- Why can’t school be more like an Outward Bound course?
By: Richard Stopol, President Emeritus, NYC Outward Bound Schools
Why can’t school be more like an Outward Bound course? For many people, this question is oxymoronic because Outward Bound conjures up images of wilderness adventure, not schools. But it’s a question that for the past 35 years has animated the work of NYC Outward Bound Schools, an education nonprofit I led for more than three decades and has also been a major driver for EL Education, a sister organization that works with hundreds of schools across the country.
This question is rooted in the knowledge that Outward Bound’s origins are in schools – its founder, Kurt Hahn, was a 20th century European educator who started the Gordonstoun School in Great Britain, among other educational initiatives. And it flows from the recognition that the Outward Bound experience is grounded in a pedagogy — a teaching and learning approach — that aligns remarkably well with what both science and experience teach us about how people learn best and what it takes for young people to thrive. In fact, there are some key elements of this pedagogy that are especially applicable to schools and have particular relevance in this moment as our education system faces a raft of challenges including pandemic-induced learning loss, an increase in chronic absenteeism, teacher shortages, and an adolescent mental health crisis.
The building blocks of an Outward Bound learning experience are challenge and support. Students who experience Outward Bound, whether in wilderness or classroom settings, are given tasks that initially may seem impossible to accomplish: tasks requiring a healthy dose of struggle and of stretching intellectually, emotionally and/or physically in order to achieve success. But Outward Bound recognizes that while challenge is a necessary ingredient in the learning process, it is not sufficient. It must be counterbalanced with copious amounts of support from adults and peers alike, allowing students to feel safe, confident and motivated to engage in the risk-taking, exploration and grappling true learning requires. By providing them with what David Brooks describes as a “secure base,” they are able to spread their wings and take flight in their learning journeys.
In that same vein, Outward Bound sees learning as primarily a communal exercise rather than a solo activity. It invests significant time and energy in establishing learning environments built around an ethos of “we are crew, not passengers” — the understanding that we have a shared stake in each other’s success. This ethos puts a premium on interdependence, trust and collaboration and is forged through activities that require students to rely upon and support one another. Outward Bound’s goal is to get everyone — the entire crew — to the top of the mountain, whether that is an actual or metaphorical peak. And being part of a crew that has adopted a we are all in this together mindset serves as a bulwark against the rising tide of depression, social isolation and disconnection young people in our country are now facing.
While Outward Bound strives to create a community of learners, it also embraces the notion of differentiated learning, recognizing that no two learners are the same and each requires different strategies and supports. There is a constant process of recalibration based on ongoing assessments of students’ strengths and vulnerabilities, and what they need at any point in time. And there’s a deep commitment to equity — helping every child, regardless of background or circumstances, discover and realize their full potential.
Additionally, Outward Bound places a strong emphasis on student agency and autonomy. Outward Bound students are not passive learning vessels but instead are active participants in constructing knowledge and solving problems. As the learning process unfolds and they build their knowledge and skills, they gradually take on more responsibility for their learning, allowing them to become increasingly self-directed and more adept in finding their own voice.
Another distinctive feature of Outward Bound’s pedagogy is that it incorporates an immersive learning by doing approach whereby whatever is learned is immediately applied in real-world contexts. For example, the student on an Outward Bound course receiving instruction on how to set up a rain tarp who fails to pay attention and absorb the lesson suffers the obvious consequence of getting wet. There are analogues aplenty in a classroom setting, mainly in the form of projects organized around issues such as climate change or gun violence that matter to students and arouse their interests and passions. Ideally, these projects are structured so as to require students to take some action aimed at addressing the issues they are studying. This makes their learning purposeful and gives it an urgency that breeds engagement and excitement.
Lastly, Outward Bound actively cultivates both intellectual and social-emotional development and sees them as inextricably intertwined. Students are given regular opportunities to develop and practice the qualities that lead to success in the classroom and other aspects of their lives such as perseverance, self-discipline, curiosity, empathy and compassion. The benefits of a dualistic approach grounded in the interrelationship between young people’s social-emotional and academic development are confirmed by the research. Indeed, the Aspen Institute’s 2019 report, “From a Nation at Risk to a Nation at Hope” highlights a substantial evidence showing base that this approach has beneficial impacts on attendance, grades, test scores and graduation rates, college and career success, engaged citizenship and overall well-being.
So, the answer to the question that began this essay is abundantly clear. It’s evident that schools can and should be made to be more like an Outward Bound course. That’s because Outward Bound offers a powerful pedagogical formula for excellence and equity that blends challenge and support to bring out the best in young people, promotes belonging and community while also attending to individual needs, encourages youth agency and voice, injects joy and adventure into their learning, and places equal emphasis on intellectual and social-emotional development. And that’s a winning formula for our country and its children.