Experiential education is much more than a trip down the river or a climb up a mountain. A twenty-year veteran of alternative education tells his story and reveals the evolution of his work.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in
new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
- Marcel Proust
Twenty years ago, I led my first group of teenagers into the woods. We canoed, hiked, bicycled, and explored. We grappled with issues of sharing, honesty, trust, self-esteem, integrity, and spirituality. We were young and walked into each adventure with anticipation and little skill. Each of us was after something, and we were after it together. Perhaps seventy such wilderness experiences later, the “landscape” has remained the same: I still take teenagers into the “woods,” we still struggle with the same virtues, and we still are after something together. What changed and continues to change is the way in which I view and approach these experiences.
The Mountains Speak for Themselves
We are on our final expedition. It is day 18 of 21. We have canoed 157 miles with 43 portages. The next portage is crowded with people having lunch. Without a word, they hit the water before the canoes touch land, hefting packs and flipping canoes. Under two minutes, and we are moving across the portage. They are proud and confident. They showed their best.
In the early years, we just did the trips. We were there for safety and skill instruction. With a strong program format, like Outward Bound, we provided some tools of teamwork, reflection, service, and self-reliance. As an instructor, I relied on shared hardship, adventure, and relationship to provide the learning window. I believe we worked on commitment, passion, and gut feelings, which, of course, grow with experiences. Justifying the value of experiential learning was difficult. Learning was a personal matter; and when the learning conversation took place between an individual and the “mountain,” results were random.
On this same canoe trip, we did one 16-hour “push” day, traveling 43 miles. The “kids” had a choice (they wanted to make a rock-climbing site), they had support (whenever we saw them struggling “too much"), and the experience was processed (we asked them how they felt about it the next day). The majority did seem to feel accomplishment, having done what they thought impossible. However, in the actual experience, in the action, each person had to create their own interpretation of value and use whatever resources they had during the physical, emotional, and mental challenge. A few had a firm view of the goal and pushed onward. A few were pulled along by the pressure of not appearing weak. Bobby was driven to success at all costs, something he was very used to. Tim just did whatever he was told to do. Yes, they ended up with a tangible feeling of accomplishment; but one wonders what myriad of other feelings were triggered in each of them, and of what relative power each of those feelings had. We knew these experiences, these conversations with the mountain were powerful; we just trusted our gut as to why or in what ways.
The Conscious Use of Metaphor
In 1983, Stephen Bacon brought the use of metaphor to my outdoor world. We started talking about the motivation and sense of accomplishment that occurs when kids learn successfully with natural consequences. We knew this already through experiences with rain and setting up tents properly. What was missing was the conscious design of the experience and the possibility of creating metaphoric learning opportunities for a group without waiting for the natural teaching moment. Through a carefully designed experience, we could create metaphors to evoke personal transformation or behavioral change. The other goals of accomplishment and acceptance of responsibility for actions would still have been realized.
Dr. Bacon added assessment, isomorphism, and transderivational search to our toolbag. We read the group through a variety of planned activities (assessment). We decided what they might need, and then designed a challenge that was similar to their real-life needs (isomorphic experience). The challenge needed to be compelling enough to hold their attention. When the experience began, the teenagers searched for any past strategies that may have relevance to their current challenge (transderivational search). They would likely try old strategies, so we designed the climbing experience to tease out these existing strategies and to offer new approaches toward successful resolution of “problems,” rather than just present a challenge for kids to struggle with on their own. This started to add a margin of control over results, as well as meeting more specific needs of each child.
With all of the real learning occurring during the experience, we were able to look at how to frame it to make sure critical conditions of change were met. We used debriefing as -a reinforcement tool, rather than allowing chatter to bring meaning out of a random experience.
