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Supervision reduces risk in outdoor education activity

This is an excerpt from Controversial Issues in Adventure Programming by Bruce Martin & Mark Wagstaff.

Should wilderness program staff always accompany their participants?


One Question You Don't Want to Hear: Where Were the Instructors?

Ken Kalisch, associate professor of outdoor education and outdoor ministry, Montreat College, Montreat, North Carolina, United States

Where were the instructors? The question is appropriate because wilderness program instructors have traditionally varied their roles with a student expedition group. It is typical for instructors to be more engaged with members at the beginning and become less engaged over time. During some programmed components, students might rarely see their instructors.

For the past 40 years, prominent international organizations such as Outward Bound (OB), the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and countless adaptations of them have used these unaccompanied activities. The two traditional unaccompanied events are the solo and final expedition. The OB solo is a one- to three-day separation from instructors during which students camp alone at a specified site with minimal food and equipment. The OB final expedition or NOLS student-led expedition is group travel without direct instructor supervision from one to five days. These two practices have been justified on the basis that they enhance student learning (Bobilya, Kalisch, and Daniel, 2010; Bobilya, McAvoy, and Kalisch, 2005a; Daniel, 2003; Kalisch, Bobilya, and Daniel, in press; Sibthorp et al., 2008). I argue that the absence of direct staff supervision during these expedition components is unnecessarily risky and should no longer be practiced in wilderness education programs.

Time for a Change

Although many wilderness programmers value and utilize these unaccompanied events, it is time to change the manner in which these events are conducted. A history of tragic injuries and deaths surrounds them, even at NOLS and OB. Though few in number, these accidents involved young people who were severely hurt or lost their lives when unaccompanied by their instructors.

  • A young woman was raped on her North Carolina OB solo in 1971 (Hunt, 2000).
  • In the same year, two young women died from exposure on their Northwest OB final expedition in the Cascade Mountains (Hunt, 2000).
  • Three young adults on a Southwest OB final expedition drowned in 1978 while kayaking in the Gulf of California (Morganthau, 1979).
  • A young man on his Voyageur OB solo was viciously attacked by a predatory black bear in 1987 (Rogers and Garshelis,
  • A young female on a NOLS student-led expedition drowned while crossing a Wyoming river in 1996 (McCarthy, 2009).
  • A New Hampshire teenager on a NOLS student-led expedition fell to his death down a deep glacial hole in 1999 (Komarnitsky, 1999).
  • A young female on a 2006 OB final expedition died of heatstroke in Utah's canyon country. She leaves behind an anguished brother who asks, “Where were the instructors when (my sister) was dying in Lockhart Canyon?” (Ketcham, 2007).
  • Four young men were attacked and mauled by an Alaskan grizzly bear on a student-led expedition at NOLS in 2011 (Grove, 2011).

It is difficult to determine whether similar incidents involving students intentionally separated from their instructors have occurred in smaller and less-recognized programs across the country. Further, little documentation exists of near misses in wilderness programs, especially in these activities. However, Haddock (1999a) suggests that the epic tales and close calls recited by instructors and students after trips provide evidence. Although often unverified, these tales indicate that incidents with a high potential for harm do occur and may be indicators of serious accidents to come. There are stories of solo students who became sick after foraging for food and those who injured themselves due to emotional distress. There are epic tales of student-led expeditions that became lost and ventured over treacherous terrain and those who divided into subgroups due to unresolved conflict. The latter circumstances led to the 2006 death in the Utah wilderness (Ketcham, 2007). Direct supervision by instructors largely prevents such tragic incidents. Davidson (2004), after studying trip accidents in New Zealand and Australia, argues:

While there are many methods employed to assist in managing the risk in outdoor education activities such as providing good equipment, sequencing programs, gaining the most recent weather forecasts, etc., the most powerful tool to reducing the risk in an outdoor education activity is by providing supervision for those taking part in the activity with someone with an assessed level of skill and experience. . . . The duty of the skilled supervisor is to be in a position to intervene if a dangerous situation arises and prevent harm from occurring.

