ERIC Identifier: ED425051
Publication Date: 1999-01-00
Author: Boss, Judith A.
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Rural Education and Small Schools Charleston WV.
Outdoor Education and the Development of Civic Responsibility.
Recently commentators have mourned the "disappearance of civic America,"
saying we are becoming a nation of civic couch potatoes (Tyack, 1997). Surveys
suggest voters know little about what their legislators are doing (Harris,
1997). Other observers point out the importance of strong civic involvement for
creating conditions--sometimes referred to as social capital--that support vital
community life and thriving economies (Coleman, 1988; Putnam, 1993). This type
of involvement includes participation in government, associations (for example,
charitable, religious, athletic, environmental, or arts), and community and
economic development. For students to grow into fully participating citizens,
they need to find their place in this web of community life, and understand both
the benefits and responsibilities of being part of it.
This Digest suggests how outdoor education and experiential learning can
develop such understandings in students, and set them on a path of strong
participation and civic responsibility.
OUTDOOR EDUCATION AND EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING
educational psychologist Howard Gardner has found that scholastic knowledge "seems strictly bound to school settings" (1991, p. 122), while outdoor
education fosters "connected knowing," where education is part of, rather than
separate from, life. Unlike classroom learning, outdoor education uses the
student's whole environment as a source of knowledge. The community, rather than
the classroom, is the context of learning.
Outdoor education includes more than studies of nature, although learning
about the environment is certainly an important aspect of this educational
tradition. It encompasses the use of the outdoor environment--whether natural or
man-made--to promote learning from experience and enrichment of nearly any
subject in the curriculum. One of the originators of this approach to education,
John Dewey (1938), envisioned the school as a miniature democratic society, with
experiential learning as an essential component of civics education. Students
prepare for adult civic responsibility by practicing it in the world around
them. In outdoor education, students learn how to identify problems as well as
how to work with government and civic groups in formulating and implementing
solutions. Students become active participants in the democratic process, rather
than simply passive observers.
Experiential learning has continued to gain advocates over the decades.
Basically, it is learning by doing. Many recent innovations have strong ties to
experiential learning: hands-on or active learning, cooperative learning,
work-based learning, and service learning are examples. Through such
experiences, students can learn mathematics, science, social and technology
skills, and civics, among many other disciplines (Knapp, 1996).
THREE OUTDOOR EDUCATION APPROACHES
This Digest focuses on
three principal types of outdoor education commonly used to nurture civic
responsibility in students: adventure education, cultural journalism and
participatory research, and service learning. A resource list at the end of this
Digest provides contact information for several organizations that can provide
resources for interested educators and youth leaders.
Adventure education. Adventure education usually takes place outdoors, often
in wilderness areas, and aims to teach environmental awareness and build
self-confidence through activities that include a certain amount of stress or
risk such as rock climbing, ropes courses, and other carefully planned
activities. Teachers or other adults interested in this approach require
intensive training, usually involving special certification.
Perhaps the best known organization practicing adventure education is Outward
Bound. A meta-analysis of 96 studies published between 1968 and 1994 concludes
that Outward Bound programs stimulate the development of interpersonal
competencies, enhance leadership skills, and have positive effects on
adolescents' senses of empowerment, self-control, independence,
self-understanding, assertiveness, and decision-making skills (Hattie, Marsh,
Neill, & Richards, 1997). These are important findings given that low
participation in civic life often occurs because citizens feel powerless to
bring about changes.
Outward Bound instructor Randolph DeLay discovered that most new teen
participants in his program "conceived of nature as a place undisturbed,
unfamiliar, 'out there,' with few or no people, and without human-made things.
Therefore, in these teens' minds there was no nature at home and therefore no
real reason to care for the environment outside of the wilderness" (1996, p.
79). Outdoor education nurtures a respect for our connectedness with nature and
the wider community. This connectedness flows over into an awareness of our
relatedness to others in the community (Fouhey & Saltmarsh, 1996).
Cultural journalism and participatory research. While adventure education
programs can help youth discover their individual strengths and capacity for
leadership, and connection to nature and community, this second approach helps
students understand the place where they live, and their connections through
relatives and friends to others in the community--past, present, and future.
Cultural journalism can help students become part of a "community of memory," a
group of people who live willingly--though not necessarily
unquestioningly--within the protection of collective traditions (Bellah, Madsen,
Sullivan, Swidler, & Tipton, 1985). In a society that promotes individualism
in countless ways, understanding the value of certain civic traditions can
provide the basis for cooperation and mutual support.
