Profession of adventure education leadership, The

profession of adventure education leadership, The

Guthrie, Steven P

The topic for this special issue, Adventure Education Leadership, was an open topic focusing on field-based outdoor leadership relevant to the practitioner. The resulting papers in this special issue focus around a theme-adventure education leadership, and adventure programming as a profession.

The first article, by Laura Plaut, addresses the issue of the value of an undergraduate degree in Adventure Education (AE). She points out that obtaining a degree is not a prerequisite for working successfully in the profession; furthermore, since degree requirements cannot provide all the experience and skills to be successful, a degree is insufficient. Nevertheless, she focuses on the “added value” which a degree offers-a degree offers a theoretical foundation which is not readily learned as a practitioner, and it offers the opportunity for developing professionals to be more effective. She suggests we need to look at the issue of standardizing undergraduate AE curricula.

Aram Attarian addresses trends in outdoor adventure education. In particular, he discusses the growth of adventure programming, the impacts from restricted natural resource access and increased fees, the development of artificial adventure environments, certification and accreditation, litigation and risk management, and the increased need for evaluation and accountability of outdoor programs.

Jacquie Medina conducted research to determine the types of positions, job responsibilities, training backgrounds, and the prevalence of academic degrees of attendees at an AEE International Conference. One finding regarding the background preparation of attendees is that personal experience, professional workshops/conferences, and certifications were listed more frequently than an academic degree. Her piece complements the previous two articles.

The next two articles shift the topic to the practitioner. One involves teaching and leading in the field; the other involves working with persons with disabilities. The teaching piece, by Mark Wagstaff and Christine Cashel, describes Paul Petzoldt’s philosophy and teaching methods. It introduces Petzoldt’s “grasshopper” method of teaching, a systematic “more sophisticated adaptation” of “opportunity teaching” or using the “teachable moment.” Grasshopper teaching is an excellent example of effective experiential education, since it presents small, manageable bites of information, which are immediately relevant to the learner. Their piece also focuses on the first 24 hours of an expedition; judgment and decision-making.

In her piece on working with people with disabilities, Deborah Sugerman introduces her “model of inclusive integration.” This model guides a practitioner unfamiliar about working with persons with disabilities toward becoming “more comfortable with, and…knowledgeable about, disabilities.” This introduction to working with people with disabilities provides a commendable overview of resources and steps for providing an inclusive program.

Carrie Wittmer’s article for the practitioner notes that a woman outdoor leader is in a gender-role incongruent position which automatically has her facing biases. Her paper provides suggestions to both female and male leaders for dealing with this issue and becoming effective leaders.

The final article by Matthew Mitchell and Michael Poutiatine addresses the issue of graduate education in leadership. They discuss a qualitative research methodology, the Rapid Assessment Process, and suggest it should be a part of a graduate outdoor degree program, because it is experiential and teaches teamwork and leadership.

Adventure Education as a Profession

This special issue focuses on the profession of adventure education (AE). (I include adventure programming under the rubric “AE,” but use the two terms interchangeably.) It can be seen as an adjunct to the recent Adventure Therapy special issue (Fall 2001). Both adventure programming and adventure therapy are still developing as professions; in the remainder of this piece, I focus on the status of our profession.

Although forms of adventure programs have existed since the early 1900s, it could be argued that, in the U.S., the profession began in the 1960s and 1970s with the advent of major influences such as Colorado Outward Bound (1962), National Outdoor Leadership School (1965), Project Adventure (1971), AEE (1977), the Wilderness Education Association (1977), and the development of college extracurricular outdoor programs.

In contrast, more established paradigm professions such as psychology, education, medicine, and law have existed for 100 years or more. Following are some accepted characteristics of a fully developed profession (for discussions, see Crawford, 2001; Edginton, Hanson, Edginton, & Hudson, 1998; Ewert, 1989).

* A profession involves a shared body of specialized knowledge or expertise and standard practices which are based on sound theory and experience. As specialized, this knowledge is beyond that of the ordinary public. Professionals know, understand, and use this knowledge and the standard practices. Preparation for the profession requires extended training and education (well beyond a high school education).

* In a substantial part, this body of knowledge, practice, and standards is written down and available in professional literature, such as research journals, textbooks, position papers, and so forth.

* There are specialized programs of higher education which help prepare potential professionals in a given field. This professional preparation includes not only theoretical knowledge, but also significant practical experience (such as is provided by experientially based coursework and a full-time internship).

* Ongoing research advances both the theoretical and practical knowledge in the field, and practitioners use this new knowledge. Consequently, practitioners engage in continuing education to stay abreast of developments.

* It has developed and employs a “technical” language or vocabulary. This “technical” vocabulary may use ordinary words, but it employs them in specialized ways, and endows those ordinary words with special meanings. These technical words allow professionals in the field to communicate more efficiently, but the language may be difficult for non-professionals to understand appropriately.

