Experiential Education

Philosophical framework for experiential and outdoor education

Any approach to education must ask itself, what is the goal of education? Is it our aim to cultivate doctors, engineers and other brands of professionals?


Is education simply a form of vocational training and a vehicle to career advancement? Alternatively is education more a way of studying rather than a specific course or field of study, where we impart a philosophy of education that empowers individuals with broad knowledge and transferable skills, and a stronger sense of values, ethics, and civic engagement? 

The above represents the two predominant school of thoughts regarding senior secondary and higher education. However, the seeming dichotomy could be resolved by combining the two school of thoughts where professional training is complimented and supplemented by liberal and experiential education anchored on moral and ethical grounds, thereby combining into a holistic form of education. 

In order to achieve the objectives of holistic education we must seek to develop the whole person to face the challenges of life, which, as we shall see, may also mean finding a meaning for one's life.  For this, the prevalent institutional mechanisms, even in the top world-class universities, are far from enough.

Students today face stark challenges when they leave university, employers are often looking beyond the academic achievements of students. In fact  A recent study by the global consultancy McKinsey & Co points to the need to identify new approaches to helping those leaving education to secure employment. It is submitted that outdoor education plays an important role in both the provision of employment and the preparation of people for employment.

As Donald Schon puts it in the" Education of a Reflective Practitioner", the terrain that human beings have to negotiate is like an immense swamp. Scattered far and few between are isolated islands, which are the existing academic or professional disciplines. 

But the problem is, when one encounters a challenging situation to which one has to cultivate creative solutions to overcome or bypass, such solutions are always situated at a site distant from those islands, with the result that the recognized or documented resolutions will at best be marginally helpful. This is the case when one is doing scientific research, pursuing artistic creation, starting a small business or solving a problem in one's business, social, political, legal or educational organization. Thus, professional education does give us a map in negotiating the swamp, but it may not be adequate, experiential education acts as a compass giving our students direction in navigating the swamp. From this analogy, one could see that both are integral parts in enabling our students to face the challenges of life. 

Thus, the students must be given the chance and support to learn to negotiate uncharted terrains and ambiguous situations. Furthermore even when existing techniques are more or less applicable, one must be able to learn them in an authentic constructivist mode.  As Jean Piaget pointed out decades ago, ‘knowledge is constructed by the learner.' This is invariably true for real learning, starting from infancy when one learns to speak, discerning and extracting amidst an ocean of ' noise' certain sounds that seem to be connected to some objects or events in the real world, and in no time begins to utter those sounds in a coherent fashion. Here, knowledge has indeed been constructed. The construction of knowledge, therefore could not be achieved through rote learning, it must be fortified by experience and guidance. The role of an outdoor/experiential educator is not to dictate, but rather like a coach, to bring out the latent qualities within the students through challenging themselves and pushing them out of their comfort zone. 

A meaningful education must therefore try to help students develop a certain quality, what John Keats referred to as ' Negative Capability' i.e. the patience, resilience and fearlessness when confronted with an ambiguous or unknown situation, and in the course of time, through relentless search, find a way through it, constructing knowledge with what Charles Handy called 'the Third Eye'.  The “Third eye” is essentially a new discovery or solution which could only be achieved through one’s “negative capabilities”. Thus, it is reasoned that “negative capability’ is instrumental in producing new discoveries and solutions – which are the hallmarks of innovation. 

But what constitutes the pre-requisite for Negative Capability?  The answer is 'Passion', a passion for exploratory learning which is innate in all human beings, otherwise they wouldn't even learn to talk or walk. But which in most cases has been buried, through years of neglect or suppression by institutional education. Here, I would like to stress the futility in preaching and lecturing the students, in an attempt to exhort in them a sense of passion.  The only way to re-ignite their passion is through 'enticing' them to go through authentic learning experiences. 

The strategy is to identify 'Zones of Excitement' for our students, and use them as entry points for student learning. Outdoor experiential education is the perfect vehicle for instilling passion in students, using the breathtakingly beautiful wilderness as a platform to create problems and challenges where students will have to employ various skill sets, such as communication, creativity and physical prowess to come up with innovative solutions to the challenges presented to them. 

Through this process the student goes around and around the cycle of passion, where negative capability is cultivated and resulting in the ‘third eye’. With the 'passion' element perpetually invigorated by the Eureka Effect, the journey becomes an upward spiral. The student grows holistically as a whole person.

Ethical education will result organically in the process too. Through cultural exposure to the unique destinations selected by our staff at Zen Quest coupled with living for prolonged periods in a commune setting, it helps to instill in our students a deep sense of empathy for one's fellow man. A further advantage for the developing mind, is that not only will one have the opportunity to see the larger world, but also one's place in it, and the part that one could play to make one's life a meaningful, and thus a fulfilling, one. He or she begins to glimpse a 'meaning of life', against the background of the real world that one has to grapple with for the rest of one's life. As pointed out by humanistic psychologists like Abraham Maslow and Viktor Frankl, and confirmed by empirical research, the search for a ' meaning of life ' is a basic human drive, though this again may be temporarily buried due to a number of external factors.

Thus we have a vision, and a strategy for attaining it. To actualize this, we must take students outside of their comfort zone for a prolonged period lasting for at least 14 days. The students will be taken to a remote location and will be taught basic outdoor navigation, survival and planning abilities. Genuine task and challenges will be set, where groups of student must come up with creative solution to solve them. The entire process will be captured by video camera, and shown to the students in the evening using portable projectors and a white screen. This review session helps to solidify what they have learnt and to facilitate introspection where they could review their own conduct, attitude and abilities. After which our staff and students will sit in a circle around a fire, the tranquility and unity afforded by such an environment is conducive to deep sharing of thoughts and feelings.

At Zen Quest our goal is to provide the most unique outdoor education experience in the world. Our instruction techniques embody the latest research in neuroscience, psychology and educational philosophy, taught by the most qualified instructors in China and the UK. Here, safety is our paramount concern, our staff are constantly reviewing new safety technique from around the world, to ensure that our programs are of world class quality. 

For more on our educational research on outdoor education, please see our article "The connection between physical exercise, environmental enrichment and learning capabilities".