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Structuring a Learning Experience

Paul Nicolazzo
Article Date:  May 12, 2013


The mission of many outdoor programs (Outward Bound, wilderness therapy, etc.) is character education. Strategies central to all character education within the United States are wilderness travel and adventure. Instructors and guides are charged with the delivery of two primary course outcomes: quality and safety. The ability of the course instructors to teach to character education will determine the quality and power of their course. Their ability to manage the actual risks associated with wilderness travel will determine the safety of their course. Sound judgment is required for both; therefore, all effective instructors must be firmly grounded in educational methodology and outdoor skills. In addition, they must be able to strongly relate in a meaningful way to their students. This requires a deep understanding of how to design and manage activities in a wilderness environment.

Learning through Experience

On the most basic level human beings learn through experience. We attach meaning to each event in our lives according to our current needs and belief system. Our experiences are the sum total of our memory of the event and the meaning we have attached to it. In some cases our interpretation is so strong that the story about the event becomes more real than what actually happened. It is our stories, and the meaning we attach to them, that shape character and our lives; the precipitating event was simply the catalyst. What we learn from each experience determined by our belief system and needs at the time of the event as much as by the event itself. This helps explain why two different people can participate in the same event and have completely different experiences.

If the experience is sufficiently strong, it may call our current values and beliefs into question. In order to resolve the ensuing tension, we have four options: learn to be comfortable with our inconsistencies, change how we view the conflict through a paradigm shift (i.e.: change the story or meaning we created about the event), change our belief system, or change our actions to become consistent with our beliefs. Change requires process time. Process time is more effective when it closely follows the new and challenging experience. Minor adaptations to our belief system occur with minimal effort and happen rather quickly. Experiences that challenge close held core values usually require more effort and time to process and often disrupt our state of being during process period. If strong enough, this disruption manifests itself as actions that fall outside our normal behavior patterns.

The above concept illustrates why the Action/Reflection Model commonly used in outdoor adventure education is often—but not always—an effective strategy for values clarification and change. Debrief circles, mini solos, solo, etc. serve as examples of structured “reflection or process” strategies. It is EXTREMELY important for instructors to remember that reflection must be preceded by a valuable experience, and as John Dewey states “not all experiences are equally valuable.” It does no good to “force” students to process an experience that is not tangible or important at a deeply personal level; nor is it possible to stop students from processing a experience that is. Instructors can facilitate metaphoric learning by scheduling process time after significant experiences. The “trick” lies in recognizing these experiences at the time they occur, having the power and flexibility to adapt the course itinerary, and having the human skills to successfully intervene/assist if the situation reaches crisis proportions. Depending on the student population, the individual student, and the nature of the crisis, instructors may need advanced training in counseling to be successful, hence, the use of trained mental health workers in wilderness therapeutic programs. Fortunately for most outdoor educators and guides all that is required to a clients with processing their experience is good observation skills, the ability to schedule “down” time immediately following a “valuable experience”, and an attentive ear.

In addition to a minimum level of fitness and health, safe travel in a wilderness environment and/or participating in an adventure activity require a minimum level of outdoor and human skills on the part of the participants. The level of each varies depending on the specific activity and environment. The progressive development of skills required for safety during the trip also provides the framework for value forming experiences. The words “design” and “structure” imply conscious intent by the trip leader and the parent organization to create the conditions for metaphoric learning to take place. In outdoor education, instructors design and manage a progression of outdoor activities that enable their students to master the skills they need in order to be at safe and at the same time provide an opportunity for them to consciously examine their values and beliefs in light of their actions as they learn those same skills. Metaphoric learning occurs—if indeed it is going to occur—as students strive to master the outdoor and human skills required to succeed in the trip environment. It is during moments of stress that their character emerges and they find themselves face to face with the question: “Do my actions reflect who I think I and/or who I think I can be?”

In order for outdoor education—and character education—to be effective, the risk MUST be REAL, manageable, and the experience uncontrived. This helps explain the relationship between character education and student mastery of specific outdoor and human skills to course quality and safety. While outdoor recreation does not neces­sarily intend to create an environment that challenges its clients’ values, similar conditions are present and metaphoric learning often takes place.

Structured Learning Experiences

As mentioned above, the word “structure” implies intent. A course may be viewed as a series of activities, activity blocks, or as a single experience. Each is correct; and, ideally each is structured with intent. In outdoor education the instructor’s role is to set the stage for character development by designing and managing a seam progression of nested activities and activity blocks that blend into a single experience. In order to accomplish this, an instructor must carefully design and manage each activity, block, and block progression (Figures 2-4). Once begun, they must allow every activity to unfold naturally; and they MUST take notes. The design or structure each activity is based upon what happened during the previous one. Instructors must also pay close attention to transition. Successful activities and progressions create the space for metaphoric learning and character development. Structured learning experiences are generic in design and are often nested within one another yielding macro and microstructures. Every structured learning experience has three basic components: framing, activity, and closure (Figure 1) and each component has multiple parts each related to the purpose of each component. Regardless of their nesting, effectively designing and managing each experience or activity will require close attention to every component. The desired outcomes of every activity, block, and course must be in alignment with the school’s mission, vision, & core strategies. It is critical to frame and close each experience separately. To remain in alignment with each other, staff MUST check-in before each framing & closure.

