Getting An "A" in Adventure

The perils of overuse of the school metaphor

By Morgan Hite

The history of outdoor "education" as we know it in North America begins with an educator, Kurt Hahn, in Britain, creating the original Outward Bound school. Outward Bound operations have always been called "schools," as have many programs inspired by them, and other spins-offs such as the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and the Wilderness Education Association. Yet is this model of a "school" really the best way to conceptualize what happens on these trips?

Most of the time it probably is. Schools imply education, and on these journeys people do learn about themselves, about place, and about skills. To characterize itself as a "school" offers assets to the organization: it leads to easy packaging of the operation, in the sense that the groups going out into the wilderness can be called "courses," the fee is a "tuition," and the participants can be called "students." The general public can relate at once to these familiar terms, and the model of "school" suggests answers to a hundred practical questions (e.g., "How do the participants view each other?" "How do the employees view the participants").

But going out into the mountains or onto the sea for a few weeks with some mentors and a bunch of strangers who are roughly your age is very different from going to school. "School" is at best a metaphor applied to approximate our understanding of these journeys. At some point the metaphor fails to encompass what is really going on out there. Our metaphor has reached the end of its utility when thinking of these expeditions as "school" groups prevents us from seeing, appreciating and supporting important, meaningful events that are occurring.

In such a case an outdoor program may be perceptive enough to recognize that it needs an alternate model, or even that it is time to step beyond metaphors and understand, on their own terms, the dynamics of these groups traveling in the wild. On the other hand, a program may cling to its "school" metaphor, and try to ignore or even eliminate events which do not fit it. One sign of taking this second road is an organization where activities and risks are always evaluated on the basis of whether or not they are "educational."

Being conscious of the use of a metaphor is a challenge both for the office (i.e., how do we present our operations to the world?) and for individuals who work with these groups (i.e., how do I name what I am doing?). Yet my experience, in thirteen years of working in outdoor "education," is that most of the time we unthinkingly accept and use the "school" metaphor. We readily draw the wide range of conclusions it suggests: the participants who have paid to come must be my "students," and the river or mountain we are on must be our "classroom." As we traveled today, we must have "learned" something. This morning's discussion on group goals, or review of how we should act in a thunderstorm, must be "curriculum." At the end of the trip I might give "grades." Back at the office there may be a review of my "teaching."

As useful as this model is, there are aspects of the trip which it finds itself unable to name. My student has found a place near camp where he intends to build a small shrine to his grandmother, who died not long before our trip began. Yesterday, after dinner, I and four students climbed to a high point, watched an amazing sunset and talked about our dreams Tomorrow, as we travel, one student will tell another a deeply moving story. Are these events "curriculum?" Can we speak of them as "learning?" Ultimately, in the "school" metaphor, they are not anything. They can only be things that happen outside of, or without reference to school. So inevitably these events get shunted into a side track called "the student's personal experience," something outside the responsibilities and concerns of the program.

Yet, as a program administrator, I want to know about these kinds of events. I see them as human milestones which the journey has helped engender: profound, deeply affecting and meaningful events that ultimately are more important than "learning." If, in my conversations with trip leaders, we stick to the school metaphor, will we ever talk about this kind of thing? Will we ever identify such events as elements which we are proud to associate ourselves with? As a trip leader, I have similar concerns: if I always stick to the school metaphor with my participants, will they feel significant occurrences which do not fit it are to be kept "under the table?"

The key process I am talking about here is "debriefing:" conversations between people which firm up their interpretations of events. In the process of debriefing - which occurs informally far more than it occurs formally - we take stock of what has happened to us, decide what was important and assess how we did. It is a profound process of meaning-making - we have all seen a group of participants (or leaders) begin a debrief without any particular "story" of what they have done, and come out wielding an epic tale replete with a moral and conclusions for next time. On an organizational level, debriefing leads to the collective story of "what we do." Debriefing is a powerful tool, and the choice of metaphors which rule in the debrief can preordain the result.

But this is more than a cautionary note for people whose professional role is to be a "debriefer." In a practical sense, every member of the organization is a debriefer and metaphor-selector, and must be aware of him-/herself as such. Staff talking to participants, administrators talking to staff, peers talking to each other, all are interactions in which conscious attention to the use of (and limitations of) metaphor can be important.

Consider the following story. Diana, Alexandra, Kent, Charlie and Gord are five people who have just arrived at camp on a NOLS hiking course. (I choose this venue because it is one with which I am familiar. In principle this scene could be modified to fit many outdoor programs.) If I can take a few moments to debrief them, their accounts of the last ten hours might help me explore my ability to choose or abandon metaphors on the fly. I'll ask each one "What was your day like?"


This was a really good day for me. I got to hike with Gord, which I've been wanting to do since day one. I felt strong all day, well at least until the last hour, but we could see camp then and I had something to keep me going. And I was able to actually take weight from somebody else for a change!

