Back to the Future: How a 100-Year Old Educational Model Can Help Build a Post-Pandemic Future (Part Two)

Mike Chapman Newsletter, Pedagogy Of Leadership®, Student Leadership

By Mike Chapman, Director of Outdoor Education, Teacher of US History, Dunn School (CA)

If you’d like to read Part One, you can find it here.

Early in his life, Hahn was inspired by a French inscription on a Belgian church which read plus est en vous, later interpreted as “there is more in you than you know” as the mantra of Outward Bound. He was fond of quoting the Pindarian maxim “grow into what you are.” And his favorite story, one which he cited numerous times, was that of the Good Samaritan, in which the strong fail to act and instead the weak, the despised outsider, illustrates what it means to be a civilized human being.

These influences and others led Hahn to develop his “preventive cures” or “antidotes” to the six declines of modern youth described in Part One. Hahn was determined to create a school where students would actually do things, not just listen to stern teachers’ lectures, similar to his experience as a student in the rigorous German gymnasium system. He wanted to develop a school in which students could discover their hidden interests, passions, and potential through a structured, deliberate framework specifically designed to combat the declines he believed to be eroding Western European society. To do so, Hahn proposed four central antidotes: physical fitness, expeditions, projects, and service.

Experience Therapy

Hahn’s “antidotes” were combined in a process he titled Erlebnistherapie, or “experience therapy,” a precursor to the experiential, project-based, and service-learning movements formally recognized today. First, Hahn argued that physical fitness programs should allow each and every student to reach “a standard of physical achievement good enough to draw self-respect.” Hahn was not fond of the competitive sports culture found in most schools, nor the way athletes were worshipped over those with less visible talents. Rather than focus on competition, Hahn’s fitness training involved at least 45-minutes of morning activity each day to train through the body, not of the body. This emphasized Plato’s focus on physical activity for the sake of the soul, not as an end in and of itself.  Overcoming weakness was as important, if not more important, than developing strengths. 

Hahn also prioritized outdoor expeditions. “I know few boys,” Hahn argued, “who do not draw strength, and retroactively also joy, from an arduous expedition carried out to a definite goal.” Expeditions to the sea and mountains provided students with challenging tasks from which to draw personal strength, build character, and work together as teams in environments in which socio-economic background and country of origin had little influence.  

Hahn’s third “antidote” was the use of projects, specifically those which led to learning outcomes in craftsmanship and manual skills. Similar to contemporary educators loathing a loss of our youth’s manual competence since the dawn of the Information Age, Hahn was determined to provide students with opportunities to “sense the dignity of manual labor” as scientific innovation rapidly changed how work was completed, and by whom. 

And to address the decline of compassion and “spiritual death,” Hahn provided Samaritan service, a remedy which could “satisfy the thirst for action in an honorable way and at the same time link it to the Christian purpose of life.”  Hahn deliberately emphasized and integrated tangible skills to both empower the students and benefit the immediate community, such as coast guarding, firefighting, and first aid, rather than the more generic volunteerism students attain credit for today, such as visiting soup kitchens and organizing canned food drives.

While Hahn’s educational models certainly prepared students for higher education, the emphasis was on building a foundation for a life of moral and civic virtue.  In Hahn’s view, students should learn to fail, and respond to failure, in order to overcome adversity and build resiliency.  Learning, to Hahn, required deliberate service activities and experiences coupled with periods of silence, solitude, and reflection, including a requirement for solo walks for at least two hours per week.  Ultimately, students in Hahn’s schools were the crew, not the passengers, of a ship in which learning by doing was the central mantra and leadership development pedagogy.

A century removed, as we hopefully emerge from a “world war” not on one another but on a virus, how can we also create meaningful experiences at school “so that [students] can discover and test their hidden powers” on a recurring basis?

1) Get outside

A proven experiential learning model for student leadership and character development is outdoor expeditionary learning. Though there are numerous approaches, including challenge courses and a variety of expeditionary models, the unifying principle is to place small groups in challenging and unpredictable outdoor environments for the development of practical skills such as risk-taking and decision making as well as the development of leadership characteristics and capabilities, including initiative, communication, problem-solving, conflict resolution, and team building.  Many studies show positive results, such as increased self-efficacy, self-esteem, and team effectiveness while others have shown its ability to help students manage trauma, anxiety, and ADD/ADHD. Outward Bound, the leader in experiential learning founded by Kurt Hahn, insists that skills acquired through outdoor activities “manifest in the form of increased self-confidence, awareness, and respect for the interdependence of individuals and a desire to make a positive difference in their own lives and in the lives of others.”

Many states, districts, and schools have already shifted to an outdoor classroom model. Perhaps now is the time to expand this movement outdoors not just as an open-air classroom venue, but as a deliberate, experiential leadership and character development tool, similar to the one envisioned by Hahn, in which students are forced to work together in challenging outdoor environments in pursuit of shared goals on a recurring basis.

