Journey as destination: Evaluating the UWCSEA Outdoor Education programme
During the 2013/2014 school year, the College made the decision to participate in a seven-year longitudinal study that will help to evaluate the Outdoor Education programme, and better understand the impact of the programme on overall student learning and development. The study is being conducted by faculty researchers at Oregon State University, Dr Michael Gassner and Dr Christopher Wolsko, who are experts in the fields of experiential education and social psychology. The study was launched this term. Here, Dr Gassner reflects on the study and the thinking behind it.
Last September, I went for a long walk in Pasir Ris near the East Campus. I needed some time to think, having recently returned from a Grade 7 expedition to Pulau Sibu. My colleague and fellow researcher at Oregon State University, Dr Christopher Wolsko, and I are starting a seven year, long-term project that will be looking at the contributions the UWCSEA Outdoor Education programme makes to overall learning for students from Grade 6 to Grade 11.
This outdoor education project is attempting to answer some difficult and complicated questions. We want to know what exactly the students are learning on these expeditions. Does outdoor education make a difference in their academic and personal lives? What do students perceive outdoor education contributes to the their overall learning? What are the specific knowledge, skills, and qualities that graduates of UWCSEA leave with that may be attributed to the Outdoor Education programme? Which expeditions instil what qualities and skills? Great questions, but no
As I continued to walk, I reflected back to 2006 when I was in Singapore working on a different project. At that time, I interviewed a number of Singapore Airlines pilots who, as cadets, had undertaken a three week outdoor education course. For many of those I interviewed, the experience had taken place eight to 10 years before. A significant majority stated that they derived benefits from that experience that had transferred to their personal and professional lives, that they continued to draw from 10 years later. Really? Airplane pilots got something out of an outdoor education experience that was so powerful it continued to be relevant to their lives, a decade later?
This may be difficult to believe, but it makes sense if you look at the history of outdoor education as an academic discipline. Just like law, music, medicine or other disciplines, practitioners can earn advanced degrees. It requires mastery of specific knowledge and skills through formal education and/or practical experience. Extensive theories, research and evaluation support it as a practice and profession. It is interesting to note that this research points to many human health benefits of positive experiences in the natural world. Programmes and interventions in a variety of educational and health-related contexts have been designed with these benefits in mind. In other words, the positive long term impact—physiological, emotional and psychological—of outdoor education is well documented.
The UWCSEA study involves students on both campuses, who participate on a purely voluntary basis. A short survey before they undertake their expedition, and another after they return home, provide us with some insight into their attitudes to the natural environment and their self-perception. As we build a view over time, we expect to see some trends in terms of changes in attitudes, skills or qualities that we can trace back to the students’ outdoor education experience.
Some preliminary data from our trial surveys in April 2014 shed inspiring light on what may lay ahead. In open-ended reflections, many students commented on building tremendous self-confidence after meeting the substantial challenges of their expeditions. Learning to work in a trusting and cooperative manner with one’s peers is also coming to the forefront as a core quality that is clearly being nurtured in these environments.
All of this work reminds me of a phrase Yvon Chouinard, founder of outdoor clothing company Patagonia and legendary mountaineer, has used on occasion: conquistadors of the useless. He was referring to a long journey he and some friends took in the 1960s: from California in the USA to Patagonia in South America, to climb a mountain. At the time, many of his friends and family asked him why he was undertaking the expedition. He admits that he did not, at the time, have an answer to the question, but that was the point. It was the journey that mattered, not the outcome. The process of going, trying, and reflectively seeking along the way was what made the journey transformational.
Although our study is informed by prior outdoor education research and practice, in many ways it shares some characteristics with Chouinard’s South American journey. We are intentionally limiting our preconceived notions of what we may find and have fully committed to the idea that it is the journey that teaches. While in some ways this makes the project more challenging, we are confident that by continuing to ask the right questions, we will discover the answers.
We know that the study will have a positive impact on student learning by providing feedback that will help the UWCSEA outdoor education staff to adapt and develop the programme to further enhance the student experience. For students, it will also be a way to safely and anonymously document their journey through a series of outdoor education expeditions from Grade 6 to Grade 11.
The outcomes for parents are less obvious. While any improvement in the student experience is a benefit to parents, I would also argue that the enormous trust in their children (and the school) that allows a parent to send their 13 year old kayaking in Chiang Mai for two weeks, is a growth experience that matches any mountain a student might climb during their time at UWCSEA! There is no doubt that though parents are not on the expedition, they too go on a journey as their children leave them for outdoor education experiences.
It is our hope that this longitudinal study will confirm what we know anecdotally and through experience: that outdoor education experiences have a positive, long term impact on students that stays with them and is transformational.
Dr Michael Gassner is a lecturer and researcher at Oregon State University.