Finding Academic Success in the Backcountry

Each year, when our admissions team visits with prospective students and families, we field a version of the same question. People want to know how HMI offers both a top-notch wilderness program and an academic curriculum rich in conent. The question is a good one: HMI seeks to do an incredible amount at the highest levels.

When this query is posed, I encourage folks to think about the core aspects of our school as dependent on one another—strength in one area begets success in the others. In other words, our program is not a zero-sum game. Instead, for example, our academic rigor is strengthened (not hindered) by the time we spend in the wilderness.

We now have data to support this answer. For the last three years, HMI has participated in a survey called the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE). Thousands of adolescents from across the United States, from public and independent schools, take the survey.

HMI outperforms our peers in all three overarching categories assessed by the HSSSE: 1) cognitive/ academic/intellectual engagement, 2) social/behavioral/participatory engagement, and 3) emotional engagement.

Additionally, I was particularly proud of HMI’s performance on several questions.

  • Our students are becoming aware adults. They gave us almost the highest possible score for the amount HMI contributes to their self-understanding
  • Our students are engaged in class. They report being “rarely” bored; the most common response to this question among students at other schools was “often.”
  • Our faculty motivate our students. Students “strongly agreed” that they “go to school because of my teachers.” We truly outshined our peers on this question.

Again and again, the strength of HMI’s academic program leaps from the pages of HSSSEreports. We received superior marks when the survey asked students to assess their intellectual mindset, with our average scores being particularly high in the responses to these prompts:

  • I am motivated by my desire to learn
  • My school makes me curious to learn about other things
  • I have worked harder than I expected to in school
  • I feel good about who I am as a student

The quality of our teachers and rigor of our classes impress students. We outperformed schools across the county in student responses to several prompts. Among them, students reported in above-average numbers that they are frequently doing these things in our classrooms and on campus:

  • Analyzing ideas in depth
  • Developing creative ideas and solutions
  • Building positive relationships with students of different backgrounds
  • Talking to a teacher about classwork
  • Discussing ideas from readings or classes with teachers outside of class

I am very proud of these survey results. They are a testament to the strong sending schools from which HMI students matriculate, HMI’s committed and talented faculty, and, of course, the strength of our students themselves.

We also achieve these results because we spend one third of our semester in the wilderness.

The relationships we form on expeditions drive everyone at HMI to excel. In a new book, Michael Reichert and Richard Hawley write “School leaders (need to) embrace the conviction that relationship does not merely enhance scholastic experience; it is the very medium through which students’ engagement, effort, and ultimate mastery are realized.”

This is not new thinking. I remember a discussion I had with a veteran Head of School recently. “You know,” he said, “We spend so much time working with faculty on teaching methods. These things are important, but what really matters is the relationships teachers can develop with students. That’s when kids really start to perform.”

We figure out what motivates students and discover their strengths while hiking and camping together on expeditions. Faculty and students come to understand and respect each other on a very human level. In short, we learn more about our students during two weeks of an expedition than we would over the course of an entire semester in a traditional classroom.

Our faculty leverage what they understand about their students to challenge and guide them to excellence in the classroom. They are driven to create authentic, creative lessons because they respect our students and want to offer them the best of themselves. Our students feel the same way: they want to honor the teachers who guided them for weeks through the wilderness.

What students learn about themselves on expeditions in no less important. In an interview with Education Leadership, author Daniel Pink recently said, “If you truly want to engage kids, you have to pull back on control and create the conditions in which they can tap into their own inner motivations.”

Our students are certainly motivated on expeditions: everything is more fun when we stay warm, dry, well-fed, and on course. But all of this takes hard work, and I have seen again and again how students find tremendous unfound capacity for this on expeditions. They also discover how good it feels to give your all and succeed—and they don’t forget this lesson on campus.

HMI students return to their classes aware of what they can do and with a better understanding of how to get there. Many find themselves as motivated to succeed academically as they ever have been. The pride they feel in a job well done prepares them to be stronger, more curious, and more engaged students.

Gordon Matthewson, HMI alumnus, seconded this, writing “Not only was this semester the longest period of consistent happiness in my life, it was the longest period of self-improvement for me. In my opinion, this is not merely a coincidence. These things have a direct relationship.”

Expeditions provide in spades to our students two cornerstones of a robust learning environment. Students spend intentional time with their teachers and their ability to persevere grows in bounds. Magnificent learning happens when these conditions join with the outstanding teaching that is occurs in our classrooms. This is what our HSSSE results tell us, once again affirming the singular importance of the work we do each day at HMI.


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