Innovation at Outward Bound Loch Eil

By David Exeter, Head of Centre and Sean Comiskey, Learning and Adventure Manager at Outward Bound Loch Eil

LE Exped The Outward Bound Trust has a distinctive educational track record of inspiring thousands of young people, through learning and adventure in the wild.

Our pedagogy has been built around the concept of taking young people into wild places, either through expeditions, micro adventures or challenging outdoor activities. Authentic adventure facilitated and processed by highly experienced outdoor professionals, has been at our core since Outward Bound was founded by educationalist Kurt Hahn (1886- 1974) and founding partner Lawrence Holt (1882-1961).

What place does adventure have in learning?

Beames and Brown [1] highlight that the Oxford Dictionary defines the word adventurous as “willing to take risks or to try out new methods, ideas, or experiences”.

With increasing acknowledgement that our education system needs to do more to prepare young people for life in the 21st century, Beames and Brown propose in their book, ‘Adventurous Learning: A Pedagogy for a Changing World’, that learning today must be in sync with the realities of a world that will continue to be filled with uncertainty and challenge.

Learning today must be in sync with the realities of a world that will continue to be filled with uncertainty and challenge.

They propose that the learning process needs to be authentic and relevant. They highlight the significance of student led learning which enables learners to acquire the ability to take responsibility and ownership for their own actions.

Beames and Brown believe that agency and autonomy plus dealing with uncertainty are essential traits needed to thrive within a 21st century context.

An authentic Outward Bound adventure will contain these elements in abundance and for more than 75 years, we have supported learners to interact with these qualities through undertaking adventures in wild places. Students who can apply an adventurous spirit into their everyday lives can become more resilient in their efforts to succeed in a rapidly changing and uncertain world. 

With the spirit of adventure being part of Outward Bound’s DNA, we at Loch Eil believe that there is a need to weave adventurous learning into the way that we deliver our learning processes. At Loch Eil we are at the beginning of our journey to extend this philosophy into the way we facilitate learning. We are aspiring to frame our learning in a way that supports a student led approach where participants are given the agency and autonomy to direct their own learning. We are also working hard to frame our learning within the context of the 21st century. This involves exploring our abilities to enhance awareness of; health and well being, sustainability skills, employability skills with a strong focus on raising attainment whilst we also continue to enhance our USP of personal and social development. 

IMG 7166Innovation in teaching and learning

‘Adventurous Learning’ is our catalyst for innovation at Loch Eil and it is the spirit which captures our ambition to deliver learning that is exciting, engaging and relevant for young people living in the 21st century. With such a solid history and educational backbone this surely creates a great platform for innovation in teaching and learning.

So, where do you begin when leading a truly great learning organisation?

For starters, let's begin with opening up and giving permission for staff to be innovative and challenge practice. Let's really look at our own courses, sessions, interactions and interventions. Curiosity of what works and in what circumstances is critical.

We then mix in a group of staff who have self-selected to be part of a new Innovation Group, with a brief to explore what works in education, using internal evaluation and external educational research. We began with Geoff Petty's work on evidence based teaching [2] and then onto the work of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) with their work on the Teaching and Learning Toolkit [3].

Outward Bound strive to ensure our courses are memorable, meaningful and motivational. It's our emotional connection that is always such a powerful driver of the deep learning experience.

It is important for us at Outward Bound to look at the wider field of educational research, and in many cases what works in the traditional classroom. The challenge is in reviewing the research and making the transfer to our outdoor classrooms, in the wild, on the river, on the rock and on expedition.

So drilling down into a single area of practice, the Innovation Group looked at “feedback”, again linking back to the EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit. So you end up exploring what feedback actually looks like in Outward Bound, how this should look and feel to both the student and instructor, keeping in mind the dynamics of the emotional transaction that is so important to the overall success of our work. As an organisation we have strived to ensure our courses are memorable, meaningful and motivational. It's our emotional connection that is always such a powerful driver of the deep learning experience.

Innovation for continuous improvement

In creating an Innovation Group at Outward Bound Loch Eil we asked the team to be transparent with their work. They were tasked with setting up an internal blog to document the review of the research and their own learning journey, in a hope to create an accessible resource for instructors. It's early days, they are six months in, but with permission to innovate and learning at the core of our experience, the results of the team's work are already making a difference to the young people who attend Outward Bound.

The key takeaway from this article is this:

  • Use innovation as a construct to give permission to experiment
  • Experiment based on sound international educational research
  • Use the educational research, applied in your own learning context, to improve your pedagogy. 

David Exeter is Head of Centre at Outward Bound Loch Eil in the Scottish Highlands. His most recent published work is contained in the International Handbook of Outdoor Studies, published by Routledge. You can also read his interview with The Scotsman on his first year as Head of Centre at Loch Eil. Connect with David on LinkedIn.

Sean Comiskey is a Learning and Adventure Manager, with over ten years instructional experience within Outward Bound. He is an outdoor educator and experienced coach.


[1] Simon Beames and Mike Brown. Adventurous Learning: A Pedagogy for a Changing World (2016). Published by Routledge, 711 Third Avenue, New York

[2] Geoff Petty. Evidence Based Teaching (2009). 

[3] Education Endowment Foundation