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Outward Bound

Outward Bound:
History of an Innovative Educational Movement

James Neill
Last updated:
20 Aug 2004

“Outward Bound…
a new kind of school where the world of thought and action will no longer be divided.”
- Kurt Hahn 



History of Outward Bound - an adventure-based, experiential education movement, developed during the second world war.

The Development of Outward Bound

"Outward Bound was founded in the tumultuous waters of the North Sea during World War II,
to provide young sailors with the experiences and skills necessary to survive at sea." (http://www.outwardbound.com/history.html)

The first Outward Bound program was inspired by Dr. Kurt Hahn, a German educator, who responded to the needs of Lawrence Holt, head of the Blue Funnel Shipping Line, a merchant shipping company.

Holt's problem was this -- during World War II, young merchant seaman were not surviving as well as their older counterparts in lifeboat situations, after their ships had been torpedoed by German U-boats.

Hahn figured he knew why -- that the younger sailors had not enough life experience.  What's more, the old sailors had been brought up in an age of sail, and learnt lots of practical skills and dealt with difficult situations before, giving them more confidence and ability to cope with demanding challenges.

The early Outward Bound programs were conducted in Aberdovey, Wales, with sea-based theme, but also including land expeditions.  The young seamen, and then other young men from around the UK, were assigned to the Outward Bound program for 26 days - the period of time between their pay checks.

Kurt Hahn's Philosophy

Dr. Kurt Hahn was in his late 40's when Outward Bound was started and he brought considerable philosophy and energy from his earlier, longitudinal educational experiments with

  • Salem Schule in Germany,

  • Gordonstoun School in Scotland, and

  • the County Badge Scheme (now the Duke of Edinburgh's Award). 

Outward Bound was a novel chance for Hahn to experiment with his ideas about education, by trying out an intensive, "shot-in-the-arm" type of program.

The idea behind the design of Outward Bound courses is that by creating a series of intense, mini-life experiences, young people's self-belief and capacity to cope with life could be enhanced. 

The early evidence was that the Outward Bound experiments seemed to work -- the sailors survived better).  Hahn insisted that there was nothing original about his methods.  He claimed that he simply took the good ideas that were already out there and put to them to work within his compelling educational experiments. 

Hahn's philosophy revolved around the importance of helping students to discover their true capabilities by impelling them into experiences that would help them to find their greater capacities. 

For Hahn, it was the educator's responsibility to impel and to support the student.  Hahn was stern with his teachers and instructors -- for any student to fail to reach his/her potential was a failure of the teacher, not of the student.

Coining of the term, "Outward Bound"

"Outward Bound" was the name chosen by Holt.  At first Hahn did not like the idea, but later conceded that the name had been well chosen. 

"Outward Bound" is a nautical term used to refer to the flag Papa, flown on a ship when it was soon to leave port.  It was a signal to the sailors that it was time to return to ship if the "Outward Bound" flag was flying.  "Outward Bound" literally refers to the moment a ship leave's harbor.  This symbology remains important in Outward Bound, and participants on courses in many Outward Bound schools today receive a pin lapel of the flag papa.

Growth & Development of Outward Bound

The Outward Bound experiment spawned not only the development of up to 40 Outward Bound schools around the world following World War II , but the organization also helped to foster a new industry or field -- outdoor education (or adventure education). 

Within the field outdoor education, Outward Bound is acknowledged as being the significant catalyst for other famous outdoor education programs, including:

  • the National Outdoor Leadership School (originally to train potential Outward Bound instructors in the USA),

  • Project Adventure (an effort to bring Outward Bound principles into high schools) (for more detail see History of Outdoor Education), and

  • Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound, a school-based curriculum based on Outward Bound learning principles.