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Outward Bound Australia
Research History

James Neill
Last updated:
05 May 2004

Outward Bound Australia Research History

Ten years after Outward Bound in Australia had begun in 1956, there were many ex-students and the school now had a permanent base and full-time staff at Fisherman’s point.  In order to get a clearer picture of how Outward Bound had effected its participants and to know more about how it was perceived in Australian society, the Mackay Research Group was funded to study Outward Bound.  This was the first formal Outward Bound Australia research document and it included valuable strategic advice and marketing direction by an independent research group.  The study was based on focus group discussions with alumni and the general public. 

In re-establishing an OBA National Base in the ACT in the early 1970's, Garry Richards sought a more solid platform on which to build a School. This was pursued both physically (e.g., moving to a logistically more national and convenient location near Canberra and organizationally (e.g., creating a research program). 

Richards had a background in educational psychology and he sought early in his career with OBA to document evidence with regard to the effects of Outward Bound programs and to infuse theoretical and research-based knowledge from psychology and education into the design and practice of Outward Bound programs.

This theory and research driven approach was unique amongst Outward Bound Schools which had, for the most part, been run by the passion of well-meaning mountaineers, adventurers and alternative thinkers, but not from a rigorous scientific basis.  Outward Bound schools were impressive for their enthusiasm, compelling philosophy, powerful anecdotes and personalities, but lacked it seemed, the cold, hard evidence or well-argued theory to convince the sceptical.

Richards’ vision for a research component for the new Australian Outward Bound school was expansive.  Richards sought not only to incorporate psycho-educational understandings into Outward Bound programs, but to contribute knowledge about human behaviour to the world in general.  All this during times when the new school staff were working incredibly hard on the practicalities of running programs on a shoe string budget.  Research was part of Richards’ grand vision and never-say-die approach that characterized much of Outward Bound’s getting the new national base established and developing programs around Australia during the 1970’s-1990’s.

Over the next 20 or so years, Outward Bound Australia became known as arguably the most productive single centre for outdoor education theory and research, and undoubtedly the most research productive Outward Bound school of the 40 or so around the world. 

Richards become notorious for his charismatic presentations on research, able to captivate an audience for hours on end with stories and examples from one study after study.  Richards sometimes commented that although corporate managers rarely read the research, that when he dumped thick wads of research and analysis on people’s tables (the bigger and heavier the better) , they seemed to take more notice of what he was saying.

Richards had recognised the long-term potential value of establishing a research program early on and, importantly, sought to cultivate a new breed of scientific thinking within Outward Bound.  For example, Richards wanted all full-time staff to have a university degree and for all long-term staff to do post-graduate study in a specialist area, such as education.  Richards subscribed to many top research journals and vociferously scanned for articles of relevance to Outward Bound and had those articles copied and put into a coded reference library.

A rationale Richards would use in presentations and conversation to explain his emphasis on research went as follows:

If Outward Bound does a poor job of teaching people how to canoe, it really doesn’t matter (as long as safety is not an issue).  There are not many long-term consequences of poor canoeing skills.  But if Outward Bound does a poor job of mucking around with people’s heads, then Outward Bound does a real disservice, if not outright harm.  Therefore, if Outward Bound purports to mess around with people psychologically, then it should avail itself of the best available knowledge and research about psychology and education, and it should objectively evaluate its effectiveness.  Outward Bound should be rigorously researching its programs and scrutinising ways in which programs can improved.  Just changing someone isn’t enough, the real question is, are we providing experiences which are the most effective they conceivably can be?

Richards' initial efforts to embark on a research program were not met with enthusiasm by the board at the time. Richards was astute enough to realise from past experiences with the Fisherman's Point School and the Board that he would have to find innovative ways to get research done. Hence in the new structure, the School Director and Executive Director positions were rolled into one, dealing at least with the past divide that had surfaced between an on-base School Director and off-base Executive Director. 

Richards' strategy to launch research was to promote a ‘demographic’ study of course participants, for marketing purposes.  Thus, in the early days of the ACT-based programs, a multi-page demographic questionnaire was devised and completed by all course participants. Information gathered included questions about how participants had heard about Outward Bound, whether people they knew had been to Outward Bound, what they expected from the program, and so on.  In some ways it was a logical, empirical extension of the McKay study, but its purpose was primarily to sow the seeds of the culture of research into Outward Bound Australia.

This was the beginning of a 20-year series of projects investigating the psychological, educational processes and outcomes of Outward Bound.  Approximately 50 published and unpublished research studies were produced and conducted hand-in-hand with program and staff development.

One way which Richards used to illustrate the organizational importance of research was that in order to reach his office in the lower cottage, one had to physically walk through the Research Department.  The door in between was lined with a sound-proof barrier so that confidential discussions could not be heard by the research department, but by and large the door was open and there was constant interaction between the research department and staff working with the Executive Director.  In this way Richards sought to minimize the potential division between research and practice, which often occurs.  It was not uncommon for staff working on research to be invited into meetings to help advise or be briefed on research requirements.

