Are the Mountains Still Speaking for Themselves?

A Defining Tension 20 Years On…
James Neill, Wilderdom

Abstract Axiomatic issues in adventure education should be examined in more depth, particular during significant stages of a field’s evolution. The question of the role, importance, methods, and so on in facilitating adventure education groups has been attracting considerable attention since the 1960’s. However, there also seems to be significant reluctance to examining facilitation methods by people who consider doing so a threat to a more essential quality of adventure-based experiences, based in the experience. A classic paper on the topic was written in 1980 by Thomas James, entitled “Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves”. This paper eloquently articulates the sentiments of the “rock-jocks” and the “touchy-feelies” in terms of the strengths and weaknesses of their arguments and practices. The “mountains” versus “facilitation” tension has continued to thrive in adventure education ever since, and is no less resolved today than it was in 1980. It is suggested, however, that this has been, and should continue to be, a healthy tension that has irritated and stimulated adventure education leaders to look more closely at their preferred facilitation styles and strive to successfully integrate the educative potential of “mountains” and “facilitation”. The current paper places Thomas James’ “mountains” versus “facilitation” duality within the context of subsequent proposals of up to six stages of facilitation (Priest & Gass, 1997), argues that it is necessary to examine the relationship between the first and second stages (mountains and reflection respectively) more closely, since they are so fundamental, even axiomatic. The rest of the current paper goes on to describe a 60 to 90 minute workshop that can be conducted with adventure education trainee leaders and/or for staff training, examining the question of “Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves” and relating this back to individual, personal preferences and beliefs.

© James Neill, 2002, Wilderdom

Preamble: Axiomatic Issues in Adventure Education Adventure education, in its ‘modern’ form, is well over 50 years old. It seems timely at the beginning of the twenty-first century to reflect upon trends and issues influencing adventure education programming and to consider the underlying, seemingly perennial nature of fundamental questions. Science talks about axioms, the central hunches or beliefs upon which the whole box and dice rest. Adventure education should also be in the habit of making apparent, and cogitating upon, its axioms. What fundamental assumptions do the theories and practices of adventure education base themselves? Mapping out the territory of philosophical assumptions that are the architecture of outdoor education is a significant task, and few, if any, could claim to have tackled the task comprehensively and head on. A few names come to mind, as worthy of consideration – Jasper Hunt and Steve Bowles, for example. Such thinkers, however, would probably be the first to argue that we need deeper examination of the fundamental assumptions in order to consider possible futures and ways forward for adventure education. setting and Steve Bowles’ questioning of the I personally have particularly positivistic limitations of the appreciated the work of Jasper Hunt on ethical issues in the adventure education predominantly North American theoretical and philosophical views that receive considerable global currency in adventure education circles. Amongst the potentially axiomatic issues that could be considered for closer philosophical examination in adventure education are the roles, challenge, risk, safety, nature, psychological aspects, the leader, and facilitation in adventure education. The current paper focuses on a facilitation question – specifically the debate that occurs between those who promote a “let the mountains speak themselves” view versus those who promote a “facilitated processing of experience is important, in addition (or integrated with) the “mountains” experience”. Interestingly, this is not a new issue.

Bacon’s (1987) Three Stages in the Evolution of Outward Bound and Priest and Gass’ (1997) Six Generations of Facilitation Stephen Bacon (1987) identified three key stages in the evolution of Outward Bound: 1) a first generation model which focused on experience alone and dominated programming in the 1960’s and early 1970’s; 2) a second generation model which emphasised discussion, group process and imported techniques, characteristic of the 1980’s; and 3) a third generation stressing experiential metaphors which we can gained more prominence during the 1990’s.
© James Neill, 2002, Wilderdom

