The debrief is one of the most powerful teaching and learning tools you can use. However, it's either not used at all after a learning experience, or done poorly when the guide isn't sure what their objective is. For people who aren't familiar with the concept of the debrief, it's a post activity discussion that's designed to reflect on how everyone found the activity, how they might have been challenged by it and what they learnt from the experience. The aim is for everyone to be able to take a moment and self-reflect.
Once we can self-reflect, we can learn how to approach different situations in a more proactive manner and become far better equipped when faced with life's challenges.
The first step of the debrief process is to make the debrief setting comfortable and confidential. Often participants are confronted with a weakness or a failure in an activity. It's not all going to be capable people saying how well they did and how amazing they are and if this is the way your debriefs go, you're either working with infallible people or you're not asking the right questions. It should be made clear that anything said within the debrief remains within the confines of the debrief. That way, there's the potential for an increased openness of the participants to share and potentially be vulnerable in the process.
Next remove those who want to disrupt. This has rarely been an issue, but if it is, then you're better off without everyone. Some people will say the ones you remove are the most in need of debriefing skills. Maybe they are, but in my experience, they're usually the ones who have no idea and will just go through life disrupting everyone and everything they touch. I'm not here to suggest ways to save every single student. I am here to help those who are wanting to help themselves and who want to learn and grow from their experiences.
Now for the biggest challenge: ask the right questions! This is a difficult one, as every activity and every group is different. However, as an experiential educator getting a feel for the dynamics of the group and how they've coped or not coped with the activity, can help shape your thinking. If everyone found the activity easy, I'm not going to go in with a question about facing challenges. Conversely, if the activity was really hard, I'm not going to shy away from the fact people were pushed. So what do you want to achieve with a question? Again this is critical, if you've got nothing in mind and you just need to do a debrief because you were told you had to, there's not going to be much reflection happening here. The activity, the question and the goal must therefore all be linked together.
A fairly simple example of this is on one canoe trip, we were smashed with rain, like a massive amount of rain that was relentless. The conditions were not dangerous, just uncomfortable. The decision about to what to do was placed with the group. They wanted to leave the shelter we had under a rocky outcrop and continue. So we did!
We pressed on for another hour to reach camp, then everyone had to work as a team to get tents setup and a fire going as quickly as possible. That evening around the fire, we talked about decision making and team work. Not everyone wanted to go on. Some were happy with the shelter, but the students made the decision and we supported it. When we posed the question about the decision making process, the students who made the decision in the end had felt nervous about it, because they didn't know if it were the right decision. This led into a more detailed group discussion on decision making. What's right? What's wrong? Why do we second guess ourselves? How should our decisions be guided?
This discussion exposed some interesting group dynamics and it also showed how some were prepared to make decisions and take responsibility for the consequences. As one of them said, “Sure we got wet, but we made it to canoe safely and we’re not still stuck there under the rock.”
Everyone was exhausted that night and we could have just gone to bed. If we had, the group would never have had the opportunity to reflect on the day and the way in which they made some very mature and proactive decisions that resulted in the best outcome possible for the group.
Debriefs are a powerful learning tool and it's so important to both understand them and put them into practice for all your activities. The debrief shifts a ‘fun time’ doing an activity into a real learning experience, that provides huge educational value. The more you do this with your students, the more they will learn and grow as individuals.
A lot of people think more is better. The more information you have, the more documentation you have. The more plans you have, all make life so much easier, better and safer.
However, the reality is quite different. Ironically, the more information someone has, the harder it is to make an informed decision. I’ve seen risk management documents which run to 70 pages in length, which nobody is going to read for one, but also, even if you did read it all, there’s way too much information contained within those 70 pages for anyone to make a logical and informed decision. More is most definitely not better.
As humans, our brains can only take in so much info and analyse it before it gets overwhelmed. Too many possibilities become too hard to rationalise and think about logically and the more information and possibilities, the harder it is to respond and make any sort of informed decision.
This is why we see people in high stress situations make very poor decisions, which result in bad outcomes. It’s not the lack of information at hand. It’s too much. Instead of having reams of paperwork, which is supposedly there to help people run programs safely, you’re far better off to only look at key points of data to help you make a far more informed decision than the alternative.
Whilst this may seem counter-intuitive, the fact is that we’re not good at decision making as the stress level increases and the amount of information to analyse increases. We become myopic and our field of vision and understanding narrows. That’s why, sadly, so many coronial inquests on the surface seem so simple and straight forward. Why wasn’t this simple decision made at this point in time to prevent the fatality from happening? Chances are that there was too much information at hand.
