By Ian Galbraith
In 2002, I joined Lilyfontein School, a small school situated in the rolling farmlands on the eastern seaboard of East London in the Eastern Cape.
My brief as the new head was to expand the almost 100-year-old primary school into a high school, and to add adventure-based education to the already successful school curriculum.
Over the past 14 years, Lilyfontein has grown into a school that today has more than 600 learners from grades 0–12, with an adventure programme that is fully integrated into the curriculum across all grades.
With its unique rural setting, its small classes and its adventure-based ethos, Lilyfontein has become a sought-after option for parents who understand the benefits of experiential
learning and want “something different” to the mainstream public schools that East London deservedly has become well known for.
Adventure-based learning holds extraordinary benefits for learners – not only within the school context, but also in terms of how it prepares young people for a life beyond the school gates.
The Lilyfontein approach
Lilyfontein’s experiential-learning curriculum is built on extensive research done for my PhD thesis, as well as years of experience in the field.
It is designed to integrate the cognitive side of learning (about natural science, numbers, space, geometry, geography, etc.) with the meta-cognitive side of learning (self-reflection, self-monitoring, self-evaluation, self-correction) through adventure-based experiential activities.
These activities involve abseiling, canoeing, rock climbing, parachuting, horse riding, cycling, highwire workouts, high and
low rope-climbing courses, group dynamic and team-building initiatives, raft building, bridge building, survival camps and adventure racing.
At Lilyfontein, these programmes are run as part of everyday life orientation learning programmes, and are complemented by programmes that require students to consider the environments in which they work and play.
Learners are placed in challenging real-life situations, facing
tangible consequences, and are required to engage with peers,
educators and leaders to work towards specific goals. These interactions take place on a physical, intellectual and emotional plane, and in this process their learning is mediated, encouraging effective self-regulation.
The underlying theory: how does it work?
Adventure-based learning seeks to increase the learner’s capacity
to operate in the world and to balance the different domains of
learning: cognitive, meta-cognitive, physical, emotional and spiritual.
A learner engaged in adventure-based activities is required to act reflectively, to consider the best approach to a situation, to analyse and evaluate their action and then make the most effective decision to carry out the next step. This real-life (as opposed to simulated or classroom) situation and the high-risk nature of adventurebased activities serves a strong developmental purpose, using both conscious and subconscious mental processes, thereby addressing the many different elements required to be a self-regulated learner.
Individual adventure-based learning
Let us consider abseiling as an example of an individual adventure-based learning activity. To succeed, a learner must decide to lean into the safety gear at the edge of the cliff and take up the correct position for abseiling. They must overcome the fear and uncertainty of this unnatural position and height, and decide to make the first move to start the abseil. They must plan and execute a safe route down the cliff face alone while controlling the anxiety caused by doing so and, at the bottom, must demonstrate self-discipline to keep control of their elation until all the safety procedures are observed.
By repeatedly putting learners in these types of situations, adventure-based education enables learners to internalize the techniques required for the successful achievement of their goals.
Group adventure-based learning
Group dynamics also form part of the adventure-based education programme. This involves putting learners into situations where a specific outcome has to be accomplished, but within a group context.
These activities are designed to involve listening and communication skills, planning and goal setting, evaluating and reflecting on an action, changing a strategy if required, and then being able to review its weaknesses and strengths to find ways to improve efforts.
Each task is explained, monitored and measured by a facilitator, who gets the group to reflect on their performance. This learning is then taken into the next task. At the end of a series of tasks, the facilitator asks open-ended questions to enable the group and individuals to reflect on the completion of the task. My research indicated that this method results in learners internalising the skills and strategies they needed to succeed, and ensuring they are able to apply them to different situations and learning scenarios.
Does it produce results?
We believe it does produce results. Lilyfontein prides itself on having attained a 100% matric pass rate since 2008.
My Masters and PhD research conducted at Lilyfontein shows that adventure-based activities equip learners with certain meta-cognitive strategies that help build confidence, enhance problem-solving skills and produce independent thinkers, who are able not only to cope better with decision making but also with emotional aspects such as fear, anxiety and conflict.
The incremental ability of the learner’s conscious mind (the prefrontal cortex) to overcome self-limiting beliefs stored in the subconscious mind helps improve self-esteem and allows learners to develop self-confidence. It is this ability to selfregulate that enables learners to systematically direct their thoughts, feelings and actions towards the attainment of their goals. They are able to think, investigate, solve problems and make sense of information or situations for themselves. These are invaluable life skills that take learners way beyond their school years.
In the 14–17 age group, 30% of parents surveyed during my research indicated that their children had shown improved selfconfidence or self-esteem as a result of the adventure-based activities; 28% indicated that there had been some selfimprovement and attitude change, and 13% attributed increased responsibility as a result of having completed the adventure activities.
How do we do it?
Our adventure-based learning approach uses a combination of “adventure days”, camps and excursions to take learners through a series of incrementally more complex activities as they move from Grade 1 to Grade 12. Each activity builds a set of intellectual and emotional skills that is needed to face the following year’s set of tasks. Each activity is facilitated by qualified members of staff to ensure that the learning outcomes are achieved.
What does the future hold?
The success of the program is beyond doubt. The next step is to grow our adventure department to be able to offer our curriculum to other schools and businesses, and to add a post-matriculation year of adventure-based experience with a focused mathematics component.
Unfortunately, I will not be the one to take this project forward, as I retire later this year – but I am confident that the adventure programme I leave behind, and the highly skilled team that runs it, will ensure the success of this next phase of growth for Lilyfontein School.