For example, with a group of teenage girls (age 13-15) at risk of going to the streets, we identified control issues between mothers and daughters as one critical issue to explore. We designed a high-ropes course where each mother and daughter team would navigate the events together. To shift the power balance and the perceptions of care and responsibility, the girls were taken through the course on an earlier date and were given a frame of personal power and self-confidence. The girls then were asked to lead and support their mothers through the course. The mothers' and daughters' altered perceptions of capabilities, their shared “risk” adventure, and the clear imprint of responsible behavior when trust was given were all felt in action, not words. The experience would certainly be re-visited in the next home session as control issues again surfaced. We were getting clear on tailoring each experience to the needs of individuals and groups for maximum transfer of learning back to their lives.
The Power and Possibility
As one can see, the therapeutic possibilities are immense. New experiences and challenges elicit a search for past experiences that are similar (a metaphorical process) and for the solutions that were used for those previous experiences. For example, Cindy was very keen to try her first rock climb. She was athletic and ready to show the boys that she was as able as they. When she hit a bulge in the rock, 25 feet up, that demanded a swinging move where one has to trust the safety rope, she was not prepared for the metaphorical search that brought out sexual abuse by her father. Feeling out of control, afraid of falling, and being frozen in action brought the image of her father’s face at night. Cindy’s choice (and in experiential learning, choice must always be free and respected) was to be lowered off the climb. Cindy had met one of her dragons. We discussed the connections, identified the feelings, and saved the confrontation for another time when Cindy was ready.
We were designing experiences, with specific results for each individual, as well as for the group. We started with their needs. Then we looked for the concerns behind those needs-the larger stories that drive their outward needs. This provided the critical conditions for change. Then we decided what intensity to give the experience (in order to meet or exceed the intensity of the problem or behavior that was to be opened to change). Only after all of this did we choose the direct experience that might best produce the desired results. For example, if you first decide that you are hiking and then realize that the group needs an intensity of cooperation, you will have to work hard to include that cooperation, since people can hike by themselves within a group. However, if you first decide on an experience that includes cooperation, you then can choose one big raft, where everyone must communicate and paddle as a team.
There is also great potential for bringing back to human-made environments the very real behavior changes that the natural environment allows. Experiential learning is not just the rock face or the river or the trek up a glacier, though I believe there is an accelerated learning available in the “original” environment. Experiential learning provides a direct connection of the body to a new set of strategies, solutions, and actions.
Simplicity Beyond Complexity
At a certain point, one must step beyond the metaphor. Ultimately, experiential learning is a spiritual journey. It is an opportunity to seek understanding of yourself and to choose how you wish to stand in the world. Whether through wilderness or other tools, the distractions we all choose to concern ourselves with must be quieted for a time to impel us to consideration of who we are, who we have become, and who we will become. These are the desired results. The metaphors and challenges are the tools. And taming the dragons simply means accepting who we are and learning to work with ourselves to allow new ways of being in the world. By embracing our dragons, rather than denying or trying to slay them, we give ourselves the chance to create our future with full knowledge of the driving forces from our past. It is a dance with powerful implications for the children with whom we work. It is a dance of new eyes.
Bacon, S. (1983). The conscious use of metaphor in Outward Bound. Denver, CO: Thy Type-Smith of Colorado, Inc.
Black, W. Conversations and shared experience design. Sources of Executive Action, P.O. Box 61159, Kensington P.O., Calgary, Alberta T2N 456, (403) 262-7627. Will Black is pioneering a new approach to experiential learning.
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow-the psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc.
Enviros Wilderness School, Project TRUST (Treatment Under Stress), 2282 9th Street NW, Calgary, Alberta T2M 4P6, (403) 284-227I, experiential and wilderness programming in a variety of settings for troubled youth.
Gass, M. (August, 1991). Enhancing metaphor development in adventure therapy programs. The Journal of Experiential Education, 14 (2).
Wilson, J. Klondike Ventures, experiential design and training, Box 1432, Cochrane, Alberta, TOL OWO, (403) 932-7750 (Phone/Fax).
This feature: Wilson, Jeff (1995) Taming Dragons. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Problems, 3(4), p20-21.