A Resources special: outdoor and active learning - Why slipping up is worth the risk
Sam Sykes curled up tightly on the hard wooden step of the youth hostel, struggling to keep warm, and wondered if he would ever get to sleep.
The next day he and his friends were to begin a daunting climb in the French Alps, but a series of errors and poor preparation meant that late in the day, in freezing temperatures, they had still not found a bed for the night. They went ahead with the climb but they only just made it.
"That trip was a catalogue of discomfort: we were wholly ill-prepared, naive, arrogant and scared," Sykes says. "The mistakes we made nearly cost us our aim of reaching the summit. We managed it, but by the time we were finished we were in such a weakened state we should have received hospital treatment."
That was seven years ago but the expedition still haunts Sykes, now 29, who has since carved a career in escorting teams of young people and students up mountains.
"I remember the expedition because it was so disastrous," he says. "But we learned how to deal with future expeditions and more challenging projects. Most importantly, we built confidence, realised our strengths and weaknesses and learned how to work as a team - skills that translate not only to mountains but to the classroom and the working arena of later life. And I never made those same mistakes again."
Sykes believes making mistakes is a critical part of any lesson for young people. "My most powerful learning experiences have been the result of my own errors," he says. "Perhaps I'm lucky that none of them has been too serious."
Based in the Lake District, Sykes now works for organisations from Go Ape to the Outward Bound Trust and runs Duke of Edinburgh's Award expeditions for schools throughout the country, as well as independent adventure experiences. Each session, he says, brings new and unexpected rewards.
But he is concerned that fewer young people today are encouraged to build confidence by taking risks - managed risks. Certainly this was part of his own boyhood.
"As a child, I was fortunate to have parents who allowed me to make mistakes and take risks - not that I was exposed to danger. But the life experiences were harnessed carefully so that I could learn a variety of lessons that would set me up for the rest of my life," he says. "Today it saddens me that many young people seem to be conditioned to think that mistakes are wholly negative and something to avoid.
"When my instructor team and I run expeditions, we don't just expect young people to make mistakes, we welcome them as part of our learning process.
"Whether it be inadequately packing a rucksack, or making a navigational error, mistakes offer the chance for a student to learn a powerful lesson. If a young person doesn't pack properly and their sleeping bag is drenched by rain, they will have a cold night's sleep. Next time they'll take ownership and make sure the bag is properly packed.
"If they make a navigational error, this will probably result in a longer round trip and arriving late at camp. The next time they have to make a navigational choice they will apply more skills and calculate with greater care. And so the lessons go on."
And Sykes believes such lessons can be replicated in school. "I visit many schools around the UK as part of my job and have forged some long-standing and fantastic relationships with teachers," he says. "But if they learn from me, I also try to understand the challenges they face in school and learn from them.
"I think what we teach outdoors complements mainstream academic schooling. All of my clients - some of them teachers who may be reading this - have been extremely positive about the results we have achieved.
"What we do physically in the mountains can't be replicated in the classroom. Making mistakes, however, can happen in any environment and the lessons are equally powerful.
"In my industry we focus on minimising real risk while trying to ensure that people experience 'perceived risk', such as feelings of exposure, being at height, discomfort through physical demands and real darkness.
"Even the loss of a mobile phone signal can put many people outside their comfort zone. The balance between perceived and actual risk is critical, but this is the role of my team."
Learning from mistakes, Sykes says, builds confidence and a sense of individual responsibility, and develops understanding of cause and effect.
"It is important to encourage young people to take ownership over their own lives. Many are frightened they will look stupid if they are seen to make a mistake, or that they can't be seen to ever fail because of the pressures of exam results," he says. "Everyone wants students to succeed. But you can celebrate mistakes along the way. It's the way young people learn."
Outdoors, a mistake can cost a life. But Sykes believes that is why students feel so empowered by outdoor learning.
"Learning through mistakes is how mankind has developed over the centuries," he says. "To err is human. Maybe it's time for all of us to take a risk and encourage students to celebrate all mistakes and learn from them."
Sam Sykes is a leading provider of Duke of Edinburgh's Award expeditions and residential activities, and works with schools throughout the UK. His book Why Have Adventures? will be published this year. www.samsykesltd.co.uk
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