Climbing the Walls: Adventure Education and Perspectives in Learning

By Rebecca Matte

The classroom lecture/discussion model has become shallow and brackish. It should no longer be the standard.

Most educators recognize the value of practical experiential learning and strive to develop assignments that engage students in a meaningful way and help them to deepen their understanding of rote content and derive some meaning from it. In an age where multiple streams of information input compete for student attention, active learning activities have become even more important. Such lessons need not be overly cumbersome, but should, for a time, involve students in a shared “nontraditional” activity which can then be used to process and apply course content.

Landmark College in Putney, Vt., serves a population of students who learn differently and for whom college success is fraught with some additional obstacles. As a college, we are tasked with exploring pedagogical methods for mining new levels of self-awareness in students. All faculty seek to get their students “out of the classroom” to apply course concepts in a practical realm. This type of approach, often reserved for higher-level courses, is particularly valuable for our first-year population who are vulnerable after ongoing challenges at the high school and college level. These students are ripe for self-discovery and our program seeks to deliver.

Like many first-year seminars, “Perspectives in Learning” is a course specifically designed to scaffold and explicitly delineate the interconnections between disciplines. Its goal is to teach skills that can be generalized across the curriculum and to support learning. In addition, it aims to promote increased metacognition and awareness of diversity.

In a unit addressing theoretical models of memory (encoding, prioritization, storage and retrieval) and classification of long-term memory (declarative/non-declarative), students are “brought to the wall.” That is to say, the entire class embarks on a shared experience that, at first, seems to have little to do with the content or study skills, but is ultimately one of the most valuable lessons of the course. It not only brings students to apply the theoretical concepts to novel situations, but shifts the class dynamic through collaboration and group process.

Layers of collaboration

The class meets at the campus Rock Wall for a collaborative lesson with Landmark’s adventure educator. The adventure education tenet “challenge by choice” still remains true. However, students are required to participate in the climb. They must be present, wear a harness and shoes and engage actively in some way. The shared experience is the key.

The lesson occurs in three phases: Content Review, the Climbing Experience, Process/Reflection. Prior to the climb, students have done all the traditional exercises, read articles, developed visual models and representations of each concept. These models are reviewed just prior to the climb and used for reference and review. The experience begins as the adventure educator takes over the class and directs the brief safety lecture and instruction on equipment and procedure. The great shift occurs as students begin to gear up.

Harnesses, it seems, are the great equalizer. Everyone looks awkward. But happily, new leaders emerge. More vocal class members suddenly need support from the typically less visible students. Some are deftly buckling and shoeing and others are looking befuddled by the tangle of webbing. Eventually, course-specific terms are matched with the new lingo. Gris-gris, locking cam and “red is dead” are identified as new semantic learning. We don’t sit in a room and look at pictures of these terms and memorize definitions and descriptions. We use them in a active way and introduce the terms while using the equipment and terminology.

The lesson is designed to have students access the different memory systems and learn to recognized and discuss the differences and the importance of using them in concert. Those already experienced with the tricky locking carabiners are celebrated as having a functional “procedural memory” for such things; and, everyone is expressing the retrieval of “emotional memories” of past fun or fear in relationship to rock walls. Eventually, this buzz calms as belayers settle in and the business of climbing begins. Students on the ground support those on the wall with encouragement or direct instruction. Students not climbing find their roles as anchors or photographers. There are so many ways to be involved that it is impossible to avoid collaboration in this process.