Already in Diana's account we can see references to ideas she might use to make meaning out of her experiences. Her issues of ability and stamina, for example, are front and center. To frame this day as educational for her I might ask her a question such as "What was one thing you learned today?" to which she might answer, "To have faith in myself." But this exchange, however valid and often repeated in the circles of outdoor programs, carries the unmistakable flavor of two people jumping through hoops. I have heard Diana explain her day and then I ask her to frame it as if we were in a school. Diana obliges me by translating the glorious and complex inner experience of the day into a sound bite. Neither of us has profited beyond our compliance with the school metaphor.

In a school context, Diana's accomplishments of feeling strong and confident seem to be more a prerequisite to actual learning than the purpose of our operation itself. If we stay inside the school metaphor, we might send Diana out tomorrow thinking, "OK, now that she has gotten past the physical challenge, she'll be able to focus on leadership and navigation." But such an interpretation distracts us from the fact that today's events, in Diana's mind, may represent accomplishments which stand on their own. She may not be subordinating them to the long-term frame of "learning something."

What context would allow Diana's accomplishments today to stand in their own right? If I reframe what we are doing from "school" to a "training camp for elite athletes," I immediately sense that learning yields its center stage position to strength, speed, coordination and confidence. Now I'm the "trainer," Diana's the "athlete," and what's taken place today has been "practice." By suggesting to her that she lock in today's "performance" through a visualization exercise I honor her focus. I am able to model my understanding of what she achieved on her understanding. This makes my debrief successful.

Now we turn to Charlie.


Today was so cool. We saw wolf tracks! I just felt like I was finally way out there. It was good. But it was hard. I was thirsty.

With Charlie I sense that pursuit of the educational aspect of his day is also going to lead us on a wild goose chase. He will talk about what he saw, and what he thought - but these are not the essence of his experience. What Charlie focuses on each day is the adventuresome, the extreme, the wild. He is learning a lot, but it is the being here and the doing of these things that are really meaningful for him. He can list it all off for me, but something much bigger than "school" is happening here for Charlie.

A metaphor that helps me with people like Charlie is one of an initiatory rite of passage. In such a scenario, the goal for Charlie would not be so much to learn something, as to be transformed: he is literally to finish this trip a different person than he began it. These changes will happen in terms of his self-conception of his responsibilities, his loyalties, and his rights.

Because the language of initiation tends itself to be poetic and metaphoric, I might ask him a question which, in a school context, seems completely out of left field, such as, "You've heard of the four ancient elements: earth air, fire and water. Which element did you have to be today?"


I was earth. I was earth all day long. Plodding, heavy, grounded. Slow! I was so slow - Gord told me a joke and I didn't even get it. But I just felt like I was rich with possibilities. And I felt totally in tune with the place - overcast, no wind, almost silent in the woods sometimes. I felt like I had the eyes of the earth.

In a school context I would hardly know what to make of a student saying things like this, but in an initiatory context, where I am the guide, he is the seeker and we are in the sacred space, the metaphorical underworld, his speech is rich with possibilities. And I know I have hit gold because this is what Charlie wants to talk about - this is what gets him excited. I am supporting Charlie's unconscious idea that he is in a liminal space where changes happen magically and mysteriously.

In the cases of both Diana and Charlie, I have chosen not to assert that the school metaphor is of primary importance. I have "let them have some other agenda." However, seeing this choice as a concession on my part simply takes us back to the "school" perspective. If I understand that the process of wild nature interacting with the participant's mind leads inevitably to a healthy and desirable result, and if I trust this process, then I can step outside the metaphor of school. My goal is to detect and support, for each participant, the meaning of this experience for him/her. As I observe each person's unique response to the trip's conditions, challenges and events, I can see that for many of them agendas arise in which they seek someone other than a "teacher." The decent thing for me to do is to honor those agendas. There is no honor in always forcing them to see the multi-dimensional experience of wilderness as a "school."

This is not to say, however, that participants are aware of these agendas. It is a rare student at NOLS who can step outside the proffered metaphor of a "skills and leadership school" and say, in the first couple days, "I'm not sure I'm here to learn anything. I might be here to meet some people. I might be here just to have a good time. I don't really know yet." Ironically, students who say such things are red flagged - not for any transgression of rules that they have yet made, but precisely because they have revealed a refusal to buy into the school metaphor. That refusal may make them, in the words of instructors, "hard to work with." Yet their response, viewed in the mouth of a person about to embark on a wilderness journey, not only makes sense, but perhaps makes more sense than a more conforming response ("I am here to learn skills and leadership.")

