Using the Disruption of Adventure Treks to Enhance Learning

John Dockendorf19 Feb, 2015
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Backpacking in Olympic National Park
Backpacking in Olympic National Park

Recent advances in brain science support the concept that “disruption” can make the brain more receptive to learning. What do we mean? We all go through life in some sense of routine in which our brain operates on a type of “autopilot.” When we have a dramatic break from our routine (or a cognitive dissonance), it causes our brain to “wake up” and activate at a higher level until the brain has rationalized the external stimuli and returned to a stasis. It is these times of increased activation when the brain is more receptive to learning, entering a state that can be described as “almost sponge-like.” These are the instances when we have opportunities to really make learning “stick.” We all can probably remember times in life when an unexpected event occurred, and as a result, we gained an insight, made an observation, or learned something that has stayed with us forever. For example, we remember our first day of college but not our 43rd.

Let’s face it: Adventure Treks is a disruptive experience. While it’s a fun and healthy disruption, it is still a giant step out of one’s comfort zone. But the reward for willingly leaving comfort behind is a powerful learning and growing experience. Let’s look at some of the disruptions inherent in the AT experience.

  • Leaving home and its associated comfort for three weeks.
  • Spending three weeks with new people from all over the world and being away from the comfort and familiarity of friends from home.
  • Substituting parents with larger-than-life instructors who are different role models and “authority figures.”
  • Removing social media, smart phones, and computers, and replacing digital media with nonstop face-to-face communication.
  • Replacing the comforts of home with the “rigors” and excitement of living and cooking outdoors, as well as sleeping in tents instead of beds.
  • Replacing the familiarity of a neighborhood with a beautiful and dramatic outdoor environment where the scenery constantly changes.
  • Constantly trying new activities in new and different places.
  • Living in a large community of folks with emphasis on a culture of kindness and contribution, which may be inherently different than school.
  • The power of nature, which research shows improves nerve receptors and make’s one more receptive to stimulus.

Adventure Treks creates a constantly changing environment that stimulates an adolescent brain. Students have the opportunity to absorb life lessons, or “change one’s narrative.” We all have a series of stories (this “narrative”) running through our heads that affects the way we look at the world; some narratives are healthy and productive, while others are limiting. (Ex: “I am just not naturally athletic,” or “I’m not great at making friends.”)

Research by Carol Dweck of Stanford (growth vs. fixed mindset) shows the powerful effect one’s mindset can have in determining future success. Knowing we have an incredible and unique learning environment at Adventure Treks, it becomes our inherent responsibility to use these moments of disruption and our students’ resulting receptivity to subtly help students craft narratives that will help them lead more successful lives. Here are some of the narratives we hope our students will realize.

The summit of Black Butte - Mt Shasta, CA
The summit of Black Butte – Mt Shasta, CA
  • I am capable of more than I ever thought possible.
  • When the going gets tough, I can dig deep, work harder, and I will eventually succeed.
  • Together as a group, we can accomplish more than I ever could individually.
  • It feels really good when I help others, do more than my share, and even anticipate what needs to be done to help the community succeed.
  • Success is the result of contribution and hard work.
  • I can be a leader.
  • More comfort does not necessarily mean more happiness.
  • I don’t have to have electronics or social media to have fun. In fact, I can thrive without them.
  • I have had glimpses of “my best self.” I like what I see, and I will try to bring that person back home with me.
  • People like me for who I am, not for a specific role I may play at home or school.
  • I can become great friends with people who are very different from me and that I may not naturally be friends with at school or home.

Most of our students already possess some of these narratives when they arrive at Adventure Treks, but reinforcement can be a powerful ally. Our goal this summer is for our staff to tune into these natural opportunities for learning and growth, and use these times of natural disruption to frame life lessons that will remain with our students long after the Adventure Treks summer experience ends.

Bottom line: We know disruption can be stressful, but it is also the source of powerful growth.  We put a strong focus on making the experience as fun as possible while capitalizing on the growth opportunities. We work hard to help students feel a sense of belonging or connection to the group  and make sure our students know that their instructors and directors care about them. We know students are more receptive to learning when they are having fun and feel connected and valued.

— John Dockendorf and Steve Baskin

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