[ACTIVE REVIEWING: INDEX] If you take people to the mountains for their 'development' why not use
a vehicle for development rather than a vehicle for learning?

     In Search of Respectable Adventure

Climbing a mountain
'Because it is there' is good enough for me (me the climber, not me the educator). To say it was 'because of the view' would be misleading because I enjoy climbing mountains even when there is no view. Running up mountains now gives me even greater pleasure than climbing up them. Why this should be so is even harder to explain - to myself, let alone to others.

Mallory's brief answer to the journalist's question, 'Why do you wish to conquer Everest, Mr. Mallory?' is part of a long history of non-explanations about the appeal of challenging outdoor activities. The early alpinists in the nineteenth century were thought to be quite mad. Many of these pioneers realised the difficulty of providing convincing explanations of their eccentric pursuits, so they carried out scientific projects alongside their mountaineering. According to Walter Unsworth 1 this brought some 'respectability' to their seemingly 'mad' activities (while leaving the question 'Why climb?' unanswered).

Now, over 70 years since Mallory's famous non-explanation 'Because it is there', we have a bewildering array of explanations and theories about the educational value of mountaineering and other adventures. It is possible that some of these explanations are adopted simply to add 'respectability' to outdoor adventure, without getting any closer to the real value and significance of taking part in such activities.
If people go into the mountains for development of some kind, they would be far better equipped if the 'vehicle' they are using to enhance their experience is a vehicle for development rather than a vehicle for learning.

When climbing a mountain is part of an educational or training programme the basic purpose is usually expressed as 'personal growth' or 'personal and social development'. There may also be additional and more specific purposes, but it is generally believed that 'development' (of some kind) is what you get from climbing a mountain.

You can put this to the test. Spend the day on top of the Old Man of Coniston (or any other hill surrounded by outdoor centres), and ask passers-by why they're there. After the usual banter, and a little more probing, you will find many answers that end with 'development': personal development, group development, team development, management development etc. You will find few (if any) answers that mention 'learning'.

If you were to investigate further, and were to ask to see the brochure that describes how their 'development' course works, you will probably quickly spot a learning cycle. If it happens to be Kolb's learning cycle (apparently still the most popular model) you might find that on their return from their 'concrete experience' these tired walkers will be doing some 'reflective observation', 'abstract conceptualisation', and 'active experimentation' - in that order, under the guidance of a group facilitator.

If people go into the mountains for development of some kind, they would be far better equipped if the 'vehicle' they are using to enhance their experience is a vehicle for development rather than a vehicle for learning.

So if a learning cycle represents the learning vehicle, then what does a development vehicle look like? Kolb has himself provided one answer by adding a 3-dimensional cone (representing development) on top of his better known 2-dimensional learning cycle. If climbing a mountain for 'development', then perhaps a developmental cone would be more useful than a learning cycle. A cone has the added merit that it actually looks like a mountain. The peak of the mountain and the peak of the cone can also both represent 'peak experience'.

The term 'peak experience' is usually associated with the work of Abraham Maslow whose triangle resembles Kolb's cone, with the apex/summit/peak representing 'self-actualisation' (a term that sounds almost as clinical as Kolb's 'abstract conceptualisation'). Such jargonistic language is surely worlds apart from the words and the poetry that mountain tops inspire - such as when people see the rising dawn from their mountain top bivouac. If only Wordsworth had been Maslow's ghost writer!

Children learn what they live 2

a child lives with criticism,
she learns to condemn.
a child lives with hostility,
he learns to fight.
a child lives with ridicule,
she learns to be shy.
a child lives with shame,
he learns to feel guilt
a child lives with tolerance,
she learns to be patient.
a child lives with encouragement,
he learns confidence.
a child lives with praise,
she learns to appreciate.
a child lives with fairness,
he learns justice.
a child lives with security,
she learns to have faith.
a child lives with approval,
he learns to like himself.
a child lives with acceptance
and friendship, he or she learns
to find love in the world.

For all the wordiness of theories of learning and development, it is important for our practice to be guided by theory. We need something a little more developed than 'because it's there' and something a little more 'down to earth' than the academic jargon that threatens to displace our intuitive and common sense understandings of how development happens. My own favourite answer comes from a poem 'Children Learn What They Live'. It is more direct and to the point than any model of learning and development.

It follows from this poem that it is important to get the nature of the experience right. According to the poem, development depends on people experiencing tolerance, encouragement, praise, fairness, security, approval, acceptance and friendship.

