In today’s world, students find the idea of failure appalling, intolerable. It’s like standing on the edge of a looming precipice or swift-flowing river with no guarantee of a safe crossing. But in reality, the prospect of failure isn’t (usually) a looming gorge—it’s a botched exam, lower-than-desired SAT score, getting cut from the team, losing the race for class president.
These stressors are real. In a culture of competition and achievement, one poor grade or other perceived misstep might feel like the difference between attending your dream college—or not. But in leaving no space for failure, this high pressure environment fails to prepare teens for life outside the classroom.
True leadership comes from taking risks, making mistakes, and finding the courage to learn from those mistakes and move forward. That’s why learning in the outdoors is so important. There’s value in staring down at a real crevasse and working with a team to find your way across.
NOLS Teton Valley director Abby Warner explains that “As the mother of a 9th grader, I am struck by how well NOLS courses serve students in the non-academic realms that schools are so focused on right now for preparing kids for the world: character skills, teamwork, communication, grit, resilience.”
Nestled in the foothills of the Tetons in Driggs, Idaho, NOLS Teton Valley offers a variety of courses for students ages 14 and 15 as well as 16 and up. On these two-week to monthlong trips, students summit remote peaks in the Rockies, go whitewater rafting on the Salmon River, and more—learning key leadership and communication skills along the way.
Marc Randolph, founder of Netflix, executive mentor, and Chair of the NOLS Board of Trustees, took his first course at age 14. It’s had a lasting impact, to say the least. He explains that, “On a NOLS course, someone who’s 15 years old genuinely has to make a decision…communicate it clearly, and then they find out a few hours later whether it was a good decision or bad decision. It’s invaluable, whatever you want to do!”
A 2017 research study conducted by the University of Utah and NOLS in collaboration with The Archer School for Girls indicated that the benefits of out-of-school experiences include self-efficacy in leadership, a recalibrated sense of self, a positive mindset, and the value of adaptability.
Senior account manager and field instructor Sarah Annarella, who helped facilitate the study, highlights four tenets of meaningful outdoor learning:
1. The opportunity to take on higher-than-normal levels of responsibility and autonomy
2. The restorative power of spending time in nature and living simply
3. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable
4. Fun! Which is not to be underrated...
Archer, based in Los Angeles, partners with NOLS to offer six-day customized expeditions for students in 7th, 9th, and 11th grade.
Reflecting on her NOLS experience, one 11th-grade student concluded, “You’re going to be in an uncomfortable situation one day and you’re going to be able to figure it out. Being able to figure it out is what’s going to make us successful.”
NOLS offers a guided leadership progression that allows students to gradually take on more ownership and decision-making responsibility during a course. The 2017 study found that “students across all grades talked about peak challenge experiences and their impact on their confidence…overcoming doubt and physical exhaustion changed their view of what they thought they could achieve.”
As they learned new outdoor skills, like reading maps and cooking on a camp stove, students also gained newfound independence and confidence. Researchers concluded that this sense of empowerment stemmed directly from the opportunity to lead a peer group in real-life situations with minimal adult guidance.
As one student explained, “We had to make a lot of our own decisions...We had to make decisions that would affect other people and we had to think of what’s best for others as well as ourselves.” In an outdoor environment, that included “taking care of yourselves, staying hydrated, making sure you eat enough, and that you communicate what you need.”
Taking on decision-making responsibilities also comes with the realization that you’re not always going to get it right—and that’s okay. Getting lost isn’t fun, and it might even be a little scary, but it’s not the end of the world. In fact, it’s a great way to learn good teamwork and tolerance for adversity.
But failing productively is not something students are learning in school or in traditional extracurriculars. On a NOLS expedition in Scandinavia, instructor Colleen Wearn remembers asking one anxious student if she’d ever failed—at anything. She shook her head no, unable to think of a single example.
Colleen says she sees students like this on every course she teaches and “I worry that we are raising a generation of students who are wonderfully accomplished and terrified to fail.”
Watching the same student persevere through a tough day of getting lost—and figuring it out—Colleen commented that “this is education at its finest. It is not a series of ‘right’ decisions that optimize the way a student looks on a college application.’”