Recently, I visited the USS Midway, a long-serving American aircraft carrier, now museum which sits in San Diego Bay. Built in 1943 at a cost of $90 Million, this ship with its crew of 4,500 was in active duty until 1992, with its last engagement being the main carrier for the battle group in the first Gulf War. This a truly remarkable museum and for a school group, is the best way to explore modern naval history. From WWII to Vietnam and the Gulf, the Midway played a pivotal role in gaining air and sea superiority for the allied forces.
Approaching the Midway, I stood in awe of its enormity! It looks big from a distance, but close up, you really appreciate the sheer size and dominating presence of this amazing vessel. With a Tom Cruise look-alike at the entrance playing the soundtrack to Top Gun, that's about the only awful and touristy thing about the place. The rest is an amazing historic journey back to the last century and a glimpse into what life was and is like serving in the Navy.
The tour of the ship is divided up into three sections. The first is the hanger deck where they used to store the planes, but now has a number of historic aircraft and flight simulators. Unfortunately, I didn't get to try them out, but well worth budgeting for your trip as the kids will nag you for it when you get there. Better to pre-empt this and be the most amazing teacher for organising it for them!
Below this deck is the main galley, sailors mess and medical areas, which give you an idea of the sheer size of the task of keeping everyone fed and healthy. There's a post office, laundry, general store, chemist, surgery and dental clinic, as well! Everything you need for extended deployments at sea. The most interesting part of this was the Marine’s guard station which led to the nuclear missiles’ storage below. An unambiguous warning sign outside, informed that the marines were authorised to use deadly force if any sailor attempted to gain access.
The runway deck, however, is the highlight of the tour. The deck is enormous, as you would expect when planes have to take off and land on it. There are all sorts of different aircraft up on deck from training and surveillance planes to the very impressive war planes such as the FA18, the Tom Cat and many others. There are a number of helicopters too, including the Huey that was extensively used in the Vietnam war and immortalised in the movie Apocalypse Now. Each of the aircraft is well-kept and has dummy armaments on each to gain a full picture of what these planes were capable.
There's a number of education sessions very worthwhile to take the kids. Under the shade of a small marquee, former naval officers explain the take-off and landing experiences they and others had whilst serving on the ship, as well as other aspects of life and work on board the Midway. These are great informative sessions and well worth going beforehand to listen, if you want to develop a worksheet. Having said that, the officers were so interesting, the natural curiosity of the kids might be enough to get them engaged.
Just below the flight deck, you descend to the pilots ready rooms, where mission briefings are held. What struck me, was the number of different rooms there were down there, all adorned with emblems of the various squads that had served aboard the ship. The final part of the carrier is the operations tower. This is where the flight control room is, as well as the bridge. This is a guided tour and limited to groups of 20 at a time, so be sure to divide your class and staff up accordingly. This was a very good tour, again conducted by former sailors and officers who had served on board.
This is an amazing day out for a school group. The variety of things to see, the history and the firsthand accounts of life on board the ship is sensational! Although a big trek to do this from Australia, for any US school groups heading to the area, this is an absolute must!
Sydney Aquarium is amazing! I just want to throw that out there right from the start. Being a diver, I love to explore the hidden beauty beneath the desolate surface, but a visit to the aquarium means you can have such a wonderful educational experience and not get your feet wet! The floor to ceiling glass tanks give you the feeling of total immersion in an underwater world, which is way better than Kevin Costner's Waterworld. I mean seriously what was he thinking?
Without getting too distracted with bad movies, and back to the aquarium, it is an awesome progressive journey through the deep. Perfect for any school group and will map straight into a range of the syllabuses for both primary and secondary students.
Being able to see first hand rare and exotic marine creatures up close with detailed descriptions is fantastic. The sharks were of course a favourite of mine. Having thankfully only seen a reef shark and a grey nurse, whilst diving, I was thrilled to see so many other varieties from the safety of the underwater walkway! The kids will absolutely love this. It was mesmerising standing watching them duck, weave and glide through the water! Make sure you go without the kids before hand, so you can enjoy it all, distraction free!
There's also a hands on section where the kids can touch many of the marine creatures. This is a bit slimy for me, but again it's something that your students will really enjoy. The day I was there, it was being run by an exceptionally helpful guide. His explanations of the various creatures was thorough and I left feeling as if I'd really learnt something from him.
At 11am, it's feeding time! If you can time it so that you're at the end of the tour at 11, this’ll be perfect. As the fish are fed, a presentation is given by one of the staff, which was both informative and helpful. I now know that a swordfish is in fact a mainly nocturnal fish!
There's also a shark talk in the same location at 3:30 and 5:30pm, which would still work if you're in Sydney running an overnight program for the kids.
