Baden-Powell was a master teacher. I don’t know how much of the success of the Scouting movement was due to his instinctual charisma for training and inspiring others to catch his vision, but it certainly played an integral part. He became the world’s first Scoutmaster in August of 1907. It was then that the famous ‘test’ of the Scouting framework was held on the little Brownsea Island off the coast of England. His many years of training and working with young men in the military had finely honed his natural teaching talent. As good as he was, though, he was constantly learning. Even on those warm August mornings when Brownsea camp was in full swing, he was experimenting with different teaching approaches and ways to get his ideas across to the new Scouts.
Later on, he shared a three-step system that he found particularly effective there at Brownsea camp:
“For example, take one detail of the subject ‘Observation’ – namely tracking: 1. At the camp fire overnight we would tell the boys some interesting instance of the value of being able to track. 2. Next morning we would teach them to read tracks by making foot marks at different places, and showing how to read them and to deduce their meaning. 3. In the afternoon we would have a game, such as Deer Stalking.”
This is genius! I want to dig into this a little deeper and come up with some nuggets that we can put into practice for ourselves. I wish it was as easy as treating this like a formula and saying, “Here. Now go and do it!” However, that won’t get very far. If we understand why this method worked so well for Baden-Powell, we can be more thoroughly equipped to make what we do and say count every meeting and every camping trip.
1. The first step in teaching is to inspire Scouts about the topic and help them envision it’s value to them.
When you hear a story, your innate impulse it to empathize with the character – to put yourself in his shoes. The more well-told the story, the more you feel for the character. When Scoutmaster Baden-Powell told his Scouts a story in which the skill being taught was extremely valuable, the Scouts would immediately put themselves into the story and understand how this particular skill would be beneficial to them.
To illustrate: I’m sure we all have attempted to teach a disinterested Scout how to tie a taught-line hitch or a bowline. If the Scout hasn’t caught the vision for why this knot is important, learning it will be a tedious task. That’s why Baden-Powell’s first step is to pass on his own enthusiasm for the skill before ever attempting to teach it. If the Scout can picture himself using this skill in an important situation, it makes a big difference!
2. When teaching a skill, make the instruction as real and hands-on as possible.
As a Scout, I went to many Merit Badge classes where I was simply expected to take good notes while watching the instructor lecture on the topic he was teaching. However, when Baden-Powell taught, he knew that would be a sure way to lose the Scouts’ attention. Instead, he made the most progress by immersing the Scouts into the subject. He didn’t just talk about it – he gave them an example they could see with their own eyes and touch with their own hands. Instead of walking through the subject for the Scouts, he walked through it with them.
For example: Once when I was a Patrol Leader, I needed to teach the Scouts in my Patrol how to tie the square and diagonal lashings. I knew from past experience that it was somewhat boring to teach these knots simply with a rope and two sticks. So, I brought a bundle of long, straight, sturdy sticks which I cut down earlier for this purpose to the meeting with me. I gave a brief demonstration/explanation and announced that we were all going to work together to build a frame. Each Scout was given a lashing to complete, and I went from one to the other helping them as needed. It didn’t take long before the Scouts were proudly carrying the smallest one around the meeting hall perched on the palanquin-like structure. My personal experiment was a success! The learning wasn’t boring, and the Scouts remembered the lashings much more easily after that.
3. The best way for Scouts to commit new skills to memory is by practicing those skills through games and competitions.
Some things we learn once just stick immediately in our minds and we never seem to forget them. Most things, however, need to be put into practice on a regular basis in order to stay with us. Many Scout skills will be regularly used during camping trips and throughout daily life, but many need to be rehearsed and honed to be ready when needed.
The only way that Baden-Powell was really able to do this satisfactorily with the young men he worked with was through game-like competitions. The skills that his military scouts needed to know couldn’t simply be drilled like other military exercises. So he came up with many inventive games and competitions to keep the practice always fresh and give each man a personal incentive to improve his skill in that topic.
When Baden-Powell became a Scoutmaster, he took that same principle and found that it worked equally well with the young men he was training to be peace Scouts. He often encouraged Scoutmasters to have friendly inter-patrol competitions and always to turn the process of advancing in skill into a game. In my personal experience, I’ve found it challenging to pull off a really good skill-based competition or game. But when it hits, it’s a solid home-run.
All of these principles are easy to say, but they’re often difficult in real life. It’s hard to get Scouts to catch a vision and get excited about something that perhaps even you find rather boring. It takes an awful lot of work and preparation to make learning and teaching as real-life and hands-on as possible. You can think for hours and still not come up with a fun and exciting game or competition for a particular skill. These principles are difficult to follow, but your whole Troop will grow stronger as they are practiced.
Traditional Scouting is hard, but it’s worth it! It’s not a matter of keeping boys entertained for a couple of hours each week. It isn’t simply following well-worn routines that look good on paper. It can only be done by the Scoutmaster who is in the field – who knows that what he does and says changes lives. Baden-Powell may be the official founder of the Scouting movement, but you are the Scouting movement. Now let’s go change the world one Scout at a time!
Hillcourt, William and Olave, Lady Baden-Powell. Baden-Powell: The Two Lives of a Hero. Boy Scouts of America, 1964. Print.