Perhaps the best-known example of this approach was Foxfire, in which student
research in the community eventually produced a best-selling magazine and series
of books. This approach to history and education, as explained by Tierney
(1992), has deep roots in genealogical societies, local history commemorative
pamphlets, testimonies collected by abolitionists, and the various projects,
slave narratives, state guides, and folklore studies of the Works Progress
Administration during the New Deal. (p. 25)
Participatory research is closely related, but tends to involve more
contemporary issues. Put simply, it is research conducted by people who are
affected by an issue, problem, or concern. For students, this could involve (1)
group discussion to define an issue and identify expertise in the group or
community, (2) public meetings to involve community members in the research, (3)
research teams to share responsibility for the research, (4) open-ended surveys
to gather information about how a wider range of people view the issue, (5)
community seminars for focused discussion, (6) fact-finding tours to various
parts of the community or other communities, and (7) communicating the newly
gathered information (Participatory Research Network, 1982; Tierney, 1992). The
Highlander Center has offered training to community leaders in this approach for
This form of outdoor education helps develop a sense of justice, which is
essential to civic responsibility. For example, Whatcom Middle School, Western
Washington State University, and Washington State Campus Compact collaborated to
create an eighth-grade curriculum on environmental facets of watershed
conservation and civic responsibilities inherent in environmental stewardship.
The project prompted students to become politically involved in protecting and
maintaining a local stream and fish hatchery threatened by industrial pollution.
Activism springing from such projects may include writing letters,
volunteering in a community organization, or talking to others about
environmental justice. A study of environmentalists, such as John Muir, Rachel
Carson, and Aldo Leopold, can provide role models. This sort of experiential
learning helps students respond effectively to problems by providing
opportunities for them to apply their knowledge in real-life situations.
Awareness of environmental or other issues without knowledge of how to bring
about positive changes may leave students feeling frustrated and powerless.
Students with opportunities to participate directly in the democratic process
feel more politically effective than most adults (Center for Civic Education,
1994). By their participation, students learn which government and private
agencies are interested in environmental issues and what resources they offer.
Once they understand these mechanisms in one arena--such as protection of the
environment--they are better prepared to engage in other areas of civic problem
Service learning. Civic responsibility also entails a willingness to engage
in community service, as well as political activism. Service learning is one
form of outdoor education that has been well developed over the past decade,
with a number of organizations offering resources. Proponents of service
learning report benefits to schools, communities, and young people. Schools
enjoy increased community support and closer working relationships with parents
of participating students. Communities benefit directly from the various
services provided by students, and indirectly because students gain a sense of
civic efficacy, and the attitude that they should, can, and will have an impact
on civic affairs. Students find a sense of meaning in education when they
examine firsthand the community social problems, or when they participate in
projects to address problems (Garman, 1995).
Components of successful service learning programs include (1) clearly
articulated goals that stand a reasonable chance of being accomplished, (2)
projects of real consequence to the community, (3) student tasks involving real
responsibility and trust, (4) initial and ongoing involvement of community
members in setting directions for the project, (5) support of the community, (6)
initial and ongoing involvement of students in selecting and designing the
project, (7) developmental appropriateness, (8) tangible results, and (9) clear
connections to classroom learning (Garman, 1995).
Service learning projects can be completed in a day or over the long term.
Projects such as a community garden or cleanup can be done on or near the school
grounds. Following are examples of outdoor education programs:
The Stream Bank Initiative is a collaborative project by schools in South
Royalton, Vermont. Twenty middle and high school students planted trees and
grass along an 800-foot stretch of streambed to stabilize erosion and provide a
buffer between the river and a town recreation area. Local, private, state, and
federal contributors funded the project (Stine, 1997).
At Rosemead High School, in California, 40 high school students collaborated
with 8 landscape architecture students and faculty to study and replant an area
around the school that had been paved to save maintenance costs. Students
learned about the importance of trees and plants in filtering polluted air and
preventing erosion (Stine, 1997).
CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDATIONS FOR FUTURE DIRECTIONS
education can be an effective bridge to civic participation. But efforts to
involve students in experiential learning in all its forms require planning and
skill on the part of educators. Fortunately, a growing body of literature and
organizations stand by ready to assist.
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Gardner, H. (1991). The tensions between education and development. Journal
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Putnam, R. D. (1993). Making democracy work: Civic traditions in modern
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Stine, S. (1997). Landscapes for learning: Creating outdoor environments for
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Tierney, M. (1992). In our own words: Community story traditions to prevent
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Tyack, D. (1997). Civic education--What roles for citizens? Educational
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for Experiential Education. 2305 Canyon Boulevard, Suite 100, Boulder, CO 80302;
for Civic Education. 5146 Douglas Fir Road, Calabasas, CA 91302-1467;
Fund, Inc. P.O. Box 541, Mountain City, GA 30562-0541; telephone 706-746-5828;
Research and Education Center. Route 3, Box 370, New Market, TN 37820; telephone
(615) 933-3443; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bound USA. 384 Field Point Road, Greenwich, CT 06830; http://126.96.36.199/