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Example of a Personal Philosophy of Education

"Experiential & Outdoor Education
for Social & Eco Sustainability"

James Neill
Last updated:
27 Aug 2004

Sample Philosophies of Education

Vision  |  Theory  |  Nature  |  Community  |  Summary  |  References

My Philosophy:
5 Musings on Education & Nature


Part I:
Outdoor Education, As I Envision It

Imagine walking down a green path
On an unknown journey
With not a care in the world
Other than exploration of one’s self
And one’s connection to a world beyond time

Let us start with an understanding of outdoor education which is not bounded by common definitions.  Let us imagine a pure, theoretical elixir which has no detectable chemical qualities, a pure homeopathic.  When applied, it has infinitely perfect effects.  All approaches to human healing, growth and sustenance might strive to be as such, a perfect supplement to human experience; so too might be the goal of outdoor education.

Let us imagine the perfect experience, the perfect education.  So did John Dewey (1938/1997).  He said, let us start the task of education with the task of understanding a student’s experience.  He said we need a theory of experience, in order to get some structuring and sequencing experience. 

At the same time Kurt Hahn, founder of many educational experiments, including Outward Bound, the forerunner of modern outdoor education, was observing that modern society had lost its rudder and that young people were becoming lost in the rapid societal changes of industrialized and post-industrialized life.  No longer were there crafts and apprenticeships to educate people in the discipline, patience, and necessary skills to cope with visceral life tasks.  No longer were there the same opportunities and requirements for physical stamina, endurance, perseverance, tolerance, tenacity, and having the wherewithal to hold up in difficult conditions in which the only way through was via sheer persistence, inventiveness and dedicated support of one another.

So, John Dewey (1938/1997) said, let us organize education better; Kurt Hahn said yes we need to, just look at all the ills of modern society.  Kurt Hahn said, let’s provide physical and moral challenges, let’s put huge faith in people’s inner capabilities being discovered and support them in discovering more than themselves than they might have thought possible.  Let's create experiences which call on the deepest spirits of people in the name of the greatest good. 

John Dewey's view of a new, progressive education was one which designed experiences based on intimate understanding of people’s past experiences which, he claimed, significantly determine their present experiences (the principle of experiential continuity).  According to Dewey, the continuity of a person’s stored individual past experiences interacts with the dynamics of the present experience, to create individual's current experience of 'reality'.  For Dewey, the educator must manage the quality of students' experience in the present situation by interacting with, and adjusting, the circumstances.  The educator must finds ways of presenting relevant subject matter which maximally engages the interest and motivation of the student; Hahn would add that this experience must stretch the person beyond the students' limited self-conceptions and towards their potential.  This requires compelling circumstances.

What is this strange notion of going beyond one’s self?   How paradoxical is sounds to intentionally design an experience to go beyond known boundaries.  This enters a realm of  risky education.  Thus, deeply embedded within outdoor education is the notion of risk.  To risk is to be prepared to lose hold, to fall, to be smashed.  To risk is to stumble forward in the hope of rising through the clouds and flying higher than ever before.  To not risk is safe education, education which does not reach beyond known boundaries.

Too much so-called outdoor education is safe education (e.g., see Neill, 2002), simply a walk in the woods or a camp in a cabin, with as much of the normal boundaries of life maintained as possible in order to be comfortable and 'safe'.  I have my toothbrush from home, I have my picture of my Mommy, I have my familiar clothes, I have my you-beaut sleeping bag, I have the assurance that I have the choice to do only what I want to do, I have brought the food I like, etc.

This is not real outdoor education.  This is a nature walk, a cozy camp, a recreational experience.  It is not risky in an existential sense; it is not outdoor education.  Outdoor education is about taking the real risk of finding out that your current being can be opened up and altered via engaging itself in different contexts and taking the risk of behaving and thinking differently from normal.

