A hike in the hills is much more than that…

Dr Howard Williamson is a Trustee of The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award. He is a JNC qualified youth and community worker, as well as a published author of well over a hundred papers on youth issues. He was appointed CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in the New Year’s Honours List 2002, for services to young people. More recently in 2016, he was appointed CVO (Commander of the Royal Victorian Order) in the New Year’s Honours List.

Howard Williamson, Trustee

We all learn in myriad ways – in structured programmes, leisure activities and accidental experiences.  Young people are no exception, but as they tread the increasingly challenging pathways towards adult autonomy and independence, they need support both in accessing a diversity of learning opportunities and in understanding what they have learned.  This equips them for applying those competencies acquired – defined by the Council of Europe as values, knowledge, attitudes, skills and critical understanding – in all walks of their lives, with their friends and families, in civic and social life, and in the workplace and labour market.

It has often been said that it is perhaps quite impossible to teach anybody anything; all that can be done is to create environments in which they can learn.  This is probably not quite true, but it is very true that, as the pace of change accelerates in all corners of our lives, we have to re-appraise the balance to be struck between what has classically been known as ‘formal’ and ‘non-formal’ learning.  The former has been the domain of schooling, college and university education, places where knowledge and skills have been imparted by ‘experts’ to novices who steadily move towards that same threshold of expertise.  This was true whether the ‘subject’ was English history, vehicle mechanics, typing or medicine.

Girls taking photos

But just think of those four examples.  No longer are students simply expected to regurgitate dates and historical facts; they are expected to consider a variety of perspectives and explanations.  After all, history is produced not only by the victors but by those who write it!  Vehicle mechanics is today computer driven; just a generation ago, it was about oil and spanners.  In relation to typing, we are already asking how long it will be needed, as voice and other forms of technology diminishes the need for fingers hitting a keyboard, something that was essential for communications not long ago.  And the medical knowledge and skill of doctors is in a constant state of transformation on account of emergent awareness of genetics.

This is not to say that all this is redundant.  But it is to say that, in the future, people will need far greater flexibility, resilience, capability, capacity to adjust, problem-solving and communication skills to deal with fast-changing times, constant innovation and ever more unpredictable circumstances.  We have known this for some time, though perhaps many of us remain surprised, even shocked, at the pace it has come upon us.

For young people to develop and internalise such ‘competencies’ they need a framework of non-formal education (or learning!), something just as purposeful as its formal counterpart but something that demands the much greater active participation of the ‘student’.  Indeed, it is the student or learner, the individual being educated, who determines much of their learning pathway, but it is the educator who facilitates those learning experiences and enables those participating to reflect on what has been experienced and how such development can contribute positively to wider aspects of their lives.  After all, a hike in the hills with a group of friends is really just a hike in the hills with a group of friends (that is what they did) unless somebody works through with those involved some of the who, how, why and when questions that preceded the activity in question.  A hike in the hills is much more than that – it has resulted from planning and preparation and may have had to overcome other challenges during the event itself.  The same would apply to a volunteering activity, say helping old people to understand computers.  What exactly would you want to tell them, in what order?  How would you do it – in groups, through little exercises?  When would be the best time of day to do it?  And why would you do all that in that way?

So virtually anything can be a platform for non-formal education – both individual and group activities, indoors and outdoors, active or static, at home or elsewhere, with friends or with strangers, over time or as a one-off, as oneself or in a role, and much more.  But nothing within this broad framework is automatically non-formal education.  Everything depends on how it is done.  Participants in non-formal education activities often get rather fed up with the reflection that is an integral part of the process of such learning.  Because otherwise, whatever they have done is, at most, informal learning – things may have been learned by accident, but not in a way that had been framed or planned.  Non-formal education demands that participants think through and talk through what they have done – the successes and failures, the high points and lows, the teamwork and the arguments, the puzzles and the solutions, the moments they wanted to give up and the times they wanted to go on forever.

And it is that reflection on such experience that equips all people, but young people in particular, for their futures, wherever they may be.  Such experience in turn is only gained through being presented with, and taking up, a wide variety of opportunities, in for example, sport or music, service in the community, outdoor pursuits, and many, many other things.

Girl learning music

That was, and is, the vision of the Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award for Young People – to provide a framework within which young people can pursue their own interests, systematically and incrementally, across various dimensions of their lives (health, service to others, skill development and expeditions with others), to levels of achievement that could and would be recognised as a ‘qualification’ different from, but comparable with, those that were possible to acquire through formal education.

As the world becomes smaller and as young people become more and more mobile, a transferable Award recognising and celebrating the achievements of young people in their leisure time (i.e. outside formal education), with a credibility and currency across international boundaries, is an important tool in a young person’s toolkit, conveying to those looking on that they are ‘world ready’ for the challenges ahead, whatever they may be.

Dr Howard Williamson,  CVO CBE FRSA FHEA

Trustee of The Duke of Edinburgh’s International Award


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