Back to Psychological Aspects of Outdoor Education: Exploratory Papers Vol. 1

Comments about Change and Psychological Aspects of Outdoor Education


James T. Neill

University of New Hampshire

Draft 1

10 February 2002

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During the course of a graduate class titled “Psychological Aspects of Outdoor Education”, students participated in a listserv-style discussion about course content.  Discussion often emerged with a focus on elements of ‘personal change’ in the context of outdoor education.  Common points of debate included whether the capacity for outdoor education to cause personal change was underestimated or overestimated, the responsibility and skills of instructors in facilitating personal change, and whether or not outdoor education should seek to change participants.  Whilst I applaud the questions about whether change is possible and whether outdoor education should seek to change participants, I also wished to point out to the students that such questions should function as gateways, and not end points, given that the course’s aim was to explore psychological aspects of outdoor education.  In fact, I proposed, as we move beyond the paradoxical and complex nature of questions about change, more demanding and practical questions open up, centered around the theme: “In what ways might we apply theories and methods developed in psychology to the field of outdoor education?”.  This question includes, but is not limited to, discussion about change.


“Mankind always sets itself only such problems as it can solve;

since, looking at the matter more closely,

it will always be found that the task itself arises only

when the material conditions for its solution already exist

or at least in the process of formation.”

Karl Marx, A Critique of Political Economy (1859)

Two fundamental questions about ‘change’ have been posed so far in the listserv discussion. Is it possible to change?  Can and should outdoor education try to change people?  I suggest that the answer is yes….no….maybe.  Just as wave theory and particle theory explain different aspects of light, there is argument that suggests stability and lability in the human psyche.  There are also arguments for why outdoor education could be more conservative about its efforts to change people and arguments for why outdoor education could engage more deeply in this challenge.  Developing understandings that embrace apparently paradoxical perspectives allow a sense of unity rather than opposition to light ways forward.  Beyond the ‘gate-way’ questions about whether change is possible and desirable, lays demanding, practical considerations such as “In what ways might we apply theories and methods of change developed in psychology to the field of outdoor education?”.  This kind of question seems central for a course titled “Psychological Aspects of Outdoor Education”.  However, we should be wary about whether ‘change’ is the main issue.  Many (psychological) aspects of outdoor education are not necessarily related to questions of change.  We might miss these possibilities by being overly focused on the issue of change.


I applaud the questions " Is it possible to change?" and "If it is possible, then can and should we do this in outdoor education?".  They strip away the meat and grab at the bones.  And they shake the bones that lay at the heart of much outdoor education.  The very foundations of outdoor education can be heard rattling when these questions are pursued.  There’s so much rattling in fact, that it seems the whole edifice of outdoor education might come tumbling down.  We may fear the judge slamming down the mallet and pronouncing in a stern voice:

“Outdoor educators, you are liars, deceivers and false believers.  Change is not possible.  Even if it were, you are certainly not able to do this – you are fraudulent in your ambitious claims and practices!  For fifty years you’ve been romantic idiots, now its time to lock you away!!”.


And it seems, doesn’t it, that the more we learn about the nature of things in outdoor education and in our own rich lives, the more there is a tendency to become cautious in our claims?  Once we were true believers, romantic and enthusiastic, but now we have accumulated too many instances in which outdoor education may not been a good thing.  We have heard from too wise voices that outdoor education may not be all it was cracked up to be.  We are concerned by the research evidence that the outcomes are marginal and not entirely convincing.  We’ve seen that the heyday of corporate programming come and go.  We see that schools are still hesitant to embrace the spectrum of outdoor education’s possibilities.  Our faith in outdoor education, it starts to seem, just may not be sustainable.  Good jobs are hard to find, the pay and conditions may start to seem not worth it, the burnout looks too high….perhaps its time to start thinking about moving on.  That romantic hope of doing good things for the world, of helping people to grow and change, may seem at times to have escaped us.  By the time outdoor educators get to their late-twenties, they’ve usually seen the reality of the field and are risk of getting jaded.  It is a good time take stock and reconsider the point of it all.


I paint this caricature with a broad brush, but hope to strike some chords.  There are good reasons why we can grow tired, suspicious, begin to doubt and lose faith in human service fields, particularly in outdoor education if we begin remove the romantic sheen and stare at some of the cold, hard realities.  For example, I am hugely disappointed at outdoor education’s current lack of social relevance (e.g., the impotent response so far to terrorism and war), lack of diversity in staffing, lack of rigorous research activity, lack of  collaborative international efforts, and son.  On the other hand, I am hugely optimistic.  The optimism stems from a ‘faith’ – an inherent belief in the potential benefits of experiential processes in outdoor education settings.  I believe that transformative, systemic changes that can be unlocked in outdoor education and related fields.  I also believe that the potential of these fields is nowhere near being realized and that a lot of hard, exciting work remains for pioneers of the future.


