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Instructor Skills & Competency versus Program Design – A Delicate Balance

Paul Nicolazzo
Article Date:  May 12, 2013


Every trip, every program, and every activity carries a level of actual risk inherent to its design…and some designs carry more risk than others (e.g.: a flat water float trip versus a Class IV whitewater trip; a day hike versus a day of top-roped climbing; etc.). Effective risk management and accident prevention strategies focus on balancing the actual risk present in the program or activity with the competency of the trip’s leaders. Get the balance right and the result is a safe program. Get it wrong and someone is likely to become injured or die. A program design with little or no actual risk is not necessarily safer than a program with a correspondingly higher level of risk if the risk is well managed. Indeed, all things being equal, a program that accepts and manages a higher level of risk successfully may provide a higher quality experience. Outdoor education and recreation programs while they may contain well-managed high risk activities do not and should not expose their clients to high levels of unmanageable actual risk that may result in permanent disability or death. Understanding the complex variety of skills that makeup an effective trip leader permits a program’s administration to set minimum standards for hiring field staff; designing, managing and evaluating an effective staff development program; and balancing their program design with the competency of their staff.

Instructor Skills

Regardless of the specific program (Outward Bound, NOLS, WEA, wilderness therapy, river guide, mountain guide, etc.) a trip leader’s ability to manage the actual risks associated with wilderness travel will determine the safety of their trip. Since a basic mastery of at least a some outdoor skills is central to the safety of their students or clients, trip leaders must be firmly grounded in the educational methodology and outdoor skills relevant to their environment. In addition they must be able to strongly relate in a meaningful way to their students. This require a deep understanding of how to design and manage activities in a wilderness environment.

Instructor skills can be organized into three basic skill sets: outdoor skills, educational skills, and human skills. Each set can be further subdivided as follows:

Outdoor Skills

  • activity specific technical skills (climbing, paddling, hiking, etc.)
  • care and repair of activity specific equipment
  • activity specific rescue skills
  • medical skills
  • activity specific site management skills: stationary, moving, and transitions

“Outdoor Skills” are activity specific. While it’s obvious why instructors need master the related technical skills the other skills on the list may require a bit more explanation.

Medical and rescue skills are included this heading because trip leaders proficient in both:

  1. understand and recognize potential hazards faster…
  2. understand the consequences of structural and site management errors…
  3. design and manage safer activities…
  4. will be more likely to act quickly and correctly to prevent injury or death if something goes wrong…
  5. learn site management skills faster…

…than those that are not.

Care and repair of equipment also come under this heading because both are directly related to equipment performance and therefore to student safety. Mastery of these four basic skills — technical, equipment, rescue & medical — are a prerequisite to learning effective site management. (See Part II in this series: Site Management — the Missing Link for details).

Educational Skills

  • requires mastery of activity specific technical skills as a prerequisite
  • ability to consciously structure a learning experience with a seamless progression through all three the following phases: framing, activity, and closure (See Part III in this series: Structuring Learning Experiences for details)
  • the ability to consciously design & manage activities that reach a single skill outcome
  • the ability to consciously design & manage activities that reach multiple skill outcomes
  • the ability to consciously design & manage seamless progressions

Student/client safety is directly related to the students’ ability to master the basic outdoor skills required their safety. A trip leader must possess enough “Educational Skills” to ensure effective learning. Basic activity specific technical, rescue, and medical skills should be taught to students because:

  1. they help students gain an accurate understanding of both hazards and consequences
  2. they create a need for developing the technical skills required to assess and manage their risk safely
  3. many of the best educational initiatives involve a combination of all three skills

Human Skills

  • the ability to communicate a way-of-being consistent with their belief system and the school’s philosophy/core values.
  • the ability to make a real connection with others
  • the ability to recognize inconsistencies in another person’s way-of-being
  • the ability to develop a conscious awareness of these inconsistencies in others through the design management of specific activities. This may include population specific facilitation and/or counseling skills.

At the most basic level “Human Skills” are the skills required to connect with, teach, and manage other people in a wilderness environment. Outdoor adventure education commonly uses wilderness-based activities platform for students to examine their beliefs and values (character education) and to develop communication skills, trust, self-reliance, decision-making skills, leadership skills, judgment, and a host of other personal and group related skills. Depending on the core values of the parent organization additional “Human Skills” may required.


The relationship of these skill sets are illustrated in Figure 1. It is possible for an instructor to have all the prerequisite skills necessary for effective field leadership and management but not understand how to integrate (hence be capable of integrating) them within their course. It is the consistent use of the Outcome Model that links the sets together into a cohesive whole permitting integration. Part (See IV in this series: The Outcome Model — a Practical Decision Making Algorithm for Field Instructors for details)

As the individual skill sets of outdoor skills, human skills, and educational skills become more conscious and consistently integrated throughout the course, the more effective a trip leader becomes. It’s easy to see that the level of expertise within each skill set will impact a trip leader’s decisions. If the instructor is “weak” in any required skill set the quality and safety of their course is compromised. Because program design, hiring a promotion standards, and staff training and development lie outside the instructor’s sphere of influence, it is shared responsibility of the instructor and the management to ensure that each instructor is able to anticipate address the possible problems they are likely to encounter during their course.