The Sydney Aquarium really brings to life the whole marine environment and well worth taking a group of kids to see and experience it. Living by the sea, it's easy to take these sorts of things for granted, but as America tells us, 'The ocean is a desert with it's life underground, And a perfect disguise above,' the aquarium lets everyone explore and experience what is truly a complex and fascinating world below, something of which we are rarely able to catch a glimpse.
For any teacher, it's a must to go through beforehand and check it out. Use this opportunity to plan out some stops where you can focus on particular areas from what you've been studying back in class. Btw, present your teacher ID and you can get in for free! It's well worth going ahead of time, map out your lesson and prepare any materials in advance to make the most of the school trip.
Important Fast Facts:
Location: Eastern Side of Darling Harbour Sydney NSW, Australia
Open Daily: 9:30am – 7pm
Entrance & Parking: – See Aquarium Website for Details
P: 1800 199 657
School Education Entry:
$15 to $33 – check options here
Closest Decent Coffee:
Lime Cafe - Market St
Ok so it's not the closest, but very good coffee and I only recommend somewhere I've had a couple of coffees from and it's been good. Beware the old lady who sweeps around your feet in the afternoon, but otherwise very nice and worth the walk!
Australia is big, really, really big and most of our population lives on the eastern seaboard. Consequently, many of us never get to see our own unique wonders that form critical parts of our nation’s history. In all the years about education and hiking around the countryside, other than being stuck in Darwin airport due to a broken plane, I’ve never actually gone into the city. Other than the extreme heat, I really didn’t know what to expect.
Setting out with a friend in April, we flew to Darwin and the moment we stepped off the plane, we were hit by the unbelievable humidity of our nation’s frontier to Southeast Asia. Darwin itself, is more like a big country town than a city. It has a bizarre charm to it. Stinking hot, very red and surrounded by waters in which you can’t swim for fear of being stung by deadly box jellyfish, or eaten by crocodiles. If this is your first port of call in our country, “Welcome to Australia!”
Other than avoiding the water, there are some interesting things to do around town. We started out at one of the old World War II sites, which were massive fuel tunnels, built underneath the city. During WWII, Darwin was bombed 64 times by the Japanese. The first attack happened on 19th Feb 1942. 188 Japanese planes struck Darwin, an important Allied naval port. Darwin harbour was full of Allied ships and this was the biggest Japanese attack since Pearl Harbour.
The fuel tunnels were built to protect the Allied fuel sources as all of the tanks which were above ground had been repeatedly bombed and destroyed by the Japanese. Walking through these massive concrete chasms built deep into the ground, you get a sense of how critical thinking changes during times of war.
The second historic site we went to later that day was the Darwin Military Museum, which is on the original site of the old army outpost. Here there’s a fascinating, interactive display which runs you through the bombing of Darwin and the experience of those stationed there to defend our shores. There are films, personal accounts, maps, photos, artefacts and lots of military equipment, all of which present a very different picture of the Australian experience of War during WWII.
An amazing piece of military engineering you can see is one of the original massive 9.2" guns. This was an anti-ship gun which they built to protect the harbour against naval vessels. However, by the time they built it, they only fired it to test it out and the war was over. Walking inside the bunker and around the gun, then seeing the projective it fired, you can imagine how loud it would have been when fired.
Most of the focus of our studies of WWII tends to be on Australians in Europe or in PNG. However, this was happening on our own shores. You don’t realise how close we came to being over-run in recent history. Unfortunately, the experience of Darwin and its efforts to fight off the Japanese often only rates a couple of lines in a text book and this is something we need to seriously address.
Taking a school group here is a valuable and eye-opening experience to the fact that War was on our door-step, not in some far off land in Europe or the Middle East, it was here and it was real! There’s so much more to the history of Darwin than we often think and visiting these sites on our Northern frontier, is a great way to give your students a real understanding of just how critical this city was to protecting our nation from invasion.
For more on the history of the bombing of Darwin & the WWII experience:
Darwin Military Museum
Darwin Fuel Tunnels
This week I'm going to kick off the first of the 'Places to Go! Things to See!' feature where I'll detail and review somewhere that's fun, interesting and has great educational value for students. This feature looks at galleries, museums, historic sites and cultural activities that you can do around Australia. Each feature is based upon my own experience and won't be some crappy rehash of someone else's website or tourist information blurb.
The first port of call (so to speak), is the Jervis Bay Maritime Museum. Tucked away on the South Coast near Huskisson, the museum is a great historic collection that details the settlement history of the local area. From aboriginal heritage, to Governor Macquarie's explorers, to the famous Lady Denman Ferry lovingly restored by locals, the museum is a fantastic opportunity for students to explore the development of a regional community.
