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.

The Slow Burn Into Decline

Slow Burn - Education

There’s a phenomenon in Education that’s a strange thing to see and experience but when you look at it in more detail, it makes perfect sense. Often schools are quite dysfunctional places from a managerial point of view and you have people who are promoted into management positions who are often inexperienced and totally unsuited for the positions.

A good teacher doesn't necessarily make a good administrator. As a result, if the wrong people get promoted into positions of influence, you risk ending up with what can be a toxic culture. When this happens, you find incompetent managers surrounding themselves with more incompetent managers to try and hide the fact that they’re useless. This is common practice in any organisation, which results in higher staff turnover and lowers productivity.

If this is the case, why do schools keep functioning for longer when a comparable business or organisation would be falling apart at the seams? Why do schools keep rolling along and producing reasonable outcomes? Unfortunately, it comes down to the ability of a school to blackmail its teachers. This might seem to be an extreme statement. However, it's quite an apt analysis of a dysfunctional school.

Despite layers of incompetent managers in a toxic school, you still have genuinely hard-working teachers who want the best for their students. They want good educational outcomes and they want the students to be learning now, despite what the other workplace pressures could be.

Unfortunately, this results in a very strange situation. On the one hand managers are driving a completely different agenda to what the school needs from an educational point of view. On the other hand, you have teachers doing their best for the students, which could be quite out of touch with what the school management sees as valuable. This odd situation can be sustained for a long period of time because the teachers on the frontline do the best they can for their students.

If you have a reliable core group of teachers, despite the incompetent management, often schools just keep rolling along without much of a noticeable problem. As long as nobody in management molests any children or runs the school into bankruptcy, incompetent managers seem to stay for years and years, because their incompetence is often covered up by the hard work and desire of other teachers to provide the best opportunities for students.

However, any sort of hardworking individual no matter how motivated, will end up being worn down by this situation. Despite the desire to help students, the longer poor management remains, the greater the decline of the school. It might be a much slower burn than in private enterprise, but once you have disengaged teachers then the entire school becomes toxic, staff turnover increases and good educational outcomes for students becomes a distant memory.

How do you address this? Firstly, you need better managerial oversight. You need better schools’ boards that actually understand the business of education, not just business. They need to look carefully at the connectivity between what teaching staff are doing and what senior management is doing.

Forget the grand strategic building plans. What are the actual educational outcomes for the students? How are they being achieved? Why not get feedback from the students on the entire organization, not just the classroom teacher? This could provide a fascinating insight into how a school is going.

Performance review should be an ongoing process initiated by senior management to ensure continuous improvement for the school. Teachers and students should be able to provide feedback for senior management on a regular basis.

This can provide a much better overview of how well the organisation is going. Is the direction being set by management translating into proactive, positive and effective educational outcomes for students? Or is there a toxic disconnect that’s eating away at the school from within? Unfortunately, due to the slow burning nature of decline within a school, it might take many years to notice the dysfunction. By then, it's too late and all your good staff will have given up and left.

However, by carefully selecting those to manage versus those who should remain in the classroom, this can help to alleviate this concern. Seeking feedback from staff and students and approaching the organisation with a view of continuous improvement, is vital in developing a positive and transparent culture.

You want to avoid the slow burn into decline and instead set a clear vision of what the school stands for and everything the school does should be focused on achieving this ultimate educational goal. As a result, you will increase staff retention and provide the best educational experience possible for your students.

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.

Escape From The Cave!

Bungonia Caves - Barely Room To Crawl!

Bungonia Caves - Barely Room To Crawl!

What better way to freak out a bunch of teenagers than to take them into a cramped cave in which your chest is flat to the ground and the roof grazes your back. Then turn out the lights!

If this sounds like something you'd love to do, then Bungonia caves is the place to do it! Deep in the Southern Highlands and on the edge of the Shoalhaven Gorge, lies Bungonia National Park. It's an easily accessible area not too far from the Hume Highway. Here there's a stunning cluster of caves with a variety of challenges for all skill levels. Now even though I really enjoyed this experience, caving isn't really my thing, so I'm not going to give you any technical details about the caves themselves. If you're going to do this, make sure you have an experienced guide to lead you, as every cave is different and this presents its own set of risks and challenge.

However, for a simple explanation, caves are cramped and dark and this provides an excellent opportunity for some great experiential learning. The cave I mentioned at the start is quite a short one, literally tens of metres long. However, it can take your group ages to get out in total darkness!

This activity is a fantastic one for developing communication skills and teamwork. The fear factor that's added in with the total disorientation that comes with being in complete darkness, is the perfect way to test even the most confident of students (and teachers). Now this exercise isn't about messing with people's heads. It's about building a team that can communicate, work together and develop a cohesive plan minus one of their most important senses. You really don't understand total and utter darkness until you've been in a cave like this. Some kids totally freak out, but if you're leading the group, resist the temptation to just turn the lights back on. That's a last resort and defeats the whole point of the exercise.

Once everyone has crawled down into the cave with their lights on, there’s an area in which you can gather everyone together and brief them on the task. Once you're done, it's lights off! Time to work together to get out! Now you get to see the group dynamics either gel or implode and it happens really quickly. Robbed of their ability to see, basically someone needs to take charge and use their other senses to start leading people out. But it can't be reliant on one person. Everyone must do his part! That's why I love this activity, because it forces people to quickly accept or reject the team and the team leaders.

