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Experiential Education
Is it better to do intensive or intermittent experiential education programs?

James Neill
Last updated:
06 Oct 2004

Contents

Short-term vs. Long-term Experiential Programs

Experiential program designers and educators are often faced with a dilemma - to conduct short-term, intensive programs (e.g., a 1 week residential program) or longer-term, intermittent programs (e.g., 1 hour per week over many weeks).

The issue is on a lot of people's minds, and even if we go back to the founder of Outward Bound programs (a short, intensive program), in the 1940's, we find that Dr. Kurt Hahn was also the founder of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award (an intermittent program over several years).  What drove Hahn was that to serve the spectrum of youth via different implementations of his underlying principles were necessary, hence the different projects. 
 

Theoretical Strengths & Weaknesses

In theory, short-term intensive programs have the advantage of:

  • can be packaged and flexibly delivered in a variety of settings

  • removes participants from the constraints of home, school, or work settings, thereby freeing up the participant to try out new roles and behaviors

  • a more intense experience can be created and sustained; in so doing, more dramatic change can be leverage

  • allows deeper encounter with others and the environment

  • allows a greater variety of unique program locations to be accessed

Kurt Hahn (1958, pp. 3-4) expressed the potential for short-term intensive programs such as Outward Bound in this way:

and he met three ugly women with beards and then he came home and was welcomed by his ambitious wife. They talked for ten minutes—the whole thing lasts 35 minutes—and this loyal and trusted gentleman became the mass-murderer Macbeth! That can happen in 35 minutes! And so, through certain cleansing experiences, there can happen many things in a boy’s life which may change his outlook and may change his conduct. and he met three ugly women with beards and then he came home and was welcomed by his ambitious wife. They talked for ten minutes—the whole thing lasts 35 minutes—and this loyal and trusted gentleman became the mass-murderer Macbeth! That can happen in 35 minutes! And so, through certain cleansing experiences, there can happen many things in a boy’s life which may change his outlook and may change his conduct. and he met three ugly women with beards and then he came home and was welcomed by his ambitious wife. They talked for ten minutes—the whole thing lasts 35 minutes—and this loyal and trusted gentleman became the mass-murderer Macbeth! That can happen in 35 minutes! And so, through certain cleansing experiences, there can happen many things in a boy’s life which may change his outlook and may change his conduct.

Now what can happen in these Outward Bound courses which last only four weeks? I am always asked this question. My answer is this: I know of a very gallant general who was a very loyal subject of his King, and he walked back from a great battle which he had won, and he met three ugly women with beards and then he came home and was welcomed by his ambitious wife. They talked for ten minutes—the whole thing lasts 35 minutes—and this loyal and trusted gentleman became the mass-murderer Macbeth! That can happen in 35 minutes! And so, through certain cleansing experiences, there can happen many things in a boy’s life which may change his outlook and may change his conduct.

In theory, some disadvantages of short-term intensive programs include:

  • often more costly in terms of time and resources

  • often involves more logistics, resources and equipment

  • can be more difficult to get full participation from target group

  • removal from familiar setting and return to familiar setting can be unsettling

  • change or learning in the new environment may not be readily transferable to familar setting

In theory, long-term, intermittent programs have the advantage of:

  • having a "dribble effect" of gradually exposing students to a sequential experiential learning design

  • allows for the experiential program to be experienced and understood in the context of students' every day lives

  • can be readily integrated with existing school curriculum and students' life circumstances

  • less costly in time, resources, logistics, etc.

  • could be used to reach a wider range and number of students

In theory, some disadvantages of long-term, intermittent programs include:

  • overall power of the program may be weak due to relatively short experiences

  • can be difficult to overcome perceived roles and constraints imposed by students' familiar school setting

  • range of activities may be somewhat limited, since the program may not have time to use off-site resources

Research Findings

There is no good answer from the existing research on experiential education programs as to whether it is better to do short-term, intensive programming or longer-term, intermittent programming.  The mixed evidence would seem to suggest that other programming factors may be more important, and that both forms of programming can be effective.

It might be helpful to note some of the research findings from outdoor and experiential education on what does seem to impact on program outcomes.  For example, there is a significant relationship between overall length of time and overall size of outcome (Neill, 2002).  However, there is more to suggest that social and psychological factors have the greatest impact - e.g.,

  • Was the group supportive? (Neill & Dias, 2001)

  • Was an appropriate level of challenge used (not too much, not too little)? (Leberman & Martin, 2002)

  • Was there a clear philosophy based on sound psycho-educational principles guiding the program? (Marsh, 1999)

  • Were the staff warm, enthusiastic, respectful?

  • Were appropriate cultural considerations made?

  • Were there clear goals with real outcomes for participants to work towards?

  • Were the participants open to experience and motivated to change, etc.?

  • For more information, see The main findings in outdoor education research and how they be applied.

References

Leberman, S.I., & Martin, A.J. (2002). Does pushing comfort zones produce the most learning? Australian Journal of Outdoor Education, 7(1), 71-81.