What's The Point Of Outdoor Education?

Hiking - Outdoor Education

I’ve been reading a number of articles lately which have had a common theme about where education is headed. Given the number of theories on how people learn and retain information best, it always strikes me as odd when experienced educators, usually in management positions, suddenly think that more time in a classroom equates to greater results for the school.

Whilst this might work for some students, what’s the point of having a cohort of super intelligent and well educated doctors who have the bedside manner of a pathologist? Many big companies pay people like myself large amounts of money to run team building and leadership programs for their staff, because they don't have the capacity to effectively deal with people, work as cohesive teams, adapt and problem solve! Just as an aside, if you are from a big company and you have a large amount of money to give away, I’m more than happy to run a corporate team building weekend for you!

If this is what more and more organisations are looking for, why then is it so hard for schools to see the value in what outdoor education does? I can’t for the life of me work it out! Many schools have outdoor education as a token gesture annual year level camp. More often than not, they also get someone else to run it for them. The problem with this is the fact that activities in isolation don't add up to the long-term benefit that a well-structured outdoor ed program can deliver and it's these long-term benefits that make all the difference to the overall educational experience.

The whole point of modern education should be to provide students with a dynamic skill set to tackle the challenges of life, not just academic, but social and emotional as well! This is where outdoor education comes in. Forget about the specific activities for a moment. Worrying about this can be a distraction from the wider picture, so instead think about what emotional and spiritual goals you want to achieve from your programs. Be specific with it too! Do you want doctors with a good bedside manner? Do you want trades people who can setup and run their own enterprises? Do you want kids to be honest, responsible and functional members of society? Or do you just want a number so the principal can feel good about themselves? Anyone can get an academic result. To be honest, it's probably one of the easiest things in education. Yet producing independent, innovative, determined and compassionate young men and women is a far more difficult challenge for educators.

Briefing The Kids Before Kayaking

Briefing The Kids Before Kayaking

The world however, needs young men and women to be equipped with far more than a university entrance rank. By only focusing on academics, you're actually setting kids up for failure and failure is something modern adolescents aren't very good at handling. I’ll talk about the lack of resilience in kids today in another article, but for now I’ll stick to the point. You need to provide more than academics and a token gesture of a year level camp each year. Outdoor education needs to become an integral part of your school's program and culture.

What should you do about it? Well, for starters, the school needs a director of outdoor education, one who's experienced in developing and delivering innovative, sequential learning programs that link together and increase the challenge that the students must face as they progress through the years. Then allocate time throughout the year to challenge students in their social and emotional growth through outdoor activities. Better still, look at a longer term year 9 or 10 program. Let's be honest, these two years could be a complete waste of time, so you may as well do something constructive with them, rather than just let them tread water until they're a bit more mature. There's some awesome long-stay programs being run around the world, so check them out and see how you could shape the lives of your students with something like this. If all else fails, at the very least, link every year level camp to real social and emotional outcomes so that teachers can work towards achieving them, not just ‘getting away’ for a week.

The whole point of outdoor education is to push kids outside their comfort zone and to challenge them. It's not until we begin to feel uncomfortable about something new, that we actually start to develop and grow as individuals. It's this emotional and social growth that becomes invaluable to the child’s overall education. The more they're given real opportunities to deal with the reality living with others, working as a team and reflecting on their own life and actions, the more balanced an individual will be.

Forget the insane drive for academics at all cost. Whilst it produces some pretty numbers that everyone can go ‘ooooh and ahhhrr’ for about five minutes, all of this is often meaningless and easily forgotten. Whilst it helps the principal make out that they're doing a great job, it also produces crappy soulless lawyers, crooked politicians, rubbish doctors and rude tradesmen who don't wipe their shoes at the door.

Outdoor Ed is more important than ever to help develop real life skills for each and every student. Don't leave leadership, team building and resilience to someone else. It's a vital part of education for young men and women so they can lead healthy balanced and wonderful lives.

