Research Summary

A Deweyian framework for youth development in experiential education: Perspectives from sail training and sailing instruction

Outdoor Education a Natural Fit for Incorporating Dewey’s Ideas

Journal of Experiential Education

John Dewey’s ideas about education have resonated with many environmental and outdoor educators. But while it may be easy to appreciate his ideas in theory, incorporating Dewey’s ideas in practice can be challenging. To that end, the authors of this paper set out to provide outdoor educators and youth development leaders with a simple, usable theoretical structure for use in designing programs.

Educational philosopher John Dewey believed in an approach to education that is more like the type of education a student might have received in pre-industrial times. In those days, students’ learning was situated within the context of home and community life. Learning was directly tied to everyday life and, as such, was useful in a way that was easy for students to see. Dewey argued that after the Industrial Revolution, schools had become too separated from society and should instead adopt approaches that would allow a return to more social, useful education.

The authors summarize Dewey’s ideas in the following framework for educators to use in thinking about activities and programs:
1. Activities must have the liveliness and purpose associated with informal learning.
2. The learning environment must be knowingly and intentionally shaped.
3. The activity must be undertaken with pedagogical purposes.
4. The activity must be “educative,” meaning it must have (a) purpose, in the dual sense of engagement and meaning; (b) intelligent direction with student selection of means to meet ends; (c) discipline, intellectual and social, that is derived from the activity itself; and (d) an open-ended nature, leaving the student willing and able to go on.

The authors note that these tenets fit naturally into many outdoor education programs, as well as the positive youth development (PYD) movement. The authors explain that the PYD approach moves away from more traditional youth development programs that focus on risk factors and problems in young people’s lives, and instead focuses on “youth strength and potential.” PYD programs are social and purposeful and aim to engage students in order to prepare them for the future.

The authors’ backgrounds are in sailing instruction and sail training, so they draw connections between their framework and sailing education. But they note that most forms of outdoor education and PYD offer similar fits. They note that outdoor instruction provides “clear and tangible purpose by giving real meaning and consequences to lessons.” Learning environments are often thoughtfully designed so that students can not only learn the skills, but also stay safe. Outdoor education is, by its definition, pedagogical—it is education for a purpose. And, they argue, outdoor education meets Dewey’s standards, because it is purposeful and intelligent, involves intellectual and social discipline, and is open-ended.

The authors suggest that outdoor education is a natural fit for incorporating Dewey’s ideas. And keeping their framework in mind can help simplify planning to help programs live up to Dewey’s ideal. Programs should strive to minimize instruction and balance those lessons with action and, ideally, incorporate personal and social responsibility, when possible. The authors believe that “any program, in or out of a classroom, has the potential to live up to Dewey’s ideas.” But they acknowledge that it takes effort: “For Dewey, all education is experiential, but not all experiences are created equal.”

The Bottom Line

Outdoor education and positive youth development are natural fits for implementing Dewey’s ideas about education. But educators and program managers must be proactive. The authors offer a four-point framework that can help incorporate Dewey’s ideas into outdoor programs: (1) activities must be lively and purposeful; (2) the learning environment must be intentionally created; (3) activities must be purposely educational; and (4) experiences must be educative, which means they must be purposeful, intelligent, disciplined, and open-ended.