There are four main gallery areas in the museum:
1. The Lady Denman Ferry
2. Settlement & Development of Jervis Bay
3. Science & The Sea (a great private collection of rare naval artefacts)
4. Visiting exhibits
The Lady Denman Ferry is a commuter ferry, built in Huskisson, that was in service in Sydney from 1911 to 1979! The ferry transported passengers from Circular Quay to smaller inner harbour wharves such as Cremorne and Mosman. It has a fascinating and controversial story to its return to Huskisson, which basically involved commandeering the boat in the dead of night and sneaking it out of Sydney Harbour, then needing a naval escort when entering Jervis Bay to protect it from the raging seas that were mercilessly pounding the vessel under tow. The fact that it made it back home to Huskisson at all, was a remarkable feat in itself. Not to mention the huge community effort it took to restore this ferry to its former glory.
Other random notable facts I found out here include that most of the area around Jervis Bay is named after naval officers involved in the famous Battle of Cape St. Vincent, with the exception of Huskisson, which is named after an English politician whose main claim to fame is being the first person ever to be killed by a steam train. Not the greatest thing to be remembered for, but hey it just goes to show politicians will do anything for attention.
One of the other galleries has a fantastic collection of naval swords, flintlock firearms, sextants, and artworks depicting the early arrival of ships and explorers to Jervis Bay and the Shoalhaven region.
The other gallery is for touring exhibits, so it could be filled with anything from visiting art works, photos or other interesting artifacts. It's best to check the museum's website for upcoming exhibitions. I was fortunate one time to see an amazing collection of Arthur Boyd's works on display here!
The Jervis Bay Maritime Museum is well worth the visit! It's great for students studying local history or community development as part of the geography syllabus. For a community run museum in a small coastal town, the Jervis Bay Maritime Museum houses an amazing collection. It's been carefully and thoughtfully curated and shows how the formation of a region has played an important part in the history of our nation.
The museum is run by a wonderful group of friendly volunteers and they'll even provide a guide for your school booking.
Important Fast Facts:
Location: 11 Dent St, Huskisson NSW 2540, Australia
Open Daily: 10am - 4pm
Entrance & Parking: - Woollamia Rd, Huskisson, NSW, 2540
P: (02) 4441 5675
School Education Entry:
$5 - guided tour
$3 - self-guided tour
Closest Decent Coffee:
5 Little Pigs Huskisson
This is the pick of coffee in town, I'll rate this 7/10 beans. It's nice, but not consistent. I've had many coffees from this café. Some a really good, others a bit meh, but none really bad. The food however, is amazing!!!! Definitely worth having breakfast or lunch here whilst someone else is looking after the kids!
It's funny how easily we find ourselves sitting back and taking our working lives so contentedly. Almost every job is repetitive. Some are vastly more repetitive than others, for example working on a production line. However, sometimes even with variety at work, it can still become repetitious.
Recently, my colleagues and I spent some time developing new options for the outdoor ed program. The main aim of this was to have plans B, C, D, etc just in case weather or circumstances prevented us from going with plan A. For this, we headed Canberra to conduct some “reccies” (reconnoitres), to assess the suitability of different expeditions in areas.
Covering three different modes of transport, hiking, mountain biking and canoeing, one of the aims was to have an expedition that could link these together into a seamless journey. So off we went into the Brindabella ranges! This is a mountain range just south of Canberra through which the Murrumbidgee River flows and at points, narrows into mini gorges to create some exciting white water.
After driving around for about an hour and half in the troopie through some amazingly creepy hillbilly country trying to find public access to the river, it appeared we were out of luck. The upper section of the river where we wanted to put in, seemed to be completely hemmed in by private properties filled with wrecked cars and uninviting signs. Thankfully, we weren’t chased out by too many toothless, gun toting madman trying to protect their moonshine stills. With no way in, we decided to head back down to where we left the other vehicle and paddle from there.
Packing the canoes we put in the boats at a ford that ran a shallow and constant stream over the road, which quickly turned into some gentle rapids. Getting on the water, I was slightly nervous, as I’d never white water canoed before. Having paddled down many rivers in a kayak with a spray deck on, it's a totally different feeling being in an open canoe and only having a single blade. Sitting in the front of the boat we paddled down towards the first rapid. A nervous pain started stabbing me in the stomach. I suddenly found myself way outside my comfort zone.
