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Instructor Effectiveness

The Challenge of Instructing

James Neill
Last updated:
02 Aug 2004


The role of the instructor is considered by many to be critical in the utilization of outdoor, adventure and experiential education.  This is because the goals of outdoor education are often complex and there are many aspects to successfully leading and facilitating experiential and outdoor education programs.

The instructor is responsible for the physical, psychological, social, and spiritual well-being of participants, and for arranging a series of experiences which is consistent with operating organisations' methods and which gives students maximal chance of achieving the program goals and personal goals.

At the end of the day, a participant in an adventure program has, fundamentally, a psychological and social experience (via largely physical activities).  The experiences are sometimes also seen as spiritual.  The instructor is a gatekeeper to these realms and has a potentially profound effect, for better or worse, on the psychological, social, and spiritual well-being of each participant.  Playing such a role is a dangerous proposition and the extent to which an instructor should influence the psychological, social, and spiritual aspects of a participants' experience is a complex area.

The instructor has a potentially profound effect on each participant, and the instructor is fundamentally responsible for the quality of each participants' experience.  Dewey (1938/1997) wrote similarly about the role and responsibility of the teacher.  The charge here for instructors may seem extreme, but we readily accept that an instructor has a fundamental responsibility for the physical health and safety of participants.  The instructor is similarly responsible for the psychological, social, and spiritual well-being of the participants.

Consider, for example, the role the instructor(s) may have played in this situation, reported in the Boston Globe, on May 22, 2002:

parents of three black students say their children emerged severely traumatized from a semester at the Willauer [Outward Bound] School, where they allege white students openly taunted them with racial epithets and threats.

In a complaint filed yesterday with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, the parents allege Willauer's teachers and administrators allowed an atmosphere of racial hatred to boil over, culminating in almost daily verbal and, ultimately, physical attacks.

In this example, a destructive social pattern is being claimed to have detrimentally effected some participants' psychological well-being.  However, if the same group participated in the same program with a different instructor, what would have happened?  For example, what might have happened if Nelson Mandela facilitated the program, or instructors with different personalities or attitudes were involved?  The situation may have been better or worse, but it would almost certainly have been different.

An instructor's responsibility is for more than avoiding such problems; rather the instructor's role is to help students encounter problems.  Thus, it may have been possible through the program above to more closely examine and deal with the issue of race. 

For example, I followed an a New York City Outward Bound Center program in 1992 which paired inner-city black and Latino youths with white, middle-to-upper class managers from a well-known company and intentionally had them working closely together (in pairs and as a group) in a series of different, adventurous challenges in and around New York.  The instructors of this program approached the course as fundamentally about race and learning about differences and similiarities in a creative, challenging, and dynamic way.

However, the history of developing successful methods for changing the human psyche and social relations, is checkered and controversial.  The scientific evidence is somewhat, but not overly supportive of the efficacy of outdoor education and related programs (Hattie, Marsh, Neill & Richards, 1997; Neill, 2002).  This serves to underline the critical importance of the instructor, who has a major role in determining the safety, well-being, and growth through adventure-based experiences.