School & District Management

Adventure Programs Found To Have Lasting, Positive Impact

By Debra Viadero — May 07, 1997 3 min read

The benefits to students from scaling mountains and white-water rafting in outdoor-adventure programs last longer than those from more traditional school programs, a new analysis says.

Students who participated in programs such as Outward Bound showed significant improvement in their problem-solving abilities, leadership skills, independence, and other attributes, the study by researchers in the United States and Australia found.

They looked at 96 reviews of adventure education programs from around the world. Such programs typically involve small groups of students, young and old, who are transported to the wilderness and assigned challenging tasks such as mastering a river rapid or hiking to a remote point. The largest is Outward Bound, a private, nonprofit group serving more than 40,000 students worldwide each year.

A key finding of the analysis is that the students’ gains increased over time--sometimes months after participants completed the 20- to 26-day programs.

“It seems that adventure programs have a major impact on the lives of participants, and this impact is lasting,” the study’s authors concludes. “Research on adventure programs can provide many insights which might inform ‘regular’ educational contexts.”

The findings are scheduled to be published this month in the journal Review of Educational Research.

To reach their conclusions, the authors had to look critically at the existing research, said the study’s lead author, John Hattie, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and the chairman of the department of educational research methodology.

Most such studies read like glowing advertisements, he said. “That was one of the intriguing things about this study--to remove that tone of religious experience from the outcomes.”

To do that, the researchers examined 1,728 program effects drawn from tests taken by 151 samples of students.

Looking for Reasons

Overall, they found, the gains students made on 40 different outcomes, ranging from leadership to improved self-concept, were roughly comparable to the gains that more traditional educational interventions produce.

But while the gains from most education programs fade after the programs end, the former adventure-learning students kept showing improvement.

“What we don’t know is why,” Mr. Hattie said. The researchers, however, offered several hunches.

First, they write, students in adventure-learning programs are completely immersed in their experiences.

That is partly because they are removed from their normal environments and forced to live with the immediate consequences of their decisions. An improperly pitched tent, for example, will leak in the rain.

Second, adventure programs set difficult goals for students and structure tasks so they can attain those goals. The researchers also contend that students receive more feedback on their progress in adventure-learning programs than they could in regular classrooms.

But the researchers cautioned that all outdoor programs are not equal. Longer programs and Outward Bound programs in Australia, for example, were more effective than others.

Mr. Hattie’s co-authors are H.W. Marsh, a professor and the dean of graduate research studies and doctoral students at the University of Western Sydney in Australia; James T. Neill, a doctoral student at the university; and Garry E. Richards, the executive director of Australia’s National Outdoor Education and Leadership Services and a former director of that country’s Outward Bound program.

Model for Schools

Their study could bolster efforts by Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, a project of Outward Bound USA, to create “expeditionary learning” schools borrowing heavily from adventure-learning pedagogy.

The group is one of the nine design teams that won a grant from the nonprofit New American Schools corporation in 1992 to create “break the mold” schools.

Meg Campbell, an instructor at Harvard University’s graduate school of education and the executive director of ELOB in Cambridge, Mass., said her group is working with 42 schools in 11 states, adjusting the basic elements of the Outward Bound program to a variety of different settings.

“The Denver art museum can be a wilderness for students as well,” she said. “The characteristics of adventure programs are extremely applicable to schools.”


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