Scenes in Adventure Learning (Part II): Reconnaissance

Juan de Fuca Recon w/ DSIt is the second day of spring, earlier the same year, and a colleague and I are shivering in soaking clothes in a damp ring of protective salal and cedar above Chin Beach. We are conducting reconnaissance on the Juan de Fuca Trail, assessing its relative difficulty, subjective and objective risks and hazards, and gauging the potential for the route to serve as a challenging option for the annual TALONS Adventure Trip.

Despite arriving on Vancouver Island in full sunshine yesterday, and beginning our hike under clear skies, the rain moved in on us last night and has yet to let up through the day’s first ten kilometres. We left Bear Beach at just before ten this morning and arrived at the emergency shelter above Chin Beach on the afternoon high tide, cutting us off from where the trail resumes at the western end. With an hour of slack tide to wait out we’ve hung our wet shirts on the lines in the front of the shelter to drip dry in the spring humidity and make warm lunches of hummus, bagels, and multiple cups of tea. We laugh at the accumulated years of graffiti adorning the walls.

Eventually we shudder back into our shirts and make our way down to the beach, where we’re waiting now for the tide to recede enough that we might gain the rocky bluff back up into the woods where the trail continues. Mist hangs in the air between the trees and gusts up the beach as the waves crash and rinse between the rocks. A group of five or six sea lions slithers toward the horizon beyond the breakers, and we wait, jogging on the spot, stepping up and down from a log by a sodden fire circle, and wandering through the prospective campsite.

When the tide falls we head back into the woods, tackling the second 10K section of steep, muddy, and root-laden walking between Chin and Sombrio Beach. The trail climbs, then descends, crosses swollen creeks that soak our boots and gaiters, then climbs again. All throughout the afternoon the rain continues to fall, but we don’t wear our rain gear because with our exertion the insides would be as wet as the outside; besides, we will surely need them come the evening.

The lightheartedness of our adventure yesterday has evapourated, or perhaps more appropriately been washed away, and we hike in relative silence: grunting, breathing heavily, laughing incredulously at the ferocity of the weather and the roughness of the trail. We are out here two months before the hiking season has properly begun, and many of the winter’s deadfall sitka spruces, calamitous landslides, and broken boardwalks have yet to be cleared or repaired. Later in the day we are ankle deep in muddy bogs on the ridgeline above Sombrio Point and the forest canopy blocks out the five o’clock light, making it horror-movie dark as the rain increases above our heads. In the next moment it is hailing angrily down through the cedar boughs and we are resigned to digging through our packs for jackets as the pellets sting our shoulders and frigid forearms.

Juan de Fuca Recon w/ DS

On Sombrio we fight back the first effects of hypothermia while we attempt to set the tarp and pitch our tent. My sleeping bag is soggy and our fingers ache working with the lightweight tarpline. We are on pace to complete the trail in three days – two days faster than our prospective trip with the teens later in the spring – and we are each unbelievably spent.

Tomorrow we will shuffle off the western terminus of the trail in Port Renfrew and ravenously inhale chicken wings and two beers before hitchhiking back to our car at China Beach before dark. I am almost thirty five and no stranger to challenging adventures in the woods, nor is Dave: even with our aching feet and blistering toe-nail beds, soaked gear and thousand-yard stares as we sit over ferry burgers on our way home, we are giddy and proud of our adventure.

But tonight, shivering in my sleeping bag while the rain blasts at the salal and sitka shelter beyond our tent, and throughout our encounters with knee-deep bogs, hundred metre cliffs above the Pacific, and the perilously slick log bridges and creek beds (one of which claims my sunglasses on the second morning of our adventure), I am struck with the magnitude of the trip seen through the eyes of my grade nine students. The thought that the trip may be beyond the capabilities of our group – or for one reason or another one or more of our student group will not complete the trail – becomes a focal point of the preparations to come.

“Let’s think about it,” Dave says sometime the next day while we take water and a break deep in the woods west of Sombrio Beach. “What are the snags, injuries or anxieties – reasons you’d need to stop or evacuate someone – and where are they going to happen out here?”

“If and when they walk off the end of this trail,” he adds. “They are going to be hardened warriors.”

We climb through the soaking rainforest, sweating in our rotten, muddy clothes, brainstorming various emergencies and evacuation procedures, as well as how to minimize our risks.

“Exactly,” I tell him, and set about making plans for the coming months and making that potential a reality.

