Outward Bound Harvard-Style
GSE program uses survival course's principles to teach education
On the first day of class, Steven W. Truitt, former Outward Bound instructor and current co-director of the Outward Bound program at the Graduate School of Education (GSE), sent his students on a path that seemed quite different from a typical Outward Bound program.
Rather than checking his students' raingear and equipping them with emergency matches, Truitt sent his students to Harvard Square to interview strangers.
It's Outward Bound, Harvard-style.
The GSE's Outward Bound program, the only one of its kind, tries to translate not the particulars (like outdoor living) of the program into the classroom, but the philosophy.
"We're not doing wilderness education," says Truitt, who is also a lecturer on education at the GSE. "We're teaching and thinking and writing about experiential education."
"Most of the instructors who do Outward Bound courses in the mountain, desert or oceans probably can't see what in the world [the GSE program] has do to with what they're doing," Truitt says.
"Our main purpose is to translate the philosophy of Outward Bound and [of] organizations like it into forms that can be used in the classroom, the school, the community," he says.
To this end, the GSE's Outward Bound program offers five courses that use Outward Bound's principles, focusing on experiential education.
They focus on different applications of experiential learning; one looks at school design, another examines the relationship between community service and learning.
Additionally, Truitt and project associate Joann Stemmermann advise and work with the GSE in different capacities.
Truitt's course being offered this fall, "Experience in Education: Building a Curriculum," uses experiential learning to teach the class.
The class prepares students to work with routine material in new ways--ways they will pass on to others as students move into the education field after graduation.
"I have a lot of the skills already, and it's going to help me refine them to speak more intelligently, to engage other teachers in the field," says David A. Platt, a master's candidate in Truitt's course.
Truitt says the philosophy of the organization is reflected in the class structure.
Students say the link is not so obvious, though.
"Outward Bound really isn't the focus of the course at all, at this point at least," Platt says.
"Some of the very important and positive points in Outward Bound are involved in all types of education. It's just another philosophy to help facilitate learning," he says.
"[The class] is showing that there are many different ways to learn. It's pretty open," says Sarina Corsi, a master's candidate at GSE.
"[The question is] how can you bring the excitement of outdoor learning experience into an environment that's in a box," she says.
A Different Kind of Class
Because of its focus on expeditionary learning, the curricula of the Outward Bound program courses can vary from other GSE courses.
On the first day of class, students arrived, sat down and were promptly sent off into Harvard Square.
Their assignment was to locate two hard-to-find campus landmarks--Helen Keller's tribute to Annie Sullivan and the rhinoceros statues--and to ask socratic questions of people in the Square.
Truitt chuckles as he remembers a particularly funny response.
"One group asked a homeless person at Out of Town News, 'What is knowledge?'" Truitt says.
"I don't know, but I understand there's a lot of it going on over there," the man responded, with a gesture towards Harvard Yard.
The point of this exercise, Truitt says, was to open up students to sources of knowledge other than just the teacher.
"It's a tribute to this whole method of question-asking as an experiential method," he says.
Another part of the course that students say is unique is its student input, especially considering its 60-plus enrollment.
Early in the term, students split into small groups, and develop a class on a topic such as educator development; later in the term, the class material is nearly entirely presented by students.
Truitt, in fact, doesn't describe himself as a teacher, but rather as a "facilitator."
A Hazy Relationship
While the program keeps Outward Bound's name, it has become mainly a GSE program during its nine-year tenure at Harvard.
Funding comes from the national Outward Bound headquarters and gets routed through Harvard. Thus while the costs of employees and expenses are on Harvard's books, the money has actually come from Outward Bound.
The GSE additionally works with the program through the courses--all of which are offered for credit like any GSE course--and through an advisory board.
"It's an Ed School project that is supported by Outward Bound, but it's a very collegial enterprise," says John W. Collins, chair of the advisory board for the Outward Bound program and GSE librarian.
"[Truitt and Stemmermann] teach courses, they advise students, they engage in staff development programs here at the Ed School," he says. "It's very much and Ed School program."
Yet the GSE's Outward Bound program does work closely with its namesake during GSE orientation.
Here, all students at the school get a chance to experience more typical Outward Bound programs.
Master's candidates do a giant lap sit in Cambridge Common, and doctoral candidates travel to Thompson Island, an Outward Bound post, to do ropes courses and trust falls.
"It's meant, number one, to provide [the new students] with friends right off the bat, and second to create what's called a learning community," Truitt says.
And apparently, it works. "I loved [orientation]. I loved all of the techniques that were used and the activities we did to inspire creativity and appreciation for diversity," Corsi says. From orientation on, students say the unique program has much influence in the school. "It's what brought me here. If there wasn't some form of expeditionary education explicitly involved in [GSE], I wouldn't be here," Platt says. "The program has an impact on the School of Education in that it's going to be bringing in some new types of ideas," he says. "There's a growing realization that there's a groundswell of interest in this kind of teaching and learning," Truitt says. "My hope is that [the program] will be a reason for people to come here," he says
"I loved [orientation]. I loved all of the techniques that were used and the activities we did to inspire creativity and appreciation for diversity," Corsi says.
From orientation on, students say the unique program has much influence in the school.
"It's what brought me here. If there wasn't some form of expeditionary education explicitly involved in [GSE], I wouldn't be here," Platt says.
"The program has an impact on the School of Education in that it's going to be bringing in some new types of ideas," he says.
"There's a growing realization that there's a groundswell of interest in this kind of teaching and learning," Truitt says.
"My hope is that [the program] will be a reason for people to come here," he says