As we hit the first rapid, the boat got caught on a rock. I quickly shifted my body to counterbalance the boat that was now tilted up at a high angle with the gunnel almost touching the water. It was probably the most precarious place you could imagine to have put the boat, and we’d only paddled about 50m. Seemingly, it wasn’t a good start to what was going to be a very interesting day. After being perched awkwardly on the rock for a few minutes, which felt like hours, we finally managed to shuffle our way off and back into the stream. The canoe righted itself with a bang and bumped clumsily across several other rocks as we went. I was now hoping the entire day wasn’t going to be like this.
Thankfully, the river widened and deepen a little, so became quite a pleasant paddle… well for a short period of time anyway. As my nerves eased, I tried to start reading the river ahead, anticipating any potential bumps and helping my colleague navigate and avoid them. After about half an hour, the river began to narrow once again and the land started to drop away at a much steeper rate. I became increasingly nervous, as I could see the bubbling white water in front of me getting funnelled down into an even tighter stretch of the river. Despite having a highly-experienced instructor in the back of the boat steering, I was a bundle of nerves as I clung on to my wooden paddle for dear life.
We sat midstream back-paddling and maintaining our position, as we discussed tactics of how we were going to approach and attack the next set of rapids. With a plan clearly in our minds, we paddled hard towards the first rapid and as we hit it, we turned hard right! With only inches to spare, we traversed the second rapid before swiftly changing direction again to negotiate a third one. With my heart pounding and my knuckles going white from gripping the paddle so hard, we slid through the final section and onto a fast-flowing rapid train that bounced us up and down, splashing masses of water over the bow and into my face.
A few hundred metres on, we came to yet another section that was even more extreme. Pulling off into an eddy, we breaked for lunch and examine the rapids ahead from the riverbank. What was becoming increasingly obvious, was the fact the hills were getting steeper around us and we were getting funnelled into a gorge. After lunch and having walked up and down the river examining options, we decided to portage the boats for a couple of hundred metres to avoid some of the more extreme rapids. The feeling of relief rippled through me as I really didn't want to be going down a grade 3 rapid that might’ve slammed us straight into a rock.
It quickly became apparent that canoes weren't really designed to be carried and despite going around some of the rapids being a much safer option, it was an arduous task dragging the canoes and our equipment over the rocky embankment beside the river.
Finding a calm little eddy on the other side, we slid the boat back in and continued on our way. This didn't last long, as the gradient of the river increased and the rocks either side began to appear pillar-like as they reached up higher and higher.
After hitting a few more rapids, the land seemed to just drop away. Pulling in to another eddy, we got out of the boat, and assessed what was a massive grade 3 rapid that split into two streams. Both directions were filled with nasty looking strainers ready for their next customer. Those of you who aren’t familiar with a strainer, it’s an object in the water, usually a tree branch or similar that catches solid objects as the water goes through it. Much like when you cook pasta and strain the water, the strainer in the river will capture you and hold you there. The difference being you don't get tipped out onto a plate and served with a nice tomato and basil sauce, you just get pinned there and drown. Strainers are deadly objects that you want to avoid it all cost.
We’d now hit a point in the river where it was no longer safe to paddle, nor was it easy or suitable to portage due to the increasingly large rocky outcrops. Emptying everything out of the boats we decided to line them down the rapids instead. Lining, if you haven't come across that either is where you attach a rope to the boat and allow the boat to float down the rapid whilst you use the rope to guide it. Sounds easy? Not quite... If the boat tips over at any point you need to let go of the rope immediately. The problem is that as soon as a capsized canoe fills with water, it suddenly weighs around 400kg. Unless you have massive guns, you’ll basically get snatched off the rocks and dragged down into the water, which is not recommended.
Lining the boats, followed by 100m of paddling, then several hundred metres of portaging and another extended lining took around two hours. The end of which we’d covered about 500m! The air felt cool as the sun hung low in the western sky. What was supposed to take a couple of hours in total, was now well into its sixth hour. Looking on the map, there was relief in sight as the river appeared to once again broaden. Back in the boats after another short portage, we paddled forth hoping our reading of the map was correct. The terrain around us had changed slightly. It was looking promising that the worst of it was over. As we rounded the next bend, a feeling of relief flooded over me. We were now back to a wide smooth flowing section of the Murrumbidgee!
With the light fading and the day well and truly done, the sight of Thawa Bridge ahead in the distance was a wonderful sight to see. It was just before dark as we stepped out of the boat. I felt a sense of achievement! Despite it being a harrowing experience at the start of the day and feeling completely out of my depth, it’d turned into an excellent adventure.
Often at work, we can become stagnant in our repetitive roles. Experiences such as this push us and remind us that we must also be prepared to push ourselves outside our comfort zones if we want to grow. There’s no point in telling kids they need to push their boundaries and limits, if we’re not prepared to do it ourselves. Feeling the fear that your students feel when they start a new activity for the first time is an important part of understanding why we do what we do.
