David Exeter: Adventurous learning a route to developing character and skills

'˜It's been an interesting and exciting first year in my role at Loch Eil. We've seen the start of our major £2 million redevelopment building project designed to increase the number of young people we can accommodate and upgrade the learning areas with specially designed learning '˜pods' in our grounds and are adding a new on-site equipment centre. In addition, six months ago we also set up an Innovation Group amongst our staff to explore and expand our application of '˜adventurous learning'.

I firmly believe that the power of the adventurous learning experience we give to young participants is down to three main factors; our people, our stunning wilderness location and our educational processes. Central to this experience is the eclectic mix of our multi-skilled male and female instructors, all of whom share a common passion for outdoor learning and bring out the best in the young people they teach on a weekly basis.

Our instructors facilitate active reviewing processes for course participants. This means that after they have completed a challenging task or activity, the young people are guided to think about their experiences and review what they’ve learnt, and consider how they might transfer that learning into everyday life.

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We have started through the development of our Innovation Group, made up of a small number of instructors, to also apply some externally researched based teaching and learning practices in our own work at Loch Eil. It’s early days yet but enabling the Innovation Group to creatively examine our courses, sessions, interactions and interventions and share best practice amongst each other has already made a difference to the young people who attend Loch Eil.

I recently caught up with one of our senior instructors, James Tedham, who has been teaching at Loch Eil for nearly six years now. Ex-army and now a volunteer for the Lochaber Mountain Rescue Team in his spare time, one of the reasons James came to instruct here was because of the stunning wilderness environment that surrounds us and the daily variety of his working day.

James explained to me: “Within a given week I have to adapt my teaching depending on the type of programme I’m leading. The young participants I instruct widely vary in age and ability from primary or secondary age, through to through to young people in work in their early career such as apprentices and graduates. Another variable, is of course, the highland weather. We aim to do most elements of our programmes out in the wilderness that surrounds us at Loch Eil, so participants, who are often from inner cities from the central Scottish belt, get full immersion and connection with the environment. No two weeks are the same but what is consistent is that I stay with one group for an entire week and increase their challenge and adventure progressively, day by day.”

The Trust is now in its 75th year of developing character and skills within young people but we are far from resting on our laurels or simply sticking to our established and successful ways of delivering impactful experiential outdoor learning courses. Two years ago, The Trust introduced Learning and Adventure Managers to each of its five centres. The actual role combines instructor line management, developmental skills coach for participants and also involves reviewing the quality and also safety across all Outward Bound activities.

Rory Stewart has worked at Loch Eil for the past 28 years as an instructor and for the past two years has been a Learning & Adventure Manager. This summer Rory took three month’s sabbatical leave to work as a Volunteer Ranger with Nevis Landscape Partnership. Rory was previously deputy head of Loch Eil Centre and has vast experience in adventure and learning, as well as holding a MIA (Mountain Instructor Award) and MIC (Mountain Instructor Certificate). So I think it’s fair to say that Rory’s passion for remote wilderness environments and the respect for the power of the mountains, lochs and coast line surrounding our centre runs through his veins.

As part of his remit, Rory actively helps instructors with dual staffed adventures during courses, such as rock scrambling and abseiling. His passion for his role as a Learning & Adventure Manager was obvious when he explained to me the other day: “Taking young people away from all the props of normal daily life so they have to cope with not having a mobile, tablet or wifi is powerful. I believe that immersing them into the wilderness brings young people to a point of change, discovery and opens them up to active learning.”

One example that struck Rory was a primary school group on a five day course at the centre in October this year. He elaborated: “We’d been out the day before on a hill walk and were returning from an overnight camping expedition by the shores of Loch Linnhe. As part of our return journey the group needed to canoe back along the loch for three miles against the tide. Through encouragement from the instructor and myself, this young group of inner city children keep going far beyond what they thought they were able to achieve. They dug deep, both physically with their paddles, as well as mentally with a ‘I can do this’ mindset, and kept going with aching limbs but fixed and focused determination. The smiles, high fives and sense of achievement was priceless when we reached the destination.”

Moving forward to the months and years ahead I feel strongly committed to ensuring all that we do at The Trust will make a strong and positive difference to the lives of an increasing diverse range of young people. This means innovation and improvement and development. This will ensure we can help more young people increase their self-worth, self-belief and gain the skills they need to life, learning and work in today’s society.

David Exeter, Head of Centre at 
The Outward Bound Trust’s Loch Eil Centre