Scenes in Adventure Learning (Part I): Over, Under, Through

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Aligning our departure from Chin Beach to the 8am low tide, our group of seventeen grade nine and ten students and four adult leaders set out around the rocky bluff at the western edge of the beach, walking in the shadow of towering sandstone cliffs. Groundwater drips down mossy walls and splatters on the slick boulders we navigate to the tune of clattering hiking poles and the gasps of narrowly avoided falls. To the west the bright blue sea is visible through the window of a dramatic granite arch extending from the forest.

One of our volunteer leaders and one of the grade tens ventures under the arch to assess the possibility of avoiding the abrupt headland interrupting our beach route, to no avail. Even with the low tide, the route under the arch runs out into shallow seawater and the threat of being surprised by rogue waves on the exposed point; we will have to go over.

It is the second morning we’ve woken up on the beach, having set out just after lunch from the China Beach parking lot at the eastern end of the Juan de Fuca Trail Saturday afternoon. We have hiked more than twenty kilometres with tents and food and water purification tablets, and as we set out onto the third day of the five-day trek, the most difficult sections of trail are behind us. Having surmounted the endless switchbacks and headlands of the merciless stretch between Bear Beach and Chin, the group is strong and confident, and sets about scaling the rocky archway without a break in collective stride. 

Arch BypassThe first few who make it up onto the bluff deposit their packs and hiking poles on the far side, and return to help others gain the ledge with encouraging words, outstretched hands, and assurances that what looms on the other side is “no worse than we’ve done so far.”

On the other side, the route descends sharply to the boulder-strewn beach over a five foot ledge that offered only an awkward bum-shuffle as a way down. Here, too, bags are shuttled briskly through helping hands; a guide line is set to balance reluctant shufflers;  encouragement and spotters collect on the beach to catch us as we resume the trail on the other side. A waist-height waterfall pours out of the sandstone onto the beach where we wet our faces and cool ourselves before continuing into the morning. A hundred other challenges will arise before the day is out, but no matter. The group is operating with a heightened focus on the goal at hand: to safely reach the end of the trail together.

Less than a kilometre down the rocky beach, we meet the buoys hanging in a tree that signalled the trail ‘s shift inland, and clamour in a rough single file up and over the twisted roots of a sitka spruce hanging over the edge of a creek. For the next three days we will continue in this manner, immersed in the boundary between forest and sea, with everything we need to survive stowed away in brightly coloured packs and the awestruck glances of our teammates.

EDCI 335: Final Design Project

EDCI335 Final Design from Bryan Jackson on Vimeo.

You can read the full PDF of the paper here

Background Drawing identified-gifted learners from the Coquitlam School District, Gleneagle Secondary School’s TALONS (The Academy of Learning for Gifted Notable Students) Program offers Ministry-identified gifted learners interdisciplinary core curriculum (Social Studies, English, Math, and Science for grades 9 and 10, all at an honours level), as well as experiential opportunities to complete Planning 10, Leadership 11 and PE 11. TALONS learning is largely organized around inquiry-based projects that make use of outdoor education and community service elements to imbue learning objectives with a greater tangible relevance to students and their local, as well as global, communities. In addition to covering provincial Ministry of Education curricula in the above courses, the program is grounded in George Betts’ Autonomous Learner Model (Betts & Neihart, 1986), with an emphasis on metacognition and acquainting each member of the cohort with skills and habits uniquely tailored to their own social and emotional roles in cultivating interdependence and community.

This design project was conceived to align both the explicit and implicit foci of British Columbia’s Social Studies 9 curriculum (Social Studies 8 to 10 Integrated Resource Package 1997) with a larger narrative expressed in the personal and collective learning in the TALONS classroom. By bringing the “Hidden Curriculum” into the open in this manner, the learning design intends to conceive of means of engaging the course material which are congruent with its ends. 

On Memorable Learning

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Whether working with the TALONS, philosophers, or the #IntroGuitar community, I am fortunate to get to spend a good deal of time planning lessons and thinking of learning experiences that are not only ‘memorable,’ but hopefully also: personal, meaningful and – optimally – transformative. I would agree with a definition that sees learning as Jeanne Ellis Ormrod describes it:

“A long-term change in mental representations and associations due to experience[.]”

The theoretical approaches that I bring to this view of learning are largely inspired by constructivism and sociocultural theory, as well as the networked processes at the heart of connectivism. Defined in this week’s EDCI 335 reading, constructivists:

suggest that people create (rather than absorb) knowledge from observations and experiences.

