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Exploring a Theory of Change in use at the Outdoor Education Group

or “Why are we working with these young people in this place now?”

As providers of high quality and powerful experiential learning programmes in the outdoors our Theory of Change model sits closely aligned with our observations on how change takes place for young people. It identifies a pathway of change (Explore), invokes a healthy process of critical thinking (Reflect), and provides an explanation of why it works (Wonder).

So, what is a Theory of Change?
A Theory of Change (ToC) is a process that has been specifically designed for use in areas where there is a desire for change in a group or community.  For us the ToC is a working model to test assumptions on what adventurous educational activities will bring about transformational results for young Australians on our programmes.

It is a tool based on causality and in its simplest form it identifies what preconditions must exist for a long-term outcome to be achieved. Starting with an ultimate goal in mind and working backwards from the end point is what separates a ToC from ‘logic models’ based in a more structural and mechanistic philosophy.

So, a ToC is predominantly concerned with the relationship between individuals, others and their environment whilst signposting a strategy for measuring outcomes (not outputs!) and that is why we think it fits so appropriately with our experiential educational programmes.

In producing our Outdoor Education Group Theory of Change we went through in initial cycle of four important steps.

1. Determining the Vision

2. Building the route map

3. Identifying the outcomes we will address.

4. Deciding on the indicators that we will use to measure success (for each outcome) Who, How many/much and When. It is important to decide the indicator(s) for each outcome before deciding how it will be measured. When we identified our initial causal pathway using the well-known stages of Plausible? > Doable? >Testable? > was a key mechanism for us.

The Outdoor Educations Group’s logic model focusses on positive behaviours and personal traits that all directly relate to the effective domain learning elements of General Capabilities of the Australian National Curriculum – see It recognises that to make powerful change, our development programmes must actively engage and participate with all stakeholders (sometimes called ‘Boundary Partners’ but we prefer to say youngsters, their parents and teachers) in the development and application of adventurous experiential learning, subsequently providing participants with powerful new tools to use in considering their future selves, the development of positive communities and society at large.

So, a ToC is both a product and a process and involves the development of what we ToC geeks call a ‘causal pathway’. It is this pathway of important components which supports our curriculum design, allows those managing teaching and learning to set goals and importantly allows a level of evaluation in an ongoing and reflective way. It is this useful tool that supports structured thinking on what our learning experiences are aimed to change, as well as communicating the all-important thinking on ‘why?'

Our initial work provides us a visual route map for practitioners, aligning their efforts and building a shared vocabulary for all those involved in the process. It also asks the question ‘How well does a precondition need to be met to get to the next goal?’  As an example, for us at OEG that might be “Has the OEG Group Leader built a meaningful and positive relationship with their group quickly at the start of a programme?”

The element that has made our initial ToC Model so successful as a tool for driving positive change both within our organisation and further afield is that it must be shared and understood by all stakeholders and include an explanation of the mapping process and a summary of the expected results. It is usual that a theory of change must be communicated in a graphic representation but must also be articulated in a narrative that accompanies it.

It is clear to us here at OEG that there may be a goal we all share as professional educators, parents or students that form part of a bigger national / international picture that is beyond the causal control of The Outdoor Education Group. As a provider of specialist learning interventions and partner to some wonderful schools across the country we know our intentions are aligned with those shared across the whole field of positive education and although some of these may sit above the ‘accountability ceiling’ of the OEG ToC model, we are clear of our role in the education of young Australians is inextricably linked, via our ToC to a larger, more significant set of national aspirations.

A narrative explanation of our theory of change along with a graphic explanation will be part of my next up and coming blog later in the year along with some more thoughts on the design and use of the Theory of Change in our continued mission to “take young people into the outdoors to better understand their own nature”.

Matt Healey
National Head of Educational Delivery

The Outdoor Education Group  


The Middle Years of schooling (Years 8-9) are often years in which students experience disengagement in their learning. Research highlights the need for different approaches and attitudes towards learning for young adolescents. The following is an excerpt from a paper titled “Understanding Year 9 Students: Implications for Policy and Practice” (Cole, P., Mahar, S., and Vindurampulle, O.), published by the Research and Innovation Division, Office of Learning and Teaching, Department of Education & Training, Melbourne, April 2006.

" Students approaching Year 9 experience profound physical, social, emotional and intellectual changes associated with the gradual period of transition from childhood to adulthood. During this time, Year 9 students who are 14-15 years of age are gaining independence from their parents and teachers whilst developing more supportive relationships with their peers (Muss, 1975). These students become more complex thinkers and are able to apply logical reasoning processes. They are more flexible and have the capacity to regulate their learning and to expand and organise their thinking in more complex ways."

Reports on the characteristics and developmental needs of middle years’ students provide the overriding message that these students form a very diverse group. The developmental changes are not experienced consistently within and between gender groups, nor does the traditional classroom setting manage these changes. Furthermore, Cole et al note that young adolescent students:
* Are intellectually at risk, because whether they engage with academic learning, or do not, can have lifelong consequences.
* Learn what they consider to be useful and enjoy using skills to solve real-life problems.
* Prefer active over passive learning experiences and favour working with their peers during learning activities.
* Tend to be moving away from dependence on family to establishing autonomous views and modes of operation.
* Derive standards and models of behaviour from their peers and acceptance by the group is central to confidence and wellbeing.
* Want significant adults to love and accept them and need frequent affirmation.

A recent study titled “Experiential Education And Learning Engagement For Year Nine Students: A Case Study” in 2013 concluded that:

" Experiential learning experiences enable participants to more effectively engage in their classroom-based learning, while development of relationships is fostered through out-of-classroom experiences as well. Interpretation of the data also found that metacognition is enhanced through participation in experiential education. "

Outdoor Education Australia, the national advocate for outdoor education in Australia states:

" In these years, students develop a deeper understanding and reasons for codes of conduct in outdoor recreation activities. They begin to explore more adventurous activities as a way of exploring self and nature, and the lessons that can be learned for everyday living. In these years students are increasingly required to assess and manage risk in both recreation and everyday lives. "

" Through engagement in more adventurous outdoor activity students can learn to gain skills for personal and group well-being and lay the foundation for ongoing healthy safe outdoor recreation participation. They are now capable of developing the knowledge and skills to prepare for and participate in an independent lightweight journey with adult guidance and supervision. "

" They can now assume leadership roles in group management during these journeys. They are able to assume increased responsibility for the nature and forms of such journeys and have increased appreciation for the role of vistas and expanse in developing a sense of wonder for the natural world."

" They begin to develop an understanding of the impact of decision making by administrative bodies and governments on natural environments through investigation of recent issues relating to conservation. Through conservation service students can develop increased sense of self-efficacy and citizenry towards the natural environment and begin to develop their own ideas and strategies to support such efforts. " ( )

Programs offered by Experiential Learning providers such as The Outdoor Education Group aim to support and reinforce the aims and ideals that will allow students in the Middle Years to engage in their learning. In the most practical of settings, students work together in small, facilitated groups dealing directly with concepts such as leadership, followership, and inclusiveness. Students understand the value of working towards a common goal and the recognition of the unique attributes each individual could bring to their team.

Wilderness based programs offer each student the opportunity to learn about their own strengths and weaknesses and how persistence in extending one’s often self-imposed limitations can bring success – be they physical, emotional or social. An ability to bounce back from setbacks or challenges with confidence and optimism is a vital tool for any young person as they enter adulthood. The Outdoor Education Group believes that by connecting adolescents with nature, within small communities and with their own physical and emotional challenges they will become REAL WORLD READY. FOR LIFE.