Educator Expedition: How to Encourage Student-driven Instruction

By Molly Herber

Apr 27, 2015


rupp-climb-shadow Stretching out before the next push. Photo by Jeannine Rupp

By Andrew Breunig, NOLS Instructor

My NOLS career began in 2007 on a Fall Outdoor Educator Semester. I caught the bug, spent the following eight years guiding and instructing for other organizations, and returned to NOLS in 2014 for an Instructor Course. By then I’d developed a passion for rock climbing, but discovered on the IC that I was unfamiliar with managing multiple novices on multi-pitch routes. The requisite skills, rarely practiced in personal climbing, are essential to the NOLS curriculum—they facilitate what is for many students the apex of their NOLS experience. I wanted to develop fluency in these skills before employing them as an instructor, so I enrolled in a rock climbing seminar and planned a personal development trip to practice.

In October 2014, my wife Jeannine, my cousin Geneva and I went to Red Rock Canyon, a world-class climbing destination just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada where NOLS operates regularly. Because of my professional goals, I received partial support from the NOLS Instructor Development Fund. Jeannine and I had taken short introductory climbing trips in the preceding months, but she was apprehensive about climbing tall, committing routes. Geneva had spent three weeks climbing in the area on her NOLS semester a few years before, and was eager to revisit a multi-pitch objective that had challenged her as a student.


rupp-climb-red-rocks Bring it on. Photo by Jeannine Rupp.

Our itinerary allotted a few days to move through the NOLS standard curricular components that prepare students for multi-pitching: rock protection; anchor building; lead climbing; climbing communication; and “ground school:” a dry run of belay transitions on terra firma. I was confident in the educational progression, and in Jeannine’s ability to assimilate the material quickly. I brushed off her concerns about entrusting her safety to unfamiliar equipment and techniques, expecting absolute faith in NOLS’ model and my direction. On the day we’d planned our first multi-pitch route, Jeannine was squarely disinterested. We re-arranged our agenda to ease Jeannine through the learning curve, but ultimately found it more realistic to recruit a stand-in for my multi-pitch practice. Jeannine and I selected a short, straightforward route for our final day, and climbed as a pair to afford her more supervision.


preston-couple-climb Enjoying a climb well climbed. Photo by Geneva Preston

I have confidence in NOLS’ educational model. Having surveyed as an instructor many of the eminent institutions in the field, I believe NOLS courses produce industry-leading student outcomes. Our instructors are skilled, our techniques tested, and our curriculum proven. But it’s easy to rely on standard procedure to the exclusion of the educator’s most critical skills: to discern students’ proficiency, comfort level, and goals, and to respond with targeted curriculum. Sometimes these cues are subtle, requiring clairvoyant perception and perpetual experimentation—but more often our students are eager to present their abilities and aspirations to an attentive audience. Our duty as instructors extends beyond mastery of curriculum, encompassing also the accurate assessment of our students, the earnest solicitation of their goals, and innovative customization of our teaching.

Read more adventures from Educator Expeditions on our Educators Notebook page.

Written By

Molly Herber

Molly is a NOLS instructor and writer. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. When she's not scouting the next post for the NOLS Blog, she's running and climbing on rocks in Wyoming. Follow her on Instagram @mgherber

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