We therefore need to simplify what we’re doing and how we’re doing it to improve our decision-making abilities. Nobody is going to read or even be able to use huge documents. They’re only really useful to lawyers post incident to spend more time than is reasonable for them to photocopy and read through so they can bill clients for it. Whilst that’s wonderfully profitable for lawyers, it’s actually not much help to you in the field.
How do you filter out the noise and get to the key information you need? That’s challenging, because each activity is situational. However, if you focus on your key risks and supervision responsibilities, then you’re well on the way to making good decisions. What’s the weather like? What’s the group dynamics like? What are the key activity risks? This is a great start. Also delegating responsibilities and positive team communications and dynamics, is a great way to reduce the burden of decision making on any one person to enable fast and effective reviews and analysis of the information at hand.
You often come across people who carry risk management documents on them as their way of effective risk management or responding if something doesn’t go to plan. However, this is problematic in that the time it takes to find something within that document that may be useful in a critical incident, is just time wasted in actually dealing with the issue at hand.
Whilst this doesn’t mean that this preparation is time wasted on developing good risk management systems, processes and documenting this, it does mean that you need competent people on the frontline running programs who can make informed decisions based on a reasonably small set of data. This takes training and practice, but if you realise that to begin with, the more information at hand, the more difficult it is to make informed decisions, then you’re well on the way to being able to more effectively handle stressful situations and incidents and come out of them with a positive outcome having managed and mitigated the situation at hand.
Therefore, don’t let yourself go down with myopic tunnel vision. Work out what’s important and filter out all the noise. Run some training scenarios and make sure you’re ready for whatever comes your way.
Welcome to the Xcursion Risk Tips. These tips are designed to save you time, money, reduce risk, and improve safety for all of your programs. Today, we're going to look at students cooking. Phew, yes you probably just reel back from some certain experience that you've had out on a program where our kids cooked you something. Now, I've had both ends of this spectrum. Some kids well, you really wouldn't trust what they cook or what they put in that meal. However, other kids can cook so well. It is great to see them get involved and actually cook something.
I've come across schools and I've come across teachers who are really hesitant to allow kids to cook. But seriously, at what point do you let go and enable kids to take ownership and take responsibility and do something they really want to try? This is something that not a lot of kids get to do at home. So the opportunity to cook whilst on camp is really important and they love to try and impress you with their meals. There are a couple of risks involved in this and a couple of hazards. The two main ones that we want to look at are knives and fires.
Firstly, it's the preparation of the meal. It's cutting up everything on the cutting boards and making sure that they don't cut the veggies and themselves with the blunt knives. Now more often than not, you're going to find blunt knives on camps because you can't trust anybody with a sharp knife. Unfortunately, with a blunt knife, they're more risk of causing injuries, than sharp knives. Because the pressure that's applied to a blunt knife is far greater than the pressure you need to apply with a sharp knife. So at least have your knives slightly sharpened so that they're not totally blunt and can cause really really bad injuries.
One student I had on one of my programs, he managed to stab himself in the webbing of his hand with a knife. How we managed to do that? I don't know. But he was cutting up the vegetables and just came up to me and said, "Oh Sir, Sir I've cut myself." I was like, "How, how did you do that?" I mean, it was an impressive cut and we managed to apply pressure and patch it up ok. But I was astounded. But basically what he had done was he had pushed so much pressure on the knife, flicked it off the vegetable and skew it himself in the hand. Now that's one part of it. You really do need to monitor and supervise effectively when the kids are cutting things up.
Once they're all cut up, the next thing is the fire. Or most likely you're going to get something a Trangia. Now a Trangia for those who don't know, is this little stove and it's got an alcohol burner in the middle, and you pop it in and put your pot on and away it goes. Many schools I've worked at, many programs I've seen to begin with, didn't actually contain these fires or didn't monitor this effectively. This is the next really critical hazard that you need to manage effectively for when students are cooking. So what you want to do is set up what we call it a Trangia circle. Now a Trangia circle can be done just with a small bit of rope and you put a big circle right around and the pots go in there, nobody or nothing else goes in there and your fuels go well away from where you are. So with that in mind that you have your contained cooking circle, and you only limit the number of kids near the cooking circle. You don't need three kids cooking in one pot. You need one student cooking in one pot. So, limit the numbers around the cooking circle and actively monitor this. Don't cook your own dinner at this point in time.