Thus, whilst I applaud the questions about whether change is possible and whether outdoor education should seek to change participants, I also point out that these questions are gateways, not end points.  As we move beyond these questions, more demanding and practical questions open up, such as:

- In what ways might we apply theories and methods of change developed in psychology to the field of outdoor education?



Is it possible to change?


The answer to this question, like so many questions, is simple in essence: yes….no….and depends.


The human being has substantial form.  By this, I mean the human being has a shape and pattern, which retains some consistency through time and space.  I am talking both physically and psychologically here (if we are content for the moment to accept mind-body dualism).  When I go to bed at night, I am usually confident that I will wake with much the same physical form in the morning.  Subtleties change, hair and nails grow, food is digested, etc. but I still look like me the next morning.  Profound physical transformation is possible, but requires a very significant field of force.


Likewise, psychologically, it is possible to trace and predict a person’s ‘personality’ or psychological patterns through time and space.  For example, if I went to bed and woke in the morning acting and believing as a different person, I would be considered by many to have a mental illness.  Occasionally such things happen to people but, by and large, stability in psychological form is the norm.  Subtle things change over night, as we process the memory traces of the day and the actions of our unconscious bring to the surface new images and symbols through dreams, etc. into conscious awareness.


The human being, then, it not like a cloud, for example, which can be created, transformed and then disappears within moments in front of our eyes.  We have a reasonably solid, stable physical and psychological structure, we are, in this sense, reasonable predictable in our manifestations through time and space.  From this point of view, we would be concerned is change happened easily, e.g., with people taking on new personalities each day.  The whole point here is the human being’s resilience against change.  In fact, one could argue that it is humans' resilience against changing that has lead to developing more and more technology to keep within comfort zones.  Animals, on the other, adapt or die; Humans adapt the environment so that they can remain the same.


From the tone so far, you will have sensed that there are other ways of looking at the question of whether we can change.  A pro-change argument could run something like this: Of course change is possible!  In fact, there is only change.  Stasis is an illusion.  Matter is in a constant state of flux.  Even the seeming stability of the human body is of course always ageing.  In fact something like 99% of the atoms of the human body are changed every 5 years.  Thus there is always flux, exchange, and flow taking place.  Likewise, psychologically, although I may appear to display a consistent personality day in and day out, there is a lot of fluxing energy that goes into sustaining that apparent consistency, and should these energies be allied through a field of force in a different direction, profoundly new and different psychological states and patterns could readily evolve.  The plasticity of the human mind is a far more notable feature than its size.  It is not hard to find examples of individuals famous and not so famous who have undergone remarkable psychological transformations.  Those who have been psychologically dysfunctional and have then become functional, even thriving provide rich example.  Those who have had major events, such as near death experiences, and then dramatically changed how they live their lives.  And, perhaps most inspiringly, those quiet heroic efforts of will, where people have looked at the stars, looked at their legs stuck in the mud, and through sheer determination, risen above what any sensible person would have predicted given their circumstances.  Of course change is possible, and to suggest anything less is deny such evidence and perhaps suggest a lack of confidence in one’s own ability to change.


Therefore, we have these two seemingly opposed arguments – that stability is a primary force in human existence, and that change is a primary force.  Both are true.  To understand the human psyche we must be prepared to embrace paradox and uncertainty.  Unless we do this, we find ourselves forming singular arguments that are logically wrong.  Being able to embrace both cognitive and emotional ambiguity is one of the distinguishable features of self-actualized and resilient individuals.  In Eastern philosophy, embracing the yin and the yang, being at one with the unknowable, and so on, are the essence of inner peace.  In science, the paradox of solutions that explain data equally well is more common than many think.  Light, for example, is at times explained best as waves, at other times it seems to behave as particles.  Neither view is entirely right nor entirely wrong, both have validity.  And so it appears to be with questions like “Can or do people change?”



If change is possible, then can and should we do this in outdoor education?


In response to this kind of question, again, I would suggest there at least two important,  perspectives.  And, again, I will suggest that a mature understanding is that embraces  both points of view.


Firstly, I think it is worth looking at the descriptions of Mike Gass’ ‘change processes’ seminar and the current course.  Neither of them imply that change can or should occur in outdoor education.  However, they do seem to imply that questions about change are important.  From the ‘change processes’ syllabus:

Current uses of adventure and other forms of experiential programming focus on working with clients who wish to change at some level (e.g., recreation, education, corporate, therapeutic) and generally have that change last.  The purpose of this course is to examine this expectation and assumptions, our efforts to assist clients in achieving such an objective, and how we as facilitators of client experiences fulfill such a role.


From the current course syllabus:

Ultimately, the course aims to equip students with a confidence and capacity to utilize psychological knowledge more effectively in designing and leading programs designed for recreational, educational, developmental and therapeutic/redirectional goals.


