Victoria's War On Everything!

Play Ball Games - Risk Management

Recently, a Victorian primary school placed a ban on students bringing balls to play with in the playground, citing an increase of injuries as the reason. Whilst I’m sure this isn't the first to ban balls, it's an idiotic and irrational decision to say the least. In terms of managing risk, unfortunately, it’s a sad reflection on a complete lack of understanding of the complexity of education, the need for students to understand risk and take reasonable risks to help them to understand how to actually assess and manage risk.

To put a blanket ban on something such as balls, robs students of some great social play activities. So instead of playing handball, cricket, basketball, soccer or dodge ball, instead bored students look for other less sociable pursuits. Having worked in a number of boarding schools, I’ve seen first hand what can happen when bored students start trying to find their own things to do to entertain themselves. It tends to result in far less social behaviour and can result in bullying to develop purely out of boredom.

Consequently, you can stop everyone from doing everything for their ‘own safety’, but you’re likely to create bigger problems than that of balls and a few minor injuries which are just part of life’s knocks and scrapes and are extremely healthy for children to have. Having said that, too many blows to the head with a football might need checking out.

The reality is that life’s not free of risks and trying to ‘eliminate’ any form of risk possible within the school environment is ludicrous and only setting students up for more significant failure in the future. Whatever the mistaken belief is for something such as a ball ban at school, it’s counter to any basic educational principles and is failing the students it’s supposedly designed to be ‘protecting.’

The world can sometimes go crazy when it comes to supposedly ‘managing’ risks. Often it’s a knee jerk reaction to an incident that doesn’t take into consideration other longer-term factors or specific incident circumstances. If you end up with a pattern of injures for whatever the activity is, then review it, but look for other options outside of blanket bans. What level of supervision was being provided? What level of first aid training and experience do staff have? Is it one ball activity in particular or everything? Did a teacher get hit with a ball by accident and has now had an hysterical meltdown? Yes things like this do happen. One place I worked had a ban on playing on the grass, because they wanted the place to ‘look nice’, which was never going to happen cause it was built on a misquote infested swamp, but anyway, the ban led to it becoming impossible to adequately supervise students with the staff we had and led to more problems and injuries because the boys spent the whole time spread out over a campus rumbling with each other. This was pure idiocy in my opinion!

Before someone throws a blanket ban out there on something fun, sociable and educational with the mistaken belief that they’re ‘saving’ everyone from themselves, then they should consider the wider implications and the potentially far greater negative impact that their decision will have on students. Managing risk is not about banning things. It’s about weighing up a series of competing factors which include the educational value of the activity, the risk of allowing the activity to occur and how it is to be supervised, as well as the risk of taking the experience away from students. Often people mistake the management of risk with their idea that they must stop everything from possibly ever happening to anyone. That’s just pure idiocy and something which fails to take into consideration how children learn from their playtime experiences and how keeping children actively engaged in an activity they love doing, will help build confidence, skills and social skills.

Before the fun police get away with banning the next cool activity at school, remember, ‘If you can dodge a spanner, you can dodge a dodge ball!’

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.