One great solution is get one of the kids to cook. This has worked many many times that I've often had a lot of student meals because they've offered to cook for me. At this point in time, you don't want to be cooking because you need to be supervising what's going on and monitoring that fire circle and monitoring the way in which it's being conducted. This is critically important to reduce the risk of burns and scalds, which are some of the highest numbers of injuries that you get when you have kids cooking on programs. So you monitor that. They cook you dinner and you get to stand around drinking a cup of coffee whilst you watch them cook your dinner. What's not to like about that?
One of the problems I've seen is when staff are cooking their own dinners is that they don't have that level of supervision. They become too focused on their own meal and at the end of the day, you're the leader, you're looking after these kids, you can eat later. So, use that opportunity to try some kids cooking and that the reaction that you get when they cook something for you and you are able to share a meal with them is really good and it's all part of that bonding experience. It's all part of that journey of a camp. That way you can develop rapport with your kids in such a unique setting.
So two main risks for cooking with kids, it's not the taste, it's not the flavor, it's not what they cook although sometimes they can burn things and it's horrible, but we won't go there. But the two main hazards are cutting with knives, prepping meals, and also the cooking circle or the Trangia circle. If you can effectively supervise these two, then you've seriously reduced the risk of something going wrong on your program, and the kids are learning from this experience by cooking meals for themselves.
When looking at any activity or required skill within an organisation, there are four levels of competency. As we learn and develop, no matter what the skill or activity is, we all go through these stages from knowing nothing about what we’re doing to being unconsciously competent in what we do.
As we move through each of these stages, it can be quite confronting for many people, especially if they’ve been doing something which isn’t quite right or there’s more to what they’re doing than they’ve ever imagined.
The first stage and often the most confronting realisation for people is unconscious incompetence. This is where you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s the most frustrating point at which we find ourselves and in terms of risk management, the most dangerous point and position someone can be in if they’re responsible for an outdoor or experiential program which involves a level of risk.
The worrying thing about this is that over many years, I’ve come across countless people in the head of outdoor education or experiential education positions who are unconsciously incompetent. They’ve been promoted as a teacher into a role for which they might have had an interest, but no real or extensive experience. In this case, whoever is put into this role is being failed by the organisation. Having an interest in something versus understanding the role and inherent risks is a totally different thing. If you don’t know the risks of an activity or program, how can you be expected to manage them effectively?
Getting some basic training in the skill or activity then helps someone to move from this first stage to the second one, which is conscious incompetence. This is where you realise you lack certain skills and understand the need to train in, practise and develop those skills. In terms of risk management, this is key to getting things right within your school or organisation. For many of those teachers who have been promoted to positions of responsibility to oversee programs with a range of risks involved, it’s vital that each understands the risks to which they and their staff are exposed and how to effectively manage these risks. Once someone has this realisation, then they can start to plan to address this skills’ gap in themselves and in their organisation.
Further training and experience at this point, then gets you to a position where you’re consciously competent. You still have to work on many parts of the programs and continue to practise and develop your skills, but overall, you’re good at what you do and are able to support and develop others as well.
The final stage is unconscious competence. You know what you’re doing without thinking about it. You have a level of experience and initiation, which guides your decision-making process to support the programs you’re running. In your mind, you have a picture of what a standard program, day or experience should look and feel like and you automatically react and respond if something doesn’t quite fit. For example, if a series of different weather conditions or warnings present themselves, you unconsciously play out various scenarios in your mind as to the potential impact and consequences of this.
A realisation of this for me was on one program. There was a pattern of illness and student behaviours emerging which pointed toward a series of potential injuries. The change of energy in the group, the apparent fatigue that was emerging, meant that a change of plans was needed. Due to the different level of skills and experience amongst the staff team, only a couple of staff could see this pattern emerging and others couldn’t see the problem at hand. The potential negative consequences of not being able to identify risks as they’re emerging can be huge. It’s critical to ensure that you have unconsciously competent staff in your team to help advise you and others on hazards and risks which might not be obvious to others who are still at the lower levels of skills’ development.
Whilst some of these four different levels can be addressed through training, which is vitally important to begin with, the other levels are grown and developed through practice and experience in whatever it is you’re doing. Further training can reinforce this. However, practice really does make perfect. Whatever level you and your colleagues are at now, you will benefit immensely from training and experience to ensure that all your staff are unconsciously competent in whatever it is they’re doing.
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.
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of professional development. Most people will groan when they hear PD, as they’ve experienced the classic ‘first day(s) back’ professional development time, which could be just a complete waste of time and energy for all involved. From what I’ve experienced over the years, you may as well have another day of holidays and it would be far more beneficial. Whilst much of this is done to save money and meet the mandatory PD hours requirements for teachers, are teachers actually learning anything that will improve their teaching practice or professionalism, or is it just an exercise in futility?
