Tips for Effective Outdoor Leadership
Leading outdoor classes is one of the most gratifying experiences one can take part in. You have the opportunity to soak in God’s creation, make new friends and impart skills not enjoyed by the majority of modern society. But how do you run a class? There’s a growing trend in the bushcraft, self reliant and survival communities that believes that knowledge of outdoor skills gives them the ability to teach those skills effectively. Thus, we have schools popping up all over the place all teaching variations of the same material all pulling from a few modern sources due to television popularity. However, true outdoor educators do not rely on the latest television fad or skills set for their programming. They draw their ideas from creation itself and those that have gone before, the frontiersman, the mountain man, the tribal native and those that have endured true survival experiences; these are the things that inspire their creativity. But, the greatest indication of a true outdoor educator is their willingness to learn by doing. This is a Biblical principle that is often overlooked, “Be a doer of the will of God, not just a hearer that gets tricked easily” (James 1:22); they delve into their learning environments through experience based initiatives. When they read about skills or tools from history, they experiment with them (experimental archaeology) and through their experimentation they learn skills by experiencing them first hand.
Experiential Education can be summed up as learning by doing combined with reflection, and this is really the best method through which to pass on the tribal knowledge. While I certainly understand and expect that people will continue to pass on their skills from one to another through personal contact with friends and family as they should, I hope that those flirting with the idea of operating a school and teaching “their” skills to the public will at least make a concerted effort to practice what they preach so to speak, then learn to teach effectively. It’s in that vein that I offer these tips to help you understand the basics of effective outdoor leadership. These tips have been adapted from the Association of Experiential Education’s guidelines for educators and are pretty much the standard for professional outdoor leaders.
1) Use Direct and purposeful experiences. All change and growth has some sort of experience at its origin, our job as instructors is to place our students as close as possible to that origin. Why? Because this process can be the most productive for lasting positive change over other learning methods such as books or videos. Students may read about or watch videos on making a five minute fire, but until they see the preparation period involved, learn the fire lay, then do it for themselves; it’s all been theory. So by directing their actions toward the experience of making the five minute fire, they learn through the experience of gathering material, then processing that material and ultimately lighting the fire. So, each step of our curriculum must reflect purpose toward a greater end result. Random skills thrown in “just because” rob students of direct and purposeful experiences.
2) Challenge Students. The greatest change occurs when a person is placed outside of their comfort zone and into a state of dissonance (the need to resolve the discrepancy that caused their discomfort), where there are degrees of perceived risk and they must think hard to regain equilibrium. Thus, we should strive to place our students in an environment and in situations where the level of risk- both real and perceived- fosters a motivating attitude to change and retain the changes. For example, think of when you were told you had to make a shelter, fire and boil water for the first time in less than 15 minutes. I have heard it stated many, many times “That’s impossible”, “That’s too hard”, etc. The stress levels peak during this event, there’s typically lots of cussing, internal angst and arguments with partners- the perceived risk is great that they will fail the task and ultimately the Basic class. However, once they do it, often well under time, they’ve been motivated to make that their new standard and often never go back to their old ways.
3) Allow for Natural Consequences. Natural consequences are those that occur from setting, situation and circumstances of the class without human interaction. The ramifications of decisions made by students provides realistic, immediate and often, individualized feedback. So, when appropriate, utilize natural consequences to match a student’s choices or behavior thereby providing a basis for growth. This can be applied to something as simple as failure to pack an item on the pack list. The student’s decision to watch television the night before class instead of going to get the last item they needed resulted in their inability to complete an assigned task. Thus, immediate, individualized feedback results…
Conversely, artificial consequences are those that occur if an instructor anticipates or responds to a student’s action, causing an artificial consequence to modify the natural consequence. Such as the instructor giving the student the item they failed to pack… We modified the natural consequence by providing a solution which did nothing to instill lasting change. If we forgot an important item in real life, while in the field, we’d have to make do without or improvise, why should it be any different in a class should one fail to pre-plan appropriately, especially when it’s all written out for them? It’s one thing to replace broken gear or upgrade cheap or even the wrong type of gear, but failure to follow a list results in a natural consequence that must be dealt with by the student.
Artificial consequences more often than not should be avoided because we want changes that come through classes to become student based rather than instructor determined. Lasting student based changes begin at a place appropriate for each person and progress as each students individual pace to an outcome that meets their needs. In this process, students make personal investments in choosing the type, level and value of their class experiences. Student based changes have a present and future relevance because not only are these changes useful in resolving problems in the current class adventure and attaining a new equilibrium, but they will also prove useful in helping to improve daily life. In this example, they will not depend on others to provide their needed equipment in the field, will learn to make do without or improvise and they’ll pay closer attention to details.
4) Synthesis and Reflection are used as elements of the change process. Sometimes change is not an automatic result, this is where synthesis and reflection can internalize proposed changes in the student. This can be accomplished through campfire chats, debriefings, individual or group discussions, journaling or drawing. As a professional outdoor instructor, you should encourage this creative process in your students work and learning to deepen the experiential process.
5) Encourage Personal Responsibility. Students are compelled to become personally responsible in the outdoor experiences for the activity itself draws them into action; they should not be forced to participate by you or other leaders nor should they be motivated by reward. Experiential teaching applies methods and activities that encourage personal involvement and personal responsibility, especially challenge by choice, to give students power and control over their learning. It’s the student’s responsibility to complete their assigned tasks and thereby the class, it’s not the instructor’s job to make them or do it for them.
6) Active Engagement. Outdoor classes require problem solving, curiosity, and inquiry and they are followed by synthesis and reflection. Students can deal with new situations by applying what they have learned and applied from previous situations. This is an active process requiring students to be self motivated and responsible for their own learning and growth. Your job as an instructor is to facilitate this responsibility based on each student’s individual needs and abilities.