Learning by adventure

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
Some important lessons in life skills are best taught away from the confines of a classroom, writes Barry Howard.

Did you, as a child, stay up reading under the bedclothes, enthralled by the Famous Five's latest adventures? Or maybe you found stories about trolls and forests in the far north more appealing? The mystical landscapes that feed young imaginations can exert a powerful pull and, like many children before and after, you would have explored as much of your local surroundings as you could in the search for some honest-to-goodness excitement.

We don't really lose that desire to explore and be caught up in adventure. It remains with us. What's more, it can be an effective educational tool which, if used to good effect, can teach life-skills in a way most subjects in the national curriculum never could.

Employers want school and college leavers who are armed with teamwork, decision-making, communication, planning and even leadership skills.

How is a school to foster such qualities? Answer: one of the most effective forms of outdoor education, a group expedition.

Expeditions need not be up a mountain or along some remote tributary. It's not about training everyone to be rock-climbers or canoeists. It is about getting pupils out of the classroom and providing meaningful challenges.

Like any worthwhile experience, it isn't easy. There will be many on the staff, and perhaps many parents, who will say you can't.

I spend much of my time helping people to see that, in fact, you can. Expeditions have so much to offer. I regularly take teenagers to remote areas, including parts of Snowdonia, Iceland, Norway and Belize.

I am lucky to have an experienced and qualified team with national recognition from the Association for Outdoor Learning and the British Sports Trust. I have 32 years of outdoor experience myself. Our judgement of what works is based on extensive collective experience. If you haven't got this, don't be put off. There are plenty of organisations which can help and advise you, and training programmes which will enable you to start acquiring the necessary skills.

So why go on expedition? What is in it for all those concerned? For those who imagine you have to go to the ends of the Earth, the good news is that you don't. Having said that, remoteness can be an important fator in achieving personal development objectives. Remoteness and hazards concentrate the mind.

Some years ago, when exploring the north-west Hornstrandir region of Iceland with a team. we walked and climbed for about three days to get to a certain point. The sun was shining, the guillemots screeching, the surf crashing on rocks 40 metres below and all was well. Then the cliff path narrowed and I got stuck.

It may sound unremarkable but the situation was critical. As back-marker, I was alone. Scared and with the rock beginning to disintegrate around me, I had to get a firm grip on myself as well as the rock before I could recover my path.

There had always been risk factors, such as being three days from help, but confronting the physical demands and fear during times like this add immeasurably to personal development. These profound learning experiences can provide a touchstone on which future judgements are made.

The preparation and management of an expedition are also crucial elements in the learning curve. Personal organisation of equipment, group kit and documentation are not only satisfying but essential. It's a sort of distance-learning version of the more familiar "Keep your bedrooom tidy, or else!". If students don't keep things in good order on an expedition they may lose life-saving kit or miss information which will ensure their safety.

All the journeying on expeditions starts to take on a life of its own and neither the group nor its leaders can accurately predict how things will pan out. Weather conditions, terrain and group dynamics are fickle. Everyone has to punch through and get on with the job. The rewards of camaraderie, sharing experiences forged over days or weeks, scary moments and breathtaking scenery will help everyone manage future challenges more confidently and hopefully more effectively.

Yet there is more to an expedition than even this. There is something almost indefinable about self-sufficiency, being in a trained team and having mates with you while you tackle a climb or trek. Pitching yourself against nature, having fun as you do so and coming home safely: the satisfaction is immeasurable.

Barry Howard is an outdoor education and training specialist. He is a course director and moderator of the British Sports Trust's basic expedition leader award

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