While a high level of educational skills may not be required for many (or even most) recreational guide positions, trip leaders do require both educational and mentoring capabilities in order to effectively develop guides in their care.

Figure 1






Levels of Skill Mastery and Integration

Size of red, blue, or green circles indicates the level of skill mastery. The larger the circle the greater the mastery. The solid black circle indicates the level integration. During their careers instructors progress from low levels of skill and integration to consistently higher levels as indicated by the black arrows.



Figure 1





Instructor Competency

Regardless of what skill is being taught, hiring, evaluation, and promotional standards along with staff training and development programs primarily concern themselves with making distinctions between five areas competency (Figure 2):

Figure 2

  1. subconscious competence
  2. conscious competence
  3. intuitive or unconscious competence
  4. conscious incompetence
  5. unconscious incompetence




Figure 2








An effective staff development system progressively leads instructors or guides to conscious competence within a specific level or tier. Each tier represents a higher level of responsibility and competency, e.g.: assistant instructor, instructor, field supervisor, trainer, lead trainer, etc. (Figure 3)

Figure 3

Figure 3

Consciously competent staff make good decisions at the level they are consciously competent. Their judgment and logic is sound and they are able to articulate their reasoning. With additional training they will make good mentors and trainers. They will break rules appropriately.

Subconscious competence is a higher level of conscious competence and can only develop through conscious practice and evaluation. Subconsciously competent staff have developed their judgment skills at that level so they no longer have to think in order to make sound decisions yet they are capable of clearly explaining their decisions when necessary. Subconscious consciousness on one tier leads to intuitive consciousness at the next level.

Some instructors will be intuitively or unconsciously competent. These instructors will possess the skill to make sound judgments but not the ability to articulate the reasons for their decisions at that level. At this stage in their development they make poor mentors at that level. Intuitively competent staff are usually able to break rules appropriately and are subject to being heavily influenced by others because of their inability to articulate their reasoning. They will benefit highly from models that outline the process they intuitively use. They also benefit from rules that, if self-evident, reinforce their intuition.

Still other instructors grossly overestimate their abilities and/or are not aware they need a particular skill make a sound decision; these staff are unconsciously incompetent. They are extremely difficult to develop because they believe they are already effective and don’t need additional training. Many are actively resistant to even suggestion of further training. Many have been “miss-educated” by the parent organization via inaccurate feedback. Some are older staff who at an earlier time in their careers were competent but changing cultural norms, technology, and/or deteriorating skills have left them incompetent. Unconsciously incompetent staff will randomly break rules; usually inappropriately. They may be an accident waiting to happen.

Instructors who know they do not possess the skill to be competent in a given area may be described consciously incompetent. They are usually safe but may be educationally ineffective because of their lack of skill. Consciously incompetent staff usually ask for help and further training, seek mentorship, and actively engage in expeditions etc. in a effort to gain further competence. During their development, as their awareness increases, they will make mistakes. These staff should be actively supervised and mentored. They tend to follow rules but not fully understand them; and, as such, they are unable to consciously break them appropriately.

Depending on the individual instructor’s ability and that of their trainers’ the specific route to conscious competence at each tier varies; however, a few generic developmental patterns do exist:

  • Intuitively competent staff tend to move quickly to conscious competence after exposure to and practice with models that outline the process they intuitively use. Because intuitively competent staff generally demonstrate sound judgment, they are often promoted quickly—sometimes too quickly. Because they are unable articulate their decision-making process, they are unable to adequately mentor the junior staff in their care until they become consciously competent. If promoted to a position that requires conscious competence and mentoring they will eventually become frustrated, as will the people under their direct care. At this point the system broken down and there are staff whose skills may incorrectly assessed and/or miss-educated.
  • Consciously incompetent staff require self-evident rules, mentoring, and additional training to progress. The speed of their development depends on their motivation and ability.
  • Unconsciously incompetent staff must first become aware of their lack of skills in a specific area before they can advance towards conscious competence. Unfortunately, for many it takes a significant wake-up call (near miss, serious injury, or death of a student or co-worker). And yet, once aware, they may not be willing to engage the training necessary to become consciously competent.

In order to develop sound judgment it is extremely important that in addition to having a successful overall experience, staff must be challenged to the point of failure numerous times during each training—mistakes or failure provide a frame of reference for accurate self-assessment, evaluation, and further training.