Their response may also indicate that the individual senses what the experience is going to be about for him or her, but cannot articulate it - yet does know enough to reject "school" as a name. Ironically, I have been in or overheard many instructor teams saying something along the lines of, "We have to get the students to buy in to what we're doing here." Getting the students to "buy in" is one of the biggest issues for instructor teams. Ironically, it may be that student who withholds his buy-in who is actually meeting the wilderness with the most open mind.

Now we turn to Kent.


Oh, my god! These guys kept taking breaks every half an hour. And movies! All they did all day was talk about movies! They were driving me crazy.

Kent is my fellow instructor. We don't have to explore why taking breaks every half hour or listening to movie descriptions is unpleasant. And our "debriefings" are usually informal events that probably look more like bonding than either of us helping the other make meaning out of his experiences. Kent himself is very informal: he is the sort of fellow who scoffs at the paperwork we are supposed to fill out for the office. His wild and off-the-cuff approach to mountaineering have earned him the nickname of "the Madman." Yet he is patently a genius when it comes to our work. I have seen him mesmerize a group of students with a one-man skit on the perils of not treating water, and gently coax the most timid person into a rappel. Participants love him. If we are a "school" I'm not sure what to make of Kent, but if we are an improvisational theatre company, I immediately understand that he is our star attraction, and I am proud to be working with him.

In this metaphor we are actors, and our students a sort of hybrid audience/participants. As a fellow performer, I can appreciate the problems of his situation, and I want to know more what he did with it.


Oh, I used that old game of spotting something that begins with A, then B - you know. Get their minds back into the here and now. Then, when that was winding down we were over the hump of it - it was time for a map break. It's pretty easy to tip them out of their track if you can just do it long enough that something else comes a long.

Improv theatre is a valuable metaphor for appreciating one of Kent's strong points, his willingness to place himself into situations where the solution is unknown to him - or to anyone - and figure them out. It is a kind of flexibility, self-confidence and resourcefulness which is invaluable in wilderness leaders. The beauty of the metaphor of "theatre" is that it gives the place of priority to individual creativity without requiring that creativity to be anything but effective.

My conversation with Kent illustrates that choice of metaphor in informal "debriefings" can affirm (or obscure) not only the participant's experience, but also the leader's. What is the work I do? is as important a question for Kent, me and our colleagues as the participant's question What is my experience about? Our responses to the complex responsibilities and opportunities of leading a group deep in wilderness are as individual as the participants' responses to simply being in wilderness. Making meaning out of our experience is a daily task. Kent may come to see his work as primarily about his improvisational ability to react to the unforeseen. Another instructor may understand his or her work as being primarily about attending the birth of a conservation ethic, or about coaching participants through tough travel situations, or about shepherding a participant through inner transformation. Certainly at NOLS one can find individuals who have settled on each of these answers, as well as those for whom "teaching" is the primary answer to What is the work I do?

Let's turn to Alexandra, and learn something of how she saw her day.


This was an awesome day! My group made me map-reader, and I totally got it. I was so jazzed. Every time we would stop I knew where we were! I can't wait to try it again tomorrow.

Alexandra's experience sounds more like something me might want to view through the school lens. But on closer examination what she is describing may not be focussed on the educational event. What Alexandra seems to be putting front and center is not so much her new-found map-reading skill, as much as a radiant feeling of comfort that came with that skill. She's already told us her day was "awesome;" what word might she use to describe herself?


I guess I think I am... really happy here. I feel like if I don't get lost, there's so much else I can do. So a word for me might be "excited."

It sounds like Alexandra is talking about a new experience of freedom. I could select the educational lens by asking her what the breakthrough was that enabled her to read the map, but instead I could propose that the meaning of this day for her has not so much been education as liberation. At this point I am not selecting another metaphor, but I am stepping outside of metaphors altogether: it is time to think about outdoor programming not in terms of how it mimics other institutions, but in terms of its unique qualities. I might say, "So, are you becoming free here in a way which is new to you?"


Exactly, it's completely a sense of freedom. I feel like this whole world is opened up for me in a way no other world has been open before.

Of course Alexandra's are the sort of revelations which participants will write in their journals, talk about with each other and share with me outside a formal debrief. Such warm, liberational events are common currency on NOLS courses. "I have never felt as safe as I feel out here." "Today I decided I'm going to take a year off from college and travel." To me, these indicate that in the process of a wilderness expedition - as it is, without attempting to metaphorically equate it to any other type of event - is found a quality that is wonderfully lightening to the spirit. There are themes of escape and freedom that seem valuable to participants of all ages, which are often the primary purpose of joining the trip.

If an accurate map of wilderness programs is to be made, without attempting to liken them to other things, we have to attend in particular to phenomena that are unique - in a certain sense - to wilderness programs. If one is primarily oriented to the school metaphor, these include things which tend not to happen at schools. One example of such is a participant's strong sense of being suddenly free to walk away from commitments and obligations. Another is that death or injury of a participant may occur. Wilderness programs also include things which may not happen at schools - such as skinny dipping, swearing and co-ed tenting.