You bring yourself to the wall—it’s personal

When students finally come back down to the mat, they smile, they shake their arms and fingers and the processing begins. At first, they just relive the climb, talking about challenges and exciting moments. Then with prompting, they shift to the process pages posted on the wall or easel. This is where they record examples of how the different memory pathways were in use during the activity. This work can be hard as they still want to talk about the episodic and emotional experience rather than dig in to focus through a more academic lens. This is supported by another level of collaboration. Students tease out ideas together as they stand in front of the poster pages labeled with prompts. What was semantic? Procedural? Reflexive? What was retrieved? What was encoded? Responses differ among students and generate debate. Analysis deepens as they are asked how their experience relates to the brain’s prioritization of information. Some will admit that recent emotional burdens faded in the endorphin rush as someone realizes “I forgot about that Psych exam I have been so stressed about. I just let it go. Their task is to apply this observation to the target information (survival information trumps emotional and academic data) and identify how to use this knowledge in the future.

At some point, students’ will comment on each other’s “approach” to the wall. This is often a concrete observation of a student’s behavior that reflects their general approach to other challenges. When climbing, some students are notably haphazard in their approach, some attack the wall until they find their rhythm. (You were all over the place on the way up, but you rang that bell!). Still others stare at the wall and plan their route carefully before even touching it (Dude, you stood there forever, but then went up like a spider monkey!) Some folks need prompting to begin the climb, and their technique improves as they ascend. Some, when stuck at the crux, focus quietly scanning the options; others call for help (what now!), And a few, give up too quickly, fearing the challenge. In many cases, however, student behavior when attempting the climb can be related to their approach to other challenges in their academic life such as writing assignments or research. These tendencies on the wall are identified by other students and, for many, it is only a few quick steps to relate it to in class behavior. (Impulsive responses, giving up too easily on in class tasks). These are genuine and honest insights and are shared and received in a positive way.

The class is over by now and students hang out to talk. While students have a better understanding of the vocabulary and how this experience and academics meet, it is these final metacognitive revelations that tend to be revisited in class after class. The group dynamic has shifted as everyone has a greater understanding and appreciation for each other. The moments and their meaning are discussed openly and freely among students as they continue to collaborate and support each other throughout the semester.

Different angles

This activity, like so many lesson plans, has evolved and been used to address other course concepts. The gym is an overlooked facility as a tool for integrating curriculum. With imagination, a skillful teacher can help find the relevance and richness in any experience.

In the past, this same activity has proved valuable in helping students understand the function of specific brain structures. Students can visualize and discuss brain activity when they climb blindfolded and need to use touch (parietal lobe) to create maps of the holds (hippocampus) and plan moves (frontal lobes). (And let’s not forget the sheer exhilaration of climbing blind–limbic system! Amygdala!) These discussions highlight how even specialized parts of your brain are always at work and do so in concert with each other. The next leap is finding a way to capitalize on this knowledge to aid in academic learning. In general, lessons such as this create “teachable moments” and bring students to an understanding that concepts in the course can be generalized to other areas of their life.

Shake it up and get out

Even in-class collaborative groups can become stale as students get stuck in roles or simply can’t find a role at all. The wall changes this. In its essence, it presents a different level of collaboration and gives a concrete experience of a student’s learning style. Students whose areas of competence are revealed at the wall are then suddenly freed to take more risks in classroom work groups. Likewise, those typical classroom heroes who struggle on the wall give up some of their in-class macho and proffer more respect and space to the others.

Since Landmark College’s inception, the unique mission and standards for teaching have always held faculty accountable for lessons that engage and inspire students. This approach has become even more valuable as technology has turned the traditional classrooms from self-contained incubators of structured learning, to an estuary of fast flowing competing information. This phenomenon is not unique to Landmark. The classroom lecture/discussion model has become shallow and brackish. It should no longer be the standard.

All learners approach information differently, even if they are not explicitly identified. Experience is central to the learning process, and collaboration adds many dimensions to classroom learning for all students. This requires that faculty be innovative and be encouraged to step out of their own rote curriculum and out of the classroom. They must shake up activities, create the teachable moments, make students stretch and, yes, sometimes, let them climb the walls.

Rebecca Matte is an assistant professor in First Year Studies at Landmark College. The photo of the climbing wall was taken by Russell Durrenberger, one of Matte’s students.


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