This does not mean that outdoor education is a paradisiacal, ideal land of heaven and glory.  Far from it.  In fact, to the extent that human beings have become divorced from the grimy reality of life on earth, there is a long journey back through the steps of civilization, like flicking the pages in a picture book about evolution, before any sustainable happiness can be experiences in the outdoors.  This is no skiing package holiday.  Outdoor education should try to capture the essence of dramatized and treasured educational adventure stories such as in Robinson Crusoe and Huckleberry Finn. 

Outdoor education must dispense with the glitz of leisure class outdoor recreation, which uses the environment as another consumption, preying on thrill, novelty and aesthetic beauty.  Outdoor education means getting down and dirty, organizing experiences for all sorts of different individuals which allow them encounter their atavistic and potential selves.  The pathway to such goals will be necessarily littered with barriers, particularly constructed, limited beliefs based on previous stored experiences.  It is difficult to survive all the minutes, hours and years spent in artificial, chaotic cultures without taking on limiting, false messages about who the person is and the potential for who he/she might become. 

Outdoor education is simply the design of adventure experiences to bring into light the nature and possibilities of self.  So, I count among outdoor education experiences any intentional use of nature and adventure for facilitating insight into, and change of, self.  Thus, the outdoor education method should be intensely psychological.  By this I mean that Dewey’s underlying argument is critical – understanding and managing the quality of experience is the key to good education.  Since every experienced carries its legacy on into the future, every minutiae of experience for every person is vital and should be the prime concern of the instructor. 

The instructor’s responsibility to the quality of participants' experience is infinite and therefore impossible to fulfill.  The instructor is a guide, a gatekeeper to realms of possible experience.  The instructor creates some rough boundaries, maps out a route, follows his/her charges closely, and yet must remain behind a cloud of obscurity to allow the experience to be as fundamentally pure as possible. 

The instructor is subject to many dangers of power and the perilous temptations of therapeutic compensation via attaching to participants.  Until an instructor knows him/her self thoroughly and has been through his/her own psychotherapeutic process, an instructor is likely to impact negatively on his/her participants’ quality of experience to the extent of the instructor's own inadequacies.  Inner maturity and motivation are the only necessary qualities for an outdoor education instructor.  Other qualities, such as communication skills, capacity to envision, plan and execute a program, empathize and relate to participants, and learn necessary outdoor skills, can be learned relatively by those with inner maturity.  Only such individuals should be considered as worthy of outdoor education instruction, in an ideal world.  In such a world, all outdoor education experiences would be sacred and the instructors would be shamans.  Of course, since all individuals have infinite potential for growth, all individuals are also capable of being such outdoor education instructors.  (You may be interested to read more about these ideas in Facilitation & Processing)

Part II:
Outdoor Education Programs Need Sound Theory

I have drawn on Kurt Hahn, John Dewey, and existential and psychodynamic psychology; now I draw on the role of nature.  There is much evidence and logic which suggests that human beings evolved from a long, long history of intimate engagement with nature (e.g., see Frumkin, 2001).  In a very recent flicker of time, industrialization began shielding whole human societies remarkably from nature.  Hence the need for ‘outdoor education’ and ‘outdoor recreation’ has been recent.  However, at the moment, this relatively new practice of taking people into the outdoors for organized educational experiences, varies greatly in the quality of experiences provided to participants (e.g., see Hattie, Marsh, Neill, et al, 1997).  Most  outdoor programs provide fluffy, touristy, distraction, relaxation, thrill-a-minute, and sometimes a fleeting sense of the range of human possibilities.  Until more programs are constructed by those with psychological insight or by those who understand the history, theory and practices of outdoor education, no genuinely profound impact of outdoor education on society will occur.

Dewey’s theory of experience (1938/1997) and/or some other well-constructed theory consistent with a particular goal (such as McClelland’s theory of enhancing achievement motivation, 1963), should be used as a basis for building outdoor education programs.  Alternatively, personal and spiritual development practices, such as those developed by indigenous societies, could be used.  Newly designed forms of outdoor education are popping up everywhere; it is vital that they develop a theoretical basis and are instructed by individuals with inner maturity. 

