Don't Lead Student Trips For Them!

Hiking - Outdoor Education

What's the point of spending time and energy setting up an outdoor ed program aimed at building leadership, teamwork and initiative, then subsequently provide no opportunities for students to actually take responsibility for any of this themselves?

So often I see teachers ‘run’ programs, in that they take the students out, think for them, navigate for them, constantly give instructions on how to do everything and determine the whole schedule for each and every day.

Realistically, students can get this sort of experience any day of the week at home or in the classroom. So don't make the mistake of doing this in your experiential education program!

The command and control operational management style is often starkly noticeable if contracting out your program out to a third party. Whilst some organisations are great, many of them process groups the way you'd process cattle through a dairy. They get herded in, run through the process and led out the other end none the wiser. For cows, the experience seems ok, having chewed a bit of cud and hung out with some other cows. However, has the cow learnt or achieved anything from this? Not really! The only enlightenment she’s achieved is having less milk. But there's lots of money in pointless processes. Look at government departments. They're great at it! I mean really great at it! I guess when you’re onto something good, you should stick to it.

Experiential education however, is not about a process of running fun activities for the sake of it. There’s so much more depth to it than that. It’s about the opportunity to lead, not to be led! The opportunity to take risks, not to have someone tell you what to do. It's about teamwork and decision making.

For teachers, to giving up the reigns and allow students be challenged, experience new things and grow from this may feel awkward and difficult at first. However, if you don’t, then you’re wasting some fantastic educational opportunities.

I've seen teachers on experiential education trips wanting to control and run everything and I mean everything!!! From setting up tents, to collecting firewood, to holding onto a bag of cereal in the morning and dishing it out flake by flake. Some teachers just can't let go of control. If you're like this, it's time to stop as you're not helping anyone with anything.

You need to stand back and allow your students to take the risk of leadership, decision making and self-management and allow them to have the chance to shine and the chance to fail! They're going to learn more from this than they ever will if you were to jump in and catch them before they fail. All you need to do is frame an effective debrief if they do fail, to create a great learning opportunity from this. Conversely, when they display initiative and leadership, use this to extend and challenge your students. You will be amazed the difference this makes.

To be able to do this effectively, when you get into the field, provide your students with a clear and detailed briefing on what needs to happen and what roles need to be fulfilled. Only do this once, as failure to listen can lead to some great learning opportunities for those who choose not to. On the conclusion of your brief, the responsibility needs to then be given to your students to make it all happen. Your role now is purely a safety one to ensure that the wider range of risks are monitored and addressed without intervention in the group decision-making process. The only time you now step in, is if there is a potentially dangerous risk that arises and requires your experience and knowledge to manage.

By allowing students the chance to take on responsibilities they’d not normally have, helps to super charge the learning opportunities in a short period of time. Mistakes are made, tempers are frayed and people are pushed well outside their comfort zones. Whilst this may sound like chaos to some people, it’s a natural and highly effective way of teaching and learning for everyone involved. You can achieve more growth and development from any of your experiential education activities by allowing your students to run them themselves, rather than having you or any other teacher do it for them.

So for your next experiential education activity: Set it up once, let go of the reigns and allow your students to take the initiative and shine.

Being Vulnerable In Debriefs

Debriefs - Experiential Education

One of the recent debrief questions I posed to a group, made me think and reflect on my own experiences. Whenever I run a debrief, I’ll always frame the question, then provide an example from my own experience before asking the students to share their thoughts and feelings about the topic or issue. This isn’t just about story telling though. This is about relationship building and whilst you’re not telling them your life story, you're giving them a glimpse at how you think and feel. This can be a very powerful way to effectively engage everyone in what can be, at times, a very challenging, yet positive conversation and educational tool. For me, this is very easy to jump in and do, because we have groups come for a short period of time (generally four weeks on my current program). They know nothing about me and I know nothing about them and the only way we get to know each other is through sharing stories and experiences. However, one massive problem for most classroom teachers who don’t do experiential education programs all the time, is that they only know their students from the classroom context. Consequently, getting out on camp and sharing a vulnerability, can be extremely difficult and confronting.

Despite this, the right story for the right group can have a powerful effect and change the classroom relationship for good! I can't tell you which story from your life will result in this, but I can say that being honest and genuine is a wonderful relationship building tool and can help you teach some of the most important lessons in life.

The most nerve wracking experience of my teaching to date was when I was working for a school in the country and one of the kids had googled my name. This revealed a number of newspaper articles about bullying which occurred to me years ago when I was at school. Even though the articles weren’t bad, it exposed a huge vulnerability of mine. The thoughts that ran through my mind were horrible and I felt totally exposed because of what had happened to me. However, in the end, rather than shy away from this, I tackled it head on! I spoke with the Yr 9 boys (the entire year in fact) and was open and honest with them about what happened to me and the fallout from the experience at school and after school. There were masses of questions thrown at me and I answered every single one honestly and openly. The positive and supportive response from the students was totally unexpected. I went from thinking my career was over, to ending up with really positive long-lasting relationships with that year group. It actually made every class I taught so much easier than ever before.

