The Eloquence of Change

The Eloquence of Change
Submitted by Kim Neal Wasserburger, M.S.W, Experiential Educator and Consultant

I have experienced a dichotomy of roles and responsibilities as a career social worker as I enter the discussion of the benefits of “adventure/experiential education.” I have waded through the glossary of terms and definitions that must be examined and understood before conclusions can be drawn, and I have contributed to the research demonstrating that engaging participants in experience has a greater potential for significant impact than talking to them about the same things (Tucker, 2012). At times, the data resulting from my role as “administrator” do a disservice to the practitioner as well as the participant and financier when the research findings are broadly applied as an umbrella of effectiveness without regard to the type of specific activity, nature of the participants and the environment or the context (example: zip line, high ropes, challenge course, group dynamics, etc.)  in which the activity occurs. Careful consideration must be taken when associated benefits to the client/student/participant are backed by the blanket phrase “research says” without differentiating between these constructs, what outcome is being measured, precise language of facilitation and generalizations of the transference of those benefits to a future context.  It is not possible to assert beyond intention that a corporate client in a group dynamics session will be so impacted that he or she is going to return to work a healthier and a more productive team member/employee. Or, that a student from a school is going to participate in a similar day program, achieve wellness and a new perspective, return to school and be a better student and citizen. Such generalizations do not take into account that with any “experience” there are too many intervening variables to account for to make such statements.  Flawed research structure and methods, lack of follow-up studies, and differentiation in terms all contribute to the indifference about making definitive statements about program effectiveness, outcomes, and transference of the outcomes beyond the activity (McAvoy1996), (Gillis&Spellman,2008).  Consideration of “unintended” results must also be included and understood as they are part of the equation (Ringer&Gillis,1995).  In the same breath it is not possible to rule out that something greater and deeper might happen that defies the researchers’ understanding.

In my role as practitioner, I have witnessed the spontaneous and unpredictable outcomes that often do not show up in a quantitative analysis. I recently facilitated a high school/precollege group that had signed up for a day of group dynamics/zip line with the hope that the day-long experience would somehow have the impact of making them more prepared academically, socially, and mentally for college. Many of the students were, however, anatomically large and were greeted and then measured for height and weight (a necessary step due to standards of equipment) before they were able to participate. I watched a few immediately disengage, shun the criteria, and retreat to their bonus- size bags of Hot Cheetos. The “intervention” of the day trip and the opening moments of “participation criteria” became an unintended variable, causing a collateral result. What is unseen is perhaps down the road:  Will these same students remain in the perceived shame of obesity or develop the intrinsic motivation to create personal changes because of the moment of non-intended intervention? 

My many roles combine to provide a wealth of research support for the effectiveness of an experiential approach—qualitative and quantitative studies, anecdotal data, meta-analysis—of all the aforementioned, word-of-mouth, spoken and unspoken reflections, sometimes just groaning in a moment of understanding. Practitioners and researchers are looking to explain and predict “cause and effect” in the field of experiential/adventure, but it is often very difficult to pigeon hole “cause” as every human being acts and reacts differently depending on “who shows up”(past experiences, ethnicity, gender, ability/disability, age, etc.) for the experience (McAvoy 1996), (Alvarez&Stauffer,2000).

When asked to lend comment, Lee Gillis, professor of psychology at Georgia College State University, said, “On the other hand, as our departed colleague Mark Ames would say, ‘It’s the relationship, stupid!  That’s why this works!’  Indeed, the power of the facilitator-student relationship is difficult to quantify in the moment.  Nevertheless, some recent research shows strong statistical relationships between changes in mindfulness and treatment outcomes (Russell, Gillis, Heppner) such that they termed the work done as ‘mindfulness-based experiences.’  In addition, there is also a relationship between group members all being on the same page and positive changes in treatment outcomes (Gillis, Kiviligan, & Russell). Perhaps these statistical relationships and what we know anecdotally as facilitators can support the “hypothesis” of the renowned therapist, Carl Rogers who said, ‘ I am hypothesizing that significant positive personality change does not occur except in a relationship. This is of course an hypothesis, and it may be disproved.’ ”

Words such as communication, teamwork, trust, etc., are often offered as constructs to be gained. Physiological constructs such as heart rate variability, blood glucose, respiratory rate, enhanced mood, cognitive function, increased endorphin and cortisol levels, among others, are attributed to various forms of exercise, including rock climbing and other outdoor adventure. Emotional constructs such as body image, self-esteem and efficacy and resilience are attributed to constructive social interaction in the context of group dynamics and challenge initiatives.