* Professionals share common norms and values regarding the field. There is a code of ethics to which practitioners ascribe.

* Meaningful standards, based upon candidates having acquired the knowledge, practices, norms and values, serve to identify and select those who are qualified to be practitioners. Others (those who have not acquired the knowledge and practices) are not permitted to practice in the field.

* One or more professional associations assist in generation and dissemination of information, theory, and professional practices typically providing networking, conferences, workshops, position papers and other publications. These professional associations also generate values, norms, and symbols for the field.

* It involves some significant form of public service or contribution to social well-being, and is generally valued, recognized or supported by the public.

This conception of a profession does not preclude our using paraprofessionals; the legal profession relies on paralegals, and nursing or teaching relies on aides. However, that we do not distinguish between professionals and paraprofessionals should be, in itself, a consideration for our profession.

Based on the characteristics, adventure programming (including adventure education and recreation programs provided by camps, adventure therapy and therapeutic recreation, academic and extracurricular school and college, EBDT, and others) is in its childhood. In comparison to related fields such as education or psychology, we have a very small body of literature specific to the profession, relatively little on-going research, and we are not generally valued, recognized or supported by the public.

We face interrelated issues. One is that, due to the substantial demand for our services, in certain seasons just about anyone can get a job. A consequence of this is that most education of leaders is on-the-job training (including job training and mentorship provided by a job site). A second consequence is that AE jobs are relatively low paying. This, in turn, means there is little impetus to join professional associations, or to attain costly professional training. Most entry-level practitioners have neither the training, time, nor inclination to conduct research to enrich the profession. Finally, many probably are not fully aware of, or share, the values, norms, or symbols of the “profession.”

Additionally, other than perhaps Wilderness First Responder (WFR), we have currently no generally adopted formally sanctioned standards. The AEE accreditation standards are formally sanctioned standards of practice, but very few programs are accredited. Certifications in specific technical skills exist, but most practitioners are not certified; generally, the function of a certification is accomplished informally and “inhouse.” There is a national certification of outdoor leaders through the WEA, but it is not generally considered to be a prerequisite to be an outdoor leader.

Considerable work and research have already been accomplished on the core competencies of an outdoor leader and in developing curricular standards. I suggest that, in general, there is substantial agreement about what should be in an AE degree (see Raiola & Sugerman, 1999; Priest & Gass, 1997, 1999; Teeters & Lupton, 1999).

Additionally, major influences in the profession– Outward Bound (OB), the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), and the Wilderness Education Association (WEA)-share similar core competencies, standards, and practices. Admittedly, those three organizations are different in mission, philosophy, programmatic emphases, and perhaps technical skill requirements; yet, a competent leader with a solid basis of skills (technical, group process, and judgment/decision-making) could, with training in the appropriate cultural expectations and organization-specific practices, readily become qualified to work for any of those organizations. I suggest the similarities outweigh the differences.

Perhaps it is time for us, as professionals, to consider seriously the role that a college degree program in adventure education can serve. In particular, we should consider working toward developing standard core curricular components of a college degree in wilderness– based adventure education. (Keep in mind that the AEE accreditation program accredits standards of practice, but does not set curricular standards.) We should consider advocating the value of a quality AE degree as an important prerequisite for the profession.

Why should we work toward developing standard curricular components of a college AE degree program? First, it would be a major step toward professionalization. Many current shortcomings toward becoming a profession would be addressed. Practitioners coming from an AE degree program would come into the profession acculturated into the norms, values, standards, and practices of the profession. They would have an understanding both of the standard practices, and the reasons for the standard practices. A background in group process and leadership theory would make them better at group process and working with people. Other theoretical background would allow them to be more flexible in decision-making (not rigidly bound by rules), and ultimately better decision-makers. They could appreciate and better understand the purpose and role of research.

A number of quality AE degree programs exist; many are at smaller, private colleges which often can be more innovative than a public institution. New AE degree programs are being created each year. However, because there are no curricular standards for academic AE programs, a “degree” in adventure education (or outdoor recreation, experiential education, and so forth) covers a wide range of courses and experiences. At many institutions, the “degree” may merely be a “minor,” “emphasis,” “concentration,” “track, ” “option” and so forth. The degree might be essentially a “general recreation” or physical education degree, a degree in natural resource management for outdoor recreation, or a “self-designed” program put together with whatever courses a school happens to offer. Many employers are unaware of the differences which an AE “degree” might encompass, and currently a degree in AE carries less weight. Without curricular standards, employers rely primarily on practical experience and undervalue the less tangible benefits of a quality AE degree program.