Don’t get me wrong! PD is vitally important, but is self-initiated and directed learning a far better approach? What I’ve been doing recently for my own PD has been through two different forms. The first has been reconnoitering new areas of the countryside to further develop a program. This is always an exciting and challenging time as now you’re exploring new areas with which you’re unfamiliar and trying to find suitable tracks, trails, rivers and campsites which are suitable for the age and experience level of the group for which you’re planning. Sometimes, it’s easy and quickly falls into place. Other times, it’s like trying to get out of a darkened pit full of goblins whilst being stalked by a ring-obsessed weirdo.
On this occasion, it was closer to the latter, as we found out the new area was not a nice babbling brook surrounded by gentle countryside, but rather a vicious, shallow, rapid-flowing white water filled gorge. We were about 2km in when we realised how nasty it was getting and what was supposed to be a pleasant three hour paddle, took seven hours! Thankfully, we didn’t have to battle orcs along the way, but at some points I was hoping that eagles would come and rescue us. Sadly, it was not to be and we had to navigate and negotiate the gruelling gorge that went on for several kilometres.
During this time, we’d also looked at mountain biking, canoeing and hiking as options in and around Canberra as there are some amazing national park areas with great tracks and trails throughout. Despite the fact that a number of these options weren’t particularly suitable to take students on, this was an extremely successful trip. From a professional planning point of view, even if you’re not going to change your program in any measurable way, going on “reccies” is a useful exercise, as you’re reinforcing your own skill set for navigation, route assessment, logistics planning and risk management. It’s all these concerns that you suddenly find come back to the front of your mind when looking at new areas that can naturally feed-back into your existing program and help you re-think, re-assess and improve upon what you’re already doing.
The other PD I’ve been doing has been the more traditional kind, in terms of workshops and conferences. Sometimes these are hit and miss when it comes to helping you in your teaching role, but that mainly comes down to what sort of conference you’re going to and which sessions you attend. The first one I went to was a digital schools’ conference. It was basically exploring how technology can be better used in education. I sat in on a couple of sessions which were excellent as the presenters hit the nail on the head! It’s not really about the technology. It’s about the use of technology as part of a wider educational experience. When you boil it all down, the skills you’re learning in STEM and trying to innovate with are exactly the same as what’s being learnt through outdoor education.
The core principles of innovation are:
• Problem solving, risk taking, adaptability, teamwork and leadership.
The core principles of outdoor ed are:
• Problem solving, risk taking, adaptability, teamwork and leadership.
Simple right? Well sadly, it’s not always the case and often teachers can see the use of technology or coding as the end goal or the learning outcome. As in outdoor ed, often schools see the outcome as getting kids outdoor or learning how to ride a bike or canoe. These are all just the means through which these core cognitive and experiential skills are being developed.
I also had the wonderful opportunity to present on innovation and how the chaotic and imprecise science it is to develop an idea into something that solves a much wider real world problem. I also explored how this can be translated into the context of education and why this is now such an important part of the modernisation of education that might one day see us escape from the industrial revolution hangover upon which our curriculum’s based.
The second conference I went to was more closely related to outdoor education and covered some fascinating insights into concussion identification and management. This was a great up-skilling opportunity for me, as whilst I’d understood and had managed a number of concussions over the years, I was able to get a far greater understanding of what happens with the injury and how it manifests itself. This is something that a senior first aid course would never cover and even with the wilderness courses I’ve done, it was only ever touched on briefly. Yet attending a comprehensive keynote presentation by a leading medical specialist in the field, was an amazing learning opportunity.
PD can be both insanely frustrating if it’s done poorly, or immensely beneficial if it’s done well. Some people might perceive PD at conferences as junkets, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. From the Wilderness Risk Management Conference I attended last year to the various ones I’ve been to this year, it’s helped me attain a much greater understanding of my own professional practice and helped me to reflect and review what I do as an outdoor educator and how I go about doing it.
I have to admit I have great memories of the enforced PD days from school days past. At one school I was once part of an English/History faculty. We taught an integrated unit called Valley In Perspective, that combined English/History/Geography and Outdoor Education. It was in some ways a little heavy on the academics for my likings, but overall it worked quite well. We were always allocated a day at the start of term for ‘meetings,’ which was code for sitting in the office and wasting lots of time, something which I can’t stand doing. However, one of the teachers had a boat and so instead of sitting in the office, we went and spent the day on his boat. We would discuss work for about an hour, but then would relax for the rest of the day lazing about the deck or going sailing and usually having fish and chips for lunch. Whilst many a useless manager would say this was a waste of time, it was an excellent team building exercise and our team of four worked exceptionally well together, despite the school being a disastrous toxic mess in which to work.
