In their 1929 classic book, Camping and Character, Dimock and Hendry list skills in camping activities such as canoeing, swimming, riding, and sailing accompanied by the associated knowledge as the first and second objectives of the summer camp experience. Few would argue this potential benefit of adventure education. Physical benefits can be classified as the psychomotor and technical skills required for participation in activities that entail moving across land or water by natural means. The physiological gains of exercise constitute another aspect of physical benefits.
Depending on the setting, adventure education can provide the venue for the acquisition of a vast array of physical and thinking skills that are usually associated with living outdoors. Thinking skills include knowledge of safety measures and the need to follow them as well as knowledge of skills and the environment in which they take place (Ford and Blanchard 1985). Higher-order thinking skills such as planning and solving problems are an often sought-after benefit. Additionally, most adventure programs tap into their setting to provide environmental awareness as a cognitive outcome.
As mentioned earlier, acquiring and strengthening virtues was an overriding concern for early proponents of adventure experiences. The need for virtuous conduct is just as important now as it was then (some would argue more so). Successful participation in today’s complex society demands making appropriate decisions and accepting the consequences of one’s choices. Insights gained from constructive adventure experiences can help instill positive values and principles such as selflessness and compassion, keeping commitments and fulfilling obligations, self-discipline, and honesty, to name a few. These values and principles are important in that they can assist in "achieving some harmony between principles of self-interest and altruism. It suggests that not only can we explore, develop, and appreciate our own unique potential, but that we can use our emerging abilities to benefit others and the environment in which we all live. Consequently, by becoming responsible we can reaffirm our own worth, our sense of belonging, and our awareness of place" (Parker and Stiehl 2005).
Certainly for many, outdoor adventure experiences involve a spiritual component. Spirituality, although often associated with religion, can be painted with a much broader stroke. When adventure programs are conducted in the outdoors, contact with the natural environment can add a spiritually moving dimension; "either because of the beautiful natural setting, the opportunities for bonding with others, or meaningful religious practices, young people have an opportunity to connect to the earth, to each other, and perhaps to a higher power" (ACA 2005a).
We believe in a humble orientation to the environment-that the outdoor world does not exist for the hedonistic pursuits of a privileged few, that loud people who speak before listening, who use more than their share of the air to announce their identity, are like destructive initials on a tree trunk tarred with a brush of unsustainable and repugnant attitudes. The natural world rejuvenates the soul and reminds us of our place in this awe-inspiring world. It is where we come closest to appreciating our connectedness with the rest of creation.
It is abundantly clear that adventure education has a vast potential for achieving a multitude of goals, educational and otherwise. The uniqueness of the environment and the activities provide a venue not only for learning new skills and acquiring relevant knowledge, but also for promoting calculated risk taking, camaraderie with others, and reverence for the natural world. The larger question, however, may be this: Is adventure education reaching its potential? In 1918, Bobbitt stated,
The controlling purposes of education have not been sufficiently particularized. We have aimed at a vague culture, an ill-defined discipline, indefinite moral character building, an unparticularized social efficiency, or nothing more than an escape from a life of work. Often there are no controlling purposes; the momentum of the educational machine keeps it running. So long as objectives are but vague guesses, or not even that, there can be no demand for anything but vague guesses as to means and procedures. But the era of contentment with large undefined purposes is rapidly passing. (41-42)
While Bobbitt was speaking of traditional education in kindergarten through 12th grade, it would not be unreasonable to substitute adventure education for education in his admonition.
All too often adventure education has relied on its novelty as an attractor while neglecting to design learning environments in which deliberate goal acquisition is the chief aim. If adventure programs are to mean something, they must first
• be built on a solid philosophy that reflects the values and beliefs of the program designers,
• state important goals,
• include a way of measuring those goals, and
• incorporate instructional practices that allow participants to demonstrate achievement of the goals (Tannehill and Lund 2005).
Good content that is poorly delivered or good intentions with weak or inappropriate content are unlikely to produce favorable results.
The philosophy of any adventure program provides the foundational beliefs that undergird all subsequent decisions of a program. The philosophy emanates from the beliefs and values of the program designers, the participants the program serves, and the setting of the program. In adventure programming, a philosophy might range from providing participants with the physical skills necessary for being more active in the outdoor environment to simply offering a venue for fun and escape. Adventure programs, whether recreational or educational, should contain a clear philosophy that leads to discernible learning or benefits, even if those benefits are an escape from ordinary life.
Once a philosophy has been articulated, the following three questions can guide what educational experts have referred to as backward design (Wiggins and McTighe 1998), an outcomes approach (Spady and Marshall 1991), and design-down curricular process (Lambert 2003).
1. What do we want our participants to know and be able to do as a result of being in our program? In educational terms, this is a curricular question of what is to be taught. By answering it, adventure programmers and educators identify what’s important and the deliberate, intended outcomes of their programs. Wiggins and McTighe (1998) define this information as "enduring understandings" because it represents what we want participants to gain from our programs.
