Decision-making is something that most teachers love to control and who can blame them! How could you possibly trust kids to make any sort of decision for themselves? Have you seen what their rooms look like at the end of a week? Kids struggle to decide what they want for breakfast, let alone anything important.
However, rather than hoarding all the decision making for yourself, how can we as teachers teach good decision making processes and skills? For many teachers, this will strike fear into their hearts. The idea of letting go the reins and losing control of the class is a nightmare scenario. After all, they’ve spent years perfecting the art of being in control and it’s something that's deeply entrenched into teachers’ psyche.
No teacher wants to go back to the nerve wracking days of feeling out of control, when they first stepped into the classroom to start their teaching practicum. It's an experience that's etched in all teachers’ minds. Whilst some teachers might have been thinking about delivering a good lesson, others, including myself, were just hoping that no chairs were thrown and no dolphins were injured during the lesson.
Whilst many teachers are used to exercising control over their class, which is a very good idea when dealing with a ratty year seven class to ensure the windows don't get broken, at what point should you start letting go and allowing students to transition into decision makers themselves?
If you want to produce mature young independent thinking adults, at some point you need to relinquish much of the standard ‘classroom’ control associated with education. Many schools profess how wonderful they are at giving students the opportunity to lead, the opportunity to think for themselves and the opportunity to make decisions. However, what's the practical reality of this? Does this really happen? Unfortunately, when I’ve seen this in outdoor education, it's often a case of students being led around on an activity and pretending that they're making decisions along the way, rather than empowering students to take real responsibility for this themselves.
The problem is that students see right through the false veneer of fake ownership and illusionary responsibility. The only way to address this is to actually allow your students to make decisions for themselves. Unless there's a real safety issue that arises, then extract yourself from the process and simply provide the operational framework. Whilst this can be extremely difficult for someone who is used to being in control, it makes a massive difference to the educational outcome.
On one canoe expedition, we were paddling up into the Shoalhaven Gorge. The journey saw us covering around 15km each day, which is a decent distance to paddle, but add to this the fact that it was raining, slightly complicated things. To put this in context, when I said it was raining, it wasn't just drizzling, it was pelting down and had been for some time.
After a long gruelling morning paddle that had lasted several hours, the river split and we turned up into a narrowing section of the waterway. To our right appeared a large sandstone outcrop, which jutted out over the water, forming a natural shelter. The students who were navigating led us over to the shelter, which was large enough to shelter six of our boats. Unfortunately, we had seven, so one boat with two students in it was stuck out in the rain, which was getting heavier.
Given the nature and structure of the shelter, there was no way to allow the students to get out of the boats and all shelter. For the shelter to be of any use they had to be in the water. This created a problem, even though most students were sheltered from the rain, at least two weren’t. This wasn't a problem that I was going to solve for them, so I posed the question, ‘What are your options?’
The group talked amongst themselves for a few minutes, their initial resolution was that they would stay under the shelter and everybody would then have a turn on the outside for five minutes. This meant they would cycle through all the boats every 35 minutes. This seemed fair in a really, pragmatic sense, however, the practical reality of getting boats in and out, especially ones that were fully loaded with gear was just a slight complication to this.
They tried this for ten minutes before realising how difficult this decision was logistically. At this point, it was also lunch time and the students were getting hungry. We could easily eat lunch on the canoes, but again, a tricky initial logistical problem as the food was buried in barrels. Not an impossible task, but fiddly all the same.
I realised I needed to facilitate a discussion with the students. Although it wasn't a huge concern and we could easily have sat there and waited out the storm, which could be another few hours, but then my concern from a safety point of view was hypothermia and so a decision had to be made one way or another so I could factor in a suitable response to avoid students getting too cold. From my point of view, the decision being made was still completely the responsibility of the students. However, I remained diligent in my role as leader to provide the required safety net.
As the students sat there directionless, waiting to be told what to do, which wasn’t going to happen, I threw out another suggestion, “Why don’t you see where we are on the map, then look at where the campsite is and assess how long going it’s going to take us to get there. Then assess other factors, such as the rain, our current shelter and the terrain between here and the campsite. What are some options?
The sound of the students’ voices bounced off the rocky wall of the shelter as they discussed the possibilities and consequences of each option. The reality was the rain wasn’t stopping anytime soon, the canoes were starting to become rather uncomfortable due to the additional few kilograms of water that had been accumulating at the bottom from heavy rain and people were getting hungry. With all these factors at play, it was an interesting discussion to listen to and I had no idea what the outcome would be. I had guessed it was going to be ‘let’s have lunch.’