It is difficult to summarise the scope of activities that the Outward Bound Australia Research Department engaged in.  Richards would often joke that Outward Bound researched everything that moved.  It was only partly a joke.  To the public eye, Outward Bound’s research achievements included:

  • Presentations, including many keynote speeches, at national education, psychology and outdoor education conferences.

  • Peer-reviewed publications in many well respected education, psychology and outdoor education journals.

  • Collaboration with several well respected academics in education, psychology and outdoor education.  The most notable and long-lasting association has been with Professor Herbert Marsh at the University of Western Sydney, a renowned international educational researcher.

  • Hosting an international research conference for Outward Bound Schools in the mid-1990s.

  • Conducting several contract research studies for other schools, including sail training ships ‘Leeuwin’ and ‘Young Endeavour’ and of the Australian and New Zealand Scientific Exploring Society (ANZSES) expeditions).

  • Development of one of the largest libraries of outdoor education and Outward Bound research in the world.

  • Dissemination of findings through a research portfolio including abstracts, bibliographies, summaries and orderable publications.

  • Summer research scholarships were offered on several occasions during the 1990s, allowing a young researcher to conduct research with Outward Bound.

  • Approximately 20 student theses, including 4th year, Masters and PhD studies have been conducted about OBA programs during the 1970's-1990's.

  • In a 1995 major review of the adventure education research literature, Barret and Greenaway found that the vast majority of outdoor education research had been conducted in the US, but particularly commended  the productivity of the research department at Outward Bound Australia.

  • In a 1997 major article reviewing 99 adventure education studies, Outward Bound Australia programs were highlighted as having extremely impressive effects on participants compared to other forms of adventure-based and educational programming (Hattie, et al., 1997).

Internally, research contributed to Outward Bound operations, with results being incorporated into staff training and course design.  This included safety studies and systems for providing feedback to instructors and coordinators based on surveys filled out by participants.  It was not uncommon for new ideas to emerge, based on research about how programs should be run.  For example, Richards in the mid-late 1980’s had identified that physical self-concept growth in adolescent girls was actually negative for girls, whereas it was positive for boys.  Therefore several changes were made to girls’ programs, including more opportunities for girls to wash whilst on expedition as well as more time for discussing their experiences with their peers.  In subsequent research, girls showed improved outcomes for physical self-concept.

Although Richards was the instigator and key force behind OBA's research for almost twenty years, he inspired many other contributors amongst the staff, including, John Barrett, Brenda Morrison, Scott Fry, and James Neill, to name just a few.

When Richards departed OBA in 1996, the organisation was left depleted in terms of research savvy.  However, a new model for research has evolved, including experiments with the services being provided externally by National Outdoor Education & Leadership Services (NOELS) run initially by Richards and James Neill (who had been the OBA research coordinator 1994-1996) and then for a time by Howard Walmsley, a university lecturer.

From around 2002, Zoë Herbert and Karim Haddad, two of the long-term staff who are now Directors, lead a new, more steady phase of growth and focus on research, concentrating on getting efficient feedback about course outcomes and medical incidents back to instructors and coordinators. 

This most recent phase has also been marked by concentrating on the increasing demand for hard-evidence outcome type reports for sponsors of corporate programs and programs funded through grants.  Long term studies were also initiated to evaluate effects of Regional Community Development programs.  In addition, the cumulative research resources are being turned into electronic format, with summaries and overviews available on the Outward Bound website.

Perhaps the final word on research deserves to go back to Outward Bound’s philosophical originator, Kurt Hahn.  Richards modelled himself somewhere on the inspiration Hahn and, like Hahn, was found of demystifying Outward Bound and point out that it was simply the bringing together of tried and tested ideas.

Hahn was reputed to be quite proud that there was nothing new about his schools. Both Hahn and Richards were fond of the story of a distinguished American who, while being shown around Salem School, asked Hahn's colleague, Prince Max von Baden, what he was most proud of in the school. The Prince's reply was to the effect that nothing was original and that they had borrowed from all sorts of other educators and institutions. The American expressed the view that surely all schools should aim at being original. Prince Max quickly replied, In education, as in medicine, you must harvest the wisdom of a thousand years. If you ever come across a surgeon and he wants to extract your appendix in the most original manner possible, I would strongly advise you to go to another surgeon.

So it was with Hahn, he preferred practices that were already proven to work.  Outward Bound Australia took this philosophy a step further by testing everything that moved.  Ongoing, focused investments in research are also likely to be a hallmark of thriving Outward Bound programs into the future.

References

Barret, J., & Greenaway, R. (1995a). Why adventure? The role and value of outdoor adventure in young people’s personal and social development. Coventry, England: Foundation for Outdoor Adventure.

Fletcher, B. A. (1970). Students of Outward Bound schools in Great Britain: A followup study. Bristol, England: University of Bristol, School of Education.

Fletcher, B. A. (1971). The challenge of Outward Bound. London: Heinemann.

Hattie, J. A., Marsh, H. W., Neill, J. T. & Richards, G. E. (1997). Adventure Education and Outward Bound: Out-of-class experiences that have a lasting effect. Review of Educational Research, 67, 43-87.