Since this time, Michael Gass (Priest & Gass, 1997) has done some interesting work expanding the nature and sequencing of reflective processes and the use of metaphoric framing of activities. In essence, Priest and Gass (1997) proposes shifting the reflection process from after the experience to before the experience or during the experience. Frontloading, the fourth stage involves conducting a preview discussion before an experience to help orient and focus participants during the ensuing activity. The fifth stages builds upon frontloading by introducing an isomorphic framing, that is, a metaphorical structure for the activity which has a meaningful link to other aspects of participants’ lives. The sixth stage is used where up front frontloading and isomorphic framing may not work, and thus is may involve using paradoxical means, such as telling participants that an activity will probably be too hard for them to complete in order to fire their motivation. Whilst it can be tempting to focus on the intricacies and complexities of the latter stages, there is no doubt that the vast majority of outdoor education programming utilizes the first and second stages – letting the experience for itself and using post-experience reflection to help make sense of an experience. Thus, we shouldn’t let the proposal of advanced facilitation models blind us to the reality that the guts of current programming lies in these two more fundamental and critical stages. What’s more, a vital tension exists between the two models. Mountains vs. Facilitation The tension between letting the experience speak for itself and processing of experience is not new. Thomas James (1980/2000) observed that vehement He claimed that arguments about whether or not Outward Bound programs should include more ‘processing’ components dated back at least to the early 1960’s. there has been an enduring, indeed defining, tension between the “rock jocks” and the “touchy feelies”, which is still very much in evidence today in outdoor education. The tension makes some uncomfortable, partly because it is perplexing, drives passions high, and is not easily resolvable. But I suggest the dilemma is a very healthy one and that professional engagement with the issue is vital to the aliveness of adventure education. The debate continues to fuel staff planning meetings and course debriefs every day all over the world and it can be a particularly using topic when structured into staff training. A Workshop on “Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves”: Preparation
© James Neill, 2002, Wilderdom

I ask trainee staff and undergraduate outdoor education students to read Thomas James’ class “Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves?” paper before conducting a 60 to 90 minute workshop and then complete a pre-workshop reflection sheet. If trainees are not able to read the paper beforehand, then I provide a summary of the paper at the start of the session. So, I find the session can be done effectively in 60 minutes if trainees are prepared, and 90 minutes if they are not prepared. It is preferable, however, that trainees read the paper beforehand because it is so eloquent and engaging. Remember, download these materials from: The rest of this describes assumes trainees have done their ‘homework’. Workshop: Phase 1 – Personal Orientations I reintroduce students Thomas James’ notion that there are people who prefer an instructional approach which emphasizes the quality of the actual activity and experience and allowing students to do their own processing of the experience (“Mountains”) and those who feel that it is critical to help structure and organize students’ processing of their experiences, often via debriefing, but there are also many other creative and more subtle processing techniques such as journal writing. On a board I then draw a long line, the continuum, as follows (with pictures) and ask each trainee to place a cross and their initials to represent their preferred instructional style, given their ideal program and ideal client group. This is fascinating to watch and discussion will usually ensue quite naturally.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Let the Mountains Facilitate Personal Speak for Themselves & Group Process

When everyone’s finished, I then emphasize that there is no right or wrong in this exercise (trainees often seem to think that the trainer is way towards the facilitation end – but I usually place myself more towards the mountains side than most for two reasons – one, its my personal preference, two, it provokes trainees). I then ask the couple of folks at the extremes to share with the group their reasons for their preference and sometimes I’ll also ask for a perspective from
© James Neill, 2002, Wilderdom

someone right in the middle.

The ensuing discussions is always lively and reveals

strong arguments for both ends of the spectrum. I continue probing for viewpoints until critical comments start emerging about the model itself – the switched on facilitators will start to make comments like:

• • •

“but I use a different style with different groups, so it was very hard for me to place myself in only one place” or “groups go through different stages, and so I used different styles depending on the stage of group development” or “different participants respond best to different styles and so I try to adapt to meet each of their needs”.

