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Risk, Challenge & Safety

The Concept of Challenge:
Growth via Stress with Support

James Neill
Last updated:
06 Feb 2005


Development-by-Challenge Philosophy

The Role of Support During Challenge

Development-by-Challenge Philosophy

Challenging experiences are intentionally used in education and therapy.  The idea is that by having one's capacity tested this helps to develop one's capacity.

Development-by-challenge principles are well-accepted in the biological realms, e.g., in order to get physical fitter, one must engage in regular physical exercise.  Likewise, the argument runs, to develop many aspects of mind and character, one must engage in physical, moral, & psychological exercise.  Just as physical exercise leads the body to create new muscle, so too the encounter with challenge helps the brain to grow new neuronal connections and the spirit to rise.  In a nutshell, challenge-based philosophies are based on the organic idea that capacities can be strengthened by gradually using them more

Development-by-challenge philosophy was a critical part of Kurt Hahn's philosophy, best exemplified by the way he talks about the purpose of Outward Bound (e.g., see quotes).

As greater strength and flexibility (aka dynamic capacity) are developed, a person can learn to apply themselves to an every increasing unfolding of challenges in increasingly complex and difficult situations.  This could be called second-order also learning takes place.  In other words, a student learns about the experience of challenge in general, what it is like to be challenged, and how to become more efficient in approaching challenge. 

Hopefully a person can also experience a tertiary level of learning, which can be transforming.  Once a student develops skills in encountering challenge, his/her self-efficacy (believe in one's ability) naturally grows.  This can catalytically trigger a cycle of being confident enough to try new challenging experiences and learn new skills.  Thus self-efficacy can continues to increase until it meets new barriers which challenge the inherent ego-processes of self-efficacy.

experience transformative Note that what a student also learns from a succession of challenges is how to gain (rather than lose) from challenges.  This is a meta-skill that, once acquired, can fuel long-term change and transformation.

Whilst everyday life involves considerable challenge, the challenges do not always have positive outcomes.  For example, some challenges are traumatic.  If someone has been traumatized, future use of challenge must be used with caution.  But "normal", basically healthy people generally respond positively once engaged in meaningful challenge.  Initially, however, there may be considerable resistance and fear to the perceived threat of engaging in challenge-based activities.

Often forgotten in the discussion of challenge, is the equal need for nurturance, support, encouragement, and other forms of positive regard and reinforcement.  Where an experience is particularly challenging, more support must go hand-in-hand.  Challenge and support work together to "stress" and "heal" -- Kurt Hahn, for example, referred to Outward Bound as a double-edged sword which cut and healed.  In practical terms, the social support of the group is critical, as is the nature of the support from the teacher/instructor (see Neill, 2002).

But what exactly is challenge?  Challenge is the perception that a task or situation exceeds one's comfort zone or capacities; thus the challenge will require a person to find "something extra".  Challenge should ideally trigger positive emotions such as excitement and confidence as well as the trepidations of fear and doubt.

A simple formula for human growth can be proposed:

growth = challenge x support

Related link: John Dewey's Educational Philosophy