The components of a structured learning experience together with each of their individual parts are outlined below:

Figure 1


The purpose of the framing is to focus the students’ attention on the desired outcomes and set the appropriate tone necessary for success. Safety is the first priority and each framing should outline all the safety concerns and clearly set all the rules & boundaries (time limits, student & staff order/positioning, etc.) required for both the safety and success and of the activity. Staff need to be clear and directive as they explain all aspects of the risk/site management plan. Each activity should be framed in a manner that can be understood from the students’ frame of reference. The instructor MUST clearly demonstrate all new technical skills and appropriate site-related student movement before start an exercise at a stationary site.


Activities should be the primary teaching component of every learning experience. In length, the activity portion of the experience should be substantially longer than the framing and closure. Instructors in pursuit of character education who wish their students to examine a specific human skill or value (communication, group decision-making, trust, compassion, etc.) must design and facilitate an activity within their existing outdoor skills progression that requires a natural or intrinsic need for the value they wish their students to examine. In order for the activity to reach its desired outcomes, success in the task must require the participants to use the skills or values being examined. The most effective form or shape of this type of activity is usually a personal or group  initiative. Staff should use the basic outdoor education strategies to assist in the design process (See Appendix A). In order to prepare an effective closure, staff MUST take notes about “what happened” during the activity and should consider purchasing and using a weather resistant notebook. Staff should intervene only when necessary to ensure the student’s safety and the success of the activity.

Figure 2Closure

The closure should reinforce the learning (real outcomes) from the activity and link new learning to the immediate future. If the learning is critical to the success of the course, instructors should consider a follow-up activity that makes a plan for future use and/or change. Staff MUST refer to their notes taken during the activity, base their closure on “what happened,” and link it directly to the activity’s framing. Staff should consider scheduling time for reflection in order to process the learning from the activity ONLY if a student or the group’s values, beliefs, or learning strategies have been severely challenged. Effective closures are usually short and often consist of a simple statement question, or quote. Formal discussions or “debrief” circles should be considered sepa­rate activities and used sparingly in order to maintain their effectiveness. Instructors should talk privately with students whose values, beliefs, or learning strategies have been severely challenged.

Understanding the Process

Like Fritjof Capra’s living systems, structured learning experiences are “energeti­cally open and structurally closed.” Any given experience or activity is structurally closed because it can be seen as an individual entity, a single trick from a bag of tricks, and its structure can be broken down into parts (framing, activity, & closure) and ana­lyzed. Yet the same activity is also energetically open because it has an impact on the students that is more than the sum of its parts. Implicit in the accepted educational practice of progression is the acknowledged relationship between individual activities and thestudents engaged in them. Successful activities and progressions are the strat­egies that create the space for the course outcomes to emerge. They are the magic of outdoor adventure education and are frequently seen in outdoor recreation given the correct conditions. It is the activities and their relationship to one another and to the individual student that give them their power and meaning. The meaning that each student creates during the activity comes from their personal feedbackloop and sets the stage for change. It is not what happens but how each student interprets what happens that is valuable; and, the single biggest factor in how a student interprets their experience is the character, shape, or structure of their experience.

In designing an activity it is important to remember that the present is uniquely created from both the past and the future. Everything is contextual; there are no isolated parts. All activities should be viewed as nested relationships within the course macro structure. Each activity, rather than being isolated from the events surrounding it, is embedded within an activity progression which, in turn, is nested within an activity block which, also in turn, is further nested within a block progression. Instructors cannot separate individual activities from their unique relationship within a progression, examine their function separately and understand how that activity will affect their students without first examining the needs of their students, the site, their resources, the amount of risk etc. The transition (line) between the framing and activity, the activity and closure, and between the next framing and closure should appear seamless to the student while to the instructional the lines are clearly visible (Figure 2). Note that the framing for the next activity closely follows the closure of the previous one. Often they are separate statements or paragraphs spoken during the same “talk,” meeting, or circle.

Designing the course macrostructure can only take place after the core outcomes and structuring strategies have been identified and the components of a structured learning experience understood. A traditional multi-element course macrostructure usually consists of specific activity blocks (river, mountain, solo, finals, etc.) nested within the course progression.

