Getting to the Core of the NCOAE Curriculum, Part 1

Office Admin

February 13, 2014

When it comes to describing the course of study for a school or university, the word “curriculum” is most often used, and it traditionally references all of the courses offered at a particular institution.


Curriculum has been described as “a path for students to follow,” which is actually fitting when you think about the backcountry activities that are so paramount to our offerings.

What makes that term specific to The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE) is that — while our emphasis is on skills related to backpacking, rock climbing, whitewater rafting and surfing — our curriculum doesn’t stop with those outdoor and technical skills.

Unlike many outdoor adventure and education programs, our core curriculum also has a focus on what we call “human” skills, with goals of providing a positive impact on our students’ leadership, communication and their civic and environmental responsibilities. By expanding our understanding of the word curriculum, we’re using experiential education to give our students what is sometimes called “action learning.”

What we’re most proud of is offering relevant and fulfilling educational experiences for youth and adults that are current, effective and  rewarding. Our custom curriculum is based on experiential education, which means we value the process of learning actively and hands-on. We use activities and curricula that are problem-based and collaborative. The curriculum encourages our course participants to merge their new outdoor experience with their previous life experiences in order to confront and challenge “obstacles” and find solutions.

Our wilderness programs expose NCOAE course participants to a core curriculum, built upon Self, Community, Action and Impact. We factor in 11 topics to be addressed during the daily Educational Groups (known as “Ed Groups”), and these same 11 topics are revisited for reflection during evening Process Groups (known as “The Summit”).

Outdoor skills are related to students the moment they hit the trail and continue throughout the entire course. Our instructors take full advantage of unplanned teachable moments, and our activities — the Summit, Ed Groups, outdoor skills, students’ presentations of learning and the use of journal  — all provide unrivaled opportunity for learning and growth.

The Summit is the platform we employ for processing and reflecting on the adventure experience as well as the Ed Groups. The Summit is a relational arts practice that encourages honest communication. The Summit creates a specific time for the students to reflect on how the experience is affecting them. It is a formal, structured process that includes sitting in a circle and using a “talking piece” (an object used to identify the speaker) in response to a prompt from the facilitator.

Specific logistics must occur in order to set the stage for the Summit. These include creating a centerpiece such as stone, a drawing or other meaningful objects; establishing the talking piece; sitting in a circle; offering a dedication; and posing a prompt or question to the group. Prompts are used to encourage reflection and deeper integration of new information. The instructor is encouraged to develop savvy and sophisticated prompts to fuel deeper learning during the Summit.

When we participate in Ed Groups, the students and instructors arrive with their journals and sit in a circle whenever possible. There is a distinct beginning and ending of every Ed group to acknowledge that there is something special about this time (different from everyday communication). Ed groups begin with a dyadic presentation during which notes can be taken, and they end with an experiential activity. Instructors often offer a prompt for a journal reflection, which is revisited during the evening Summit. Ed Groups are generally taught once a day during the morning or afternoon. They include the following:

1. Feelings Identification

2. Levels of Communication

3. Defense Mechanisms

4. Stress Management

5. Clear Communication & Conflict Resolution

6. Civic Responsibility

7. Group Decision-making

8. Values Clarification

9. Stereotypes

10. Critical Thinking

11. Leadership Qualities

Here at NCOAE, our instructors are trained to teach outdoor and technical skill in an engaging, soluble and meaningful manner. These teachers are expected to refer to the NCOAE Protocols Manual for Outdoor and technical activities for insight to specific policies and procedures. And we make sure that instructors align with the 12 principles adapted from The Association for Experiential Education when presenting outdoor & technical skills. These dozen principals include:

  • Learning occurs when learning experiences include reflection, critical analysis and synthesis.
  • Experiences require the learner to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results.
  • Learners are engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative, and constructing meaning.
  • Learners are engaged intellectually, emotionally, socially and/or physically.
  • The result of the learning is personal and forms the basis for future experience and learning.
  • Relationships are developed and nurtured: learner to self, learner to others and learner to the world.
  • Outcomes cannot be predicted, thus individuals may experience success, failure and uncertainty.
  • Opportunities are nurtured for learners and educators to explore and examine their own values.
  • The educator’s primary roles include setting suitable experiences, posing problems, setting boundaries, supporting learners, insuring physical and emotional safety and facilitating the learning process.
  • The educator recognizes and encourages spontaneous opportunities for learning.
  • Educators strive to be aware of their biases and pre-conceptions and how these influence the learner.
  • Learning experience include learning from natural consequences, mistakes and successes.

All of our students are administered a pre- and post-course self-assessment, which is evaluated against our organization’s anticipated outcomes for participants upon course completion. In some cases, we ask a parent or other appropriate adult to participate in a similar assessment, allowing us to gauge and note additional appreciable differences.

NCOAE’s Anticipated Outcome Goals include:

  • Eighty percent of our students experience at least a 50 percent improvement of self-actualization, decision-making, esteem, communication, teamwork, civic responsibility and environmental stewardship.
  • Seventy percent of students have a successful transfer of learning, as determined by improved academic and social standards throughout the following school year.

So there you have it; a high-level overview of the NCOAE curriculum. Check back in about a month or so when we’ll be diving deeper into particular aspect of the curriculums in a series of follow-up blog posts.

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