WildChina’s take on the Duke of Edinburgh program.
Since the Duke of Edinburgh’s inception in 1956, the program is valued by countries all around the world for equipping youths with important life skills that they can apply in their journey towards adulthood. A demand for Western education amongst parents in China has seen the country experience tremendous increase in the amount of international schools that are currently established, with over 500 international schools now existing in China, those of which enrolling over 200,000 students (Statistica, 2020). The growth of international schooling in China has coincided with the Duke of Edinburgh’s growing popularity amongst parents in China, who recognize that the program encourages students to challenge themselves both physically and mentally in a way that is hard to attain within the confines of a classroom environment.
A key component that makes the Duke of Edinburgh so iconic is that students must successfully accomplish an Adventurous Journey (AJ) in order to receive a Bronze Award. Accomplishing this section requires ample preparation and training so that students are well equipped to overcome whatever hiking escapade is assigned to them. Given the country’s sheer size and its diversity in climate and terrains, China offers its Duke of Edinburgh students a unique opportunity to undertake once-in-a-lifetime activities that may not necessarily be replicable in other smaller countries.
This article will review the latest Duke of Edinburgh AJ that WildChina organized for Merchiston International School’s Duke of Edinburgh students in Shenzhen, which involved students hiking through the mountains of Conghua. The aims of this article are particularly directed to schools who view the Duke of Edinburgh program as a short-term project that can be expedited within a short period of time. Given the physical and mental toughness required, it is important that schools view the Duke of Edinburgh program as a long-term project that requires plenty of time for students to fully prepare, learn, and apply their newly acquired knowledge, without feeling pressured to rush their learning experiences.
Benefits of Hiking
Extant research has shown that hiking is significantly beneficial to a person’s mental health. Mitten, Overholt, Haynes, D’Amore & Ady’s (2018) study on the benefits of undergoing physical activity in nature discovered that participants experienced decreased blood pressure, depression, and stress levels. In addition, participants simultaneously experienced an increase in overall wellness and an enhanced immune system.
Similarly, findings from Mutz & Müller’s (2016) study on the mental health benefits of outdoor education found that its 14-year-old participants reported an increase in life satisfaction and happiness, while seeing a decrease in stress levels, upon completion of an 8 day hike. Research also shows that hiking offers a range of benefits that contribute to a student’s personal development. This includes promoting generic skill development, self-directed learning, and a students’ sense of agency to perform tasks independently and confidently (Kangas, Vuojärvi, & Siklander, 2018).
Completing the Duke of Edinburgh program also consolidates a student’s personal statement and application form when applying to universities. While students must demonstrate high academic performance through their grades, universities are also looking to see that their applicants can demonstrate other important skills such as strong communication, and time-management. Consequently, the Duke of Edinburgh can provide students with evidence that showcases their competency in these areas, and that students are motivated to challenge themselves outside of the classroom.
Running a DofE program effectively
One of the major challenges that we face as DofE program organizers is that many schools approach DofE programs as extracurricular activities that students can simply complete within a week. As it pertains to outdoor hiking, this means condensing the program significantly, with the expectation that students can complete their skills training, practice hike, and qualifying hike within a short period of time, without any difficulty. This ‘box-ticking’ mentality of getting a program out of the way as quickly as possible is actually inadvertently detrimental to a student’s personal and mental development for many reasons.
First, this mindset undermines the physical and mental severity of the program, and overlooks the dangers that can potentially be inflicted upon the student, if he/she is not adequately prepared and guided. This attitude also presumes that students can complete such a strenuous challenge within a short time span, as if they possess the physical and mental capabilities analogous to a fully-developed adult, which is fundamentally not the case.
The ethos of the DofE is about helping students develop character, experience adversity, and overcome adversity so that they can go on to becoming confident and competent adults. Teaching students to become self-sufficient is a skill that cannot be expedited. Achieving these goals requires time for students to fully interpret, understand, and ingrain their skills training, and this amount of time can vary per student. It is important that schools understand the amount of time, content and preparation required for planning a successful program at a pace that will not physically and mentally overload students.
Review of the Merchiston Program
From January 1st – 4th 2002, 10 students from Merchiston International School Shenzhen completed the AJ section that was required to receive their Bronze Award. Prior to undertaking their AJ, the students took part in 2 days of intensive training, which consisted of providing the students with the necessary training and skills required for successful completion of the journey. The AJ is a demanding challenge that requires students to complete a minimum of 6 hours per day of purposeful activity.
The purposeful activity is split into Expedition and Exploration, the former being the act of hiking, and the latter tasking students to study a chosen subject during their journey. In addition to this, students are required to be completely self-sufficient and carry all provisions and equipment with them for the duration of the trip. This amount of expectation and pressure is clearly a lot to take in for a student, especially within the short time frame of 2 days.
Upon completion of the 2-day intensive training, students set off to the mountains in the Conghua region of Xitoucun in Guangdong province, 6 of which are over 1000m. During their trip, students experienced the unique natural surroundings of the area, from waterfalls and mountains to multi-hued lakes, as well as an array of wildlife such as hill oxes and cuckoos.
In Day 1 of the adventure, the students explored a valley to the north of Xitoucun, applying what they had learned during the training days by successfully negotiating a self-planned route that covered over 10km.
During Day 2, the students headed into the mountains and, although not reaching the peak of Yapo Liu Mountain, climbed to a height of 800m.This required careful navigation and overcoming physical obstacles while keeping motivation and morale high.
During Day 3, the students hit the trails once again, navigating their way towards Jigong Rock – a peak of over 1100m. The journey was time-consuming, difficult and exhausting, but the students were able to overcome these challenges and eventually reach camp, having hiked over 20km.
During Day 4, students were able to bear the fruits of their labor, staying within the valleys and exploring what the local villages had to offer.
In summary, all the students had managed to achieve the goal of completing the Adventurous Journey section of the award. Despite facing many challenges and errors, students displayed the mental and physical fortitude required to overcome these obstacles and successfully conquer the mountains within a 4-day time period. While students had completed their goals, it cannot be overlooked that the students were overexerted both mentally and physically, and that these pressures could have been mitigated if the students were afforded more time to space out the AJ, making it more digestible for the students to complete.
The students that took part in the Merchiston DofE program should and were very proud of the personal achievements they had accomplished within a short period of time. However, this is not to say that students are recommended in attempting to complete the AJ section within this time frame. Given the fact that the students were expected to overcome so many physical and mental obstacles during the 4 days, it is recommended that schools pay closer attention towards creating a fair balance of expectations that challenges the students while also allowing them to enjoy and take in their experience. Out of consideration of students’ physical and mental wellbeing, we suggest that schools treat the DofE as a marathon, and not a sprint.
Kangas, M., Vuojärvi, H., & Siklander, P. (2018). Hiking in the wilderness: Interplay between teachers’ and students’ agencies in outdoor learning. Education in the North.
Mitten, D., Overholt, J. R., Haynes, F. I., D’Amore, C. C., & Ady, J. C. (2018). Hiking: A low-cost, accessible intervention to promote health benefits. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 12(4), 302-310.
Mutz, M., & Müller, J. (2016). Mental health benefits of outdoor adventures: Results from two pilot studies. Journal of adolescence, 49, 105-114.
Statista. (2020). Number of international schools in China 2016–2017. https://www.statista.com/statistics/705169/china-international-school-number/