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Beyond learning by doing: an exploration of critical incidents in outdoor leadership educationThis paper argues that outdoor leader education and training is generally characterized by the development of procedural skills at the expense of equally crucial but usually ignored, ‘soft skills’ (for example, contextualized decision making and reflection). Consequently, this risks producing practitioners with a potentially unsophisticated and limited awareness of the holistic outdoor environments and situations and an over-reliance on ‘how to’ skills which may, in turn, impede the development of links between theory and practice. This paper analyses a research project that undertook the application of critical incident theory to a study of undergraduates in a United Kingdom outdoor leadership degree programme in an attempt to promote and examine the processes of developing ‘softer’ reflective skills in the students. In addition, the paper’s argument and data, while not directly dealing with wider audiences (clients and national qualification bodies), provide inferences and allusions to potential consequent enhanced development and benefits of heightened reflective understanding and practice to these groups. Methodologically, the study examines a range of critical incidents in a purposive homogenous sample of 20 students from a vocational undergraduate outdoor studies course. Students were asked to identify and reflect on critical incidents in practice settings of their own choice. These settings spanned a range of contexts from outdoor centre work in the United Kingdom to assistant leadership positions on educational expeditions in remote locations overseas. Qualitative data analysis was carried out through the use of Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis (IPA). The findings supported the conceptual premise and indicated that outdoor leadership programmes need to develop a broader and holistic skills base rather than persist with the extant predilection towards primarily physical and technical skills. Allusion is made to the suggestion that this could ultimately potentially enhance effectiveness with clients and employability prospects. In summary, a focus on critical incident method early in education and training processes has the potential to equip practitioners with the holistic and complex set of skills required in the contemporary outdoor workplace.