More and more I have come to see both the ‘hidden curriculum‘ and the provincially required curriculum as bound to Foucault’s vision of Enlightenment, which should not be considered:

a theory, a doctrine, nor even as a permanent body of knowledge that is accumulating; it has to be conceived as an attitude, an ethos, a philosophical life in which the critique of what we are is at one and the same time the historical analysis of the limits that are imposed on us and an experiment with the possibility of going beyond them.”

I’ve come to think that memorable learning resides in such “experiments with the possibility” of going beyond our limits, when we are able to experience transgression of our boundaries and the potential and peril that such risk-taking involves.

Last spring I reflected on the work of:

Gregory Bateson, [who] describes these learning opportunities as “breaches in the contextual structure,” whereby individuals gain an understanding of the process involved in implementing “corrective change in the system of sets of alternatives from which choice is made.”

This sort of “third order” thinking is driven by a confrontation with “systemic contradictions in experience” (this is taken from University of Virginia prof Eric Bredo); to the outdoor educator, this double bind is represented by the necessity of learning to provide both the freedom to explore, as well as the structure and guidance that creates safe opportunities for growth.

Gardner Campbell points out that learning in this capacity puts participants – teachers and students and parents alike – to vulnerability. “It puts the self at risk,” he says. “The questions become explosive,” and “involve “the kinds of risks that learners, at their best, will be willing to take.”

It is a vision of learning that I think goes beyond the mass concerns of institutional education obsessed with accountability, but speaks to John Dewey’s dual intentions for public schooling:

    • To transmit the facts, dispositions and cultural heritage society considers to be of value; and
    • To raise a younger generation with the skills, persistence and ingenuity to transcend our historical moment.

In addition to being encultured to the traditions of our society’s ideals, meaningful, memorable learning is what Richard Dixon meant when he told me that

“Every class is just another opportunity for young people to practice forming communities.”

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The British Columbian outdoors have lent themselves admirably to this task:

We walked out into the woods and within minutes were greeted in our silences by the persistent hooting of an owl presiding over the camp for the duration of our solo. Scattered across the forest floor, in a blackness that enveloped all but the distant moon shining off the lake below, the owl rang its voice across the treetops, cradling us all. When I called out finally for the solo to end, seconds swelled and stretched in silence as no one wanted the moment to be gone.

Our ambition as TALONS facilitators is often to nurture these individual worlds, where everything needed for survival, or even thriving, is brought along in backpacks and the people assembled in a given place. Enjoying the peace of sitting in the woods at night alone, a serenity connected to the most basic of human fears of loneliness, made possible in the company of trusted peers.

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As have the annual rituals provided by annual TALONS events and adventures, when the (two grade 9/10 cohorts) each set about “creating something that is honest, magical, and their own.” On a night like the annual Night of the Notables, for instance:  

There is prolonged  thunderous applause. Standing ovations.  In all, it is quite a thing to see happen. Truly. Even if it is hard to say just what it is that happened up there on that stage and in the halls of our school tonight.

Because just as it feels a little bit my own, how I take in the night’s triumph against the backdrop of those that have preceded it, how everyone in the room experiences the evening is measured against their own sense of the vulnerability felt by those in the present ‘hot seat.’ From the college kids in the back to the grade nines sitting in the second row (to the teacher grinning in the balcony), everyone in the TALONS orbit has gathered to give it up for those whose task it is this year to set aside their fears, come together as a group, and dare to do something exceptional.

Something exceptional, like forming a band and playing your first gig just after locker cleanout on one of the last days of the school year:

On the last day of class, many of the Bears made a point of hanging around for a few minutes to take pictures with one another, shake my hands and otherwise linger in the magical atmosphere the guitar classroom had been transformed into by their efforts.

“This class was more than a class,” one of the young men who was graduating told me on his way out the door. “Just what it was, I’m not sure. But it was pretty great.”

Or teaching fellow singers in a Cuban fine arts school the English pronunciations in their new choral number:

What each of these learning opportunities have in common, I think, is that they put the student/learner at the center of the experience, where their individual perception of themselves or their world is expanded somehow. They perform feats not thought possible beforehand, or experience “breaches in the weave of contextual structure”:

  • Swimming in the ocean before breakfast,
  • Capping a night by first experiencing bioluminescence, or
  • Learning what part they can best contribute to a group.

Those are the sorts of things that lead to long-term changes in mental representations and associations. 

That is learning.