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Instructor Effectiveness

Managing Experiential Tension

James Neill
Last updated:
30 Sep 2004



The outdoors provides an ideal, but not exclusive setting, for experiential learning.  This isolation of the wilderness ensures a closed system, without outside support, in which solutions to problems and the achievement of goals must come from the participants.  In the eyes of participants, this involves physical, emotional, social, and psychological survival.  Responsibility for success and failure, on the surface, rests with the participant.  This is a perception that must be maintained.  The instructor, however, is like a beaver busily tunneling underneath the surface, and carefully arranging and reorganizing a developmental series of experiences which, ideally, should ensure optimal personal development for each individual.

The instructor is given physical resources such as gear, clothing, and food.  There are environmental resources such as water, trees, rocks, and sunlight. Then there are the personal resources of the individuals in the group, and the instructor’s skill and knowledge.  Plus there is a program of expeditionary activities with a great deal of scope for instructor innovation and facilitation technique.  With these ingredients, there are many, many possibilities for the type of experience that the participants will report at the end of the program.  This is evidenced by research studies which show that outdoor education experiences produce a remarkable variety of outcomes from highly effective, to ineffective, to downright destructive.  A key element which determines the outcome is undoubtedly the instructor.

This ‘behind-the-scenes’ role of the instructor involves constructing educational situations in which there is a ‘tension’ for learning.  This tension can often be seen as a challenge between a task and a self-perception.  For example, between the task of abseiling over a cliff and the self-perception of low confidence.  It is this tension, this state of unknowing, of discomfort, which can be seen as the nexus of personal development through experiential learning.

The challenge for instructors is to be able to manage the experiential tension in participants so that positive outcomes are achieved.  This is not easy and ineffective or even negative outcomes are distinct possibilities.  For example, inexperienced instructors may lose their focus on creating and managing this educational tension, and instead be seduced by acting (often unconsciously) to focus attention on themselves and receiving ego-enhancement.

A valuable factor which helps in the creation and management of educational tension is that instructors immerse themselves in the outdoor education experience with participants.  This is important for many reasons, including:

  • gaining the respect of participants and avoiding being perceived as having power through authority

  • developing an understanding of participants by being alongside them, rather than ‘looking in from the outside’

  • focusing participants on themselves as opposed to the differences between themselves and the instructor

  • allowing the instructor to construct experiences non-obviously and non-directly

  • providing participants with a readily accessible role-model

Instructors should avoid creating participant/instructor differences where they are unnecessary and do not have a clear rationale which somehow contributes to the participants’ experiences.  The instructor who is able to slip unobtrusively into a group of participants, as opposed to standing out and being seen as a site of power and ego, has many advantages and leverage points for the effective facilitation of experiential learning.

Having manoeuvred him/herself into a position alongside the participants by living in the same conditions and exuding warmth, respect, and so on, the instructor can construct and facilitate experiences, focusing on the following:

  • responding not reacting

  • creating tension within the participant not between instructor and participant

  • playing with positions, not taking them

  • making statements to raise questions not asking questions

  • providing feedback rather than giving answers or directions

  • modeling not instructing

  • ensuring instructor maintains the program for the participant.  The participant does not dictate the program.

  • using facilitation skills in mirroring, reframing, storytelling and influencing (Handley, 1994)

(This list may well be unfamiliar and a little confusing and this paper does not easily provide a resolution to such a valuable tension.  It is important for instructors to have their own inner tension which arises from a goal of being effective facilitators and the reality of still developing in that direction.  Instructors’ personal motivation for developing competence and effectiveness is the only force which can legitimately move them in that direction.)

The tension that exists for participants, and is managed by instructors, can be understood quite simply.  The participant has a self-perception of abilities and limitations.  The outdoor education personal development experience has the potential to shift participants towards:

  • improved abilities, and

  • more realistic perception of those abilities

It is more comfortable for participants’ abilities and perceptions to remain as they are.  Hence, there is immediately a tension between the feedback that arrives through involvement in outdoor education activities (which imply potential, possibility, and realism) and the old self-perceptions (which imply static, stable and often unrealistic perceptions).  These opposing forces are the reason why outdoor education does not automatically work.  In fact, the path of least resistance is to:

  • not seek improvement in current abilities;

  • not push the limit of current abilities to see how far they extend, because this may involve experiencing incompetence, embarrassment and loss of self-esteem

  • not challenge held perceptions of self.

It requires the instructor to arrange and facilitate the outdoor education experience such that participants are motivated and rewarded by finding a way through the tension to improving abilities and perceptions. For participants, there is much instability involved in acquiring new abilities and perceptions - there exists considerable force for returning to the old stability.  Hence, an instructor’s work is never really done, because opportunities can always be created to help participants to further develop and consolidate changes once they have begun.

Once an instructor has developed the basic technical and safety skills to conduct an outdoor education program, it is in this area of programmatic and personal facilitation that his/her training should focus on and it is where the professional obligation of the employing organization lies.

Too often instructors seek to locate their search for effectiveness in the context of learning how to debrief.  It is interesting that in a field which has prided itself since its beginning on experiential learning, that many outdoor educators in the 1980’s and 1990’s have turned almost about face to look for the key to learning in debriefing.  Experienced practitioners know there is an overestimation by inexperienced instructors of the importance of debriefing.  While debriefing can certainly play an important role in experiential learning, it is a fallacy that is always necessary or that effective learning can’t occur without debriefing.  An appropriate metaphor is that debriefing represents the tip of the iceberg.  Nine-tenths of the iceberg, which is the learning that occurred during the experience, occurs out of sight, underneath the water, often unconsciously.  Perhaps one-tenth of the learning occurs consciously and out of the water, when people may sit around to talk about it.  There are even sound arguments for when debriefing can interfere with the learning process.  The point here is not to delegitimize debriefing but to argue that attempts to improve instructor effectiveness should be more holistic than learning to debrief.  With such an approach, debriefing will naturally find an appropriate place.

Guided discovery learning is more fundamental and holistic than debriefing.  The key to guiding this learning is for instructors to create situations in which participants will experience an appropriate tension which can be managed in a developmental direction.  Once the process has been begun, the instructor’s job is to monitor that the experiential tension is moving each the participant in a positive direction.  If not, he/she must alter the experience for the participant in some way.  The skills and awareness necessary for guided discovery learning are often subtle, but critical.


In summary, the beginning point for effective instruction in outdoor education must be to get the best possible potential instructors to work for the organization (i.e., instructors with the qualities of warmth, enthusiasm, mature ego-identity, creativity, sensitivity, practical intelligence, etc.).  Then there is the importance of knowledge training, through external programs such tertiary level education in a related field, as well as relevant training in technical and safety skills.  Instructors are then in a position to receive further training in instructional techniques and to develop themselves through field experiences.  Understanding one’s assumptions and exploring other, possibly more useful, assumptions is also a vital aspect of an instructor’s ongoing development.  Ultimately, however, the aim of all this training is not for the instructor – what really counts at the end of the day is the quality of the experiences of participants, which should be rigorously evaluated.  Whether participants’ learning will be optimal often critically depends on instructors’ management of the experiential tension between self-perceptions and challenging experiences.


In the light of the discussion of orientation and methods in this paper, keep a diary of educational assumptions, decisions, actions, and consequences for a program you instruct.  Based on this, write a critique of your instructional style.


Note: This version was written in 1997.