Experience and Reflection: The Two Halves of Outdoor Education

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

An instructional activity is educational only when students understand its meaning and apply their understanding to future situations. Outdoor educators seek to improve teaching and learning through direct experience, but, if such experiences are to be meaningful and applied to life situations, teachers must help students learn from carefully planned and guided reflection sessions (Clifford, 1992).

"Experience and effective reflection form two halves of any meaningful educational experience."

Reflection of everyday experiences is common and is expected in most areas of our lives. For instance, professional sports teams review video footage of recent games to identify problems in strategy and technique in order to correct them. A driving instructor provides tips and guidance on parking close to the curb and the student asks for clarification before attempting it again. A software company allows top customers and tech influencers to test new product features and find out what they think of them before launching them to market. Each of these examples involves forms of reflecting on experiences and most people would agree there's significant value in reflecting on everyday events in life.

Why Is Reflection Important?

The ability to critically reflect on experiences in life is a trademark of successful people who embrace the idea that we're all lifelong learners.

"Effective debriefing skills form an essential tool in any outdoor educator's toolkit. Skilled questioning with careful analysis is needed to ensure meaningful learning is taking place which can then be applied to life situations."

In order to learn from experience, we must take the time to sort the relevant from the irrelevant and the useful from the useless. After an experience, a careful debrief can help to identify the important elements (by asking questions, such as "What worked well/didn't work well for you?") and then analyze these elements in greater depth, considering the perspectives of both thinking and feeling (by asking questions including "Why was this helpful/not helpful?" and "What did you feel when this happened?" Finally, we can generalize our thoughts and feelings in order to plan for the future. For instance, we can ask "How will this be useful later?" or "When can this be applied to solve a similar problem?"

Children reflecting in outdoor education
Experience and effective reflection form two halves of any meaningful educational experience.

Experience and effective reflection form two halves of any meaningful educational experience. Learning-by-doing without critical reflection would be like completing an essay assignment in school and not receiving any teacher feedback. Essential learning opportunities would simply be missed.

Six Factors of Effective Debriefing

But as an outdoor educator and somebody who's committed to learning-by-doing, how do you lead an effective reflection session? I've pulled together some tips and key insights to help outdoor educators develop their debriefing skills.

Pearson and Smith (1988) focused on the process of reflecting (or "debriefing") on experiences in the context of outdoor learning. They emphasize that "the only way to learn to debrief is by doing it, and by watching others doing it" and deliberately and critically reflecting on the debriefing process as a learning facilitator.

More specifically, they provide six factors that contribute to effective debriefing:

(1) committing to its importance and central role in experience-based learning;