Ultimately, PD is vitally important for renewing and up-skilling you in your professional life and can have great benefits when done well. Meetings can be of some value, so long as you limit their time and have clear goals and objectives from the outset. However, to get any real-residual benefit from professional development, you need to go out, test your existing skills and continually learn new ones which can help you to become a far more effective educator throughout your life.
Risk management in schools is an interesting and concerning problem. There’s nothing in teachers’ training which helps them to understand the role and responsibilities of running activities outside the school grounds. In years gone by, this wasn’t too much of a worry as most teachers weren’t involved with the sheer volume of additional programs, excursions, activities and overseas trips which now form part of a normal year at school.
The only education that teachers seem to have in this is that at some point, they’re involved in a trip somewhere doing something and rather than having any actual training to be able to manage and help run whatever it is in which they’ve now found themselves involved, they’re entirely reliant on learning something about what they should be doing through osmosis. The expectation that they absorb something at some point in time which then magically enables them to manage risk in a well planned and professional way is ridiculous in the extreme, yet that’s basically the industry standard.
Sadly, osmosis is a rather unreliable means through which people gain even a decent baseline level of any sort of skill, let alone risk management. It’s like letting your English teachers learn about a text for the first time as they read it with (or slightly behind) the class, or your maths teacher, teach themselves by reading a chapter ahead and asking the other teachers a few questions about ‘this whole algebra thing.’
Parents would be horrified and continually write angry emails to the school if they knew their children were being taught by teachers who literally knew nothing about their subject areas. Why is nobody upset when that same lack of skill and understanding is being applied to situations which place students at real risk or harm?
Why is risk management training such an afterthought? Why do schools rely on osmosis for one of the most critical things required to keep their students safe? Is it because they don’t care? Most likely not. Is it because it’s too expensive? Hardly, as most training days are less than $500 a day and the cost to investigate even a minor issue is viciously expensive and can easily run into the thousands of dollars. Could it be something that they think they can contract out and not worry about because it’s now someone else’s problem. Perhaps they think they can do this, yet ultimately, they simply can’t contract this out and absolve themselves of any responsibility.
If only there were an easy answer to this. There is some level of naivety in all of this and what’s commonly known as unconscious incompetence. You don’t know what you don’t know. So if you don’t know it, then how can you be expected to do something about it? Unfortunately, this is not considered a reasonable or acceptable defence when something goes wrong. It just makes you look more idiotic than before and even a mediocre barrister will maul the hell out of a teacher who tries to use this. The ‘I didn’t know’ defence has sadly been used in coronial inquests and no amount of ignorance has ever brought a deceased child back nor mended any shattered lives.
So if training isn’t too expensive and it’s not too hard to do, why is it overlooked? I’ve often had the reply from teachers ‘I’m just a classroom teacher, so I don’t need to do anything like that.’ Yet these same classroom teachers are taking students down town, interstate and overseas on study tours, sports trips and cultural immersion programs. Just because you’re not going white water canoeing in South America, doesn’t mean you, your students and the school are not exposed to a huge range of potential risks from cultural misunderstandings, to political and social risks and poor student behaviour, just to name a few. Every time teachers leave the school gates with a group, they’re responsible for the safety and well-being of that group and like the English teacher reading the text as they go, teachers regardless of subject expertise, should not be out on a trip, anywhere, doing anything and making it up as they go.
In my twenty odd years in education (some more odd than others), the overwhelming trend has however been to allow totally inexperienced and untrained teachers to take groups out and make stuff up as they go. This is wrong and at the end of the day, luck always runs out and situations like this will always end badly. Rather than rely on the magical fairy tale land of risk management through osmosis and relying on making stuff to as you go, it’s time to up the ante on teacher training and enable those keen and enthusiastic teachers who want to improve student learning through amazing real world experiences, to undertake some real risk management training and properly build their skill-set around good risk management practices so that every trip on which they go, is a memorable one for their students for all the right reasons.
When we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re expected to have answers or manage risk, this is a massive problem. How can we be expected to put systems in place and plan for contingencies if we don’t understand the situation or context of what we’re expected to be doing.
