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.

No Parents In The Learning Area

Skiing - Outdoor Education

On a visit to the US I took some time out to go skiing in Park City. It's a fantastic resort and an awesome historic township. It now even has an Australian run café, which meant I could have a decent coffee (all the important things being from Australia). I’d prepared myself to go a month without decent coffee, reliant on bitter or burnt espressos as a backup plan. I was however, pleasantly surprised to find myself standing in front of a recognisable Australian business and safely drinking a good cup of coffee.

Despite this extremely important tangent, what follows has nothing to do with coffee. It was early in the morning on a crisp crystal clear day over on the Canyons side of the resort. I was skiing past the ski school when a sign caught my attention, “Please, No Parents In The Learning Area!”

I laughed, as I knew exactly why there was a need for something like this the moment I saw it. Whilst it's very important for parents to be involved in their child’s education, there's a right way to go about it and a wrong way to go about it. More often than not, parents, generally through a lack of understanding go about things the wrong way and many of them constantly insert themselves into situations where they should just stand back and allow others to teach.

From what I’ve seen over my years of involvement with education, Helicopter & Tiger parents, need to relax, find themselves a hobby that doesn’t involve them living vicariously through their children. Whilst the underlying belief these parents have is that they’re ‘helping’ and making sure they get the ‘best’ for the child, the reality is that they’re doing more harm than good and wasting their own life and opportunities at the same time.

It’s probably easier to remove the salt from the ocean than it is to remove the helicopter from the parent, but seriously, they need to back off and let their kids breathe and experience a few things in life for themselves. This doesn’t mean that everything should be done at arms’ length, but I can understand the need for the sign as over-involvement of parents can be just as bad, or even worse than under-parenting.

I realise it is a challenging balance, but if you look at it from a work point of view, how would everyone feel if someone went from department to department telling everyone how their job should be done. From marketing, to finance and the janitorial services how would everyone feel if your clients hung around giving instructions on how their work should be done? It wouldn’t be long before security was called and the person was ejected from the building.

I would have thought the whole point of taking your kids to ski school is so that you could ski somewhere awesome yourself. Hanging around offering suggestions or taking photos would be the last thing on my mind. I would have ditched the kids and headed up the closest double black only lift. Ski school and school in general is a great sort of child minding service, which hopefully employs talented instructors and teachers who will be able to care for your children and teach them something far more effectively than you can. This, of course, eventually pays off later on, as you’ll be able to ski with your kids, until they get way better than you and then leave you for dead, suggesting perhaps you should go and have some lessons.

However, from this the most important thing is that sometimes parents need to be able to step away from a situation and allow their children to be taught by others. If they’re not prepared to do that, then why not teach them everything they need to know themselves? This would seem to be preferable for many parents, until they realise the reality of how much time, energy, experience and effort goes into teaching others.

At some point, parents must let go and if they haven’t by high-school years, then the damage they’re going to do over the proceeding years is significant. Again this doesn’t mean parents should have no involvement, but appropriate experiences should be looked for where that increasing independence can be gained. Some effective programs I’ve worked on have been medium and long-stay residential programs, in which there was little choice for those helicopter parents but to stay away. If medium and long stay programs aren’t an option for your school, then perhaps erecting a barrier near the entrance is the next best option. At the end of the day, it will enable students to have a far better educational experience than the endless hovering could ever provide.

For me, as I said, I’d just leave them at the ski school and allow them to try new things, slip, fall and get back up again all by themselves. It’s the learning through these experiences that make the best skiers and the snowboarders, not the manic parenting and suggestions from the side. Perhaps, as in Park City, a giant sign is just what’s needed for all of our programs to remind parents of the fact that it’s time to let go a bit and let their kids do something a bit ‘risky’ for themselves.

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

Monopoly

Monopoly.jpg

One thing everyone’s looking for is someone who is genuine. This is a real challenge in education because often teachers are placed in situations where they’re teaching something that they’re not particularly interested in. As a result, they don’t have the passion, they don’t have the enthusiasm and therefore, they don’t have that genuine vibe and engagement in what they’re doing. I noticed this myself the other day.

I was supervising a group of students and there were two activities going on. One was table tennis and the other was monopoly. I’ve never really liked table tennis and so I always avoid it and I make up endless excuses as to why I can’t play. Even though it could be quite beneficial and would help me to develop a rapport with some students with whom otherwise it’s hard to develop, in reality, playing the game wasn’t worth it for some superficial rapport.

If I were to play, since I wasn’t really interested in it myself, I mightn’t put much effort into playing. It would have ended up being counter productive. The students would easily see through this and ultimately there’d be no point in pretending I was enjoying what I was doing. As experiential education is as much about relationships as it is about pushing boundaries, there’s no actual benefit from engaging in some sort of activity such as table tennis, if you’re not genuine about it yourself.

Conversely, there was the game of monopoly being played and one of the kids said to me, “Hey Sir, do you want to be on my team?”
My immediate reply was, “Sure! Sounds like fun!”

The difference was that I love Monopoly. However, I made sure that I didn’t take over control of the game, because even though I’m pretty competitive at Monopoly, I was still the invited number two team member. On a side note, Monopoly is so much fun. I always love having the car but we didn’t get the car. Actually, I also like the battleship, as well and the dog, but I digress.

Anyway the point is, it’s such a fun game and the difference here was that when I was involved, I was attentive, I was exploring options, I was whispering strategies and tactics with my teammate and we were taking turns of rolling the dice. The fact that I was genuinely interested in playing the game made all the difference and it’s something you just can’t make up or fudge your way through.

