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Challenge by Choice

This is one principle that has caused many practitioners to respond with quizzical looks when you explain it. Rightly so. We all understand the word ‘Challenge’, but the word ‘choice‘ with it seems to cause some discomfort. Choice isn’t a part of our schooling.

Traditionally it is the educator’s job to design content and process for their groups. If it is the schooling system, then the education board knows best, so as a teacher I refer to their documentation, and follow the prescribed books to ensure that the children know what they are supposed to know at the end of the year. If it is an outdoor and adventure based program, I set things up so that they go through the series of activities either alone or in groups. At the end of the day I have covered the ground I wanted to, done what needed to be done, and have a good night’s sleep.

The idea of CBC is imported. Some of us who have been exposed to the American way of doing things have learned to value it greatly. It originated in the seventies at Project Adventure Inc, USA. This is how it is described on their website:

Challenge by Choice asks that participants challenge themselves and participate fully in the experience. Recognizing that any activity or goal may pose a different level and type of challenge for each group member and that authentic personal change comes from within, Challenge by Choice creates an environment where participants are asked to search for opportunities to stretch and grow during the experience.

What I think is alien, is the choice of words – ‘challenge themselves’, ‘authentic change comes from within’, ‘search for opportunities to stretch and grow’. While we may agree with the value that these things bring, we create little opportunity for ourselves to practice them. Yet, those of us who have allowed the value of these words to permeate into our work, experimented with offering choices, even little ones to the groups we work with, realise the power they bring to people.

So how do we practice CBC? This is what Julie A. Carlson and Kirk Evans (in ‘whose choice is it?’) say about it. There appear to be 3 core values involved.

  • Participants should be able to set their own goals. Success is not in completing the entire element, but in reaching one’s own predetermined goal.

  • Participant should be able to choose how much they will experience. They must be able to determine when the ending point of their journey on an element arrives. Rohnke (1989) refers to this as offering the participant the “opportunity to back off when performance pressures or self-doubt become too strong”.

  • A person with little-to-no knowledge about the experience you are going to put them through cannot make an informed choice regarding their participation without some information.

In a classroom if you were to practice it, you might give them an overview of what they need to learn by the end of the year (information), then offer them the challenge of deciding when and how they are going to do what; i.e. make their own topic learning schedule for every contact session for the week, month or year. Whenever you feel its getting overwhelming for them, you might jump in with a few questions to clarify, or set smaller boundaries, etc. All this time they are doing the work, setting their own goals, learning new skills, enabled by the teacher.

In the outdoors you might get them to choose a hill to climb, get them to consider how long they might take, what they might need, how they will carry what they need, who will do what and so on. All the time they are doing the thinking, arriving at crossroads, having to make decisions. The educator’s job is to hang in there, listen, watch, and create back-up plans in case. The intent is not to have a perfect trek. It is to have an experience designed by them for themselves. At the end of it, a conversation about what need to do differently in order to have a different experience will certainly help. Even through the reflection, the participants are setting their own goals, choosing how much they will experience and making all the decisions that need to be made.

Needless to say, this demands a completely different set of skills from the educator. The educator’s competencies must exceed the student’s, besides being watchful, listening in, being patient and staying with the speed of their process. It our job to be the cushioning and safety net for the group in case it chooses to back off in the face of an intellectual, physical, social or emotional challenge that they cannot handle.

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