No matter what the decision was, unless it was ridiculously unsafe, I was ready to go with it. I didn’t frontload the process either to try to get them to decide what I wanted and this is a very important part of the process to ensure that students really are empowered.
The rain kept pouring down relentlessly as they went back and forth with their discussion. I could hear it getting heavier and heavier as the droplets of rain hit the water and splashed back up at us, convincing me that their decision was going to be stay here and have lunch. The students however, seemed to have little interest in the lunch option as they discussed all the various ideas. What I found interesting about this discussion was the fact that the needs of the group seemed to come out as more important than the needs of the individual.
The end result, despite all the uncertainty of for how long the storm was going to continue, was for us to get back out onto the river and keep paddling to camp. The students thought that by doing that, it would mean they could get a fire going, set up their tents for shelter, have something to eat and dry their clothes.
Whilst I was surprised and happy with the decision they made, what really impressed me was the process through which the decision making was made. It was done in a logical manner which explored lots of options I hadn’t thought of myself. Again, if I had just been leading the group on a trip and didn’t let them make any decision for themselves, this wouldn’t have provided any educational benefit whatsoever. I later commended the students on their discussion and decision making process.
As soon as we started paddling though, we got absolutely smashed by the rain. It came in over wave after wave of torrential rain. Yet everyone pressed on and a few kilometres later we arrived at our destination. Despite being totally and utterly soaked and slightly exhausted, as soon as we arrived we had another problem to deal with. Cold wet students and so the race was on to get a fire going in the rain! What impressed me about this was that the earlier discussion that had been led by the students, somehow brought them together as a team and when it came to getting the fire organised, they were already out looking for sticks.
Before too long, the tents were up, we had a raging fire going, the soaking wet clothes had been swapped for warm dry ones and everyone was happily eating their well-deserved lunch. However, the other teacher and I can’t claim responsibility for any of this happening. The work to get the fire going, the food out and organised and everything else done, was not from us telling the kids what to do. They just did it all themselves. I was amazed, as it’s not something that usually happens with groups like this. I’d like to think that once they realised they were trusted to make decisions, it gave them the opportunity to push the boundaries of this and not wait to be told what to do next. Instead, they used their initiative and found what needed to be done next to ensure they and their friends were warm, comfortable and well-fed.
Despite the rain, the discomfort and the one trip to hospital the next day, this remains one of the most memorable canoeing expeditions I’ve ever had and certainly one of the most rewarding.
Why are schools so challenged by risk management? This is something I’ve been noticing a lot lately and whilst risk management in schools has never been strong, because it doesn’t form part of a teacher’s training, the fact that it’s so important baffles me as to the lack of attention given to it.
Whilst many a school will scream and curse at this suggestion, claiming that they have a great paperwork system, there lies the problem. A paperwork system based purely on checking boxes and approvals masks the fact that there’s a lack of real risk management understanding and implementation. Paperwork without training and experience is just that, paperwork. It can be dragged out to accuse staff of this or that in an attempt to deflect blame, rather than being a support mechanism for decision making and good operational practices.
One place I worked was obsessed by paperwork. One activity was determined unsafe because the paperwork wasn’t good enough. This was yet another ill-informed and idiotic comment from someone who knew nothing about risk management. The boss also insisted everyone sign every document, before going out on an activity, but when something within that document was materially affecting the safety of the program, nothing was done about it. Now, I admit this was an extreme case, but we learn a lot from these things and the reality is that if a teacher has not had any formal Risk Management training, the teacher shouldn’t be planning or running any sort of activity at all.
Anything from a practical lesson, to a quick trip down the road to a local park, gallery, courthouse or museum, right up to sports, camps and overseas trips, requires a risk management assessment. Teachers must take the time, not just to learn how to ‘do’ paperwork, which I could probably train a team of monkeys on typewriters to do quite a lot better than some of the risk assessments I’ve read over the years, but instead, the most important thing is that they need to train for situational awareness, contingency planning and how to be adaptable and flexible to ensure whatever the activity is, it’s run well.
The number of teachers who are taking groups of students out on activities who are untrained, unskilled and unprepared is worrying. You cannot contract out your duty of care nor your liability to a third party, so if you’re taking a group overseas, then you are responsible for everything that happens regardless of contract providers. These are some of the most dangerous trips to run, as far too many people see this as a holiday, rather than the significantly higher duty of care and potentially reduced resources, yet countless trips head out with a bit of paperwork and teachers who have no ideas what’s in that, nor how to really implement any of it.