Experiential education is so important for the continuous growth and improvement for both teacher and student. If you find you’re happy, content and comfortable day in day out at work, you're simply not pushing the boundaries hard enough. Even if you have a program that works exceptionally well, there’s always space for improvement.
Challenge yourself! Go out and find options B, C, D and in doing so experience something new. Ultimately, the more we test our comfort zone, the more we grow. The more we grow in ourselves, the stronger and more confident we become in our own lives. This strength and confidence translates into far better teaching and mentorship for our students.
There’s always a lot to think about when preparing for an outdoor ed camp. Assuming you know where you’re going and what you’re doing sorted, then it’s time to prepare the finer details.
For most teachers, this is where it can become overwhelming. Often the feeling is, “I want to run an enjoyable and safe trip… but where do I start?”
The first thing to do is develop your risk management plan. Many other things will simply fall into place once this is done. Although the bane of many teachers’ existence, a good risk management plan can save you considerable time and effort down the line.
When building your plan, look at your daily routine and work out what the key risks are for each activity and how you will accept, eliminate or mitigate these risks. You’ll need to consider things such as time of year (season), weather, temperatures, location and emergency exit points. Add to this the specific risks for each activity in those locations at that time of the year and you’ll start to build a picture of what your key risks are and how you’re going to address them.
With your risk management strategy created, remember, this is a living document not a copy and paste job which just makes up part of the ‘annoying paperwork.’ All staff need to be aware of risks and mitigation strategies and be prepared to react and respond if and when it’s needed.
The next step is to sort permission notes, get updated medicals and provide a student packing list with all the items they need to bring (and things they shouldn’t). Have a detailed plan ready to go before you send this out to parents. You’re bound to get lots of questions so the more detailed the itinerary you can provide upfront, the better.
For the equipment list, clearly specify quantity and quality of what’s required. Whilst I know some parents might not be able to supply this, as a matter of safety, it’s important that you’re able to cater for any shortfall. One of the most important pieces of equipment is a set of thermals. Even in warmer months, it’s good safety practice to carry some thermals in case of emergency and if you’re running an autumn or winter camp, it’s essential that all students have a set. The reason being (not just to support our great wool industry), hypothermia is always a significant environmental risk due to wet and windy conditions in Australia.
With permissions notes, medicals and gear all sorted, it’s time to brief everyone! This is often overlooked, but it’s vitally important to run a pre-camp briefing for staff and students. This goes back to pro-active risk management. Set the scene, set the expectations and build the excitement for camp. After all, you’ve just spent weeks preparing something very special it’s now time to tell everyone about it! Showing images from a previous camp and location on a map, is a great way to put into perspective some of the experiences they’re about to have.
With all this done, it’s down to the last items and you’re ready to go! First Aid kits, spare Asthma Puffer, spare EpiPen, any medications, groups lists, medical summaries, food and you’re good to go! By the way… did anyone book the buses?
One of the biggest problems in any outdoor program is the blindness of experts. They’re generally people who are experts in their specific field or activity and become over-confident and blind to situations in which risk can be quite dangerous to themselves and others. However, I’m not going to be covering that right now. Instead I’d like to coin the term, ‘The Idiot Blindspot!’ What happens when inexperienced and incompetent people think they know what they’re doing when they truly don’t?
The idiot blindspot is a dangerous place in which to be operating, as there’s actually no consideration of risk at all. It’s merely given lip service and no real implementation of any considerations about risk are thought about nor are there any systems in place to manage risks. These are the people you want to avoid like they plague. They are your classic copy and paste crew who think that a risk management document is what risk management is about and once you have that document (copied and pasted from someone else), that whatever you do after that is ok.
The ‘whatever you do after that is ok’ approach can be a strange and nerve wracking experience for someone who is able to read situations. Sadly, if unaddressed, the idiots involved tend to end up in front of coroners having caused life-shattering damage to those they should have been protecting. They will then make excuses for their behaviour and lack of judgment.
I’ve experienced a few idiots over the years and despite going to great lengths to explain the reasons why we should or should not do something, they would invariably not see reason. In fact, they would get quite defensive and hostile at the suggestion that what they were considering was perhaps not that well thought out.
Unfortunately, I can think of a number of occasions that this has happened. One was a rafting exercise where the activity was being conducted in a tidal creek, which had a sucky mud base and was murky to the point that you couldn’t see 10cm below the surface. What better way to run a raft building exercise than to have students testing their make-shift crafts in this environment with no life jackets on. But wait, there’s more! Not only were there no personal flotation devices being used, the activity spontaneously changed into students wrestling with each other on the makeshift rafts attempting to throw each other off into the murky water. For someone with at least half a brain, you could reasonably foresee problems with this activity. Sadly, the idiots running it could not.
