Outdoor U

What American higher ed can learn from expeditionary learning schools

Earth and sky, woods and fields, lakes and rivers, the mountain and the sea, are excellent schoolmasters, and teach some of us more than we can ever learn from books.

The Use of Life, John Lubbock, 1894

In both K-12 and higher learning settings, we spend significant time focused on traditional cognitive development, reading, scientific theory, mathematics and how to apply book learning to the real world.  Predictably, high schools and colleges have come under fire for teaching to the test.  Indeed, student assessments are the product of standardized tests of vocabulary and math aptitude.  This traditional pedagogical philosophy is predicated on the supposition that subject mastery will lead to proficiency in problem solving, critical thinking and communication skills – key drivers in the college selection process and career advancement ladder.  These students, aided by their smartphones, can connect to social media, courseware, homework helpers and concert tickets without venturing outdoors for weeks at a time.  

Over the past several decades of so-called “higher education reform”, other parallel schools of thought have emerged choosing the less taken path of inquiry based, expeditionary learning and self-discovery.  Today, more than 150 expeditionary schools in the U.S. can trace their roots to Kurt Hahn, the founder of Outward Bound and world recognized father of expeditionary learning.  Early on, Hahn developed a deep appreciation for the ancient Greek ideal that education should be aimed at producing a complete person – intellectually, morally, aesthetically and physically.  First founded as a boarding school, Schule Schloss Salem was led by its founding headmaster, Kurt Hahn.  The School still exists and its Headmaster’s welcome message puts it nicely:

We are curious who you would like to be tomorrow, and what kind of world you dream to live in the future.

Among its guiding principles, Hahn offered the Seven Laws of Salem, which included, among others, giving every child opportunities for self-discovery and providing experiences of both triumph and defeat in order to encourage inner strength and perseverance in the face of adversity.

Hahn believed it important for students to come from a mix of socioeconomic backgrounds.  He observed that students who “come from homes where life is not only simple, but even hard” may help inspire a tradition of self-discipline in others.

Hahn’s Outward Bound protÁ©gÁ©es were committed to restoring a sense of adventure and excitement in learning through direct experience with the challenges of the outdoors and nature.  Expeditionary learning is known for engaging students’ heads, hearts and hands and can accommodate a tremendous variety of learning styles.  In addition, expeditionary learning promotes independence and resourcefulness, expanding self-confidence, creating a sense of pride and accomplishment as well as reengaging students who have turned off to the traditional learning process.

Located on a bucolic reservation of over 1,000 acres with 20 miles of trails and 4 ponds in Westwood, Massachusetts, Hale Reservation is recognized around the world for its premier summer camp and year round educational programs for both children and families. Highly ranked on Money Magazine’s list of the 100 best places to live in the U.S, Westwood, Massachusetts lies less than 5 miles from the Hyde Park section of Boston.  Offering both traditional camping and specialty camps, Hale hosts outdoor expeditionary adventures of many kinds.   Uniquely, Hale serves as the most prominent summer camp for Boston public school children teaching archery, swimming, boating, and ropes course challenges while offering environmental education experiences. Hale describes one of its goals as developing intelligent leaders and environmentally educated citizens.  Hale Reservation Executive Director Eric Arnold shared this incisive perspective:

Learning outdoors, connecting with nature, and being active are three key ingredients in educating the whole person.  Expeditionary learning goes hand in hand with developing self-confidence, perseverance, ingenuity and self-reliance all of which are the prerequisite for academic, professional and personal success.

Created as a six college consortium, the EcoLeague was founded in 2003 and consists of Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, Alaska; College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine; Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Green Mountain College, in Poultney, Vermont; Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin and Prescott College in Prescott, Arizona. Although geographically diverse, these institutions share a common and longstanding commitment to preserving Planet Earth through programs targeting environmental sciences and sustainability.  The EcoLeague offers students exchange opportunities to learn in diverse ecosystems and communities with faculty who have a wide range of disciplinary and regional expertise. These experiences are essential for students preparing to live and work in a global and interconnected world.

What expeditionary schools and colleges have in common is a dedication to the core values of adventure, discovery, perseverance, resourcefulness, fitness, craftsmanship, imagination, discipline, self-reliance, ingenuity and hands-on learning.  Expeditionary learning cultivates the skills needed to produce the future leaders of a rapidly changing world.

—James Martin and James E. Samels, Future Shock columnists, are authors of The Provost’s Handbook: The Role of the Chief Academic Officer (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.) and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.

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