There’s no glimpse of light from anywhere. You can literally hold your hand in front of your face and you still won't see anything, no subtle movement, nothing! It feels weird!

After the initial excitement of being in total darkness is over, you can expect the stress level of the group to increase, and they suddenly realise you're not joking about getting out. This activity can bring a group together, in which case they're usually out in a fairly short amount of time. (Remember, it’s not that deep a cave). However, it can also tear a group apart with nobody wanting to take responsibility, poor communications and internal fears overwhelming students. This sort of experience is raw, challenging and can lead to some amazing learning outcomes.

No matter how long it takes your group to get out, the two most important elements of this activity for you are the pre-lights-out briefing and the post activity debrief. By carefully framing the activity and letting the students know this could be challenging, but they've got each other, then this can guide their purpose and focus their minds. In the debrief of the activity, let them run through how they felt and how they found the communication and team dynamics and let them know how you felt in there as well. Even though it's a safe activity, it can still be unnerving and make you feel uncomfortable too.

This activity is great for putting people right out of their comfort zones. However, we only ever grow in our lives when things are uncomfortable and by adapting to meet the challenge of that discomfort. By providing positive feedback for when the team pushes past their discomfort and grows, is ultimately the goal of this amazing experiential education activity. It’s well worth a trip to the Southern Highlands!

My Background In Risk Management

Risk Management

I realise that already countless people have switched off having read ‘Risk Management’ in the heading and are now watching a video of a fat cat sipping milk from a bowl. If you're still here however, well done for reading this far. I’ll avoid going off on my dolphin party tangent from my last article on risk. Instead this time I’ll jump right in!
 
Many people learn about risk management from a training course or a lifeless lecture by a lawyer telling you of all the dangers of everything, yet having no practical experience in the field themselves. They might put up an infographic for you to look at with some big red warning signs and after an hour or two you're now qualified in risk management. If you've had this experience, you're probably feeling uncomfortable about the whole process and looking for a much better approach. From the start, let me make something clear. Risk management is a cultural attitude within an organisation, not a check box compliance process. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just plain stupid and dangerous to those around them.
 
My first job in experiential education was with a private school, working at their outdoor education campus. It was here that risk management was instilled in me as being a natural part of absolutely everything we did. Not paranoid about risk, but very proactive. Before every activity, the team going on that trip would sit down and write out the risk management for it. There was no thought of simply printing out a generic risk management form that nobody bothered to read and everyone blindly signed it. This was an active discussion of the risks and hazards for that specific activity to ensure it was clear in our minds the risks and controls we needed to put in place to ensure a safe well-managed activity was run.
 
The value of this was immeasurable. On the one hand, you had a current and accountable risk management document for each and every activity, prepared by those who were directly responsible for the safe conduct of the activity. On the other hand, it was building and reinforcing a culture of active risk management. Risk was a regular, open and honest discussion amongst the staff, which kept everyone on the same page and held everyone accountable for the preparation, operation and decision making processes being used. It was never the case of ‘Oh don't worry, I know what I'm doing!’ or  ‘It's someone else's job to do that,’ as I’ve found in so many other organisations. It was a continuous proactive and dynamic process.
 
It's hard for me to understand why anybody wouldn't take this logical approach. Yet, as I said before, this was how I was educated, so I hadn't known it to be any other way, until I moved to another school and the difference was stark and concerning.
 
As a brief background note on the school I was working for originally, 18 months prior to my starting, there’d been a fatality on one of their overnight hikes. This tragic event sent shockwaves through the school and had dramatically and bluntly shaped much of the focus of the organisation moving forward. The devastating fallout from the fatality lingered for years, yet many important lessons were learnt from this experience.
 
Fast forwarding 17 years to today, there’s absolutely no reason why it should take a critical incident to change the culture within an organisation, yet sadly it often does because of a lack of real understanding of risk management and its effective usage. With many fatalities, serious injuries and near misses so well documented by the industry and the coroner, working through some of these cases together as a staff can be of great value in starting the process of cultural change towards the goal of proactive risk managers.
 
When you understand what you're aiming to achieve and how simple oversights can have massive repercussions, then it's much easier to develop the whole team to be working together and thinking along the same lines. The ultimate aim of a proactive risk management culture is to run safe and challenging activities, promote sound decision making and prevent major disruptive events (aka critical incident). There's no future in finding yourself in front of a coroner and your only defence being to say that you at least had all your paperwork in order. At this point, paperwork is quite worthless and purely academic, and you're going to look like a complete idiot and potentially liable, if not culpable.
 
Creating a culture of risk managers means that your paperwork, which is always required, is actually being put into action and that if anything adverse happens, everyone is equipped to respond swiftly and appropriately. However, you will also find that running an organisation with an embedded culture of risk management, will mean the potential of a significantly disruptive event occurring becomes increasingly unlikely.
 
The most important thing is not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Get started today. Read some case studies that are closely aligned to what you're doing on your program and discuss them with your team. Build that culture of the proactive risk manager mindset into your organisation and ensure that you're running the best programs possible with the best framework possible to challenge and really push your students and at the same time ensuring their safety.