Signing up for an Outward Bound expedition is not easy. We know that no matter if you are a parent of a student or the one going on the expedition yourself, the process and days leading up to the experience can be filled with questions. From who will be with me to what should I pack or even where do we go? We hope to answer some of those questions in our four-part series: What to Expect on an Outward Bound Expedition.
Third on the list of what to expect is the educational journey. Keep reading for an Instructor’s look into the way students learn and grow through challenge.
On the surface, it looks like any backcountry trip you see on Instagram, but an Outward Bound Expedition is much more than that. What happens on a course is an intentional process with a beautiful combination of contrived and natural challenges. Through this challenge, students experience growth in a way that has lasting impact on them, their families and their communities. The basics of all courses remain somewhat similar. You meet your crew, pack the gear you will need for an expedition, then head into the big unknown (the backcountry) to learn expedition and outdoor living skills. On expeditions, students must take care of themselves and each other as they travel through the backcountry.
The Challenge of Outdoor Living
Some students might find themselves further than 15 feet from a fridge for the first time in their lives. They might have to manage going to the bathroom outside in the pouring rain. If a tarp is poorly pitched, they might wake up with wet gear. Outdoor living is a great example of a natural challenge on course. Instructors have no role in creating it. It’s the wild, the backcountry, and we are at the mercy of nature. All that I can do as an Instructor is teach my students the technical skills to manage these challenges and aim to develop a crew culture where they support each other through it.
Living in nature is a practice of sitting with discomfort. It is a step outside our normal, comfortable, modern lives. There are high highs with immense beauty and pride, and of course, there are deep lows that make you wish you were back home on the couch. Sometimes we are uncomfortable, and we must learn to show resilience and thrive anyway. Any time I see a crew self-initiate a dance party in the rain, my belief in the tenacity of humankind is revived.
The Challenge of the Crew Dynamic
Working with others can be hard. Usually, students quickly get very close with their crew, and through that synergy comes an impressive amount of learning. As students grow more comfortable with each other, they lean into deeper challenges by sharing about their lives and their reflections on the course. This can be scary for some, but the more a crew shares, the greater the opportunity to grow in compassion as students learn from the perspectives of others.
Spend enough time together, and there might just be some conflict too. Part of my job as an Instructor is to support students with tools to work through conflict; from one-on-one issues to major group decisions.
Leadership progression within a course is another great individual training ground found within the group setting. Peer leadership can be a powerful experience, especially when paired with feedback from crewmates. It is my goal that a course provides a physically and emotionally safe space for students to practice using communication tools and having hard conversations. Crew dynamic challenges are usually naturally initiated, but Instructors also set challenges in this realm through team-building initiatives and intentional missions to create controlled settings for learning skills such as teamwork, listening and conflict resolution.
The Challenge of Self-Reliance
Outward Bound expeditions are crafted using progressions. Every course has a Training, Main and Final phase. There is a progression within every area of a course: in the kitchen, navigation, time management, leadership, personal disclosure, camp craft, etc. My goal as an Instructor is to conduct a thorough training phase for all areas and give productive and constructive feedback in the main phase. This progression is intended to give crews opportunities for self-reliance. In the final phase, I aim to provide an appropriate challenge such that a crew can shine and demonstrate that self-reliance.
I’m not a guide, I’m an Instructor. With no prior experience necessary, students learn all they need in order to take ownership over their course. My favorite time on an expedition is when I’m able to take a step back and watch crews thrive in the skills they’ve learned. In aiming for autonomy, students truly experience ownership over their lives and explore their full capabilities.
The Challenge of Choice and Lack Thereof
Some elements of a course have a “challenge by choice” element. This can look like deciding to climb or not, or it could be deciding to share your feelings or thoughts at an evening meeting. When presented with a choice, there is usually an easier and a harder option. Hopping on a climb where you might fail and sharing in a circle where you might feel vulnerable are just two examples of scary choices. When given the choice, can you lean in and pick the harder one?
Through the freedom of choice, students can experience agency and empowerment. And on the same day, there may be a situation with little choice about it. Maybe it’s been a huge day, we’re still hiking, and really the only option is to get to camp. We can’t just sit down and be done yet, although maybe we want to. Moments with a lack of choice show us that we can push through challenging moments, allowing us to experience a new level of our capabilities.
A Framework to Help Define: The Kolb Cycle
A huge part of any Outward Bound expedition is an intentional time to reflect on the experience. When something challenging occurs and we don’t take the time to reflect on it, learning can be lost. This can look like an evening meeting, a journaling prompt, or some solo time to be alone. The Kolb Cycle (Kolb 1984) is an academic framework that helps to describe this process. Containing four stages: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation; each flows into the next, and the underlying idea is that we can draw lessons from our experience through reflection, then apply them in the future.
This framework is one of the most simple ways to lay out the process behind experiential education programming. In reality, the cycle is more like a dialect happening in multiple directions and dimensions, all at once. But for the sake of simplicity, this is a useful lens through which to understand the process behind an Outward Bound expedition. We do hard things, we reflect on those hard things, and we apply those learnings for future hard things.
The Depth of Process
While frameworks are nice to grasp, this framework and article can only go so far as to explain the depth of the process because it is beyond words in so many ways. One of the reasons I love writing about experiential education so much is that it is a great challenge to try and put it into words. This process is not like traditional schooling. It doesn’t fit into boxes or gets graded. But it works, it’s like magic sometimes. Experiential education revived strength I didn’t know that I had which I used to pull myself up from rock bottom. Now I see that process at work with my students, and if I don’t see it, I know that maybe a seed is being planted, and that’s alright too.
Kolb, David. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience As The Source Of Learning And Development.
About the Author
Addie Hurwitz is a field Instructor for the North Carolina Outward Bound School, primarily out of Table Rock base camp. Addie has a degree in Recreation, Park, and Tourism Management from Penn State University. She loves working in experiential education and takes similar joy from studying its academic side. When not on a course, Addie is likely skiing or traveling.
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