“Why didn’t you stop the activity?” I hear you shouting in disbelief!!! Well, I wasn’t actually there. The idiots had filmed all of this and could be heard encouraging the wrestling on the dodgy rafts. I already had my doubts about these members of staff, and now here we were seeing their stupidity in full-flight. Operating your risk management based upon pure luck is not something that should ever be done. Nor is letting an idiot run an activity such as this, with no regard for even the most basic notions of student safety. The difficulty in this situation was that the person running the activity was my boss, which only added to the dangerous nature of the organisation’s idiot blindspot.
On a number of different occasions, I’ve found myself in a bizarre arguments over weather warnings, equipment usage and group dynamics, all of which materially impact on safety. However, there’s a difference between a robust discussion with experienced and knowledgable colleagues versus complete idiots, especially when the complete idiots think they’re amazing and know what they’re doing. No advice is better than any advice from someone who knows nothing about risk management. A very dangerous mix, which if left unaddressed has the potential to put you in front of the coroner. Sadly, it’s usually the death of an innocent child that the coroner is investigating and not the idiot whose lack of judgment and understanding led to the accident.
If your organisation has people like this in it, get rid of them as fast as possible. They’re not going to benefit from any sort of professional development or training, as they completely lack the understanding and ability to understand risk and how to be situationally aware. It’s often not until an activity or expedition is in motion that risks (which were copied and pasted on that dusty document) become apparent. Being able to read situations is critical to good risk management and ensuring that all your activities and programs run well and are beneficial to everyone involved.
Before you let any staff loose on programs with any level of risk, then they’re well trained and are mentored along the way. It does take time and experience to develop situational awareness. However, once you’ve detected the idiots, you know they have to go. You don’t need the idiots. They contribute nothing other than red flags and an immense danger to you and everyone around you and the faster you can understand their blindness to risk and take them out of the mix, the better off your organisation will be.
I see this so often in experiential education. A teacher either gets so caught up in running an activity that at the end of it, there isn’t the opportunity to debrief, or worse, it's simply not even part of the program.
Neither are good approaches, but not having any form of debrief or reflection factored into what you’re doing, is a huge mistake and a wasted learning opportunity.
Experiential education is not just about running fun activities. If it were, it would be called a holiday camp. Yet this couldn't be further from the truth, despite some teachers thinking of it as such. Experiential education is about providing opportunities through real challenges and being able to reflect on how everyone worked through and faced each challenge.
It's essentially the business of providing practical learning experiences that have real measurable consequences as a mechanism for pushing students outside their comfort zones. Through doing this, we’re able to build positive relationships, increase social awareness and promote personal growth.
Often the specific activity through which this is done is quite irrelevant. It really doesn't matter if you hike, canoe, mountain bike, abseil or kayak, so long as the activity is suitably challenging for the students and will extend all involved.
What does matter however, is what you do after the activity is over. During each challenge, you should be actively monitoring the performance of individuals and the group. Keep in mind any stand out behaviours both positive and negative, but also note those in the middle who may lack confidence or just not even try. It's a lot to keep an eye on. However, the more time you spend with groups, the easier to become to know what to look for.
At the end of the activity, it's time to debrief and reflect. Not doing this is a massive mistake for experiential education, because reflection is where the value of the learning comes in. If a group fails at an activity, it's pointless just to say, ‘just try harder next time.’ This is a cop out on the teacher's part and what does try harder even mean?
You need to explore reasons for the failure and discuss this with the group. An activity such as raft building for example is a great test of teamwork, planning and execution. More often than not, I see the crews go down with the makeshift crafts. So why does this happen? Is it that they don't try hard enough? Well no, it's usually because in the excitement and pressure of a time limit, they rush things, they build before they plan or they plan for a craft that is great on land, but not suited to the water!
Whilst this sounds just like the daily operations of a government department, it also produces a similar result. It's not until you gather the group together and talk through the experience, that they start to learn from it. I usually bring in other relevant examples from their lives and get them to think more broadly than just the activity itself. Questions such as, “What’s something else you’ve experienced that didn’t work because you rushed into it too quickly?” Or, “What's something else you have to carefully plan out to make sure it works?”
It's through reflections that the real learning occurs. I've seen far too many teachers run this sort of activity and because everyone ends up getting soaking wet and it descends into organised chaos, they think that it's all over when the students get out of the water. However, the opportunity for learning has only just begun!
It’s your qualities as a teacher that then comes into play to tie in all of the related social and emotional themes to effectively debrief the activity. The more challenging the activity, the greater the need for your group to reflect on it. You’ll often be surprised by the comments students make when you use the experience to reflect on a bigger picture issue or question.