So what is it from your life? What is it from your experience that you can share which will help your students face the challenges that life throws at them? This is where the debrief becomes so powerful. It's not just about asking questions to fill in time around the fire or getting the kids to think and reflect a bit, it should also challenge you, as the teacher and instructor. If you're not facing your own challenges head on, how can you expect others to? Sharing parts of your own experience is a valuable tool in conveying real meaning to a debrief.

Back to the original point though of self-reflection, the question that I posed, on hearing some of the students’ responses made me think about my answer more. It made me question if I were tackling my biggest problem in the most intelligent way and sparked my thinking about different ways I could tackle it! Without this transparency and honesty about myself, I would probably get superficial and shallow responses in all my debriefs, which simply makes them pointless ventures. You might as well just tell ghost stories round the fire, if you don't put any genuine effort in to engage with your students. However, by using this wonderful reflective conversation and snippets of your own experience, you can teach some truly remarkable lessons and build some amazing, positive relationships with your students that can totally change the dynamics of their lives and your teaching.

Campfires - Outdoor Education

The History & Geography Of Middle Head

Middle Head - Excursion

From the snow to a stunning winter’s day in Sydney, last week I took a group of year 7 students to Middle Head for a geography and history excursion. There were all the elements of a fun day out of the classroom as well as to get a real feel for the natural and built environment and how it changes over time. Even though the kids are all from Sydney, I was surprised how many hadn’t been to Middle Head, or anywhere around there, especially when Taronga Zoo is just down the road. Thinking of Taronga Zoo, I must pay another visit, as the last time I was there, was on a school excursion when I was 5! I do remember that there were giraffes and a koala, but I’m sure there’s more animals there than that and I’m getting side-tracked.

Middle Head, its history and military usage is fascinating. Much has been preserved as National Parks are now responsible for the area. What could be better than spending a day in a beautiful National Park that’s located right in the middle of Australia's biggest city!

The Disappearing Gun Emplacement

The Disappearing Gun Emplacement

As with much of Australian history, it starts with the aborigines. Middle Head is no exception. If you're looking for an amazing place to live, with beautiful beaches and stunning views, you can't go wrong here. Whilst it’s not entirely clear which tribe based themselves on the headland, the Camaragal (Cam-mer-ray-gal) lands took in a signification area of Mosman and North Sydney. Hence the suburb Cammeray!

After settlement and before Fort Denison was built, a fort was built on the southern side of headland next to Obelisk Beach as a means of providing early warning for the colony when ships entered the harbour and to surprise them with a shot over the bow if they had hostile intent. However, due to the distance from the colony, it was soon abandoned. Today however, this is a nudist beach, which can still provide an equally shocking a surprise to passing ships.

In 1815, with Governor Macquarie in charge, busily building the colony and naming things after himself, he granted Middle Head to Bungaree, an aboriginal who accompanied Flinders on his circumnavigation of Australia. Named the ‘Chief of Broken Bay’ and the ‘King of Port Jackson,’ Bungaree was a colourful character who was an important intermediary between the European Settlers and the local aborigines. Whilst it was probably a noble gesture for Governor Macquarie to ‘give’ Bungaree this land, which he probably already ‘owned,’ this quickly fell apart, as the soil on Middle Head isn’t much good for farming.

The site was soon abandoned until its (no apostrophe!) rebirth as a military fort in 1853 when NSW was getting worried about the prospects of being invaded by Russia. In terms of success, this fort was amazing! It protected us from invasion by Russia right throughout the Crimean war. We won’t dwell on the fact that Russia didn’t even bother sending out anyone to New South Wales, because that would ruin a good story.

Main Middle Head Fort

Main Middle Head Fort

Middle Head as a fort was of great strategic importance. As the headland is positioned right in the middle of North Head and South Head, you can see and track everything that comes into Sydney harbour. The fort had several key areas and gun placements built throughout and many of the remnants can still be seen. Over the years, the fort was upgraded for each subsequent war in which Australia was involved. The cannons changed to artillery pieces and at the height of its military use, it was covered by 71 guns. The most important period of operation however, came in World War II when the Japanese posed a real threat to Australia and managed to get two midget subs through the anti-submarine net and into Sydney Harbour.

The military base on Middle Head was finally abandoned after the end of the Vietnam War. It was then handed over to National Parks in 1979 and has been cared for and developed into a wonderful natural and historic tourist attraction. The added bonus that we had during this excursion, was to see the air ambulance conducting training exercises on and around the headland. It was awesome to see them doing a moving boat rescue exercise as well as landing and taking off right in front of us. Whilst I can’t guarantee that you will have the same amazing experience with a helicopter, you can be assured that a trip out to Middle Head is well worth it to explore the fascinating geography and history of such an important site in the development of Sydney. If you’re not feeling up to guiding this yourself, give National Parks a call and talk to them about school options.