One might argue that a few serious injuries and deaths are acceptable losses when compared with the positive experiences that thousands of students have had as a result of these two program components. This position advocates the high educative value inherent in legitimate risk taking. It is represented by Willi Unsoeld's classic response to the mother of a prospective OB student who requested a guarantee of safety for her son: “No. We certainly can't, Ma'am. We guarantee you the genuine chance of his death. And if we could guarantee his safety, the program would not be worth running” (cited in Hunt, 1999). A difference exists between guaranteeing safety and trying to provide the safest program possible. Removing the direct supervision of instructors for an extended period of time does not contribute to guarding safety. A more ethical position would argue that the traditional educational strategy used for these trip components is an act of negligence and is unjustified for pedagogical, legal, and moral reasons (Davidson, 2004).

Three Pillars of Support

Three predominant principles support this argument. When aptly considered, they facilitate an understanding of this more ethical position.

Risk Versus Student Competency

First, real risk exists in wilderness programs, and it increases when program instructors do not directly supervise novice students for a lengthy time. A staff trainer for Outward Bound USA describes the risk involved in wilderness programs:

Risk is at the very center of the Outward Bound experience. We lead our students through natural and social environments in which we encounter inherently risky situations. There are the risks that derive from rocky terrain and inclement weather, the risks stemming from the kinds of activities and testing situations we devise to stretch our students physically and mentally, and those that come from the interpersonal dynamic of placing a small and diverse group together in stressful circumstances. . . . Instructors must make frequent decisions as they encounter the myriad risks their course provides, and all without benefit of the resources—the help—of the personnel back at the base; they are quite literally on their own; they are the on-the-scene risk managers. Will they know what to do? Will they have the knowledge, the skills, and the judgment to make good decisions when faced with the challenge of choosing the best course of action in the face of a potentially dangerous situation? (Garrett, 2008)

This concern for the exercise of good judgment by staff is commendable. It has caused OB and NOLS to conduct judgment-training workshops for their instructors in recent years. But what about students left alone on a solo or final expedition? Will they have the knowledge, skills, and judgment to make good decisions?What judgment training do novice students receive before they are sent out alone? Is their preparation by staff sufficient to ensure wise decisions?

Two distinct factors combine to make indirectly supervised students a high-risk event. First, the wilderness is a dynamic environment that includes endless physical challenges and potential threats to the traveler. The wilderness is a world of constant, often unexpected, change. Second, novices in this dynamic environment are challenged to exercise adequate judgment in decision making. It is likely that a novice will not perceive some perils as being high risk. Some rapid rivers look easy to cross, and some rocky slopes look easy to climb down. The reality is that students will potentially make many errors in judgment. According to Udall (1995), it takes much experience to accurately observe the dynamics of wild places, to understand the frailty of humans in it, and to respond wisely in each moment. If students misread the situation, it can result in “a series of seemingly inconsequential decisions . . . that stack up one-on-another until the entire pattern totters and collapses under the weight of the wind or of human fatigue or of an unexpected stumble”.

Research studies have suggested some predictors of serious accidents in wilderness programs. Liddle and Storck (1995) report that “one of the most frequent contributing factors to accidents is lack of knowledge of an environmental hazard, or a lack of appreciation of its danger”. Haddock (1999b) determined that “unsafe acts by students” is the second-highest contributing factor (after weather) in high-potential incidents. Davidson's (2004) analysis of 1,908 incidents indicates “a higher chance of a serious incident occurring if the level of supervision is removed or reduced”. Brookes (2003) concluded that indirectly supervised teenagers on wilderness expeditions presented “a clear fatality risk if . . . the group encountered moving water or steep ground”.

It takes much experience to develop sound judgment that adequately responds to a variety of wilderness hazards. This is the necessary role of competent instructors. For students, there is no substitute for having immediate access to a skilled and knowledgeable leader in high-risk circumstances. Opportunities for independent student decision making might be educational, but they may come with a high cost, even death. And then people will certainly ask, “Where were the instructors?”

Learn more about Controversial Issues in Adventure Programming.

More Excerpts From Controversial Issues in Adventure Programming