Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Does Pushing Comfort Zones Produce Peak Learning Experiences?

Academic journal article Journal of Outdoor and Environmental Education

Does Pushing Comfort Zones Produce Peak Learning Experiences?

Article excerpt


This article presents findings from two Outward Bound studies, one for international participants in the Czech Republic and one for female offenders in New Zealand. Open-ended questions asked participants which activities took them out of their comfort zones and from which activities they had learnt the most. The experiential learning literature advocates that by moving people out of their comfort zones learning takes place. However, the findings indicate that the activities, which participants identified pushed them out of their comfort zones, may not necessarily be the activities that result in peak learning experiences. Whilst it was mainly the physical activities that pushed participants out of their comfort zones, a range of social, creative and reflection activities produced the most learning. This finding suggests that facilitators need to recognize that individual participants' perceptions of risk are different and remain responsive to participant's needs throughout the program. The findings also indicate that facilitators need to be aware that learning may come from activities that do not necessarily create the most perception of risk for the participants.

It has been argued that the core aim of experiential learning and outdoor education is that the individual grows through reflection upon problem solving and challenging experiences that push boundaries or take participants out of their 'comfort zones' (Gass, 1993; Luckner & Nadler, 1997; Nadler, 1995; Nadler & Luckner, 1992).

Nadler's (1995) edgework concept is helpful in this context. He suggested that participants in adventure programs have choices in terms of moving out of their 'comfort zones' by breaking through the 'edge' and of moving into new territory, or of turning back and remaining in their comfort zone as is illustrated in Figures 1 and 2.

Drawing on the work of Bateson (1980) and White (1989), Nadler (1995) explained why some participants break through the 'edge' and others retreat. The response by participants at the 'edge' is usually unconscious (Bateson, 1980) and if the experience is too different to the participant's frame of reference it is often discounted (White, 1989). "Edgework is a process which illuminates what is happening for the individual when they are at or close to their edge. The goal is to make this unconscious process conscious, so the participant has more predictable information and thus more choices" (Nadler, 1995, p.53).

Carver (1996, p.9) suggested that experiential education is a process of learning "that makes conscious application of student's experiences". This definition supports the view of Boud, Cohen and Walker (1993) who proposed that "learning always relates to what has gone before... Earlier experiences may encourage us to take risks or they may inhibit our range of operation or ability to respond to opportunities (p.8)". The Association for Experiential Education (AEE) definition also emphasizes the importance of the process in learning from experience: "Experiential education is a process through which a learner constructs knowledge, skill, and value from direct experiences" (Luckmann, 1996, p.7). However, just having an experience does not necessarily mean learning will have occurred (Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985; Dewey, 1938/1965). Gass (1993) argued that it involves the learner being placed in unfamiliar environments, outside their positions of comfort and into states of dissonance. This lack of harmony requires problem solving, inquiry and reflection (Kraft & Sakofs, 1991).

Nadler (1995) also indicated that adventure experiences aim to develop personal growth through pushing boundaries or 'comfort zones'. This adventure component, which need not necessarily be physical, generally involves some degree of uncertainty and risk-taking, some challenge and reflection, a co-operative group environment and consensual decisionmaking (Flor, 1991). Schoel, Prouty and Radcliffe (1988) used the term 'peak experience' in adventure based counseling to refer "to a challenging group or individual experience which is the culmination of a particular sequence of skill building, preparation training" (p. …

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