Many teachers find themselves in this exact situation and are expected to plan for something about which they know nothing. At this point, the major activity and operational risk comes from the person not knowing what they’re doing, rather than the potential inherent risks of the activity itself. Do we let inexperienced drivers get behind the wheel without any training or supervision? Thankfully not. Yet why are so many teachers allowed to run sports, excursions and activities with no idea, training nor experience in what they’re doing?
It literally makes no sense at all to allow someone to take on a role which requires them to plan for and mitigate risks, if they have no idea themselves. The increased risk here comes from the person not knowing what they’re doing at all and they’re simply making things up as they go, which is never good in terms of risk management.
A number of years ago we came across one such group on an expedition. We were in Kangaroo Valley and just starting out on an expedition when we came across a group just finishing an expedition. In talking with them, we quickly realised they had absolutely no idea what they were doing. Their whole risk management plan was apparently based upon the fact that one of the teachers went for a walk and saw a snake, therefore they went canoeing instead because the risk of the snake was too great. I really want to laugh at this point as on that exact same river, I saw a 3 metre Eastern Brown Snake in the water and then it slithered up onto the place we had just had lunch, so seeing a snake in the wild and basing your decision on risk management around a single sighting of a snake seems quite idiotic to be perfectly honest.
Essentially these guys had been out on a multi day canoe expedition with no canoe instructors, no maps, no communications devices and no backup plans. Everything has to run perfectly for them to be ok, which relying on luck for your management of risk, is never a good thing.
One wonders how this group was even allowed to go out on this trip with such a poor basis for the management of the inherent risks, let alone the operational risks which were so obvious to this trip. Unfortunately, trips like this go out every day with no idea what their real risks are and the consequences of this can be horrendous if something goes wrong.
The only way that this sort of situation can be avoided is through training and experience. If any organisation is sending staff out untrained and unprepared in terms of risk management, then they deserve everything they get if something goes wrong. Schools don’t allow untrained teachers in the classroom, so why do they allow untrained teachers in the field.
Whether the teacher is running the trip or not, they need to understand what they’re doing to ensure they’re capable and effective in managing the risks involved outside of the classroom. Therefore, they need to be trained and experienced in general risk management, as well as activity or program specific risk management, so they can minimise the risks involved. The risk of not knowing what you’re doing is far too great and negligent when there’s so many opportunities to get trained and get up to speed with factors of which you should be aware and doing the right things to ensure you’re running awesome, experiential educational programs.
If you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t understand the risks involved or just need a refresher, then get some training today so that you can confidently manage risk no matter what the situation or context. Thus, always run awesome, educational programs for all your students.
Today we find ourselves at an exciting time in history. The digital revolution has dramatically changed the world and continues to do so at a frantic pace. Unfortunately, many people haven’t yet realized the scope of what’s going on. We’re in the midst of the second greatest Renaissance in the history of the world! Never before have we seen such upheaval and rapid change than that of the digital age. However, before we explore how the digital age is swiftly destroying the effectiveness of our traditional education system, let’s look back at the last Renaissance which took roughly 300 years to run its course.
From the 14th Century onwards, a radical shift in thinking occurred in Europe. Rather than just mindlessly stabbing each other with swords, knowledge was emerging as power. This social and cultural ‘rebirth’ which started in Italy, was driven by powerful families such as the Medici who sought out ancient texts from Greece, Rome and the Middle East. From this came different ways of thinking and monumental shifts in Art and Culture that transformed the world. A form of education known as Humanism reintroduced philosophy, poetry and progressive thinking to a Europe that was still emerging from the dark ages. The result was that now, nation states had more intelligent and well-educated people who could crack a witty joke before stabbing you with their sword.
Unlike today, during the Renaissance, England was in the process of exiting Europe after the 100 Years War, Russia had a slightly aggressive foreign policy stance and there was conflict in the Middle East. It was a time when the world was flat, the sun revolved around the earth and the printing press had just been invented. The Chinese had already invented similar mass production printing approximately 600 years earlier, but we shouldn’t let the facts get in the way of a good European story!
Legendary artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo were busy sculpting and painting naked frescoes all over the Vatican. However, the Council of Trent in 1564, decided that nudity was shockingly unnatural and consequently employed another artist, Daniele da Volterra to take his paint brush to the shocking nudes and paint underpants on them, thus ending the constantly whispered sniggers of blushing visiting nuns.
Let’s now race ahead to the 18th and 19th centuries to the next period of massive upheaval, known as the Industrial Revolution. This was a time when Britannia ruled the waves, the Prussian government had just limited the working week for children to 51 hours and everyone was smart enough to realise that ‘clean coal’ was complete nonsense. Jobs were being lost to automation and children were far better at using new steam powered technology than their Luddite parents. From steam trains to ships and cotton mills, everything in England was being exponentially scaled up, including the mass production of education.