Few wilderness "schools" have shown that they know what to do with these phenomena, the "wild" side of taking people out on expeditions. Despite concerted efforts to "tame" them, wild phenomena persist, some pleasant, some quite unpleasant. Although administrators are interested in understanding outdoor programming on its own terms, they balk at accepting that the wild phenomena are inherently part of it. Pretending that the program is "just" a school is an easy but short-term resolution of this conundrum.

But if the office is uneasy about publicly acknowledging the wild energies one might encounter on a wilderness program, participants are more sanguine. When I meet a man whose best memory of his outdoor education course is the entire group posing nude on a glacier for a photograph, I see in him a typical example of a person savoring the thrill of being in a team far outside of society. Outdoor programs would probably attempt to market this kind of experience of raw power if they knew how to not be embarrassed by it. A participant who finds a certain program more exciting because it has had deaths poses a deeper dilemma: one of the attractions of outdoor education is the danger. Yet publicly organizations turn away from this: they say only that safety is a priority as far as it can be practically guaranteed; they let the risks extend their enticements on their own. Participants like the wild elements that live in outdoor programs - but none of this can be discussed inside the "school" metaphor.

Finally, let's turn to Gord.


Oh, not so good. I sprained my ankle. Diana had to take some weight from me. I don't know - I'm was feeling kind of low energy all day.

It sounds like Gord's day has been about dealing with physical burdens: pain, inability and fatigue. His focus is not going to be on what was good or notable about the day: for him the meaning right now is about surviving. Like Alexandra's experience, this is a basic dimension, characteristic of outdoor programming, which suggests no other metaphor. Gord is having a hard day. Because we have to travel to keep up with the group, he has no choice about going home or staying in the dorm. I ask him, "What are you doing to survive?"


Well, that 's a good question I've been thinking about my dog actually. He has only three legs - lost one when he was hit by a car. I've been thinking this is what it's like for him all the time! I never really thought about it that way before. And he is always in such a good mood.

It sounds like Gord has all the spirit he needs to survive, which of course is my immediate concern (that he not give up). But I'm curious about the process whereby he thought of the dog in the first place. How do people find their way to their inner wells of resourcefulness when they meet adversity? This is the sort of investigation suggested by acknowledging that injury and challenges to one's spirit are integral parts of outdoor programming.


I guess it was just a random thought. I was kind of gimping along, and I thought of someone might see me from far off, and what would I look like, and suddenly I thought of the dog - because he kind of moves like that too...

One implication of accepting other metaphors than "school", and of accepting that there are phenomena which happen on outdoor courses for which no metaphor is adequate, is that one must be more than a "teacher." In the examples I above I have found myself called upon to be a trainer, a initiatory guide, an actor, as well as someone who studies and seeks to understand experiences of liberation and survival. Over thirteen years of outdoor education work, I and my colleagues have also been called upon to be policemen, therapists, mental health workers, peacemakers, judges, arbitrators, medics, message bearers, nurses, social workers, counselors and shamans. We were not formally trained in any of these roles; yet most of the time we found the grace to pull them off adequately and decently.

There is no choice about walking into these roles: this is the nature of the work. All outdoor programs, however "formally" formulated, are schools and training camps and theatre companies and initiatory groups and a hundred other things, and some things as well that occur only on outdoor programs. This is the nature of outdoor programming. It arises out of the interaction of people and the powerful place which is wilderness.

Ultimately what guides us in this on-the-fly selection of metaphor is our intuitive understanding of the multi-dimensional whole which is wilderness programming. The basic requirement for this understanding is a great deal of time spent in the field, observing what actually goes on. Those who understand these trips solely as "school," either through diminishing exposure to the groups themselves, or pressure to simplify for the public what their program is about, inevitably find it more difficult to perceive the valuable but non-educational events that occur on them.

One pressure on outdoor programs is the idea that schools are more than "just" camps, "just" initiatory rites-of-passage or "just" recreation. The public is a reservoir of this idea - an article I read recently in the Toronto Star described a father and daughter searching for a summer program that had to "involve travel but also be educational." The prejudice for "educational" trips is based on the simplifying assumption that "education" gives one something of value, whereas the same trip under the title of "recreation" would not. Outdoor program administrations, seeking the approval of the public, can all too easily and unthinkingly adopt the public's prejudice in favor of focussing on being "educational."

It makes sense to emphasize that a program has an educational component. But there is nothing to indicate that a program formulated solely as "education" offers more than a program without such a narrow definition, and much to indicate that it offers less. If the success or failure of a trip is evaluated on the basis of how much people learned, if its risks must be justified on the basis of important skills or knowledge to be learned, then entire dimensions of valuable experience can be ignored.

 © Copyright 1999, Morgan Hite