This disconnect widens, the more schools employ people to ‘do’ their risk assessments for them. I’ve seen an increasing number of schools put this responsibility on one person and not the people running the trips. At the end of the day, if you aren’t trained and experienced in the management of risk, then you shouldn’t be planning and running a trip at all. This isn’t to say stop doing trips, because that would be stupid and pointless. Instead, get some training so that you can be confident in what you’re doing and start to build a culture within your organisation which understands and has great risk management systems so every trip goes out with confident pro-active teachers who are prepared and situationally aware so that you are always running great experiential education programs for everyone.
Before your next excursion, do a risk management training course and build your skills-set and start to address this disconnect between documentation, implementation and culture. The only way to truly run great programs, is to have that culture of risk management right throughout your organisation.
COVID-19 is a significant global pandemic issue and has been running since the end of 2019, when it was first discovered in Wuhan, in China. Now, this has ravaged the world and there are some serious considerations to be made when planning any sort of school excursion or activity around the impact that this may have on one of your programs.
The way in which you should be treating COVID-19 is the same way that you should be treating any other highly infectious disease for either your campus or school activity. So it shouldn't be done in isolation as a separate issue. It should be done in conjunction with your other risk management considerations and concerns. What's really important, though, is that the focus on COVID-19 shouldn't detract from the other risk management principles and practices you have in place to manage risk for whatever the excursion or activity is. If the management of COVID-19 were to compromise the management of risk in another area, then it's critically important that you review the appropriateness of doing that activity at this point in time.
The safety of one activity shouldn't be compromised by the implications of another. And for an example of this, I can imagine doing a belayed climb. You may have an instructor who is up close to one of the students or several students where they have to check harnesses, and then you're belaying on a rope. Now, this can be done safely and you can apply control measures such as face masks and also social distancing. However, where that social distancing is not possible, then maybe it's worth reconsidering the activity itself until later down the track. But critically important, just as a reminder, don't compromise any of the other safety of your activities for the management of COVID-19. Now that's not to say don't manage COVID-19. I think I really need to make a clear distinction there. But if the risks are too great for that activity, as a result of having to manage another contingency and another hazard, then discontinue that activity at this point in time.
I think that's really the most important outtake from this. It is really important to expect that all of your instructors are up to speed with what the virus is, how it is transmitted, and control measures. It's really important to provide this information to the school administrators, the teachers involved, the parents, and the students. And clear communication is critically important. Just because it's been on the news every single day for the last 8 months or 12 months, or however long it's been, it's really important that you still go through the causation and the control measures, and be very clear with staff about this. It's really important that prevention is absolutely critical to the safe running of your programs.
As an indication of some of the different levels of risks you may encounter and how to manage them, we'll just run through some of the high and medium level risks where you may need to look at other personal protective equipment and other controls to be in place for this kind of activity. For example, an instructor providing first aid to a student, generally, you would have your standard and absolutely, you would have your standard of gloves on to handle any patients. But in addition to that, you should also look at having face masks on both parties and ensuring that if you can't maintain that social distancing of around six feet, then you must have those personal protective equipment and devices in place to prevent that or reduce the risk of that transmission. So that's one of the high-risk activities is applying first aid. Also, if you have teachers or teaching assistant who are working with higher-need students. Say if you have students with disabilities or any other provisions where they need a carer and the carer may be in close contact, again, this is where that personal protective equipment is critically important as these would be considered a high-risk activity in the scheme of things in the current environment.
In terms of some of your medium risk activities, all of those instructors and students and staff on any of the trips should be considered a medium risk. So as this medium risk may involve handling cutlery, handling dishes, also being on vehicles or in vehicles together, then you really need to consider the cleaning regimes and the monitoring of this as a critically important part. What we've done is we've put together a document which steps you through these different contingency plans to help guide your approach, to getting school excursions back out and running again.
This online guide is to be used in conjunction with the latest recommendations from the CDC, as well as the recommendations from your school administration, their legal counsel, and their insurers. So please ensure that you cover all of these different bases because the most important thing is to safely get our students back out and doing the sorts of school excursions and activities and camps, which they love, and they learn so much from. So it's really important as an additional consideration to your risk assessments at this point in time, and certainly for the foreseeable future, to be really focusing on how you are going to effectively prevent the virus coming onto your program. And if so, if a case does occur on the program or a suspected case, how are you going to quickly isolate that student or that staff member or that instructor, and then make contact with authorities to let them know so that contact tracing can start to prevent the wider spread of the disease.