In the initial stages of the workshop when these kinds of comments come up, I respond by saying something like, “sure, but at the end of the day, what is your most comfortable, preferred way of leading a group”. phase. Workshop Phase 2: Redesigning the Model Until this point in the workshop, I’ve emphasized the utility and value of Thomas James’ model. I then suddenly switch gears and invite students to throw the model away, because its clearly problematic and there needs to be more flexibility. So, I then ask students to redesign Thomas James’ model in a way that is more meaningful and useful. They might look blank. So, I suggest that perhaps the line should be bent into another shape, a triangle or a circle or a spiral. Or perhaps a new metaphor would be better – some groups have used a bus, a chef, and so on. Groups then breakout and have about 20 to 30 minutes with large paper and markers to develop a new model. Each group then gets a few minutes to present their models. The resultant presentations never fail to impress. I emphasize the vital importance of us not accepting the written literature without trying to reconceptualize it for ourselves, in our own organizations and with our own groups. I then finish by emphasizing some take-home points: 1. Understand that you have a personal preference that influences and guides the way you operate in group leadership situations 2. Understand that there are a wide spectrum of preferences and some of the best instructors are from the opposite ends of the spectrum, so there’s no right or
© James Neill, 2002, Wilderdom

However, when the comments

surface again later in the workshop (may need some prompting), I move into the next

wrong in what should fundamentally be preferred.

There are strong arguments for

both perspectives and there are also potential limitations for both. 3. Develop flexibility in your style – you cannot be a successful instructor by sticking with your preference – must develop capacity to operate along the full spectrum. 4. Develop excellent expertise in your preferred style – we have a preference for a reason, often because we sense it is where our intuitive strength lays. So develop it further. Conclusion: Vital Tension and Some Speculations We need such debates and we can benefit from revisiting defining tensions of the past. The explosion of adventure education formats in the last 15 or so years makes it possible to see Bacon’s three stages of program design and Priest and Gass’ (1997) six stages, all in existence - from boot camps to sophisticated adventure therapy - in different countries, organisations, and even in different programs run by the same organization. Research on facilitation styles has even suggested that all three styles could be used within a single program, with different orderings creating varied processes and outcomes (e.g. see CAT studies by Priest – We also need to consider individual differences between participants (i.e., does everyone goes through the same process?) and unique situational influence. Surely the individual and unique moments play particularly significant roles in the inner process of experience and transformation? If so, then it becomes difficult to see too much value in placing emphasis on the facilitation technique without simulataneously focusing in an indepth way of the experience of the individual. It may, thus, be that Priest and Gass’ (1997) six stages of facilitation do not go where Thomas James (1980) and Stephen Bacon (1987) were heading in their papers – towards describing a deeper spiral in which each of the three models was an important thread, a transformative, spiritual, even Jungian, type model. Bacon (1983) suggested that the metaphoric model be supplemented by a mythic or archetypal model in which students access ancient patterns of learning by symbolically recreating the formative challenges of heroes and heroines. Of course Bacon (1987) conceded these ideas are not new – in fact by definition such rites of passage are incredibly old. Priest and Gass’ (1997) six generations of facilitation seem to describe some specific techniques for presenting and sequencing the interaction between activities and instructor intervention. At the very least, we should be wary and critically examine the proposed linear evolution of stages suggested first as the “mountains” versus “facilitation” duality suggested by James (1980) and then expanded by Bacon (1987) and by Priest and Gass (1997).
© James Neill, 2002, Wilderdom

Neill, J. T. (2002). Are the mountains still speaking for themselves? A defining tension 20 years on…. References
Bacon, S. B. (1987). The Evolution of the Outward Bound Process. Greenwich, CT: Outward Bound USA. James, T. (1980/2000). Can the Mountains Speak for Themselves? [republished] Scisco Conscientia, 3. Priest, S., & Gass, M. (1997). Effective Leadership in Adventure Programming. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

© James Neill, 2002, Wilderdom