2. How do we know when participants have been successful? The answer to this question allows programmers and educators to know when they have achieved the desired outcomes. Traditionally, adventure educators have used subjective observation to answer this question, if they answer it at all. To guide future programming and assist in participant achievement of desired benefits, systematic and objective means of documenting the achievement of benefits must be identified.
3. How can we get participants to achieve desired outcomes in the most challenging and engaging ways possible? Adventure activities are alluring for most participants. Over two decades ago, Young and Parker (1987) cautioned that this attraction could lead to a laxness in instruction resulting in haphazard acquisition of the desired outcomes. If adventure education is to reach its potential, learning experiences (instruction) must be designed to intentionally and purposefully lead participants toward the desired goals and benefits.
An example from a college-level basic hiking class may help clarify these points. One of the class goals is for students to acquire a greater appreciation and knowledge of the natural world around them-to really see what is out there. This includes curricular aspects of flora, fauna, and geological features. The use of written journals accompanied by teacher questioning and an out-of-class partner hike reported through a written and pictorial portfolio were determined to be meaningful and reasonable ways to determine if participants have, in fact, gained this information (assessment). Several instructional activities can then be designed to help students achieve the goal.
• In an effort to guide novice students’ initial journal entries, questions are given at the beginning of every hike that focus on the environment. Questions include such things as identifying a unique rock formation, signs of past human habitation, and five new flowers.
• Another strategy is to acquire a deck of cards with the suits changed to birds, flowers, trees, and animals and provide each participant with five cards. They then look for those things throughout the day.
• The instructor identifies flowers and birds along the trail while helping students learn key identification points.
• Knowing that beginning students most often walk looking at the back of the person in front of them, students can travel a designated section of trail in groups of three, increasing their ability to see.
• Candid camera is an instructional activity that asks students to walk in pairs, one person behind the other. The lead person is unsighted and guided by the sighted partner from behind through hands on the shoulders. When the sighted partner says "Click," the unsighted partner quickly opens and shuts her eyes and reports to the sighted partner what she sees.
• Finally, after acquiring requisite skills and knowledge, participants walk solo for a while.
Because many of these activities require cooperating with a small group or partner, they might also have social benefits-especially if the groups are designed so that participants work with people they do not know.
Lambert (1999) uses the metaphor of a three-legged stool to emphasize the importance of each aspect of program development. If all three legs of the stool-curriculum, assessment, and instruction-are weighted equally, the stool is solid. If one or two legs are removed or weighted unequally, stability is compromised.
One of the unique aspects of adventure education and programming is its ability to be used to achieve multiple goals, yet it is precisely this uniqueness that can become its Achilles heel. While in the quest to accomplish everything, nothing may be accomplished. Research on benefits from adventure programs supports this notion. For example, in terms of positive identity the results are equivocal; several studies report positive gains in self-esteem constructs (Carson and Gillis 1994; Hattie et. al 1997), some report mixed results (Hazelworth and Wilson 1990; Kaly and Heesacker 2003), and still others report no effect (Danziger 1982; Jernstedt and Johnson 1983; McBride 1984; O’Connell 2002; Pann 2000). The possible benefits of adventure programs cannot be argued, but the reality of those effects is varied.
As previously indicated, adherence to the guidelines of curriculum planners can better ensure the achievement of benefits. However, Jensen and Young (1981) and Stiehl and Parker (2005) take the achievement of benefits a step further. Even adventure programs with a clear philosophy are affected by time, clientele, location, expertise, and a host of idiosyncratic differences. Thus, it is unlikely that one program can be all things to all people. In the desire to have participants achieve all potential benefits, a program may not achieve any.
A useful delineation according to primary and secondary goals (Jensen and Young 1981) may help adventure programmers and educators focus on certain goals and benefits. Their contention is that programs may have primary goals or benefits and others are secondary or concomitant. For example, an outdoor adventure program that is part of a school physical education program might have as its foremost benefits the acquisition of outdoor skills such as orienteering, hiking, and so on for safe participation in outdoor activities. Therefore, physical and thinking goals would be primary. However, while students are learning those skills, they may well acquire social benefits through working with others, and they may develop a positive identity as they gain competence in a new activity. On the other hand, an adventure program that is part of a summer camp with articulated spiritual and social aspects would likely program experiences that use the outdoors as a medium to primarily gain increased spiritual awareness and social competence and secondarily teach necessary skills. Programs would thus be well served by articulating their philosophy to delineate primary and secondary goals and design activities to meet those goals.
Author Tom Robbins (1976) may have summed it up best: "If you believe in peace, act peacefully; if you believe in love, act lovingly; if you believe in every which way, then act every which way, that’s perfectly valid-but don’t go out trying to sell your beliefs to the System. You end up contradicting what you profess you believe in, and you set a bum example." Adventure education has many potential benefits. However, attempting to achieve too many benefits, especially if any contradict or compete with others, poses a risk of diluting program effectiveness.