Whilst we can read between the lines here and get the sense that the instructors of the course are hopeful that outdoor education could be an effective approach for change, the wording in both cases is careful not to imply that this necessarily can or should occur.  We might summarize the instructors’ positions here as saying: If outdoor educators wish to effect changes in clients, then we should, firstly, examine this assumption and, secondly, learn more about effective methods and techniques for facilitating change.  There is a moral imperative at stake here that tends to go very much unrecognized in outdoor education.  It goes something like this:

Let’s say you are trying to teach someone an outdoor skill, such as a J-stroke.  Let’s also you do not do a particularly good job.  As long as this  doesn’t result in the person being seriously injured, probably no great harm is done.  The person might now go through life with not really understanding a J-stroke properly, but in the bigger scheme of things this is no big deal.


Let’s now say you are running a program in which seeks to engage participants in personal growth and change.  Now you are saying that you are going to be dealing with very the core of people’s psyches.  This time, if you do not do your job particularly well, then you risk having a profound and negative impact on the very core of someone’s person and you risk scaring this person’s being for the rest of their life.  This sounds like a big deal. 


If we accept the argument above, then it behooves us to say that outdoor education instructors who have not undertaken the best possible training in understanding how to facilitate change in human beings in experiential, outdoor settings have questionable professional integrity.  Likewise, organizations which  say they effect changes in self-related constructs have an absolute responsibility to be employing the best possible training for their staff in this respect, developing the best possible program design, and using the best possible research and evaluation methods to better understand what they are really doing.  Anything less, when the human stakes are so high, places the organization in a highly questionable moral position.


One way of resolving this question is become less ambitious in one’s claims.  This may seem like a reasonable response.  But it is passive response and lacks much depth.  It doesn’t get to the heart of the matter and it does not alter the fact that participants psychological engagement with complex, challenging experiences should be managed expertly.  Nor does it alter the fact that we still need to seek out effective ways of facilitating positive changes in this world which is struggling to provide people with a secure and positive sense of themselves.  Outdoor educator, it could be argued, has a moral responsibility to not back away from issues of change, but to embrace them fully, even if that does involve some calculated risks along the way. 


Thus, some sense of caution and some sense of adventure would seem to be the wise approach.  Much more could and should be said about these two points of view.  I am certainly not saying the book on these issues is any way closed.  Rather, as suggested earlier, these questions about change serve as gateway questions to demanding, practical questions about how we can develop more effective outdoor education experiences.



Comments about "In what ways might we apply theories and methods developed in psychology to the field of outdoor education?"


No matter how indepth the philosophical discussions around the campfire the night before, we need to get up in the morning, don our backpacks, and take the next steps on the journey.  Of course we could meditate in the morning instead.  But eventually hunger will provide a practical challenge.


Likewise, with these questions about change, we need to move on and consider program designs and real situations.  Are we any better equipped from philosophical debates about  change?  Perhaps we are a little more aware, but I have a gnawing anxiety that we still do not know how to do anything any better.


Maybe we could bring in an expert trainer to run a bells and whistles course on how to be a great facilitator.  Simple solutions for complex phenomena, however, are rarely the best answer.  There are no ten easy steps to effective facilitation of psychological change.  This is the uncomfortable reality (or challenging adventure) we face.


A discursive approach is needed, but one which gets the job done.  By ‘getting the job done’ I mean that we need to create processes that build knowledge within the field of outdoor education about how the psychological experiences of participants can be understood and effectively managed.  There are instances of insightful knowledge and practices  within and beyond outdoor education which can be drawn together, discussed, and applied.  This requires pioneering efforts.  Understanding the human psyche is a complex and difficult task as it is and so facilitating change seems almost insurmountable.  But these are the kinds of challenges that pioneers move beyond.


One idea for how we might proceed is to provide promising outdoor educators with a course in psychological theories and then challenge them with the task of engaging deeply with a particular aspect of psychological knowledge which offers promise for enhancing the effectiveness of outdoor education programs.  We need theoretical rationale for new strategies.  We need practical methods which can be used for experimental techniques.  We need to be wary of pitfalls and required competencies.  We need ways to test the effectiveness of our methods.  These are the kinds of challenges that I see laying beyond questions about can and should outdoor education be involved in change.


Finally, I turn back to the title of this course “Psychological Aspects of Outdoor Education”.  This title purposely does not imply anything about change.  It does imply that there is room for better understanding psychological aspects of participants, instructors and organizations engagements in the phenomena of outdoor education.  For example, how do introvert participants and instructors experience outdoor education programs compared to extraverts?  The introversion-extraversion is the single, most prevalent personality dimension that has emerged from decades of research in psychology.  Yet, it is a topic that has been paid almost no formal attention in outdoor education.  Nevertheless, this personality dimension is highly prevalent and influences participants and instructors virtually every step of the way in an outdoor education experience.  If outdoor educators had a better understanding of psychological knowledge about personality, particularly introversion-extraversion, then it would seem that they would be better equipped to manage themselves and their participants, regardless of whether change is a desired outcome.