But where do mountain experiences fit into this picture of how development happens?

One conclusion might be that mountains are of little value unless these other experiences have already been encountered in good measure. Such an argument more or less follows Maslow's theory that basic needs must be met first. But I do not like this conclusion because it too readily leads to the view that the mountains should be reserved for the most able and confident, leaving the 'underachievers' and 'inexperienced' behind.

Is there not a theory of development that encourages everyone to go to the mountain tops, rather than leaving it to an elite of experienced achievers to come back with tablets (or pieces) of stone, poems, photos, inspiration, etc.?

Mountain journeys and other outdoor adventures have long been valued as a means of meeting the developmental need for new experiences. But the need for new experience is just one amongst many developmental needs. Other developmental needs might include: 3



The above list contains similar messages to those presented in the poem. Is it a list that makes sense on a mountain? With a little thought it can be seen how a mountain journey can offer opportunities for all the experiences listed. A mountain journey can also provide none of these experiences. Even worse, a mountain journey can provide the opposite of these experiences, and an overwhelming desire to become a couch potato.

'This doesn't happen in my groups!' you might say. But how do you know? What do you do to increase the chances that these kinds of experiences are enjoyed during a mountain trip (or any other kind of outdoor adventure)? What can you do to check whether some or all participants actually are experiencing what you hope they are experiencing? If it should happen that the outdoor adventure did not provide the broad range of experiences you hoped it would, what can you do to adjust the balance and extend the range of experiences? Perhaps you could use a review session to:

  1. to check what each individual was experiencing,
  2. to reinforce or enhance those experiences,
  3. to create those experiences that are weak or missing?
How could you do this successfully? Some answers can be found in the articles and publications listed below. 4 But it would be wrong to focus entirely on the reviewing skills that can enhance the quality and effectiveness of adventure-based programmes. Design skills are equally important. Design should also be based on a suitable theory of development if the main purpose of the course is a developmental one. The above list of needs can provide a useful design template, but my own preference is to make creative use of a definition of personal growth from Giges and Rosenfeld. 5
    Personal growth can be viewed as making new connections in any of several directions:
  • upward to achieve one's full potential;
  • outward to make contact and encounter others;
  • inward to increase our awareness of who we are, and what we want, need, sense, feel, think, and do; and
  • downward to touch earth, to be grounded, and to connect
This definition has a definite shape to it, with its mention of growth in four directions: upward, outward, inward and downward. We may each choose to balance these four directions in different ways, but in order to illustrate how this definition can be used as a design tool, I have provided three examples for each direction.



  1. To encourage 'upward' growth ask each person to think of barriers or difficulties they may encounter. 'What will be hard for you on this journey?' Discuss as a group how each individual can overcome or cope with these difficulties. This should generate ideas and support for greater achievement.
  2. Ask each individual to come up with an idea for an extra challenge or responsibility they might take on during the journey. This creates individual targets and more opportunities for achievement.
  3. Make the journey a self-designed, independent one (with necessary safety arrangements).


  1. If the weather is not too foul, why not harness the opportunities for reflection that the outdoors can provide? In contrast to the sociability of the 'outward' exercises, individuals can be encouraged to spend time on their own. A set of reflective questions supplemented by additional questions from others in the group can help individuals to focus their thoughts. These may be about the course so far, about the course objectives or about their plans for the future - in the outdoors or elsewhere.
  2. Pen and paper exercises in the outdoors may be neither convenient nor attractive. A good alternative is to use natural outdoor objects as a focus for thinking and reflecting. During the walk (or at certain periods during the walk) people can make collections of objects in pairs. The collections can represent their own values and ideas or they could be chosen to represent positive things about each other person in the group. This should of course be set up in a way that is both safe and environmentally sensitive.
  3. Plan a 'creative arts' dimension into the journey. This may involve sketching, painting, photography, video, tape-recording, sculpture, music, poetry, song.


  1. Set up interviews to take place during the easier sections of the walk. These may be based on standard or individualised questions. Prompt cards are useful, but simple questions that are easily remembered may be preferred. The purpose is to get to know your partner better. Just one interview each may be enough, or each individual could be asked to carry out a survey of each other person's views in the group on a particular subject.
  2. Make the most of a busy mountain by setting up a survey that involves participants asking questions to other people on the mountain. Similarly, this can be as informal or as structured as seems appropriate.
  3. Involve the group as fully as possible in choosing, negotiating, designing, planning, preparing and carrying out the journey - to maximise the social dimensions of the whole experience, and to ensure that they are not simply a group of 'followers'.