In 1833, the British Government passed the Factory Act, making it compulsory for children in factories to receive two hours of education a day. By 1880, it was compulsory for children up to the age of 10 to go to school and in 1902 a system of secondary schools was established. Thus the ‘modern’ education system was born most of which still remains in place today.
Born from the dark satanic mills of Industrial England, the world of 1902 is a far cry from the world of 2018! However, what’s both exciting and worrying at the same time is the fact that the world of 2030 can, and most likely will, be vastly different from today.
The first Renaissance took around 300 years to run its course. However, in the next 10 - 15 years, we face an enormous challenge as the digital tsunami of change bears down upon us! To be honest, teenagers being able to use snapchat to communicate has not been a huge leap for mankind. Despite the average teen’s ability to play with technological devices that have more processing power in them than the first moon landing, this has done little to prepare them for the change that’s upon us. According to a recent Four Corners report, over 5 million jobs will either disappear or be significantly restructured over the next 10 - 15 years, which is around 40% of the entire Australian workforce. We’re not talking 100 years. We’re not talking generational change over 50 years. We’re talking 10 Christmas’ dinners away and almost half the jobs in Australia will have permanently changed!
Where does that leave us as educators? To put it into a school context, for those of you who lead a K-12 school, the students who are now in Kindergarten will be graduating into a vastly different social and economic world. Businesses are automating every single process they can to reduce the need for and cost of human labour, as well as leveraging emerging technologies such as AI (Artificial Intelligence) and robots that can learn. Consequently, many ‘white collar’ jobs are now disappearing.
How do we address the new reality that’s bearing down upon us faster than a handshaking, baby-kissing politician on election day? Do we A) stick some more computers and a robot in a classroom and hope a bit more eLearning ‘fixes’ it? Or B) radically shift our thinking and approach, to prepare staff and students for a rapidly changing world?
For me, the only answer is B). However, the radical shift, is basically not so radical after all and something which was originally suggested over 100 years ago by Kurt Hahn and John Dewey that learning through experience and reflection is the best educational approach to help prepare students for the challenges and complexities of life.
After watching the Four Corners episode, I decided to start my research project and learn how other experiential educators are addressing the tsunami of change. Since podcasts are trendy right now, what better way than to create a podcast about experiential education? Turns out, it’s a great way to meet interesting people and learn from their experiences.
Added to this, I love to try new things and it’s something I’ve always encouraged staff and students, to do! If we’re not living somewhat outside our comfort zones, we’re not living much at all. When I recently jumped in the deep end and created Xperiential Education (the podcast), it was not only a new experience, but a challenging one into which I had to put a lot of thought, time and energy to make it work. From this, a really valuable picture emerged of shifts in education, preparing students for an unknown future.
As an outdoor education teacher, the first episode was all about outdoor education and I travelled to New Zealand to Tihoi Venture School near Lake Taupo where I spoke with the Director Cyn Smith about their long-stay residential program for Year 10 boys. It’s a back to basics program without technology that focusses on relationships and social and emotional growth through experience and reflection. Conversely, the final interview I did with Glenys Thompson, Deputy Principal of the Australian Science & Mathematics School (ASMS) in Adelaide with its STEM focus, is heavily tech-based. However, the educational methodology for this program is essentially the same as the Tihoi Venture School’s back to basics program. Ultimately, the ASMS program is not about the technology itself, which is often a trap into which STEM programs fall. It’s all about learning and growth through experience and reflection and has produced some amazing outcomes for students.
From outdoor ed, to science, to art, to drama and ultimately to the workplace, I’ve found the core principles needed for our students to be successful in a world of constant change regardless of the environment are: critical thinking, problem solving, risk taking, adaptability and teamwork. The only way to effectively build and develop these skills is from within the students themselves through practical experiential education. Real experiences, creating authentic teachable moments, lead to reflective practices and growth within students.
Teachers who are still spoon feeding all the answers to their students to ensure they do well in exams, are failing their classes dismally. Although schools that approach education this way may get some great ‘headline’ marks for their glossy brochures, their graduating students will find it increasingly difficult to cope in a world 10 - 15 years from now that requires a flexible and adaptable skill-set that cannot be rote learnt. It has to be through interactions with others and experiences that involve levels of risk and potential for failure that students learn best.
