What can’t be taught in a classroom

There is growing interest, in Australia and abroad, in examining the current system of education in relation to how it sets up children for futures in the modern world, or, perhaps, doesn’t. The school system has the tough job of preparing children for adulthood and employment in an environment that evolves so rapidly, it can barely be imagined today.

Thriving in such conditions requires an array of social and emotional skills that enable individuals to adapt to their circumstances. And while it is well understood by teachers, administrators and parents that education cannot begin and end in the classroom, the school curriculum mostly focuses on the acquisition of cognitive skills – reading, numeracy and scientific literacy.

Recent studies, as well as our experience at The Helmsman Project, have suggested that social and emotional skills like resilience, teamwork, goal setting, self-regulation and leadership – referred to as ‘life skills’ – are best developed through hands-on experiences. One of the most innovative developments in expanding education beyond the limits of the classroom has been adventure education.

What is adventure education?

Typically, adventure education takes place in novel, challenging outdoor settings. It involves hands-on activities such as hiking, camping or sailing – experiences that can be both physically and mentally demanding. As someone who has seen first-hand the impact of adventure education on young people, I know it produces most benefit when individuals are fully immersed in it, ideally over an extended period of time, and supported by people who can help them to make meaning of their experiences. This allows individuals to broaden their perspective of the world and discover new and different personality traits or skills about themselves.

For a lot of young people, the developmental stage they are currently in makes the abstract concepts of setting goals, resilience and self-belief, difficult to grasp. But, through the supportive, yet foreign environment that adventure education presents, teenagers can start making sense of these ideas as they accomplish tasks and goals they did not believe they could previously do.

This could involve, for example, trying to sail a yacht when they had never seen the ocean with their own eyes before. Part of that requires difficult jobs to be done, including waking up at 3am to set sail, and collaborating with other young people who are not their school friends. Sometimes, they fail. Failure is a key component of adventure education as it teaches great lessons. The bottom line is, this very visceral, tangible experience of working hard through sea-sickness, homesickness and/or tiredness to achieve a goal, catalyses the development of a range of life skills in young people, particularly a sense of hope, self-regulation and resilience.

Adventure education doesn’t have to be aboard a boat to provide an adequate challenge for young people. The essence of an adventure education experience is the presentation of an exciting or rewarding challenge that is both physical and cognitive and located in wilderness, far from the ‘comforts’ of home for several days. It is usually undertaken in a small group and requires the learning of new skills and the collaboration of members. Hiking in the bush is another example. Students need to learn how to navigate, how to resolve disputes about which direction the team should go, and how to push through exhaustion to get to the campsite before dark. The feedback of their efforts is immediate and they have to adapt based on the consequences of their actions, which can often be a new experience for young people.

While it is possible to have meaningful, hands-on experiences in the classroom or on school grounds, taking young people away from the familiarity of school and out of their comfort zone is critical for life skill development. Many teachers report observing students who are disengaged in the classroom, becoming very engaged and showing real interest and initiative during their adventure education experience. By changing the learning environment, it is possible to have an impact on students whose learning styles are less suited to the traditional teaching setting. Encouragingly, the positive impact of these experiences can often be seen back in the classroom.

Who is adventure education for

Young people who have been affected by disadvantage have had many experiences that required them to develop a range of coping mechanisms, many of which are admirable life skills. However, it is typical for young people in these circumstances to experience lower levels of support, which makes it difficult for them to realise they possess these valuable attributes. Other life skills may be underdeveloped. For example, the concept of ‘hope’ is closely connected to having a broad perspective of what is possible in the world… And exposure to disadvantage does not typically foster the development of such a perspective.

An adventure education experience can be enormously impactful for young people affected by disadvantage. It can help them discover valuable personal attributes they can use to a much greater extent.

In addition, children from less socioeconomically advantaged areas often have fewer opportunities to develop life skills due to a lack of engagement in extracurricular activities, various pressures from their environment or minimal stimulation at home.

The effect of life skill development is cumulative; children who develop essential skills early on, through challenging school camps, extracurricular activities and a stimulating home environment, are more likely to build on these foundations. Conversely, children who have not developed the necessary foundations for further skill development are likely to fall further and further behind their peers, which contributes to a cycle of socioeconomic disadvantage.

The inclusion of adventure education in the school curriculum, and providing the necessary funding for it, is therefore critical. Hands-on learning experiences, including adventure education, should not be limited to schools and families that can afford them as optional extras.

Every young person, regardless of their background, has potential within themselves. Adventure education, combined with adequate support, could be the key to unlocking that potential and preparing all children to thrive in their future.

The Helmsman Project

Source: This article was originally published in Education Review, March 2016

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