• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Thursday 04th February, 2016

Outward bound on a quest to tackle truancy

em>Enthusiasts for Outward Bound courses and other “wilderness experiences” have long argued that they contribute to preventing youth disengagement and delinquency. In this article, Professor Roger Bullock, notes how conclusive evidence of lasting, positive effects remains scarce. But a recent study by researchers in Singapore has encouraged him to keep an open mind.Outdoor education programs arouse strong and varied emotions. To the bookish scholar they may recall miseries of trudging through mud and barbed wire towards a sleepless night spent under damp canvas. Yet to children feeling bored and humiliated by their years of compulsory education, they may hold the promise excitement and an alternative avenue for achievement. So, who is right? What is the evidence? Is an endearing, life-changing moment in mountain drizzle really possible? Despite its 70-year history and presence in 33 countries with more than 250 wilderness and urban settings, systematic research into the Outward Bound movement’s educational adventure activities has been piecemeal and inconclusive. Most studies have used designs where young people have been assessed before and after taking part in the program, without obtaining measurements from a non-participating control group.Stronger evidenceHowever, a group of researchers in Singapore has sought stronger evidence of whether an outward-bound experience really can help young people in trouble, by studying the impact of an intervention for boys and girls aged 13 to 18 who were at risk through truancy of school dropout.To do this, they conducted a quasi-experimental design in which youth whose school attendance had been poor over a three-month period took part in five-day outward-bound program. Their subsequent attendance and behaviour were compared with a similar group of poor attenders who did not take part.The sample of participants consisted of 61 boys and 15 girls, principally from Chinese, Indian, and Malay ethnic background. The matched comparison group comprised 48 boys and 12 girls.The intervention group completed a five-day indoor and outdoor “intercept” program that included demanding physical activities, such as rope climbing, as well as discussions about what had been learned and how this applied to behavior at school. The aim was to help individuals learn and grow through challenging experiences. It sought to increase their self-awareness and improve goal setting, as well as improving their engagement with school and encouraging them to take greater responsibility for their actions.A measurement scale covering 17 developmental domains was constructed from existing research literature concerning at-risk youth. Assessments of the young people were undertaken pre-test, and at one month and three months after completing the programme. Data on school attendance and participation in extra-curricular activities were also collected from schools pre-test and after three months.Better school attendanceThe study found that the participant group improved significantly, compared with the control group, on goal setting and, for the first month only, on problem solving. Children who attended the course also displayed better school attendance and were less likely to skip extra-curricular activities.Numerous evaluations of intervention to change the behaviour of adolescents have found that the effects can be considerable while the young people are taking part or just after, but that they quickly fade. The findings from this study echo this pattern. Those skeptical about the benefits of outward-bound approaches will also note weaknesses in the research that include the brevity of the intervention.To be fair, however, the Singapore study provides a rare example of a scientific study in an area where robust research is scant – and the researchers did wait three months before making the final assessment, to make sure they were not simply measuring “post-experience euphoria”. School drop-out is a perennial world-wide problem that is wasteful for societies and damaging to individuals. While outdoor education programmes might not hold all the answers this problem, the lessons from their application may well contribute to the body of knowledge that will one day see the problem being tackled effectively.************Reference:Ang, R.P., Farihah, N. and Lau, S. (2014) An outcome evaluation of the implementation of the Outward Bound Singapore five-day “intercept” program, Journal of Adolescence, 37, 771-778.Roger Bullock is Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at the University of Bristol.

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