Instructor Competency and Program Design

The competency of instructors or guides must be balanced with the program design in order for a trip to considered safe by the program’s administration. The course macrostructure should reflect the developmental levels of the instructors delivering the course (Figure 4). As the level of instructor competency decreases the macrostructure of the course will need to be adjusted accordingly by reducing the difficulty — and the inherent risk — of the course area, specific sites, and activities. Alternately, more difficult activities and sites may be managed by specialist staff leaving less technical activities (the majority of the course) to the course instructors. The reverse is also true: as the level of instructor competency increases, the course design will also need to be adjusted (or the instructor promoted) to maintain the instructor’s creative tension. Many programs lose their senior staff because promotion or program development does not keep pace with the developing competency of their staff. Maintaining the instructor/program design balance over time should maintain or increase program quality.

Figure 4

Figure 4

While establishing a good balance should ensure no significant site management errors and significantly reduce accidents and near misses, it does not eliminate the them. Accidents and near misses sometimes happen not because there has been a site management error (instructor/guide error in judgment) but because not all hazard situations are predictable and/or manageable. Actual risk cannot be completely eliminated from outdoor endeavors. All things being equal, new programs carry more actual risk than established programs simply because they are new and the risks less predictable.

From a different perspective “high risk” activities are “high risk” because they cannot be safely managed or because safe management is more difficult, harder to train, and hence potentially more risky. Since safety increases proportionally with the mastery of activity related outdoor skills, high risk activities require a higher level of staff competency and a higher level of student/client outdoor skills to remain within acceptable safety limits. With few exceptions, outdoor education and recreation programs, while they may contain well-managed high risk activities, are not and should not be designed to be high risk. In the safest programs, actual risk is both predictable and manageable. Still, unpredictable events do occur and when they do, most result in accidents or near misses.

We try (and should continue to try) to eliminate incidents due to site management error. We try (and should continue to try) to develop new management strategies and teaching progressions that reduce actual risk to a manageable and acceptable level. We try (and should continue to try) to learn from our mistakes. However, I believe that we cannot and should not try to eliminate all risk from our programs through program design. Risk is a necessary element in developing character. Without risk there is no need to develop the skills necessary to manage it. It is the skill acquisition process and the process of striving to manage risk effectively that leads to experiences from which character emerges. Instead of reducing outdoor trips to boredom by removing all programmatic risk, we should try to eliminate incidents by developing the outdoor, human, and educational skills necessary to manage the actual risk safely. The trick is to design an effective skills progression that leads to mastery and and acceptable level of safety within the site and time constraints of the program. This is easier in outdoor recreation because trained guides lead each portion of the trip. In outdoor education instructors strive to teach their students how to lead themselves; this is inherently more difficult and carries more risk. Outdoor educators must have a high level of outdoor, educational, and human skills in order to teach the outdoor skills required for their student’s safety. As such, a staff development system requires a high level of commitment and organizational support in order to be implemented successfully. An effective system will influence components of hiring, course design (both macro and micro), and general program management, etc. In many organizations designing effective staff development system will require significant structural changes.

Rules and Policies

In most organizations the majority of trip leaders are consciously or intuitively competent, their assistants a intuitively competent or consciously incompetent, and their supervisors consciously or unconsciously competent. Realistic rules (SOPs, LOPs, etc.) act as guidelines and help maintain course safety for field staff struggling toward conscious competence; they also act to reinforce the mentoring process. In order for rules to be effective they should be both self- evident (not artificial), consistent with industry standards, in alignment with school principles, and limited in number.

Since policies are contextual and cannot anticipate or accurately address all situations an instructor will encounter, rules must be made with the institutional understanding that they will be broken…appropriately by competent instructors and inappropriately by incompetent by instructors. Rules that are less self-evident will be broken more consistently. Consistent rule breaking develops a culture of rule breaking that is professionally and institutionally destructive. Repetitive rule breaking leads to an increase in accidents and near misses and fosters an increasing lack of trust between program administration and field staff.


In order for a program to have and maintain an acceptable level of risk, the competence of its instructors must be balanced with the actual risk inherent in the program design. Hiring, evaluation, and promotional standards together with on-going instructor training and development must be set in accordance with the skills required to safely manage the risk inherent in the program’s design. This is a fluid process. In order to maintain an acceptable level of risk within their programs, managers must have an accurate assessment of both their staff and the actual risk inherent in their program(s) at all times. Understanding the skill sets required for safe trip leaders and how they are integrated, understanding how instructors develop competency in these same skills, and understanding how instructors react and apply rules depending on which “area” of competency their skill set falls into (Figure 3), will help program administrators manage their risk more effectively.

*This is the first part of a five part risk management series by Paul Nicolazzo

  1. Instructor Skills & Competency verses Program Design — A Delicate Balance
  2. Site Management — the Missing Link
  3. Structuring a Learning Experience
  4. The Outcome Model — a Practical Decision Making Algorithm for Field Instructors
  5. The Components of an Effective Instructor Development Program

Paul Nicolazzo is the director of the Wilderness Medicine Training Center with twenty plus years as a successful outdoor adventure program designer and staff trainer. In addition to wilderness medicine he specializes it teaching Site Management® theory and practices. For information visit the WMTC web site at www.WildMedCenter.com


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