Although there is considerable agreement on what should be in an AE degree, without curricular standards, no officially sanctioned guidelines for institutions wishing to provide a quality AE degree are available. Priest and Gass (1999) point out, “universities tend to be much too theoretical and not practical enough for the critical demands of outdoor leadership preparation” (p. 478). Given that there is a noticeable growth in new degree programs, officially endorsed curricular standards would assist those working within institutions in implementing important curricular components into their degree.

Concern for the lack of research has been expressed frequently in the literature. Recently (early 2002), the topic was hotly discussed on the AEE list-serve. Some discussion on the list-serve suggested that lack of research is due to too few PhDs, or too little time by professionals (PhD and non-PhD alike). It has been noted (e.g., Attarian, this issue; Priest & Gass, 1997; 1999), that if we cannot demonstrate the benefits of our programs, many of our customers will seek alternatives. Failure to demonstrate our benefits can also result in diminished perceived social value and raise ethical questions about our practitioners.

Evaluation and research are a standard component of education, psychology, and general recreation curricula; it should be part of the background training of all AE professionals. Attarian (this journal issue) discusses some of the factors related to the shortage of evaluation and research. Supplementing Attarian, I suggest that, if having a quality degree related to professional preparation were the norm, there would be many more administrators and leaders willing to support or conduct research. At the very least, they could better appreciate research and have a disposition to implement the results of research into programs. As Priest & Gass (1999) state, “Outdoor leaders don’t have to be experts…they just have to support others in their attempts” (p. 478).

Finally, prospective students could use curricular standards as a baseline for choosing schools, and schools could use them to promote their programs. This, in turn, would augment the professionalization of adventure education and programming.

Over the past 15 or so years, there has been considerable discussion of the certification-accreditation issue, including investigation into what the standards for leaders should be, or whether we should even have standards. Further, what qualifies as appropriate research has been discussed, and the insufficiency of current levels of research and evaluation has been noted often. Yet the issue of curricular standards (rather than leadership standards) and advocacy of an AE degree as qualification into the profession has received little attention.

Three professional associations could take the lead in this effort. For years, the WEA has developed a standard field-based curriculum, and even a curriculum guide, The Backcountry Classroom. However, its focus has been on certifying leaders, rather than academic curricular standards. The relatively new Association for Outdoor Recreation and Education (ACRE), with a significant percentage of college/university-based outdoor professionals, provides a well-attended, student-friendly, international conference (the International Conference on Outdoor Recreation and Education– ICORE), and focuses on non-profit adventure leadership and programming. The AORE, like the WEA, has the expertise within its ranks. Yet the AEE, due to its history, its membership base, and its accreditation program, is probably best positioned to take a significant lead. Perhaps individuals from those three organizations could, jointly, undertake such a project.

I am not advocating another accreditation or certification program. What I am encouraging is the development and promotion of curricular standards as guidelines. With these standards readily available to the public, individual colleges could use these standards as a reference, or use them to promote their academic programs. Students who are researching schools to attend could use these standards as they inquire about prospective programs. Finally, these standards could assist employers in recognizing the “added value” a quality AE degree program offers. Given the current growth of AE and academic AE programs, we should have conversations about this topic.


Bonney, B. F., & Drury, J. K. (1992). The backcountry classroom. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot.

Crawford, M. E. (2001). Organization and formation of the profession. In D. R. Austin & M. E. Crawford (Eds.), Therapeutic recreation– An introduction (3rd ed.) (pp. 22-44). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Edginton, C. R., Hanson, C. J., Edginton, S. R., & Hudson, S. D. (1998). Leisure programming: A service-centered and benefits approach (3rd ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Ewert, A. (1989). Outdoor adventure pursuits: Foundations, models, and theories (pp. 177-213). Columbus, OH: Publishing Horizons.

Priest, S., & Gass, M. A. (1997). Effective leadership in adventure programming. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Priest, S., & Gass, M. A. (1999). Future trends and issues in adventure programming. In J.C. Miles & S. Priest (Eds.), Adventure programming (pp. 473-478). State College, PA: Venture.

Raiola, E., & Sugerman, D. (1999). Outdoor leadership curricula. In J.C. Miles & S. Priest (Eds.), Adventure programming (pp. 241-245). State College, PA: Venture.

Teeters, C. E., & Lupkin, F. (1999). The Wilderness Education Association: History and change. In J. C. Miles & S. Priest (Eds.), Adventure programming (pp.77-83). State College, PA: Venture.

Steven P. Guthrie

Steven Guthrie, Ph. D., has been a JEE reviewer for over ten years. Currently Assistant Professor of Outdoor Recreation at Unity College, he has been teaching and leading in the outdoors for 25 years. His graduate work at the University of Oregon combined philosophy, social sciences, special education, human movement studies, and outdoor recreation.

Copyright Association for Experiential Education Winter 2001

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