The macrostructure of most courses is usually designed by the program director and managed by a field supervisor (sometimes called a chief instructor or course director). Each activity block has its own set of desired outcomes designed to move students toward the core outcomes. Both the block outcomes and activities should be alive, progressive, and based on the current needs of the students. Each has its own framing and closure. And contains assessment exercises at its beginning and end. Nested within each activity block are the activities themselves. This is the microstructure of the course and the realm of the course instructors (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Instructors create the microstructure of their course on a day-by-day, activity-by-activity basis. An accurate field assessment is critical to the successful design and management of each activity. The conscious use of the outcome model provides a continual feedback loop that allows the course outcomes to emerge. Each activity should be framed and closed (See Part IV of this series: The Outcome Model — a Practical Decision Making Algorithm for Field Instructors). Each should incorporate as many of the basic educational components as possible. Each should flow seamlessly into the following activity and lead the students step-by-step towards the block and course outcomes

The field supervisor facilitates the staffs’ experience by conceptually structuring, framing, and closing the course for both staff and students. The staffs’ experience is nested within their supervisor’s structure. The field supervisor is responsible for coordinating the macrostructure of the course, choosing instructor pairings that promote synergy within the instructor team, facilitating the development of the course micro structure during pre-course planning, anticipating and addressing problems before they damage the course mission.

The program director facilitates the field supervisor’s experience by structuring the macro-environment of the course, ensuring the instructional staff have the required training to be effective, coordinating the macrostructure the program to support the field supervisor’s role, etc.


In outdoor education, instructors strive to create and facilitate a course that expresses the mission of the school and encourages a conscious inquiry into the values and beliefs that each student brings to their course. If effective, much of the students’ metaphoric learning will transfer and become integrated into their lives after the course. In order to intentionally design wilderness programs and activities that open the door to character education, trip leaders and their parent organizations must understand the structuring concepts and processes underlying successful programs. Designing and facilitating safe and inspiring programs is not accidental but a product of training a supervised practice. Combined with strong outdoor skills, including site management, and a supportive administration, the structuring skills discussed here help provide a powerful platform for success.

*This is the third 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

Appendix A: Basic Outdoor Education Strategies

Safety first.

Prioritize safety over educational outcomes at all times.

Establish need.

Unsatisfied needs motivate learning and change. Design your activities to be immediate and practical from the students’ perspective; your timing is critical. Well-designed activities will define your progression as the need for the next skill or set becomes self-evident during the previous activity.

Teach concepts inherent in specific skills and sets.

Practice concepts; they are metaphorically transferred easily. Either be directive with the framing, or introduce concepts through lecture and demonstration; then follow with a practice exercise or initiative that focuses reinforces their use.

Maintain a challenging learning environment.

Balance the perceived and actual risk with your students’ mastery of the required human and outdoor skills. Keep your students engaged. If they become overwhelmed, consider balancing it with reflection or down time

Structure for success. Use progressions!!!

Balance experiential and directive methods. Become more directive to relieve student frustration; become less directive to increase creative dissonance or need. Using a directive style may also decrease both the perceived and actual risk associated with an activity. Allow time for both supervised and unsupervised practice. Correct, assist, and close as necessary. Build on previous skills. Make sure to observe the outcomes of an activity and reassess before designing the next activity.

Protect students from social and emotional injury in addition to physical.

This requires a safe, supportive, and positive group environment. You can facilitate the development of this environment by 1) setting rules based in logical consequences and maintaining consistency in their enforcement and 2) structuring exercises that develop trust, respect, and positive communication within your outdoor skills progression. Consider facilitating an exercise where you and your students set the rules and norms for your community together. Keep in mind that YOU are ultimately responsible for structuring your student’s experience, not your students. Pay attention and guide their developing culture. Motivational and behavioral incidents increase when staff are out-of-touch with the group culture.

Choose an appropriate process style and structure time for it.

Well-designed activities will require additional process time if they challenge the students’ core values or beliefs. Take advantage of the natural experiential learning process by following intense experiences with formal informal process time. Choose from three basic process styles: personal, peer, or leader. Personal processing occurs when students go off by themselves to think, write, or be. While it is important to schedule time for personal processing, be aware of how each student is interpreting their experience. Check in privately with upset students who seek alone time, especially repetitive alone time. Solos, mini-solos, and journal writing are formal types of personal processing. Use them for simple reflection, to prepare for transitions, and/or to reduce intergroup tension. Peer processing is the most common method used by students to process their experiences during a course. Dinner evening, and “trail” conversations are a type of informal peer processing while exercises that incorporate dyads triads are formal. When you talk with a student privately, informally chat with a group, or facilitate a group problem solving session you are engaging in leader processing. To remain effective, limit your formal leader processing to problem solving and transitions; debrief circles loose their effectiveness when overused. Regardless of the style you use, informal processing should make up the overwhelming majority of the processing time in your course a you MUST structure time for it.


Both you and your students have chosen to be part of the course and MUST assume responsibility for that choice before entering the field. You have agreed to instruct the course in alignment with the school’s principles & strategies and are responsible for the safety and education of the students under your care. Your students must accept the challenge of the proposed experience and their choices. In order to make good choices, they will nee be aware of the consequences (what is at stake) from their frame of reference. Get a verbal commitment to the course before entering the field. Consider creating a symbol that represents their commitment. Students must demonstrate their mastery of the human and outdoor skills required for an activity to be safe before you consider using a “finals” management strategy.

Empower your Students

Empower your students by providing exercises that allow them to choose and manage their own risk with minim or no instructor intervention. The skills necessary for their success must have been progressively developed & assessed prior to the exercise. This is the cumulative goal of a student led expedition or “finals.”

*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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