Programs should also be subject to systematic research and evaluation.  Otherwise what guarantee is there for consistently good effects for participants and for well-guided refinement of program quality?  This is analogous to the development of pharmaceuticals.  Unless there is systematic testing of a programs effects, the causal mechanisms involved, and the side effects, a program should not be marketed to the public.

Part III:
The Underestimated Role of Nature

The more I read and experience and the more I learn about other people and their experiences, the more I believe in that there is considerable untapped power in nature-induced or nature-facilitated experiences. 

In particular, indigenous knowledge, spirituality, and ceremonial practices offer a major gateway into the possibilities of human growth.  Encounters with nature have a potent capacity to alter consciousness and to create vivid, intense, memorable experiences. 

Direct experiencing of nature, especially the elements, cold, heat, etc., but also nature symbols and stories, over time can crafts the body and mind into a more finely tuned instrument which, in turn, alters inner chemistry and consciousness.  Eating of simple, wholesome food over time, with physical exercise, and so on, can combine to holistically bring the human animal into a state of greater potential relationship with nature.

This does not happen as easily or as simply as most people think, particularly as mainstream Western society becomes increasingly divorced from non-human nature.  Even the hardiest human from modern society recoils to familiar ways when faced with the trials of natural life. 

It is only via quality experience over lengths of time that eventually this ‘civilization threshold’ in consciousness can be broken down.  I believe the "true adventurers" visit this frontier e.g., Willi Unsoeld, Chris McCandless, etc.

Eventually as we set about this new way of "harder" living, life becomes, curiously "easier", "richer" and "more interesting".  The natural endorphins return.  The individual can relax and take a new attitude to the challenges of nature and life, and run with new, unfettered conceptions of his/her self.  What we are after, is creating an "ideal environment" for the human to flourish.  That ideal environment includes harmony with nature (see wilderness & education), as much as it also includes harmony with other people (go to peace & experiential education).

Eventually, there can be a new "capability of thriving", a natural well-spring "joie de vivre".  This emerges from the person developing core existential know-how, experience and coping resources, and having reaching "threshold harmony".  This does not mean the person lives in paradise per se, but there is an optimal proportion of "hardness" and "easiness" to life and a sustainable cycle of activity.  In Western society the knob is tuned too far to "easiness" whilst in many places, the knob is tuned too far to "hardiness" in life. 

For the soft Westerner, letting go of comforts does not happen easily and there will be considerable resistance and fear.  But there are enough searchers (about 1 in 20) who will break through the "threshold of culture" and seek a genuinely different route.  Colin Wilson famously referred to these types as "outsiders" (1956).  If you're reading this, there's a good chance you are one of them - or potentially.  Perhaps slightly eccentric, at odds with the world, and seeking alternatives and solution.  (As well as Colin Wilson's "The Outsider", I recommend Ira Levin's "This Perfect Day" which illustrates this "breaking through").

Part IV:
Community as a Target Through the Individual

Modern manifestations of outdoor education programs have a history of about 50 years.  It is a pauper's history, without much sophistication in theory and program design.  There has been  little integration of psychological theory, deep ecology, psychotherapy, and so on. 

What's more, many dangerous elements have crept in, particularly the capitalistic plunge that has taken run rife and turned a sacred field into the sale of cheap, safe thrills. 

But there are also the sneakier evils of the fear of litigation limiting much creativity in programming and driving overemphasis on accreditation and qualification of physical skills, ignoring the fundamental requirement for inner maturity.  This is the "too easy" <------> "too hard" threshold.  We could also call this the "challenge knob" (go to Risk, Challenge & Safety in Outdoor Education). 