The end result was that I got to know more about my teammate than I otherwise would have and it created a rapport that enabled far better engagement from him in many other activities. To be able to engage students effectively is just as much, if not more about the positive role modeling that you can provide as a teacher than your knowledge in any specific subject area. This helps you draw on that positive, professional relationship to be able to encourage students when they’re struggling with their own challenges or even just in helping shape their attitude towards new activities or ways of thinking.

Suddenly, through doing something that you really enjoy (and it doesn’t have to be Monopoly), it can open up dialogues later on and enables you to teach more effectively because when students see that you’re interested, passionate and engaged in something, they’re more likely to become interested, passionate and engaged in other things as well. This can only come from when you’re honest and genuine about what your own interests and passions are. Don’t try to ‘fake it until you make it,’ as kids will see through this every time. Just be yourself and things will naturally fall into place.

As an important footnote here, we actually won Monopoly so I was very happy with that, but at the end of the day, it was more to do with the fact that for over an hour a whole group of students and I played an interesting, fun-filled game that everyone wanted to play and left with a better connection than before.

The Trajectory Of Life

Trajectory of Life - Experiential Education

The trajectory of life is a challenging issue about which to talk with teenagers. Unless we understand it ourselves as educators, how can we impart that knowledge and experience onto young impressionable minds that are being constantly bombarded with competing thoughts and feelings?

It’s exceptionally hard to convey to a teenager what life could be like in 5, 10 or even 20 years’ time, especially now that life and society is constantly changing. What can we do?

When I do goal setting sessions with teenagers, and ask the question what are your long-term goals, often I get the overwhelming response: ‘I want to be rich and have a hot wife’; or ‘I want to be rich and have a super fit husband.’ It’s usually the boys who have this very immature approach and all they can think about is about money and hot women. Thanks again to social media for reinforcing shallow delusions.

When you drill down and ask students why they want to be rich and have a hot wife, it turns out that it’s more to do with the notion of popularity at school, than anything real, which is quite unsurprising given their age.

Often, it’s a difficult conversation to have when you suggest that maybe the trajectory of their life may not turn out to be what they want it to be. The reality is, that most peoples’ lives never quite work out the way they envisaged. However, despite the stark reality of life’s challenges, it doesn’t mean that students can’t reach their goals. Instead, as teachers, it’s important that we are able to prepare them for the speed bumps and hurdles along the way.

Many teachers would simply say, ‘You have to work hard at school, go to uni, work hard on your job, then you’ll be successful.’ At this point I’d totally disagree with them. Unless students can establish what their vision of success is, then it’s unreasonable that teachers frame life in this way, because all it’s really doing is reinforcing the shallow ideas of money and a hot wife and not taking into consideration the complexity of life.

Some people have the idea of that success is all about a career and money but what does success look like to you? What’s meaningful in your life? What makes you happy? Not everybody wants to be a lawyer. Not everybody wants to be a doctor. Not everybody wants to be an engineer. Yet for some schools I’ve worked at, unless you’re fighting hard to get into one of those three career paths, then sadly, it makes it impossible for many students please their parents.

I also pose this question to students as part of goal setting. Is pleasing your parents something that will make you happy? Or is pleasing your parents just something to keep them at bay and not necessarily make you happy? I’ve come across many former students of mine who have done exceptionally well academically, but then spent years in the wilderness because they weren’t doing what they really wanted to do. They weren’t doing what they really felt was right for them and as result, weren’t the slightest bit happy with their lives. They were living out someone else’s dreams, not theirs. What seemed like a rocket fuelled ride towards success, with great school results and a wonderful university education, they were disengaged at work and looking for something real.

One of my aims with goal setting is to have students to think about how they see their life developing and start to plan how they want their life to develop. At the same time, there’s the need to help them understand it’s not always going to be easy. Your goals aren’t just going to fall into your lap. When this happens however, we’ve also provided them with the skills to consolidate, adapt and move forward again towards those goals.

We achieve this through experiential education as a metaphor for getting through other challenges in life. However, it can’t be done in isolation. There must be follow through after a program has run its course and there needs to be ongoing support from parents and mentors to help students more effectively plot and track the trajectory that they’re on.

Understanding and drawing on our own experiences as teachers, can be powerful in helping students to evaluate where they’re at and what skills they might need to develop to be able to stay on their chosen path.

What does the trajectory of your life look like? For someone in their 20s and 30s, it can be easier or harder depending on their approach and their attitude. For me, in my 20s the trajectory of my life didn’t look anything like what it is today.

My life was looking very much like a downward spiral into the abyss. I didn’t have the focus. I didn’t have a vision for the future and I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. Nothing I was doing made me happy, which made it extremely hard at work, as well as deciding what good opportunities for the future were, versus rubbish opportunities.

However, if you have a clear idea in your mind what you’re trying to achieve and what makes you happy, then everything else in life falls into place far more easily. When you’re making informed decisions based upon what drives you and what makes your life exciting and interesting, suddenly, you’re back on that path to success.

Through sharing your own experience, you’re then able to impart that to be successful, life’s trajectory is not always going to be a linear one. There may be set backs but from setbacks, you can regroup, rebuild and become even stronger. Consequently, as part of a much broader part of any experiential education program, you can use the various activities and challenges as a metaphor for the trajectory of life. By relating success or failure in activities your students will face in life, can provide immensely powerful teaching and learning moments for your students.

Through this approach, you can help your students avoid years in the emotional wilderness and get them thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I can decide my destiny. I can build my life how I want it to be built!’

It’s that passion and desire to build a life of one’s own making, that’s often lost in the daily grind of school and the focus on the academic end goal for a university entrance rank. It’s important however, that students can start to develop real ideas of where they want to take their lives and from a teaching point of view, for teachers to provide them with the skills and ability to seek out opportunities, deal with setbacks, and keep moving towards their goals. It’s never going to be a straight and easy path. However, with the right grounding at school, it makes it so much easier.