We all do better when we all do better.
This statement is something we can all get behind. These words are inscribed around the rotunda of the Wellstone Center in Saint Paul, where Voyageur Outward Bound School’s Twin Cities program was housed until 2015. Each morning, when I arrived at work, this quote challenged me to consider how we could move forward together for the betterment of Outward Bound students and the community we share. Now, with the advent of our bold new initiative, the Outward Bound Professional Learning Lab, we have an opportunity to step more deeply into this principle and this challenge.
Thanks to the Bechtel Foundation, Outward Bound is in a process of collective impact. Our 11 Outward Bound regional schools join 12 diverse national youth organizations to investigate best professional practices in social-emotional development and character education. This collaboration constitutes the National Character Initiative. “Collective impact” is defined as, “an innovative and structured approach to making collaboration work across government, business, philanthropy, non-profit organizations and citizens to achieve significant and lasting social change.” What social change will the National Character Initiative affect?
For starters, the Initiative will directly impact the 44,000 students that Outward Bound serves and our staff. Together, with our fellow national youth-serving organizations, we will serve 50 percent–or roughly 25 million–of all public school-aged youth in America. Together, our National Character Initiative will support the best professional practices of over 1 million staff and even more volunteers in learning communities across the country.
The National Character Initiative’s common agenda is to improve character development and social-emotional learning outcomes for American youth. Each of the organizations participating in this initiative were invited because they are exemplars of character development. Our ultimate goal is to improve outcomes for youth through improvement of educational practices for social-emotional learning across the country.
To improve character education practices, we are first identifying and analyzing current exemplary instruction and facilitation. Using academic and field research, such as observation and student data collection, we are creating systems to train instructors and facilitators more effectively. We seek to prepare staff to consistently integrate identified best practices in their work. Through systematic, targeted and in-depth staff development, we will deliver effective programs that result in greater student growth and readiness. When students have skills for life, when they are ready for the challenges of school and career, the positive community impact is dramatic.
Here at Outward Bound, our Learning Lab’s measurement tools are taking shape. We have two primary tools we are currently developing and testing: the Student Outcomes Tool and the Observation Tool.
The Outcomes Tool measures the tandem development of both the individual and the group. Group learning is a foundation of Outward Bound curriculum design and we find that it is invaluable to measure the elements of community-based character development: perseverance, teamwork, self-regulation, reflection, empathy and relationships with peers and adults.
The Observation Tool supports our instructors as they work to refine their skills and consistently employ Outward Bound’s best practices. These practices were identified by twenty-two senior staff, who observed instruction across the national Outward Bound network during more than a dozen Learning Lab tours. Development and implementation of this tool reinforces the practice of collaboration for collective impact — a habit we hope to sustain beyond this initiative.
In order to reinforce quality practices, we will carry out a regular quality review of our instructional practices. This quality review is not unlike Outward Bound’s rigorous and habitual safety review and audit system. Our new tools and the quality review will provide us with a sustainable continuous improvement process for our instructors and programs, ensuring quality character education for our students, our supporters and our educational partners.
Currently, all Outward Bound schools are piloting Professional Learning Sessions for staff. This summer and fall, all of our schools delivered dynamic and engaging new training:
- Facilitating belonging
- Questioning strategies
- Enterprising curiosity
- Promoting discussion
We are now tabulating feedback from these workshops and our instructors are heading out into the field with great concepts and skills. We’re eager to learn more from instructors as they implement these new skills across the country.
Outward Bound is making an effort to share our collective impact. We are connecting and communicating about the National Character Initiative and the Learning Lab in a variety of ways:
- Outward Bound Professional Learning Lab (OBPLL) Practice Leaders Annual Meetings
- OBPLL Train-the-Trainer Development
- National Trainers Conference
- Monthly Conference Calls
- Learning Tours
- Monthly Email Updates
- Annual Reports
- Blogs (like this one!)
Voyageur’s Practice Leaders–myself and Dan Blessing— are always available for conversations, emails and questions.
This important work is supported primarily by two influential organizations: Outward Bound USA and the S.D. Bechtel Foundation. OBUSA houses and manages all the work of OBPLL and pursues funding beyond our Bechtel grant to ensure sustainability in this work. Bechtel convenes all grantees regularly and these meetings are critical as they allow all 13 national youth-serving organizations to share information, report on progress and collaborate for critical improvements, like promoting equity through our best practices.
We recognize that each member of our Voyageur Outward Bound community is a critical component of our collective impact. Thanks to our students for your valuable feedback, to our instructors for your integrity and enthusiasm, to our funders for your support and to our partners for your collaboration and commitment to character education.
I think one of the most exciting trends right now is the birth of the global citizen who is interested not only in improving his or her immediate neighborhood, but also in helping his or her neighbors across the globe.