2) Reincorporate manual competence

We’ve known for a long time that we, as humans, are partially defined by our ability to work with our hands and with tools. Yet we also now know that the benefits of craftsmanship and manual competence extend beyond the cultivation of self-reliance – these skills are one of the most fundamental ways to combat Hahn’s spectatoritis and achieve sustained satisfaction, engagement, and vitality in our day to day lives. 

Modern interpretations of this pedagogy can be found in the surge of “project-based learning,” defined as a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge. Yet budgetary restraints, standardized testing, and a “21st-century skills” movement focusing on the abstract rather than practical have all but permanently removed the shop classes and home economics courses that previously provided manual interpretations of this approach to students. As a result, many “projects” now culminate with PowerPoint presentations or other abstract digital creations rather than tangible products.

What better time than now to set aside entire days or weeks for genuine, culminating projects? At Gordonstoun, a school founded by Hahn in Scotland in 1934, one of the central components of Hahn’s curriculum was known as “The Project.” Projects could be on a wide variety of subjects, such as artwork, building a boat, fixing a car, or composing a piece of music. To Hahn, the only common characteristic was that it was required to “have a very refined target that [could] only be reached by victorious patience and tenacity.” 

Today, other schools, especially those in the Round Square network inspired by Kurt Hahn’s approach, provide weekly, day-long Friday activities for “richer and deeper hands-on experiences” that can only be achieved outside of the traditional block schedule. Many also provide immersive, “mini-term” classes for two to three weeks to allow students to dive deeply into a subject area of interest that they otherwise would not get to explore in high school. Beyond the obvious student benefits, these initiatives also allow faculty to collaborate outside of their class/department in order to create meaningful, interconnected experiences for students, something desperately needed in average school years, but particularly so after over a year of virtual and hybrid learning.

3) Promote service skills, not hours

Community service, to Hahn, was a deliberate, tangible act requiring training and expertise in a practical skill that could be of benefit to the local community. As a result, he deliberately placed many of his schools in small communities, many of them near the sea, so that he could incorporate rescue services such as coast guarding, firefighting, and first aid into the students’ curriculum. Hahn argued that developing the essential skills to aid a fellow human in need might more effectively satisfy their innate “thirst for action in an honorable way and at the same time link it to the Christian purpose in life.” It would also develop their confidence.

Today, we focus more on generic volunteerism. We tally and collate hours spent in soup kitchens. We weigh boxes filled with non-perishable goods. We collect excess clothes when the temperature drops. Yet do these activities truly equip our students with the skills and confidence to meaningfully provide service to others in high school and beyond?

The pandemic has certainly resulted in many negative trends for the current student generation, but one positive has been the increase in students seeking to acquire and apply knowledge in the service of others. For example, the “Fauci Effect” is a term used to describe the unprecedented surge in medical school applications since the start of the pandemic.

It is our collective duty to harness this fleeting, innate desire and channel it toward the types of tangible skill sets that Hahn recommended a century ago. By focusing less on episodic “volunteerism” and “community service,” and more on enduring, tangible service-learning skills which can practically benefit our immediate communities, we could provide critical, early exposure to practical, skill-based commitments to service. As David Brooks summarizes in The Second Mountain, “character emerges from our commitments. If you want to inculcate character in someone else, teach them how to form commitments – temporary ones in childhood, provisional ones in youth, permanent ones in adulthood. Commitments are the school for moral formation.” 

***

At some point in every educator’s career, there comes a time – often sooner rather than later – in which we lament the “state” of modern youth and, with the benefits of hindsight, reflect nostalgically on the way things used to be. Common cues of this transition include sentences beginning with clauses such as “back in my day,” or “when I was your age.” These symptoms aren’t unique to educators alone – many parents and grandparents, among others, might find this sentiment relatable. 

It is often at this juncture in which great educators often emerge. Most educators will make these observations and possibly even voice their criticisms, often repeatedly, without developing any sort of alternative. Great educators will use these observations and critiques as evidence and inspiration to develop and propose innovative solutions.

Kurt Hahn was one such great educator. We owe it to ourselves and our students to look back on his wisdom as we emerge from our own “world war” and work to build a better educational future. 

Mike Chapman steps into a new role this fall as Director of Outdoor Education and Teacher of US History at the Dunn School in California.  Formerly an instructor with the Cadet Corps Leadership Program at St. John’s College High School in Washington, D.C., Mike has worked in a variety of roles, including Crew Chief with the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana/Office of Disaster Response, English Education Volunteer in the United States Peace Corps, infantry officer in the Marine Corps Reserve, and various positions at the Department of State, Department of Defense and non-profit world.  Special thanks to the Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound School for their support in the drafting of these essays.