Recently, I visited the USS Midway, a long-serving American aircraft carrier, now museum which sits in San Diego Bay. Built in 1943 at a cost of $90 Million, this ship with its crew of 4,500 was in active duty until 1992, with its last engagement being the main carrier for the battle group in the first Gulf War. This a truly remarkable museum and for a school group, is the best way to explore modern naval history. From WWII to Vietnam and the Gulf, the Midway played a pivotal role in gaining air and sea superiority for the allied forces.
Approaching the Midway, I stood in awe of its enormity! It looks big from a distance, but close up, you really appreciate the sheer size and dominating presence of this amazing vessel. With a Tom Cruise look-alike at the entrance playing the soundtrack to Top Gun, that's about the only awful and touristy thing about the place. The rest is an amazing historic journey back to the last century and a glimpse into what life was and is like serving in the Navy.
The tour of the ship is divided up into three sections. The first is the hanger deck where they used to store the planes, but now has a number of historic aircraft and flight simulators. Unfortunately, I didn't get to try them out, but well worth budgeting for your trip as the kids will nag you for it when you get there. Better to pre-empt this and be the most amazing teacher for organising it for them!
Below this deck is the main galley, sailors mess and medical areas, which give you an idea of the sheer size of the task of keeping everyone fed and healthy. There's a post office, laundry, general store, chemist, surgery and dental clinic, as well! Everything you need for extended deployments at sea. The most interesting part of this was the Marine’s guard station which led to the nuclear missiles’ storage below. An unambiguous warning sign outside, informed that the marines were authorised to use deadly force if any sailor attempted to gain access.
The runway deck, however, is the highlight of the tour. The deck is enormous, as you would expect when planes have to take off and land on it. There are all sorts of different aircraft up on deck from training and surveillance planes to the very impressive war planes such as the FA18, the Tom Cat and many others. There are a number of helicopters too, including the Huey that was extensively used in the Vietnam war and immortalised in the movie Apocalypse Now. Each of the aircraft is well-kept and has dummy armaments on each to gain a full picture of what these planes were capable.
There's a number of education sessions very worthwhile to take the kids. Under the shade of a small marquee, former naval officers explain the take-off and landing experiences they and others had whilst serving on the ship, as well as other aspects of life and work on board the Midway. These are great informative sessions and well worth going beforehand to listen, if you want to develop a worksheet. Having said that, the officers were so interesting, the natural curiosity of the kids might be enough to get them engaged.
Just below the flight deck, you descend to the pilots ready rooms, where mission briefings are held. What struck me, was the number of different rooms there were down there, all adorned with emblems of the various squads that had served aboard the ship. The final part of the carrier is the operations tower. This is where the flight control room is, as well as the bridge. This is a guided tour and limited to groups of 20 at a time, so be sure to divide your class and staff up accordingly. This was a very good tour, again conducted by former sailors and officers who had served on board.
This is an amazing day out for a school group. The variety of things to see, the history and the firsthand accounts of life on board the ship is sensational! Although a big trek to do this from Australia, for any US school groups heading to the area, this is an absolute must!
Sydney Aquarium is amazing! I just want to throw that out there right from the start. Being a diver, I love to explore the hidden beauty beneath the desolate surface, but a visit to the aquarium means you can have such a wonderful educational experience and not get your feet wet! The floor to ceiling glass tanks give you the feeling of total immersion in an underwater world, which is way better than Kevin Costner's Waterworld. I mean seriously what was he thinking?
Without getting too distracted with bad movies, and back to the aquarium, it is an awesome progressive journey through the deep. Perfect for any school group and will map straight into a range of the syllabuses for both primary and secondary students.
Being able to see first hand rare and exotic marine creatures up close with detailed descriptions is fantastic. The sharks were of course a favourite of mine. Having thankfully only seen a reef shark and a grey nurse, whilst diving, I was thrilled to see so many other varieties from the safety of the underwater walkway! The kids will absolutely love this. It was mesmerising standing watching them duck, weave and glide through the water! Make sure you go without the kids before hand, so you can enjoy it all, distraction free!
There's also a hands on section where the kids can touch many of the marine creatures. This is a bit slimy for me, but again it's something that your students will really enjoy. The day I was there, it was being run by an exceptionally helpful guide. His explanations of the various creatures was thorough and I left feeling as if I'd really learnt something from him.