Thus, outdoor education exists in a cultural community that challenges much of its core philosophy.  Unless outdoor education becomes socially responsible, even political, and directly addresses the challenge of transforming culture, it risks irrelevancy and extinction.  The changing attitudes and conceptions of "risk" have eaten away at the average Westerner's tendency to "get out there and mix it with the elements".

Thus, outdoor education programming must move beyond short time-frame experiences and move in to live more completely into people’s lives; it must become a lifestyle.  What is meant here by outdoor education as lifestyle, is the living of a brave, sustainable, mature life day in and day out.  Whilst, in the ideal world, that might be a hut in the wilderness, the reality is that it might be a brave attempt at having a permaculture garden in a rented house in the suburbs while bringing up two kids on no money with an incapacitated partner (yep - that's me! :).

There are possible connections here between outdoor education and permaculture (Mollison, n.d.), which is a form of sustainable living and gardening which integrates human life, the landscape, natural elements, and the local community.  Outdoor education needs to move away from artificial challenges, such as ropes challenge courses, and towards natural living challenges, such as the establishment of community gardens and sustainable culture.

If you ever get a chance, visit an ecovillage community or some sort of commune.  Some of them "work", all of them "struggle".  But they are places experimenting with what might be possible forms of eco and social sustainability.  I have a fascination also with "stories of utopia" (e.g., B. F. Skinner's "Walden Two") and with alternative lifestyles, for example, having spent several time fruit picking, sailing, Outward Bound instructor, etc., as well doing the more "responsible" role of "university lecturer" and "researcher".

The full manifestation of a well-run outdoor education programs would be to contribute in a longitudinal and systemic way to the evolution of human society towards sustainability.

Part V:
Summary of my Philosophy of Outdoor Education

In summary, my philosophy of outdoor education considers as critical, the quality of experience of each individual in an outdoor education program.  This quality is a function of the past experience of an individual and the dynamics of the moment.  Everything in a program, from the instructor’s attitude, to the natural environment, to the social fabric, to the food being eaten, interacts in a vital way with a participant’s past experience to create the present nature of his/her reality.  Management of this reality is the responsibility of an instructor who needs to be clear about the goals and his/her limitations and capabilities.  Any detriment in an instructor's level of self-understanding is a substantial risk for the participant. 

Ideally, outdoor education should aim at nothing less than providing life-enhancing experiences of the highest order.  This will usually mean helping individuals, who have lived in modern, civilized environments, to understand themselves in new, altered contexts, to come to know themselves as individuals with far greater capabilities.  This necessarily involves the individual risking failure at discovering new capacities.  The essence of the instructor's role is in designing and guiding experiences which open up a future of possibility for participants. 

Ideally, there would be no need for outdoor education.  Outdoor education didn't exist during the first 1.5 million years of human evolution.  It evolved recently because of the extreme divorce of human societies from nature, and of the human from his/her inner possibilities.  Ultimately, outdoor education should be striving not towards minor thrill, nor towards a return to Eden, but rather to create communities and lifestyles where outdoor education is no longer needed (e.g., ecovillages).  This means infusing individuals and communities with a level of self-, social-, and environmental-understanding which manifests in sustainable living.


Dewey, J. (1938/1997). Experience and Education. New York: Simon and Schuster.  Summary.  Full text.

Frumkin, H. S. (2001). Beyond toxicity: Human health and the natural environment. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 20, 234-240.

Hahn, K. (1930's-1970's).  Various writings.  See

Hattie, J. A., Marsh, H. W., Neill, J. T., & Richards, G. E. (1997). Adventure education and Outward Bound: Out-of-class experiences that make a lasting difference. Review of Educational Research, 67, 43-87.

McClelland, D.C. (1963).  Toward a theory of motive acquisition.  In R. E. Ripple (Ed.).  Readings in learning and human abilities: Educational psychology (2nd edition).  New York: Harper & Row.

Mollison, B. (n. d.). Introduction to permaculture.

Neill, J. T. (2002).  Is Outward Bound becoming too safe?  Outward Bound International Newsletter, July.