This post more or less sums up my goals for The Land. I can be a long-winded fellow, but I'm apologetic. So if you just want the bullet points of this project, go here. It's still lengthy, but far less rambly and far more skimmable.
I'm Tyler Storm and I love questions.
I love asking 'em, I love answering 'em. This may be one of the reasons that I love my work. I'm an experiential educator, and in my field, we do a great deal of questioning:
"What challenges did you face today?"
"What does it mean to be a leader?"
"Why am I the only one paddling?"
Much like the canoe referenced above, these questions often go nowhere (I'll have to back-pocket that metaphor for future use). But when they hit their mark, the results can be impressive. I have seen sworn enemies become good friends. Withdrawn participants find their voice and lead a group of their peers. "I can't" turns into "Can I go again?".
So what is Experiential Ed., exactly? Here's how The Association for Experiential Education (AEE) defines it:
Challenge and Experience followed by Reflection leading to Learning and Growth.
Experiential education is a philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people's capacity to contribute to their communities.
Another way to look at it is through Kolb's Learning Cycle:
Although the second step of the cycle includes the word "reflective", the three steps after experience can essentially be grouped as reflective steps (with the active experimentation step resulting in further experience). These are often summarized with three questions: What? So What? Now What? The participants are asked to describe what happened, why it is significant, and how they can apply it to other aspects of their lives. Experiential education is driven largely by the idea that, for experiences to have lasting results, the individual must reflect upon the experience and consider how it may fit into the bigger picture.
There are myriad benefits that can come from creating experiences in this way, but for the sake of not making this post any longer than it already is, I want to highlight some that I find particularly noteworthy.
Think about experiences that you have had over the last month: Festivals, Movies, Social Gatherings. Are there any aspects of them that you have used in life AFTER the particular experience? Transference is the act of taking a lesson from one experience and applying it more generally to life. This can include, but is not limited to skills, ideas, and mindsets. A newly learned knot can be used in day to day life. Communication during team building can be used to better communicate with coworkers and family. While the emotions felt DURING an experience are important, transference gives the experience meaning even after it is over.
- Teaching Reflection as a Skill
Learning reflection as a life-long skill is an example of transference, but one I feel is deserving of its own bullet point. Reflection helps to clarify the significance of an experience, and give it context going forward. We rarely take the time to stop and consider what an experience meant to us. Having facilitators who are formally trained to lead processing can help individuals find meaning in an event. Reflection can help us clarify, revise, and create new beliefs and mindsets. In the case of transference, it also helps us bring aspects of an event into the bigger picture. Reflection can lead to these outcomes, but can be beneficial on its own, in that it can lead to a contemplative mindset and self guided processing in the future. While facilitators often start with a Question and Answer approach with participants who may not have developed these skills, ideally participants will learn how to process an experience on their own.
Great, so I've given you a crash course on experiential ed. So what now? Well, as I mentioned, I like questions, and I have some big ones that I want to find answers to:
How can we bring the benefits of experiential education to a broader audience?
When it comes to experiences that foster personal development through reflection, I believe that there are two major limitations in terms of access.
The first is that the majority of the programs designed for this purpose are only available to established groups. Many outdoor education programs are marketed directly to schools, often with the goals of decreasing bullying, improving problem solving, or generally creating a better school climate. Corporate team building is facilitated with a group of coworkers for the purpose of improving communication and collaboration. Similarly, ropes courses are typically reserved for youth groups, student councils, and other smaller organized groups. There is little in the way of programming for a single individual who seek the benefits of experiential education.
The second problem is that, when these opportunities ARE available for individuals, they can be quite expensive. Personal improvement seminars and retreats can cost thousands of dollars. Wilderness expeditions can often be weeks long, which ends up being both expensive in program cost and time lost working. While the value of the programs may be fully worth the cost, many people may simply not have the funds or time to attend.
I am by no means denouncing any of the types of organizations or programs I mentioned above. I am aware of these gaps because I have largely worked for companies that specifically cater to pre-established groups, charge a very high price for programming, or both. Ropes courses, camps, and other traditional experiential education experiences change lives, and though I can't speak first-hand regarding personal development seminars and retreats, I have heard the same can be said for them. These organizations will continue to do what they do, and do it well. I bring up existing opportunities so I can discuss what is missing. I believe everyone can benefit from engaging, educational experiences, followed by guided reflection. Participating in activities that teach processing give individuals a better grasp on self-reflection.