Helpership

Leadership - Experiential Education

After a recent hike, during our debrief, one of the students made a comment which was quite profound. It made me seriously rethink my approach to the whole subject of leadership. We were talking about what makes someone a leader. ‘Taking control’, said one student, ‘making things happen,’ said another. This continued for some time with similar answers more about command and control than anything else, until one boy called out, ‘helping others!’
 
I asked the boy to explain what he meant and the discussion continued further around the topic of helping others out. Suddenly, one of the boys said, ‘Well, why not call it helpership?’ I thought about this for a moment and it struck me. What a profound statement! Whilst I’m sure someone has come up with this before, I’d never actually looked at leadership from that point of view. Even though as a leader, that’s exactly what you’re doing, I’d always explained leadership in a different way, more about looking for opportunities and inspiring those around you than the idea of helping others.
 
However, when working with students, especially younger ones, the idea of helpership makes a lot more sense. Through a straight forward comment of one of the students, I immediately found this to be a much easier and more accessible way for students to understand leadership than any other method I’ve come across before. We continued to run with it and the discussion turned out to be a very productive and meaningful one for the students who had come up with the idea, as well as for all the other students involved.
 
Often leadership gets confused with the sense of largess military or political leadership. The vision of a president tweeting something stupid or a repressed dictator joyfully pressing launch buttons for his collection of inter-continental ballistic missiles, further confuses the subject as neither of these projected figures are true leaders. Often for students it’s even harder trying to understand the concept of leadership when bombarded with these political figures in the news every day. When people hear the term ‘world leader,’ they think of visible public figures who have somehow risen to power and often obtained their position through dubious means. Whilst this is a misconception about leadership, it’s an easily made mistake.
 
The reality is that a leader is there to help others and not themselves. If you look at leadership in a military sense, leaders are helping others to achieve goals under demanding and often life-threatening circumstances. If you look at it from a business sense, leaders are helping others to achieve common goals and a vision for their company that’s greater than any of its individual parts. If you look at leadership in sport, again it’s all about helping others to achieve common goals that the individual could never achieve alone.
 
However, for many, leadership is a concept that’s hard to grasp and it’s often confusing and difficult for people to differentiate between qualities of a leader and traits of a manager. Much of this comes from experience and context and many students might also only see leadership as what teachers do. They could see it through their sports’ teams in which someone has been nominated as captain and everybody must listen to the captain or else be dropped from the team. Again, these are not necessarily the best ways to learn about leadership unless the person in that position is actively helping others.
 
If team building and leadership are important goals for your school, then instead of working with complex leadership theory (of which there’s a huge amount of literature), start with the concept of helpership. It immediately changes the conversation and makes the discussion more accessible. Rather than somebody being in charge and dictating orders, which is what a lot of younger people perceive leadership to be about, frame the discussion around helping others. This approach can change the entire mindset as to what an individual can do to become a leader. As a result, you can develop leadership and mindfulness in students as they look for ways to help each other, rather than thinking that they need to tell each other what to do.
 
As students progress through their high-school years, they’re searching for a sense of self, a sense of belonging and a sense of how they can make a difference in the world. Consequently, developing positive leadership qualities throughout this time is vital and can make a huge difference to their lives and the lives of those with whom they’ll interact no matter what they choose to do.
 
Ultimately, this can be a powerful lesson and an important one to develop leadership skills in young men and women. Whilst leadership development is often far more complex than the idea of helpership, if students have it in their minds when they’re just starting to think about leadership and where they fit into the world, this can have a profound impact on their longer-term leadership development and success as a leader.
 
Helpership starts the conversation in an assessable way so students can begin to understand that, unlike the political egotists of the world, leadership is not about you. It’s about others. It’s about shared goals and values. It’s about the welfare of others. It’s about putting yourself second and the needs of others first. It’s about service.

So when you’re thinking about your next leadership program for teens, why not simply re-frame the language? You don’t have to call it a helpership program, but it’s well worth using the concept of helpership as a key idea to help students to start to really understand what leadership is all about.