From this, a couple of key questions for school leaders come to mind, “What are we preparing our students for?” and “How can we prepare them?”
The ‘let’s keep doing what we’ve always done’ approach is bound to fail on every level, as it did during the first Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. Let’s forget about those who don’t like change for the moment. They’re going to be left behind anyway. One of the most powerful drivers of our younger generation today is that of social justice. Millennials love a good cause, so why not leverage that in their education? The ASMS is doing exactly that, as they’ve structured their entire program around taking massive global social and economic issues that need addressing and empowering their students to develop practical solutions that leverage technology to create a better outcome for others in the world. Unless your students have that social and emotional context and skill set, this isn’t going to work well, but it’s exactly what’s needed to maximise the educational opportunities for students and prepare them for the challenges of the unknown future.
To help prepare your school, staff and students for those 10 short Christmases away and the seismic social and economic shift that’s happening around us, here’s a few suggestions:
1. If you don’t have an outdoor ed program, start one. The skills developed are the exact same critical thinking, adaptability and teamwork skills your students need to be successful in life. It also helps to build that elusive ‘resilience’ that everyone’s talking about these days.
2. Create some industry partnerships to allow students to work in businesses, social enterprises or community groups as part of an integrated, experiential education program. Many new jobs will be service-based and increasingly reliant on a person’s ability to socially interact with others. Create some authentic and mutually beneficial situations in which these interactions can occur.
3. Find ways to empower staff and students to adopt real causes and make a difference in the world. This sets the scene for a life of responsibility and consideration for others and will empower our students to shape this radically changing world with the values and moral compass they’ve been encouraged to build throughout their formative years at school.
However, the most important and the easiest thing to build into your school’s program is reflective practices.
“We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.” - John Dewy
The time spent on reviewing what worked, what didn’t and how to improve next time, is far more powerful than any other approach and is adaptable to any subject and situation. This allows students to take risks and fail, yet not be afraid of failure and that’s key to surviving and thriving in a world of constant change.
We’re now in the middle of the second renaissance or global rebirth, driven by the rapid changes in technology which are reshaping our world. Whilst our traditional education system still needs to be majorly overhauled to address this shift, we shouldn’t worry too much about the future. We have a generation of students who genuinely care about the world and we still have the ability to develop unique educational programs in our own schools which can develop the social and emotional skills needed for students to succeed in whatever they choose. We are living in the most exciting time in history and as educators, we can help shape a wonderful future for our students and the world no matter what happens in 5, 10, 20 or 100 years’ time!
‘We’ve got that covered,’ are often the famous last words of people who under-estimate what’s needed in terms of risk management and who are also over-confident in their ability to deliver. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this so often in schools where people think they have everything covered, that risk management is just an annoying document or ‘it’s someone else’s job to do that.’ The reality is that, one, it’s everyone’s job. Two, nobody else can do it for you and three copy and pasting someone else’s mistakes leaves you liable to their lack of ability to assess and implement good risk management, leaving massive holes in everything.
I’ve also seen schools going down the path of employing someone to do all the risk assessments for them. Now this is problematic on a number of levels. One, I could write endless risk assessments and be confident that we’ve minimised our foreseeable risks and have documented it well. However, that’s like my taking a driving test for someone else. I know I can drive, but can they? What actual understanding of risk do teachers have and why are there still so many issues with risk management?
The fact is that unfortunately, the majority of teachers have never had any training in risk management. They’re suddenly expected to know how to write a risk assessment for school excursions, without any training whatsoever. I’ve had some people say to me, ‘But our teachers know how to manage students, so they’re ok.’ I’ve never understood this, as being able to manage a group of students in a classroom, is fine, but risk management for school excursions and activities is far more complex than this and there’s so many considerations and random factors which play into good risk management. These go well-beyond the ability to count the number of students you have with you and make sure they stay together.
Risk management training is critically important for all teachers to have. Whilst it does take time and experience to fully develop these skills, there needs to be a solid foundation of training and understanding so that teachers can become good risk managers which helps them in the classroom, on the sports field and wherever else their excursions, international tours and programs may take them.
As a starting point, we decided to take our 20 plus years of experience in school risk management and distil it into a 3 hour training course to help teachers develop a solid understanding of risk and risk management and what they need to do when taking any group for a school excursion or activity. How to write a risk assessment for school excursions is like risk management 101 for teachers. It covers everything to get started so they can run safe school excursions and activities for their students.
Professional development for teachers is extremely important for their ongoing development. It’s not just classroom practice they need to develop, but all those other skills to ensure they’re keeping their students safe.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.