Gather Around the Campfire

Actively Moving the Needle on Character Education

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by Sara Gibb

Ever imagine what the ideal character education experience would look like? Would it take place in a fully immersive, active skill building, natural consequence-rich and inclusive learning environment? Would it be full of genuine challenge, struggle and accomplishment to help kids develop a robust sense of self-worth?

In fact, it can be all of these things. Outward Bound has been facilitating these physically immersive learning experiences for over 70 years, worldwide. Additionally it offers expeditionary style, wilderness-based learning courses. We at Outward Bound Baltimore Chesapeake Bay teach character one student at a time through our Appalachian Trail backpacking, Potomac River canoeing, and Chesapeake Bay kayaking expeditions. We partner with Chesapeake region schools to provide a unique learning environment where students are in charge of their struggles, their accomplishments, their learning and their growth.

Character building happens one decision at a time. It doesn’t happen TO people; it is ACTIVELY self-initiated.

Given the genuine repercussive nature of our learning environment – immersed in nature – we are able to both deepen and accelerate the learning cycle for our physically engaged participants. They are allowed to see and feel immediate consequence to their choices. For example, the crew is taught a specific skill about setting up sleeping tarps. Those who engage in the lesson and learn the material wake up dry, and those who are less focused during instruction may wake up wet! By helping others, their whole crew succeeds. We see this when there is a collective task, like creating meals together. If the group doesn’t do a good job of breaking down work and all pitching in, they’re eating in the dark. You don’t have to do that too many nights in a row to figure out how to improve the process! By depending on one another, their bonds of friendship grow. By learning new skills, they feel an overwhelming sense of accomplishment that they can own like no other. Regardless of the actual task (setting up a tarp vs. completing a school-based group project), it’s the underlying reliance being developed that hones their character.

Our challenge: yours and ours, is to isolate the teachable skills that are critical to developing well-rounded citizens of character. We teach them, allow the space for students to PRACTICE them in both safe and challenging circumstances, and ensure that students can transfer these skills out of their school buildings, out of the wilderness and into their families and communities. It’s the physical immersion in specific exercises that require students to make choices and feel the repercussions of their decisions and how those decisions affect the whole group – both good and bad! – that form the basis of character development.

Social and emotional learning skills are emphasized as we believe these skills are central to the teaching of character. Research tells us that students who have intentionally developed sense of self-confidence and self-awareness, know how to develop lofty goals for themselves and learn problem solving-skills perform better both socially and academically. While the skills we help students focus on in the wilderness may appear on the surface to be very different than the skills they develop in their classrooms, the underlying emotional self-efficacy, resilience, conflict-management and social problem-solving techniques they develop directly benefit them when they leave their backpacks behind with us.

Outward Bound’s expeditionary and experiential teaching/learning approach can occur nearly anywhere, with nearly anyone: in the classroom, on a grueling mountain ascent, in the post-course debrief, or in the days following a return from the wild. The more we are able to work together to get students unplugged, outside, and working together in cooperative groups solving real-world problems, the better we will be in enabling active character-building for all 21st century learners.

Sara Gibb

Sara Gibb is the Instructional Designer at the Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School.

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