How a Tech-Free Program Helps Students Succeed in a Tech-Filled World

John Dockendorf09 Jul, 2020
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teenage boys and girls sitting on a rock face in front of a mountain view Each year, we feel that the benefits of the Adventure Treks experience become more important. The reason is simple: technology. (It’s more heartbreakingly true this year, when students have been glued to their screens for online hangouts and schooling.) This might not make sense initially. How does attending a camp devoid of technology help a child succeed in a world defined by it?

Technology is changing our economy, our social norms, our relationships, and everything it touches. Without judging these changes, we simply note that as the world changes, people need (or soon will need) a different set of skills in order to thrive than they did previously. About 10–15 years ago, many of the best companies in the United States (like Apple, Google, Dell, Cisco, Microsoft, Ford, and Marriott) concluded that recent college graduates were coming to them without the skills necessary for success in their workforce. As a result, they created the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (p21.org).

teenage boys and girls standing in a group in a river

After conducting three studies of more than 2,000 organizations of different sizes, the Partnership created a list of skills critical for success in the 21st century. Technological skills were on the list, but never made the top 10, because they found new employees were typically sufficient in this area. Nor did they focus on things such as reading, writing, and math. Instead, the list focused on the “4 C’s”: communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking.
teenage boys and girls holding a banner with backpacks on

Here are the top 5 from the list:

  1. Oral communication
  2. Collaboration
  3. Work ethic/self-discipline
  4. Written communication
  5. Critical thinking/problem-solving

We see this list as a love letter to Adventure Treks. Admittedly, we don’t improve written communication skills (they maintain a group journal, but grammar is… not a priority). As far as the other four, every moment at AT is a moment to practice oral communication and collaboration. We develop self-discipline through the daily ritual of living outdoors (and the natural consequences one receives if things are not correctly—i.e., a poorly set up tent in a rainstorm).
teenage boys and girls wearing life jackets standing in front of a waterfall

Most schools encourage problem-solving, but the “problems” are often narrowly defined and academic, such as math equations. The Partnership is focused on teaching youth to think critically and solve unexpected challenges. In the outdoors, we constantly deal with the unexpected and undefined. We help our students analyze situations in a constantly changing environment as they learn the thinking process behind our instructors’ decisions.

Take another look at the list. Oral communication and collaboration are interpersonal skills. Children develop these skills in the way they develop athletic or academic skills—through practice. And practice comes from face-to-face interaction with others, not on Instagram or SnapChat or via text. AT is a 24/7 immersion in an environment that supercharges the development of these social skills. Because this immersive experience is very different from life at home, the social learning sticks better here than it would in a familiar environment.

teenage boys and girls hiking with backpacks in the mountains

As the Partnership convincingly argues, interpersonal skills are the key to success in the modern workplace, so at a time when our children should be strengthening their oral communication, collaboration, and leadership skills they are instead turning to their iPads, iPhones, and social media.

When they return home, our students will return to using technology again, but we see three important differences in our Adventure Treks students compared to other youth. First, they tend to use their phones less. They have experienced life separated from the proverbial electronic umbilical cord, and they like it. Second, they know they can be spectacular without these devices. Finally, they are more effective communicators, better friends, and more skilled leaders than their peers.

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