More than just a week out of school: Utilising educational theory and pedagogy in experiential learning

By Natalie Harling, Head of Education Business Development at The Outward Bound Trust. 

Bedales 3When Kurt Hahn, a German educator, founded The Outward Bound Trust in 1941, it was based on a belief that young people learn best by a combination of challenging outdoor adventure in a group, and periods of individual reflection. This philosophy still holds true today. Participants gain a set of tools designed to increase self-confidence, tenacity and perseverance, and a host of other personal and social skills.

In some respects, the underlying educational principles have remained the same and successive evaluation reports on our work have shown how powerful The Trust’s unique approach continues to be.

But we are well aware that educational theory and pedagogy, not to mention the needs of young people, change over time. So how exactly do we stay current to ensure that course participants are getting the most inspirational and effective experience possible?

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Craig Henderson, one of The Trust’s Learning and Adventure Managers, with a background in secondary education, says that it is vitally important to work closely with schools before and during the course to establish desired outcomes and to ensure that The Trust’s instructors grasp the school’s ethos and values. Our instructors are an important part of the story, as they are all dual-qualified in the technical skills needed to operate within a challenging wilderness environment, as well as in facilitation and teaching techniques. Teaching qualifications are built upon with specialist skills such as advanced degrees in Learning and Development.

Everyone needs to be speaking the same language so that the course outcome can be linked to success criteria. So, if a school wants its young people to understand and use the term ‘communication’, instructors will come up with way of utilising that term through different methods - practical, audio and kinesthetic. 

Using well-established educational theories such as Kolb's Learning Cycle, Adair’s Leadership model and Dweck’s Growth Mindset, participants are taken on a physical and metaphorical journey through a series of experiential exercises. Learning is active and designed to address student and school needs, with the concept of individualised learning within a group context taking pole position.

 Henderson comments:  “We use high adventure and incredibly inspiring places to engage learning and our highly qualified staff speak the same language to the students that their teachers use”.Bedales School, a coeducational independent day and boarding school in Hampshire, recently spent time with their Outward Bound Course Director and a number of our instructors to establish how cross-curriculum links could be made and built upon during their programme. Together, they developed a tactic of using laminated ‘Twitter bubble boards’ with students illustrating their feelings and experiences while on a mountain challenge. This innovative idea incorporated art, maths and literacy, with students writing, drawing and working out grid references - a vital skill to be mastered there and then in order to get off the mountain. This way of working brought each subject to life and ensured cross-curriculum links. Back at base, Henderson then tweeted the best work, challenging students on their spelling, as this was important to the school.

We remain committed to embracing the social and cultural changes in which students operate to ensure key principles and learning outcomes of experiential outdoor learning programmes have the maximum impact.  Through adapting and utilising new and well developed learning models into our work I believe our courses are as relevant now as they were 75 years ago.

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Original article featured in Education Today Magazine – February 2016 issue