At 11am, it's feeding time! If you can time it so that you're at the end of the tour at 11, this’ll be perfect. As the fish are fed, a presentation is given by one of the staff, which was both informative and helpful. I now know that a swordfish is in fact a mainly nocturnal fish!
There's also a shark talk in the same location at 3:30 and 5:30pm, which would still work if you're in Sydney running an overnight program for the kids.
The Sydney Aquarium really brings to life the whole marine environment and well worth taking a group of kids to see and experience it. Living by the sea, it's easy to take these sorts of things for granted, but as America tells us, 'The ocean is a desert with it's life underground, And a perfect disguise above,' the aquarium lets everyone explore and experience what is truly a complex and fascinating world below, something of which we are rarely able to catch a glimpse.
For any teacher, it's a must to go through beforehand and check it out. Use this opportunity to plan out some stops where you can focus on particular areas from what you've been studying back in class. Btw, present your teacher ID and you can get in for free! It's well worth going ahead of time, map out your lesson and prepare any materials in advance to make the most of the school trip.
Important Fast Facts:
Location: Eastern Side of Darling Harbour Sydney NSW, Australia
Open Daily: 9:30am – 7pm
Entrance & Parking: – See Aquarium Website for Details
P: 1800 199 657
School Education Entry:
$15 to $33 – check options here
Closest Decent Coffee:
Lime Cafe - Market St
Ok so it's not the closest, but very good coffee and I only recommend somewhere I've had a couple of coffees from and it's been good. Beware the old lady who sweeps around your feet in the afternoon, but otherwise very nice and worth the walk!
Australia is big, really, really big and most of our population lives on the eastern seaboard. Consequently, many of us never get to see our own unique wonders that form critical parts of our nation’s history. In all the years about education and hiking around the countryside, other than being stuck in Darwin airport due to a broken plane, I’ve never actually gone into the city. Other than the extreme heat, I really didn’t know what to expect.
Setting out with a friend in April, we flew to Darwin and the moment we stepped off the plane, we were hit by the unbelievable humidity of our nation’s frontier to Southeast Asia. Darwin itself, is more like a big country town than a city. It has a bizarre charm to it. Stinking hot, very red and surrounded by waters in which you can’t swim for fear of being stung by deadly box jellyfish, or eaten by crocodiles. If this is your first port of call in our country, “Welcome to Australia!”
Other than avoiding the water, there are some interesting things to do around town. We started out at one of the old World War II sites, which were massive fuel tunnels, built underneath the city. During WWII, Darwin was bombed 64 times by the Japanese. The first attack happened on 19th Feb 1942. 188 Japanese planes struck Darwin, an important Allied naval port. Darwin harbour was full of Allied ships and this was the biggest Japanese attack since Pearl Harbour.
The fuel tunnels were built to protect the Allied fuel sources as all of the tanks which were above ground had been repeatedly bombed and destroyed by the Japanese. Walking through these massive concrete chasms built deep into the ground, you get a sense of how critical thinking changes during times of war.
The second historic site we went to later that day was the Darwin Military Museum, which is on the original site of the old army outpost. Here there’s a fascinating, interactive display which runs you through the bombing of Darwin and the experience of those stationed there to defend our shores. There are films, personal accounts, maps, photos, artefacts and lots of military equipment, all of which present a very different picture of the Australian experience of War during WWII.
An amazing piece of military engineering you can see is one of the original massive 9.2" guns. This was an anti-ship gun which they built to protect the harbour against naval vessels. However, by the time they built it, they only fired it to test it out and the war was over. Walking inside the bunker and around the gun, then seeing the projective it fired, you can imagine how loud it would have been when fired.
Most of the focus of our studies of WWII tends to be on Australians in Europe or in PNG. However, this was happening on our own shores. You don’t realise how close we came to being over-run in recent history. Unfortunately, the experience of Darwin and its efforts to fight off the Japanese often only rates a couple of lines in a text book and this is something we need to seriously address.
Taking a school group here is a valuable and eye-opening experience to the fact that War was on our door-step, not in some far off land in Europe or the Middle East, it was here and it was real! There’s so much more to the history of Darwin than we often think and visiting these sites on our Northern frontier, is a great way to give your students a real understanding of just how critical this city was to protecting our nation from invasion.
For more on the history of the bombing of Darwin & the WWII experience:
Darwin Military Museum
Darwin Fuel Tunnels
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.