Banksia

Banksia

The Art Of Teaching Through Doing Nothing

Outdoor Activity - Outdoor Education

As teachers, there's always the desire to go out of your way to help students with their learning. However, what if this is harming their ability in the whole learning process? The increasing lack of ability for kids to problem solve is concerning on many levels. The standard solution of google, it has helped reduce people's ability to think and respond! ‘eLearning’ has a lot to answer for in terms of building incompetence into kids, where they're encouraged to seek solutions to their problems from the Internet. Instant access to the answer to almost everything has created new problems in that kids who are reliant on instant results, can't cope in situations that require a more complex and challenging approach.

Recently, I had a group of students out on a hike into the Budawang Wilderness. This pristine and amazingly rugged part of Morton National Park is a challenging, yet invigorating experience. Prior to the trip, we set the scene for the students. It was their expedition and they were in charge. We would only intervene if there were a safety issue that arose, otherwise every decision was up to them. They were briefed on directions, leadership and group management and given a map and compass.

Moments after the end of the brief, the questions started flying “How far is it?”
“When’s lunch?”
“What time are we going to get there?”
We both gave the same response. “You've been given all the information you need. Work it out yourself!”

It quickly became obvious that none of them had ever experienced this before. They were expecting to be taken on a trip, rather than being challenged by the experience. The temptation of teachers (often born out of frustration) is to take over and do it for them, or show them, as it's an easy way out. Yet if you do that, you never put the kids outside their comfort zone. You never push them to take any initiative or responsibility and they never actually learn anything.

So we waited for them to work it out, which took some time, then we were off and along the track. The questions about how far we'd gone, how long left and can I eat this muesli bar, continued and were met every time with the same response, “It's your trip. Work it out yourself.”

Whilst the questions are annoying, once they realise you're not going to provide them with any answers, they eventually stop asking, until they want reassurance that they're on the right path, or they're tired and then like flies to a dead horse, they ask again and again and again, which I refuse to answer unless there is a safety issue.

We eventually made it to camp, probably two hours later than if one of us had been ‘running’ the trip, but what educational value would that have provided? If we just ‘ran’ trips, we would just reinforce the notion that everything can and will be answered and done instantly with no effort on the part of the student. From an educational point of view, this is a complete waste of time and allows for no development of resilience nor initiative in kids, which ultimately will cost them dearly when faced with any sort of challenge later in life.

When leading trips, this has always been my guiding principle. Set the group up once and let them work the rest out for themselves. They must do everything out there in the field for themselves. What time we start, what time we break, pace of the group, setting up camp, dinner time, wake up, pack up, departure and navigation. Everything about the trip needs to be put on the students to think about and take appropriate action to complete.

At the end of the day, you never learn to drive sitting in the passenger seat, so set the group up, then put the responsibility on the group to take ownership and run the trip themselves. It might be tough. They might winged and complain about it, but it lets them develop real problem solving skills and teaches them some valuable lessons that they will never learn anywhere else.

Next time you're out with a group, don't take charge and do everything for them. Brief the group, then sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.

Risk Avoidance

Risk Avoidance.jpg

Having recently been to a risk management conference, this got me thinking! Are some schools becoming so risk adverse to the point of harming kids?

When I was at school, I'd never heard of something called an incursion. In fact, I've only heard it in recent times. To me it just sounds like the school is getting raided by teams of crazed militia. I'm not sure whether it's just a stupid term for having a guest speaker, or an attempt by schools to avoid taking kids off site, by bringing the excursion to them.

If it's the latter, then there’s several problems with this, as so much learning occurs by actually getting out there and doing stuff, not by hanging around in the classroom. This is not to devalue the benefits of a guest speaker, but seriously, call them a guest speaker. The next time I go to a school to do a presentation, if they call it an incursion, I may feel like I need to bring a large collection of stray cats and let them loose to cause an expected level of disruption!

There is a serious point to this though. I’ve noticed an increasing number of schools opting for this type of experience for their students (maybe not involving cats), but having ‘incursions.’ The idea of a virtual ‘excursion’ falls into this same area of total risk avoidance and borders on stupidity, because we're creating a generation of people who can't cope with any sort of adversity. They're too used to having everything done for them or being able to do everything at arms’ length through technology. When things get real, they go to pieces.

A recent example of this was on a long-stay camping program. The students aren't allowed to bring phones, because part the aim is for them to have a break from the distraction of technology. One student was caught with his phone, and when confronted with this and the phone was confiscated, he had a complete meltdown.

This same concern ties back into the idiotic notions of incursions. Let's keep everything safe and risk free because we’re worried too much about consequences. I’m sorry to say, the world is full of real consequences and if you don't educate kids and expose them to at least some of this, then you're setting them up for failure. There are many excuses why people want to avoid real experiential education, but if you want kids to learn and grow, you need them to face real challenges, feel discomfort and be able to build up some resilience in anticipation of what will hit them once they leave school. The danger of failing to do this, means that you're just setting kids up for failure. Therefore, by totally avoiding risk, you're actually causing real harm to the students.

So the next time you're thinking of either going to the art gallery, or bringing the director of the art gallery to you, stop being stupid, book a bus and go and see real works of art, rather than have someone just come and talk to you about it. Real experience produces real learning outcomes and there is no substitute for this in life.