The paradox for me is in the minute I attempt to validate what I am doing in the moment— whether I am photographing, commenting, writing, collecting data— the moment has passed, and I missed a portion of it.  When I attempt to present the moment in another context, I am now immersed in the creation of a metaphorical PowerPoint rather than the moment as a treasure of my heart.  I have not fully allowed the natural environment to envelope and penetrate my focus:  a sea of golden leaves drifting in gravity from towering branch-studded monoliths or the still small voice heard as our closest star hides behind the horizon. It changes me . . . us.  We become a creation in the creation, and in this intersection lies the mystery of individual and group collectiveness. We did nothing to “predict” or orchestrate the beauty other than to just show up. The subtle groaning from the bowed heads of tired climbers spread out through the woods reflecting on “Trust- Do Good- Delight- Desires of Your Heart” cannot be put into words or numbers. Often my thought is:  It does not really matter. All that matters to me is that they are groaning, and what they are saying in the quietness of their hearts to whom/what they perceive as their maker is private and beyond description or measure. Moments such as these are validation enough for me to continue as long as my body can keep up with my childish, adventurous mind and spirit.

Insurers, school districts, providers, grant writers are justifiably impressed by the research that provides concrete, reliable and predictable outcomes of the positive impact on participants. It is the simplicity of knowing that the resources have been aligned and sequenced with the intention of participants achieving a positive outcome. However, it is the spontaneous, unpredictable, heart-changing moments that I most enthusiastically invite you to consider. I continue to have students who ten, fifteen, twenty-five years after an “experience” held in common, take my hand, make eye contact, say, “thank you,” and “I will never forget that moment.” The beauty of this poetic dance with adventure in this moment may have had little to do with our goal (individual or group) for the day of rock climbing but happened after days of tired, dirty, sleepless bodies somehow digging deeper into our souls than what we were capable of and giving away simple moments of purity. A random act of kindness, a dry shirt or clean fork, rises to the top of some of the most arduous climbs I have witnessed or are reflected in the journals of student climbers. 

In result, measuring the moment that mattered or matters, which often takes us quite by surprise, is better left a treasure in the heart of the one who experienced it to filter within the entirety of life. Old stories intersecting with new stories creating cohesiveness of mind, body, spirit and soul become a part of the mystery. And the mystery becomes part of us. Those of us who are fortunate enough to be a part of the change get to smile, wave, and with confidence and assurance say, “next.”

 

Acknowledgments:

Mark Ames, Tony Alvarez, Brenna Gabert, Lee Gillis, Joshua McLain, Ken Kalisch, Kim Olson, Keith Russell, Gary Stauffer, Jeff Steffen, Richard and Helen Wasserburger.

References:

Alvarez and Stauffer (2000), The Experiential /Facilitated Wave. AIT Facilitation Manual. Ypsilanti, MI:AIT.Inc.

Gillis Jr, H. L. L., Kivlighan Jr, D. M., & Russell, K. C. (2016).  Between-client and within-client engagement and outcome in a residential wilderness treatment group: An actor partner interdependence analysis.  Psychotherapy, 53(4), 413.

Gillis, Speelman (2008). Are Challenge (Ropes) Sources an Effective Tool? A Meta-Analysis. Journal of Experiential Research, Volume 31, No.2.

McAvoy, Mitten, Stringer, Steckart, & Sproles (1996), Group Development and Group Dynamics in Outdoor Education, Coalition for Education in the Outdoors Research Symposium Proceedings (3rd, Bradford Wood, Indiana, January 12-14, 1996).

Ringer, Gillis (1995). Managing psychological depth in adventure programming. Journal of Experiential Education, Volume 18, No. 1

Rogers, Carl R. The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 60, no. 6 (1957/1992): 827.

Russell, K. C., Gillis, H. L., & Heppner, W. (2016).  An Examination of Mindfulness-Based Experiences Through Adventure in Substance Use Disorder Treatment for Young Adult Males: a Pilot Study. Mindfulness, 7(2), 320-328.

Tucker, Javorski, Tracy, and Beale (2012). The use of adventure therapy in community-based mental health. Journal of Research and Children’s Services. NY, NY.

 

 

 

 

 

 

                                   

 

           

 

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