I want to explore what it would look like to make these experiences available to a broader audience.
How can we create more varied experiences that provide these benefits?
Many program offerings have largely remained unchanged over the years. Go to any low ropes course in the U.S. and you'll probably see the same handful of elements that have existed for decades. Same goes for high ropes. I have had teachers tell me that they've been coming to the same site, doing the same activities, for fifteen years, or more. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. These activities work, and that's why they have persisted, but I do believe that there's room for both old and new.
Furthermore, experiential education and outdoor education are nearly synonymous to many people who work in the field. And for good reason. Society has effectively removed many obstacles and challenges that we used to face. Nature tests us in a way that we typically don't have to deal with in our urban environments. In the most extreme cases, safety and survival itself can become genuine concerns. I believe that experiences delivered in an outdoor setting provide a unique setting for reflection, and humans are meant to be exposed to nature. But, as with team building, these offerings often come down to a small selection of activities such as canoeing, climbing, and hiking. These are not easily accessible to urban populations, and don't offer variation for returning participants.
Of course, I am generalizing. There are innovative professionals and companies that are pushing the boundaries of what experiential education can look like. Again, I don't bring this up to say that these experiences are wrong. I have worked primarily in outdoor ed. and team building programs, and I don't question their value to participants. These tried and true methods have enriched countless lives.
As for me, while I will always enjoy a good ol' river paddle, I want to find new and exiting ways to introduce people to the benefits of experiential learning. To do this, I want to search further afield than the established forms of programming and activities, taking inspiration from other fields such as game design, playwork, and storytelling.
I have discussed, at length, the questions I want to explore and results I am seeking. But, without the experiences, there is no transference, no reflection.
I want to experiment and answer these questions by creating places and experiences that will follow participants into their lives, even after the experience has ended. I want to create engaging, meaningful experience with reflection as a key component. To achieve this, I believe the following principles must be used during the creation process:
For each experience, I will ask, "What do I want participants to gain from this?" This may include skills, mindsets, or lessons. At the end of the day, what the participant takes away is their choice, but I believe if the material is engaging and outcomes are general, allowing for independent exploration, experiences can be designed with a universal purpose.
"How will this be unique for every participant?" Our past experiences impact how we approach new ones, and I want the experiences I create to reflect this. Participants should have agency to create their own unique experience, rather than having one assigned to them by the creators. Additionally, reflection and transference can't happen without desire from the individual. We cannot force individuals to participate or reflect, and for them to get anything out of it, they must be willing to earn the outcome.
To be clear, I don't necessarily believe that every experience in life needs to be reflected upon. We all have mundane activities that don't particularly move us. And I believe there is value in something that is meant to be purely entertainment. That being said, you never know what is going to bring change or understanding. As someone who takes 2 hours to watch a 45 minute T.V. show with my father, because we pause every 8 seconds to analyze the morality and motivations of the characters, I know this to be true. If you go into an experience with intention, you can gain something from it. But I guess that's my point. Experience design, like anything in life, is more likely to have a lasting impact when done intentionally. When reflection is facilitated and encouraged, it is far more likely to yield a lasting effect.
The name "The Land" comes from my ultimate goal to create a permanent place to provide these experiences. But for now, let's say it represents a mindset. When participants are "In The Land", they are participating in an experience that encourages them to be themselves, be fully engaged, and reflect upon what the experience means to them in the bigger picture.
Those are my goals, and how I generally see my self achieving them, but what's the point?
In short: I want you to live a good life. I want you to feel fulfilled, happy, and successful, by however you define those concepts. I am not a therapist, I am not a life coach, I am not a guru. I want to help you realize your "Good Life" in the way that I know best. I believe experiencing life intentionally, with purpose, and reflecting upon those experiences, is how we better ourselves as people and discover what matters to us. While this may seem like a big step from the vision I described, I believe that, if done correctly, creating these experiences can create genuine change in a person's life.
I don't claim to have the solutions to the questions I have posed yet, but I want to try to find them.
I'm still clarifying my ideas and will likely update this post as I go.
As it stands, The Land is an "I" endeavor, but I would very much like for it to be a "We" pursuit. If you are an educator, experience designer, or if what I discussed in this post sets off a light in your brain, get in touch.
Thanks for reading.