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!’

Upskilling Your Strengths

Skiing - Outdoor Education

A while ago I wrote about finding myself outside my comfort zone on a reccie trip with some colleagues. We were white water canoeing, something I’d never done before. It was something I found quite challenging, but a rewarding learning experience.

Learning new skills in outdoor education is a great way to keep things interesting and expand your skill set. However, what happens with something you’re very experienced in? Should you be practising it outside of work? Is what you do on the job enough practice for something at which you’re good?

Snow skiing is something I’ve done since I was 5 years old and an industry I’ve worked in for around 7 years. In terms of outdoor skills, I can safely say, snow skiing is my strongest one. However, despite this experience, I still have plenty to learn and so much more upon which to improve. However, it’s not until your skills are actually put to the test, that you realise just how much more there is to learn and why it’s so important to continually up-skill.

Recently I spent a couple of weeks overseas skiing, as it’s been a number of years since I’ve done an entire season of work at the snow. When doing seasons, you have the time to truly build your skill-set and challenge yourself in so many different ways. However, it’s surprising how quickly you lose some of your finer skills when the season’s over.

Getting back on skis for the first time in a year is always an interesting experience. I love the sound of the boot clicking into the binding, fixing my helmet and lowering my goggles ready to jump on the lift. However, despite having skied many double black diamond runs over the years, I’m not going to head for the highest peak and fang it down the most hectic run as fast as I can, launching off everything I can find. No, that would be idiotic. Instead, I like to find a nice green or blue trail to run up and down to warm up and get a feel for everything again. I’ll probably spend an entire day doing this.

When I’ve had a chance to get my balance back and regain the feel for my skis, I’m ready to start rebuilding my deteriorated skill set that time has eroded. With any outdoor skill, you’ll reach a point where you’re highly competent and things will come back to you quickly. However, without practice, similar to physical fitness, all these hard skills, deteriorate over time. For an instructor, this deterioration is not good and can come from both lack of practice, or only operating at a much lower level of intensity.

If for example I was with a group skiing day in and day out, as is often the case for experienced instructors of any outdoor activity, I might just be cruising all the time on green or blue runs to match the level of ability of the group. However, cruising can lead to complacency and dull your senses to the wider challenges and risks of the activity that you’re leading. To avoid complacency, often called an expert blind spot, you must therefore continually practise and test your own skills at a much higher level to ensure you’re prepared for any contingency. You never know when you’ll need to quickly switch up from cruising instructor to rapid situational risk assessor and responder.

For me, this realisation came when I took a ‘short-cut’ on Whistler Mountain. I wanted to get to the furthest section of the mountain and I could see the lift to where I wanted to reach. I’d been skiing along the top of a ridge line, on a blue home trail. However, I saw what appeared to be a nice descent into the next valley and onto the lift. It was soft and powdery to begin with, but suddenly, on my right appeared a cliff and in front of me was a massively steep chute littered with rocks.

Most skiers have a home mountain, which they know like the back of their hand. For me this is Thredbo and so I can criss-cross it all day knowing where my random short cuts will take me. However, again this home mountain confidence can lead to complacency and over-confidence in other situations. Practising your skills on different mountains however, and getting into situations such as I did, is a real reminder of how aware and vigilant you need to be in the outdoors.

Rather than panicking, as I stared down the incredibly steep descent, I quickly dug in and attacked the chute, swiftly switching back and forth one sharp turn after another to control my descent, whilst avoiding the jagged rocks protruding from the snow. With a few crunching sounds from under my skis, I cleared the worst of it and glided out the bottom into a wide open section of deep soft snow. Glancing back up, I could now see the insanity of the ‘short cut’ in all its glory. Let’s do that again! I thought…

Whilst this wasn’t an ideal situation in which to find myself, the ability to switch up to a higher level of thinking and respond swiftly is an important thing to be able to do with any of your outdoor skills. This requires practice and pushing your own limits outside of your regular work. Whilst you’d never take a group with you into a situation like this, this sort of experience reminds you of the risks that are inherent with an activity such as skiing, as well as the need to continuously build and improve upon your own skills.