One of the most powerful comments I've heard was after a caving exercise where the students had to make their way out of total darkness. I mean total darkness! There were no luminescent glow worms to help you out. You couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. The only way out was to shuffle along a cramped passageway on your stomach and hold onto the person ahead of you. When we finally emerged from the cave and debriefed the activity, one student, who was afraid of the dark said, “I could feel my friend holding my hand. He kept talking to me the whole time and I knew I'd be ok.” This then led into a wider discussion about looking after each other and some amazing comments from other students in the group.
I never know what to expect when reflecting on an activity, but the bottom line is that it’s a must for each and every program you’re running. It’s through this sort of reflection, that students and ourselves are able to learn the most.
If you’ve ever read anything about organisational management, be it on team building or leadership in the workplace, you’re bombarded with discussions on ‘culture.’ Culture is basically the shared values and beliefs that a group of people see as important and sets the standard for social and behavioural expectations within the group.
I’ve worked for schools which have had good cultures and some, unfortunately, which have had very bad cultures. The result of a school’s culture, good, bad or indifferent, impacts on the quality of the educational experience, the welfare of students and ultimately their growth, development and ability to transition out of school and mature over the long-term. You only have to look at recent examples of initiations happening at some university colleges in Australia to see how bad culture can lead to horrendous situations. Consequently, developing a positive culture with clear behavioural expectations within the school is vitally important for both social and academic growth. How exactly can outdoor education help?
Outdoor ed is a fertile ground for helping build a positive culture within your school as the learning space provides a far more emotional context for learning. It’s this emotional and empathetic side of students with which you need to connect, to be able to build trust and help students develop understanding and empathy for others. To begin with, the outdoors provides us with unique spaces, contexts and experiences which are vastly different from that of the regular classroom. It changes people’s states of mind and when you change your state of mind, you can learn, grow and develop far more effectively.
In a noise-filled digital world, an outdoor education experience is an opportunity for students to disconnect from the noise and reconnect with themselves and their peers. Taking a group out into a wilderness setting will change the dynamics for them and often students will become more open to discuss feelings, concerns and share stories and experiences which they would otherwise never share. When they have the time and headspace to do this, it enables you to work on all the soft skills such as empathy, teamwork and helping others, not because they have to, but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s often hard to convey these sorts of ideals within the structure and busyness of a normal school day, but when students are put in a situation where they have to live and experience something for themselves, that’s when you can get significant gains in a short period of time.
However, outdoor education experiences are not a quick fix solution and it can’t be done in isolation. What happens in the outdoors needs to be effectively transferred and translated back to daily school life for it to have any real impact. To begin with, ask yourself, what do you want to achieve from your outdoor program? Is it just a fun experience for students hiking or canoeing in the bush? Or is it far deeper than that? Are you aiming to push comfort zones, test thresholds and building resilience? Are you aiming to develop students’ empathy for others? Understand diversity? Gain independence? Build healthy relationships? To maximise the effectiveness of your outdoor ed programs and consequently use them to help build a positive culture within your school, you need to be clear about your objectives. They need to be natural, genuine and acceptable within the school body so you can get strong buy-in from the staff, parents and students before you even think about going off site somewhere.
This buy-in across the board is extremely important, as you can’t develop culture in isolation. One residential program I worked on a number of years ago had a few cultural problems to say the least. One of them was a confusion over what the actual aims and objectives were for the program. On the one hand you had experienced outdoor education staff who would lead the expeditions with clear set expectations that the students were leading each trip and were responsible for everything. The only time we would step in was if there were a safety issue. On the other hand, you had teachers back at base who were teaching lessons during the day and providing an old style of boarding house supervision at night with an overwhelming sense that the students needed to be constantly directed and told what to do. This was a massive disconnect, which ultimately left students confused and feeling disempowered, as they were expected to be independent problem solvers one moment and mindless regimented robots the next. Admittedly, this was an unusual situation. However, it highlights how an outdoor program can’t successfully shape culture in isolation. The learning and expectations need to be carried and supported back into the classroom and daily life at school, otherwise the value of the experience can become seriously diminished.
In contrast, I was working for a school in Melbourne and had the great opportunity to go out on a rock climbing expedition with a group of year 10 students. One of the students we took out with us was a special needs student who usually had a carer with him. However, this time there was no carer. I went on the trip fully expecting to spend most of my time looking after this one student, but to my great surprise all of the students in the group took it in turns to help him. They made sure he was included in the group, made sure that at meal times he was looked after and they genuinely encouraged him every day when rock climbing, even though he couldn’t do any of the climbs the other students were doing. This was an amazing thing to see. Each night after dinner, we ran a debrief about the day and discussed some wider issues around social responsibilities. The thoughtful ideas that were expressed by the students blew me away. This was a school that had instilled in its students a wonderful and genuine culture of caring for others. There was no confusion. There was no disconnect. There was a natural clarity of responsibility and purpose.