  1. The summit of a mountain is a good place for 'connecting with the universe'. Unfortunately, summits can be busy and cold places which do not readily provide opportunities for personal reflection. Both of these problems can be readily solved by finding sheltered viewpoints a little way down from the summit - enough for each individual to look and think alone. This can be a rare experience on a day which is often dominated by the group experience and the pressure to think and behave as a team member. Spending five or ten minutes in this way (without the distraction of questions, tasks or other people) can provide the stillness and opportunity for individuals to develop a different perspective on the world. Reliable safety arrangements must of course be made. On suitable ground, a mountain-top rendez-vous after the solo is usually the easiest and best place to meet.
    A similar exercise can be carried out on other parts of the journey (e.g. in moorland or woodland), with the privacy being achieved by lying down and looking up at the sky.
  2. Simply call the mountain walk an 'observation project' without specifying what should be observed. At stopping points, everyone is encouraged to share their observations. They are usually environmental observations to start with, and then become observations about self and others. You may wish to encourage all kinds of observations, but by limiting observations to environmental ones, everyone becomes increasingly tuned in to the world around them. Try it!
  3. Nature Awareness games and exercises can enhance outdoor experiences in focused ways that both sensitise people to their surroundings and teach them something about the natural environment. 6

The four-directional definition of personal growth provided by Giges and Rosenfeld continues in the following way:
'Personal growth involves increasing the range of perceptions, thoughts and feelings we experience, developing new ways to express them, and making choices and decisions about the direction in which we wish to move.'
Both during activities and during reviews we can create opportunities for applying this definition in practical ways. If we simply rely on providing 'new experiences' and following 'learning cycles' or 'processing sequences', we may be doing very little to enhance the quality and effectiveness of courses that are intended to provide 'development'.


Courses that aim to provide 'development' of some kind are more likely to be effective if they are linked to a down to earth and usable theory of development. 'Learning cycles' are not theories of development: although they may have a useful but limited role even where the priority is development. Reviewing that is informed by a suitable theory of development makes it easier to monitor, enhance and evaluate the effectiveness of programmes that aim or claim to provide opportunities for development. Similarly, programme design and activity design can also be greatly improved by systematically applying suitable theories of development. Learning theory may add 'respectability' to adventure, but without effectively harnessing its power. If we encourage others to climb a mountain for their development, we owe it to them to base our practice on appropriate development theory, rather than basing it on the marginal relevance of a 'respectable' learning theory, or (worse still) basing it on a mind-your-own-business Mallory-style non-explanation such as 'Because it's good for you'. A snappy sound bite no more captures the essence of adventure than does the arcane and clinical jargon of learning theories. But the four arrows model suits me down to the ground, up to the clouds, etc.


(revised since original publication) 1. 'Because It's There' by Walt Unsworth
2. 'Children Learn What They Live' from a poster issued by the Scottish Health Education Group and redesigned with permission from Parents Anonymous Inc.
3. This list of needs is drawn from the work of Maslow (1954), Lindgren (1956) and Kellmer-Pringle (1965). Similar needs have been identified by Carl Rogers (1969) as being critical needs to satisfy in order to create the 'freedom to learn'. Also see the author's 'Reviewing Adventures: Why and How?' (1996) (National Association for Outdoor Education)
4. for example: 'Creative Reviewing' (1989) by John Hunt and Penny Hitchin, Groundwork, Cumbria; 'Reviewing Adventure Activities' Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Leadership 10(1); 'Playback: A Guide to Reviewing Activities' (1993) The Duke of Edinburgh's Award and the forthcoming 'Adventure Connexions' (National Association for Outdoor Education)
5. 'The Intensive Group Experience' (1976) by Burton Giges and Edward Rosenfeld, edited by Max Rosenbaum and Alvin Snadowsky, The Free Press, Collier Macmillan, p.87.
6. for example: books by Steve van Matre (Sunship Earth), Joseph Bharat Cornell (Sharing Nature With Children), Geoff Cooper (Russell House Publishing, 1998), and Jeanette Malone (Wild Adventures, AEE, 1998)

'In Search of Respectable Adventure' was published in Horizons (1998)

For a more recent article about the practical application of development theories, see Roger Greenaway's Reviewing for Development (2004)
If we simply rely on providing "new experiences" and following "learning cycles" or "processing sequences", we may be doing very little to enhance the quality and effectiveness of courses that are intended to provide "development".  

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