Outdoor Learning : What NASA, Harvard and Wharton have in common?

“Tell me, and I will forget.  Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand.”- Confucius

There has been a lot of debate and research dedicated to finding the educational values of outdoor learning. There is ample research available suggesting that both indoor and outdoor trainings have their own educational value and pros- cons. Not surprisingly, research suggests that students remember fieldwork and outdoor visits for many years. Dierking and Falk (1997) found that 96 percent of a group (128 children and adults) could recall field trips taken during their early years at school. However, simply recalling a visit does not mean that it was an effective learning experience or that the time could not be more usefully spent in the classroom. Recent Studies have shown that the skills learned in the wilderness find application long after the course is finished.


The most universally effective form of leadership training—one that is used by NASA, Harvard Medical School, and the Wharton School of Business—is the Outdoor Learning model. Characteristics such as self-esteem, confidence, self-efficacy, leadership, and even academic achievement showed long-term improvement after the completion of an outdoor learning course. These measures are the foundation for a creative individual, someone with the gall to create and innovate. Evidence for the relative efficacy of fieldwork comes from a study of secondary students from 11 Californian schools that used an environmentally focused curriculum. The students scored higher in 72 per cent of the academic assessments (reading, science, math, attendance rates and grade point averages) than students from traditional schools (SEER, 2000). Another research by Eaton (2000) found that outdoor learning experiences were more effective for developing cognitive skills than classroom based learning.

In terms of the impact the ability to choose between different kinds of learning activity appears to be an important requirement. The need for effective follow-up work after outdoor learning experiences is stressed by several authors (for example, Orion and Hofstein, 1994).In my opinion a blend of indoor and outdoor trainings may be considered depending on the kind of competency being dealt with. Indoor training provides for more theoretical understanding and allows a large amount of content to be covered in relatively short durations. It also is relatively cost effective and can be used when large numbers of students/participants are involved.

Outdoor learning programmes on the other hand are inarguably the best way to learn application of concepts. It has high value to help learners identify their own potential, push skills to the limit, understand the behaviors that come naturally to him when working with various constraints and identify weaknesses and thereby work on them.With organizing, planning and facilitation, outdoor learning activities afford the opportunity for valuable lessons in acquiring the skills and values necessary for teamwork, problem solving, building trust, and decision making for the good of all constituents. Challenging outdoor experiences in an adventure context builds self-esteem and offers practical experience in leading and following. Youthful participants can observe the characteristics of successful leadership and/or “followership” in these adventure challenges, and with proper oversight, be involved in the decision-making and execution of the resulting plan of action.

This approach teaches the importance of doing your share because others are dependent on you, accepting full ownership of what is required, and doing it to the best of your ability for the benefit of all. Thus, delegating a “teamwork share” of the responsibility is an excellent way to teach youth to contribute by taking their share of ownership of the action plan.


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