When I looked back at the way in which the outdoor education program was sequentially structured at that school from year 5 through to year 10, I could see how the clear aims and objectives, the staff, student and parent buy-in and the continuation of the same themes of community service and social responsibility back at school were all working together to help build this very positive culture. This is the critical key to success and can provide enormous benefits for students and staff throughout their time at the school. If you want to develop and shape positive culture in your school, then leverage outdoor experiences by setting clear goals and expectations and transferring them from what happened in the outdoor context, back into the wider context of life at your school. The process does take time, but the benefits that you’ll see over the long-term can be astounding.
Why is everyone so afraid of the word risk? To be honest talking about risk is a risky topic in itself, because whenever people think of risk, it conjures up visions of dangerous risk and is usually associated with money grubbing lawyers, soulless insurance companies and drawn out court cases, all of which should be avoided, like the plague or romantic candle lit dinners with Kim Jong Un.
Unfortunately, people become blinkered to anything else, especially when dating a dictator who desperately needs to find a new hairdresser. Seriously though, regardless whether risk is dangerous or not, it fills people with a sense of fear. Not knowing how to deal with one’s fear, leads to a perception that all risk is bad and therefore all risk must be avoided at all cost.
However, every part of our lives involves some form of risk. Whether it be trying a new dish off a menu for the first time, deciding what to do on the weekend or planning to leave your current job in pursuit of a new career. All these things involve risk. However, most of this risk stems from people’s inbuilt fears rather than serious risk of harm. Consequently, not all risk is dangerous risk, but it does make us feel uncomfortable, or even fearful because the outcome is unknown. Often people will delay making decisions, or avoid them entirely, because they want to avoid the risk of making the ‘wrong’ decision.
Education is all about taking risks, yet due to the misconception that risk is just about dangerous risk, there’s a huge disconnect with schools being proactive with their students and educating them how to take measured and reasonable risks to help them develop and grow. Instead, the focus is on ‘playing it safe’ and being totally and utterly risk averse. Once again, the nanny state and its perverse litigious legal system can justify its own existence.
It’s drilled into many children from a young age, ‘be safe’, ‘take care’, ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t do that!’ ‘BE CAREFUL!!!’ It’s fair enough that parents don’t want to put their child in danger. However, I’m not talking about dangerous risks, so if they’re so risk-averse that they’re not even willing to let their kids get dirty playing around in the backyard at a friend’s house, it’s going to cause much, much bigger problems later on.
Unfortunately, the current generation of school-aged kids seems to have been brought up by a generation of paranoid, risk averse parents who are desperate to see no ‘harm’ come to their ‘special child!’ Sadly, as a result of this paranoid parenting, it’s actually damaged many a child’s ability to understand what it means to take a risk, and to be able to take measured and informed risks for themselves. The comfort zones of kids are slowly smothering them into inaction and indecision, then often their perception of risk is either totally over the top, or so oblivious they believe they’re impervious to anything.
There are only two approaches you can take when dealing with risk. You can either accept and proactively embrace the inherent risks that life brings, or you can try to avoid them completely. By trying to avoid any sort of risk and avoid the risk of ‘failure,’ this can do more damage to children, than letting them explore and experience risk from within in a positive framework.
If parents have the ultimate goal of ensuring their child can’t possibly fail at anything in school, they’re missing the point about education and personal development. The reality is that this ‘perfect child,’ ‘perfect world’ approach is disastrously counterproductive and can only lead to a much greater failure in the future. By being over-protective, parents are not giving their children the chance to develop coping mechanisms and the resilience needed to deal with life’s setbacks that will most certainly occur.
Instead of wrapping kids in bubble wrap to protect them from everything, it becomes critical to allow them to explore taking risks within a structured framework such as an experiential education program. This allows them to think for themselves, make decisions and risk failure without massive negative consequences.
Through experiencing what taking risks feels like and helping students step outside their comfort zones, we can help students learn about taking chances in life, which is what life’s all about. It’s not about ‘playing it safe,’ to the point that you never progress and grow as a person. It’s about pushing the boundaries to make the most of opportunities and to become the best you can. Next time you’re running a program, set up an activity that involves a good amount of perceived risk that’s suitable for the age and maturity of your students. Through this, encourage them to take a chance, try something completely new and push beyond the boundaries that have been unnaturally put in place for them by others.
Failing that, there’s always that romantic dinner date…
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.