Expertise does lead to complacency and as outdoor educators and instructors we need to practise our own skills and be reminded that there are always limits to our experience and expertise. This helps us to be aware that there are always going to be risks involved and that we must eliminate, manage or mitigate those risks for our programs. However, if we don’t practise and test our hard skills outside of work, the chances are, your comfortable daily operations will become increasingly exposed to potential complacency as the instructor skill-sets deteriorate and activity risks don’t appear as dangerous as they really are.

To help resolve my over confidence and need to rebuild my alpine skill set, it was time for me to go back to ski school and take some lessons again.

Don't Lead Student Trips For Them!

Hiking - Outdoor Education

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Vulnerable In Debriefs

Debriefs - Experiential Education

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

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

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

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

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

Campfires - Outdoor Education

My Weirdest Job Ever!!!

moving chickens.jpg

Often in life, we find ourselves in situations where you get asked something by a friend and in hindsight you probably should've said no. I found myself in one such situation a few years ago. I was doing some volunteer work in my hometown of Tamworth when one of the committee members who owns a chicken farm, asked me if I'd like to come and help move some chickens. ‘How hard could that be?’ I thought. Move a few chickens from one shed to another, easy! At the time, I'd been doing a few casual jobs, as well as the volunteer work so a few more dollars and the offer of pizza for dinner was a tempting offer I didn't want to knock back.

“Sure, be happy to help out!” I replied, not knowing what exactly I was getting myself into. But hey, let’s not forget the aforementioned pizza! That evening I drove out to the property, which was about 20 minutes out of town. Now it's funny what goes through your mind when you're not sure what you're getting yourself into. I had visions of picking up nice soft little chickens and placing them in little tubs and carrying them a short distance into another shed. I’m not entirely sure why I thought that, but that was my impression of the job. Sadly, this was not the case…

On arrival, I saw a scruffy looking crew of chicken movers and I immediately felt overdressed in my jeans and T-Shirt. I did wear old jeans, just not old enough. My induction was swift and to the point. Grab six chickens with each hand and load them in the crate.
“Ok… How many are there?” I asked
“5000!” was the reply.
“Oh crap,” I thought as I walked into the shed to see thousands of chickens before me. Well it was too late to turn this down and this was certainly a new challenge for me! So I jumped right in and started grabbing chickens by the legs. The whole thing was really well co-ordinated. There were the catchers, who would catch the chickens and then hand them on to the collectors. The collectors would ‘collect’ the six chickens in each hand, then carry them over and load them into the crates. The crates would then be loaded and stacked onto the back of a truck.

This was hard work! It was summer and the evening air was hot. Add to this, the dust in the shed that'd been kicked up by the commotion, the smell, the noise, the pecking, the scratching and the chicken poo all made this the weirdest and hardest night of physical work is ever done. Everyone kept changing roles of catching, collecting and loading crates. After a couple of hours of work, the job was completed. The shed was empty and the huge truck was fully laden with 5000 enormously noisy chickens. My work here was done! Well… not quite. Now it was time to unload them all.

We drove the truck to the other side of the farm to another shed where we proceeded to unload the crates, stack them onto trollies and then take all the chickens out. Crate after crate I lifted, getting covered with more and more chicken crap. Another couple of hours later, the truck was empty and I was trashed.

I was so tired I'd forgotten about the pizza! But when it arrived, I sparked back to life! It was so worth it. Although I couldn't even look at the chicken pizza without cringing, I hungrily munched several pieces. Looking down, my hands were scratched to pieces, my clothes covered in blood and chicken crap and I couldn't even begin to describe the smell.

I needed to get home for a shower! Just as I was leaving, my friend said, “Thanks for helping out tonight. That's a good start. We've only got another 15,000 to move. So, same time tomorrow?”
Exhausted, I stared back blankly… and with a smile replied, “Sure, same time tomorrow!”