Outdoor Education R&E Center

Instructor Effectiveness

Learning About Assumptions

James Neill
Last updated:
11 Mar 2007

Some of an instructor’s behaviors, actions, ideas, and interactions with participants are likely to forward participants’ development, some such actions are likely to be ineffective, idiosyncratic and not do anything at all, while some other actions may be detrimental to the education process.  To the inexperienced instructor, and even some experienced instructors, it may not be clear to them which actions advance the learning process for participants.  The challenge for the conscientious instructor is to conduct careful self-examination of his/her involvement in an outdoor education program to try to elicit:

  • what assumptions he/she has, and to determine whether they are valid and beneficial or invalid and detrimental,
  • what effect his/her actions have on the learning process for students and whether alternative actions could have been more effective,
  • what effect his/her style has, and how this can be improved.

An instructor’s development in these respects can be aided by experienced and knowledgeable program coordinators and members of the human resource department who can be used as a resource and who can provide critical feedback.  Instructors can also look to accompanying teachers, participants, and other instructors to help develop a more effective instructional method.  Such a process of self-examination requires a certain level of maturity, humility, resilience, and dedication on the part of the instructor.  Progression will not occur without some personal tension, resistance to change, and eventual adoption of improved practices and beliefs.

An initial issue which the instructor faces are the assumptions he/she holds.  Assumptions can be a significant barrier or alternatively a valuable aid in facilitating the person development of participants.  It is a natural human mental activity to be constantly producing lay theories (assumptions) about why people do things and what they think.  These assumptions help us to predict how someone will react if we do something, and so on.  The problem is that acquiring assumptions is an idiosynchratic, ad hoc process and although the assumptions may not be correct they might become a habitual way of seeing of the world.  Nevertheless, these assumptions manifest in the way one interacts with participants, designs programs, and so on.  Therefore, it can be useful for instructors to examine their assumptions about human behavior and learning, and to explore other possibilities which may prove worthwhile.  For example, Handley (1994) lists his assumptions which are based on a General Systems framework for solution focused intervention:

  • People experience problems as oppressive and desire for things to be better.
  • Problems can be seen as occurring within the context of human interaction.  Problem patterns include both behavior and perceptions.  Both behaving differently and thinking differently are part of the process of change.
  • People have tried to solve their problems, but the attempts failed to bring the desired relief.
  • It is more helpful to consider, “what keeps this problem alive in this person’s life, and keeps it from being resolved?” than “what caused this problem?”.
  • People get stuck in interactional patterns or vicious cycles that reflect their way of making sense of the situation, such that the problem may be seen to “take on a life of it’s own”.
  • People have within them a wealth of resources...both known and unknown to them.
  • The problem is the problem....the person is not the problem.
  • Change is constant and inevitable.
  • Every problem dominated pattern includes exceptions which serve as hints towards a solution.
  • Complex problems don’t necessitate complex solutions.
  • Solution ideas or interventions work best when they fit the client’s world view.
  • If it works, don’t fix it.
  • You don’t need to know what the problem is.  It is more important to know what will be different when the problem is solved.

Handley suggests that this set of assumptions is beneficial for facilitating change with participants.  Other assumptions may interfere with an instructor’s work.  Challenging personally-held assumptions is difficult, particularly because assumptions mostly operate unconsciously and manifest themselves insidiously in one’s beliefs and actions.  One method to get at held assumptions, and to experiment with new assumptions, is to keep a diary during instructing outdoor education programs.  By noting down key educational decisions and reasons for each decision, an instructor can map the experience and discover linkages between decisions, interactions with participants, and outcomes.  This diary can also form the basis of post-course debriefing with other staff and lead to further discussion, reading, and training for the instructor. 

Having discussed assumptions in a general way, three examples are provided here which are litmus tests of commonly occurring problems which may result from questionable assumptions.

The first example is when an instructor operates reasonably well with most participants, but has particular difficulty with some participants or some staff.  An instructor who has difficulty with a participant or another staff member has a problem.  In this sense it is not the participant of the other staff member’s problem.  The cause of this problem for the instructor is quite likely to do with an assumption or value-judgment that he/she has made.  Identification and re-examination of this assumption and then clear communication and testing of the false assumption with the participant or other staff member can move towards positive resolution, and thereby refocus energies back on positive development.  Pretending the problem doesn’t exist or ignoring it will at best result in an ineffective experience for a participant and an ineffective relationship with another staff member, or at worst, produce destructive relationships.

A second common area of ineffectiveness is when an instructor spends disproportionately more time with those participants whom he/she gets along best with, and less time with those participants who are not similar in personality or as socially adept or as motivated.  A more mature and effective instructor will tend to recognize that those participants whom he/she gets along best with are probably the most able to cope with experience and direct their own learning, while the less positive participants require a greater level of intervention from the instructor for the experience to be ‘translated’ and ‘reframed’ into terms that are meaningful for them.

A third common area of inappropriate assumptions resulting in ineffective experiences in effectiveness is poor communication of the instructor’s role and handing over of responsibility.  The new instructor, excited by the possibilities of experiential education, presents him/herself to participants in a whirlwind of enthusiasm, then (mysteriously to participants) steps back and does nothing, waiting for the ‘magic of experience’ to work.  The participants have not been ‘guided’ into experiential learning, and stand around looking at each other, and muttering amongst themselves that the program is a stupid exercise.  Frustrated, the instructor then blames the students for not taking any initiative or being motivated (rarely does the instructor blame his/her poor initial assessment of the group’s capabilities and failure to hand over of the experience in a guided manner), and reacts by stepping in and taking over.  Participants, relieved that something is finally happening, then step back even further and let themselves be carried along passively.

Difficulty with participants, spending too much time with some participants, and inappropriate application of guided discovery learning are three examples of the consequences of underlying assumptions that instructors may be able to detect through self-examination and diary recording of their educational approach and by seeking feedback from those around them.