My Walkabout Challenge

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When I arrived at SFU from Harvard in 1969, I took my first research semester right away to finish my thesis and degree. The faculty was small but high-powered with Dan Birch, Selma Wasserman, Milt McClaren, Sheila O’Connel, John Trivett, Sandy Dawson, Marv Wideen, Leone Prock, and Dean, John Ellis. The place was electric with the excitement of breaking new ground. Everyone seemed to have written books, were conducting experimental programs, and seemed to be excellent teachers—the keys to achieving tenure, my greatest anxiety at the time. If I remember correctly, I had three years to create a record in publishing, developing new programs, teaching, and making contributions to the faculty, or I would be asked to leave by the Tenure Committee. The heat was on!

My special interest and my thesis focused on self-directed learning (SDL), finding ways to encourage and guide students in creating their own learning programs. I botched my first chance to introduce SDL with several colleagues working on a new program for SFU students by not being clear about my intentions, and I still regret that mistake, but I kept writing about the self-directed process.

One night I saw the Australian film Walkabout, a story of two white children about to die from exposure in the desert-like outback when they are saved by a young aboriginal on his Walkabout, a six-month challenge of survival that was a transition to adulthood that he had been preparing for all his life. I was moved and asked, “What would an equally appropriate preparation be for youth in a sophisticated urban society like our own?” The activities had to be challenging and they had to include skills and experience in several fields.  The fields I chose were adventure, creativity, service, practical skill, and logical inquiry.  Then I added a program of goal setting, planning and action for pursuing projects in these areas.  The first test was students challenging themselves; the final test was students presenting their achievements at a ‘graduation’ ceremony to demonstrate their readiness for adulthood.  Each student is supported by a group of five to seven other students and a teacher to guide their progress and to help them understand and overcome their personal difficulties in achieving success.

I wrote this program up under the title “Walkabout; Searching for the Right Passage from Childhood and School,” and sent it off.  I waited and waited, and then one day a letter arrived at my letterbox in the office.  I opened it shaking.  It was a handwritten letter that began, “Dear Maurice, I have just read Walkabout and in all my years as editor of The Kappan I have never received a more seminal article.”  I threw the letter in the air and cried out.  Colleagues gathered.  I showed them the letter and we celebrated together. John Ellis reminded me how hard he had worked on the article, and indeed, I had a great deal of help from him and others on the final draft.

The Kappan experienced an overwhelming response to the article and began a Walkabout Newsletter that ran for several years. Ten years later, the Kappan published “The Walkabout Ten Years Later” with articles by people running Walkabout programs, including an article by Peter Copen.  Several years after that, Peter established a Walkabout program in New York State, and later he established an international program through the Internet called iEARN (www.iearn.org). He wrote to me years ago and said, “Maurice, if you worry that Walkabout is fading, I can tell you that at any given time we have between one and two million students from over 140 countries following a program based on the Walkabout philosophy.  Congratulations.” (See his article on my website self-directedlearning.com). At Jefferson County Open in Colorado, students still complete their six challenges and demonstrate their success for graduation.

When the Tenure Committee called me in and told me I was now a tenured professor in the Faculty of Education, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  I am still very proud to be a member of our Faculty and a retiree at SFU.

Maurice Gibbons
Professor, Emeriti

Read all the stories from the 1960s