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The Future of Outward Bound

James Neill
Last updated:
05 Feb 2005


For the first couple of decades after Outward Bound was started in the 1940's there were few other major adventure education programs.  Today it is a different story.  Outward Bound’s survival may even be threatened by a market flooded with other outdoor education competitors and specialized adventure organizations targeting specific sets of clientele (e.g., corporate outdoor programs).  Many from outside the Outward Bound movement have commented that the organization has been too slow to change.

Recent years have seen several mergers of schools, including the two Canadian schools, two of the US schools, and in the UK, Outward Bound merged with Duke of Edinburgh.  On the other hand, there continues to be an exciting growth of Outward Bound in countries such as Costa Rica, Brazil, Czech Republic, and so on.  Outward Bound International is struggling financially, which is problematic at a crucial time in the organization's history.

The leaders of Outward Bound today must create an innovative, practical strategy for the future.  It will not be enough to rely on reputation and past successes.  The unique strengths around which a new future for Outward Bound could be developed are:

1. History & Reputation: Generally speaking, the reputation of Outward Bound is very good, and Outward Bound can trade on this and its impressive history, but this is stronger if combined with its other strengths.

2. Compelling ‘Kurt Hahn’ experiential/adventure philosophy: Kurt Hahn's founding philosophy for Outward Bound remains as relevant and compelling as ever.

3. Extensive International Network: Currently Outward Bound schools operate very independently.  There is either an international staff symposia or international Outward Bound conference once a year.  There seems to be considerable, as yet unrealized potential, however, for greater international collaboration between individual schools or coordinated by Outward Bound International.  It seems strange, for example, that Outward Bound has not invested in an international marketing website for its programs or in seeking grants for international programs.

4. Rich Knowledge Base, including extensive research evidence, program information, staff training modules, etc.  There is a massive knowledge base of outdoor education information and expertise within Outward Bound schools around the world.  However, there is little sharing of this information between Outward Bound schools, let alone with the outside world.  The potential value of this information could be examined and marketed/sold in the form of training packages or degree programs, books, articles, videos, etc.

Outward Bound’s Innovative Possibilities

So what will be unique about Outward Bound in the future?  Here are some practical, radical suggestions for the future of Outward Bound.  The history of Outward Bound is one of innovation.  In this day and age, further innovation is required for fulfilling the long-term vision of Hahn.  Hahn was critical of Outward Bound later in his life.  He felt that its leaders were sitting on the laurels, satisfied with having added a few more schools.  In 1960 Hahn chastised the Outward Bound Trust (UK):

“will you be satisfied to increase at a slow and safe rate the number of new schools, or will you hear the cry for help from bewildered and frustrated youths all over the world and accept a missionary assignment?...Outward Bound deserves to make a far more ambitious contribution, and is capable of doing so”. 

I often wondered what Hahn would say and inspire today, were he still alive.

What if the international network invested more heavily in Kurt Hahn’s philosophy?

Hahn's philosophy has been perennial, and the Outward Bound movement could promote and develop Kurt Hahn's philosophy more avidly.

Perhaps a larger Kurt Hahn network needs to formed with the Round Square Schools, Duke of Edinburgh and other Kurt Hahn inspired institutions?  A well-conceived network extend Outward Bound’s possibilities through deeper connection to Kurt Hahn philosophy and his other educational projects?  United under the umbrella of Kurt Hahn's philosophy, these educational movements could better support one another with ideas, resources, and innovations.

What if the international network made more of collective Outward Bound knowledge?  

‘Knowledge management’ is a buzzword in the information society.  One of the opportunities for Outward Bound is to effectively organize its philosophical, theory, research and practice resources.  For example, the American Camping Association (ACA) has recently appointed a "Knowledge Manager" and have received over a half million dollars (US) for a large research study.  ACA’s strategic planning reveals a belief that research and knowledge management are important for the future of camping in America.

Currently, the international Outward Bound website has limited downloadable resources to help people learn about Outward Bound.  Likewise, there is no clear schedule of publishing or media campaigning by the Outward Bound movement internationally.  Small schools, in particular, are very much left to fend for themselves.  Greater efficiency and productivity could be facilitated by developing some centralized resources, such as fact sheets on Outward Bound theory and research, staff training modules on facilitation skills, etc. which individual schools could incorporate into their operations.

The rich, but scattered knowledge base of Outward Bound has yet to be optimized.  In my opinion, a strategic plan for research and knowledge management is needed at an international level.

The Global Facilitation Network is the beginning of a vital process which can bring schools together in a rewarding way.  By contributing, schools can ‘grease the wheels’ for many other ways in which an international Outward Bound knowledge base can be created.

Outward Bound should be aiming to fuel an educational revolution in the 21st century

Were Kurt Hahn alive today, I imagine that he would be calling for no less than a complete, innovative overhaul of Outward Bound programs to improve their pervasiveness and relevance to society.  I doubt that he would be happy with the Outward Bound experiment as it stands, although he would be pleased, I think, to see the flourishing of the outdoor education movement more generally.

Where is Hahn’s missionary zeal and spirited leadership action in Outward Bound today?  Nothing short of an educational and social revolution should be OB’s responsibility for the 21st century.  One thing is for sure, Hahn would have created new schemes, for example. 

  • What if the Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound experiment was extended around the world? 

  • What if an Outward Bound experiential practicum was developed for teachers around the world?

  • What if Outward Bound developed a cheap, effective form of programming that could be applied in disadvantaged areas of the world? 

  • What if Outward Bound extended its programming into areas of international and civil conflict, such as the Play for Peace program, instead of staying within the safety of largely peaceful, affluent countries?