is everywhere and can be found close to most every school.
Of all the characteristics learned in a wilderness based experiential course, leadership, teamwork, and self-confidence are perhaps the most important for students to be successful in school and beyond. These are characteristics that are required for high academic achievement, but at no point in a regular high school curriculum are they taught. This paradox can be solved by implementing some aspect of outdoor experiential education in the mainstream learning process. Even a small outdoor experiential program could yield huge benefits for students. Nature is an intrinsically powerful tool for growth and maturation. At a time when we as a people have become increasingly insulated from nature, and when large demographics of students are struggling to connect with the current format of high school education, the solution may be a return to the lessons of the natural world.
Allan, J. F., McKenna, J., & Hind, K. (2012). Brain Resilience: Shedding Light into the Black Box of Adventure Procesess. Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 3-14.
Amato, L. G., & Krasny, M. E. (2011). Outdoor Adventure Education: Applying Transformative Learning Theory to Understaning Instrumental Learning and Personal Growth in Environmental Education. The Journal of Environmental Education, 237-254.
Kellert, S. R. (1998). A National Study of Outdoor Wilderness Experience. New Haven: Yale University.
Kitchenham, A. (2008). The Evolution of John Mezirow's Transformative Learning Theory. Journal of Transformative Education, 104-123.
Sibthorp, J., Furman, N., Paisley, K., & Gookin, J. (2009). Long-Term Impacts Attributed to Participation in Adventure Education: Preliminary Findings from NOLS. Research in Outdoor Education, 86-103.
What is Resilience? (2014). Retrieved from American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx