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.
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.
At Xcursion, we are often asked questions about data security and sovereignty. Not the most exciting question, but an important one all the same. With student medical records, security is a must. However, what do most schools currently do? They tend to either use paper printouts, which are really hard to track and I’ve seen folders of these go missing a number of times. No security, no track, no idea where that highly confidential information ended up.
Others use email and things such as dropbox or google drive to share medical information for camps. Whilst this is a slight step up from leaving a folder around, it is in fact still not a suitable way of data management. Once you share something on google drive or dropbox, there’s every chance that the information on that drive isn’t located in your country of origin, which is important when it comes to student medical records, which in most counties need to be stored only in that country of origin.
You then still have the same problem once you’re heading out for school sport, school excursions or activities. How are you going to safely carry and use the information you need? Most of the time we’re back to using print outs, which can contain students home addresses, medical issues and a range of other private healthcare and personal information which needs to be protected.
This was a problem we faced years ago before we developed the Xcursion mobile app. Data security was literally non-existent for our school programs and we needed a way to easily, securely and effectively access that information and use it when it’s needed. The rest of the time, we wanted it locked away and secure from transfer or loss. Therefore, we encrypted our entire Xcursion mobile app platform and databases to ensure that all of our client data was secure and hosted in their country of origin. This way we were able to provide much better data security than before and ensure the most important information was both secure and accessible anytime a teacher needed it for any sort of medication administration, incident report or just a quick call to parents to let them know everything was ok.
How are you securing your information? As experienced teachers, we know how hard it is to keep up with so many responsibilities in and out of school, so if you’d like us to help you make medical information more secure and easier to manage for all your school excursions, school sports and activities, then get in touch today.
Recently, I was reading a fascinating book about airplane crashes and how poor decision making ultimately led to disaster and the huge loss of life. What was striking about this was the similarity to so many coronial inquests for outdoor education incidents.
Much like many fatalities on outdoor expeditions, each of the airplane disasters could have been avoided. However, fatigue and poor decision making ultimately led to disaster. So why are we so impaired by fatigue and why do some organisations still not see this as a major problem?
One school, which shall remain unnamed, for which I worked a number of years ago, were vehemently opposed to any discussion around fatigue, despite numerous concerns being raised by staff around the impact it was having on the welfare and well-being of the staff. The implication was that we were just being lazy and trying to get out of work. I would suggest 80+ hour weeks backed up by driving vehicles full of students was a bit over the top. However, I’m not going to dwell on the rest of that experience, other than to say it was a pre-loaded disaster waiting to happen.
When we’re fatigued, a number of things happen which reduce our ability to make clear, informed and reasonable decisions. The harder we try, the less effective this becomes. Our focus narrows further and further into a tunnel vision that cripples our ability to make sound, reasoned judgment. This was evident in the cockpit recordings of each of the plane crashes outlined in the book. Instead of clear, thoughtful and decisive action, mistake, after mistake, after mistake was made, culminating in the inevitable plane crash. Experienced pilots forgot their training. Simple corrective actions weren’t taken.
The same is true of fatalities in outdoor education in which fatigue adversely impacts on the ability of an instructor to make reasonable, informed decisions. Research has shown that multiple shifts of work and not sleeping for 24 hours (which counts poor/broken sleep within the mix), has the same effect on decision making that being drunk has. Do we ever allow teachers and instructors to be drunk at work? No! So why do we allow fatigue to be overlooked?
If you examine the black box flight recordings of the conversations inside the cockpit, it becomes abundantly clear that for example, despite evidence to suggest that all the pilots needed to do to save the plane and those they were responsible for was to push down on the controls to increase speed and prevent a stall, they kept pulling back on the stick, consequently condemning the plane and all onboard.
However, before we call them stupid, which is the temptation of a back-seat pilot with no airtime, let’s look at the effects which fatigue has on people and why it’s not surprising that such poor decisions were made in the air and also in the field, for so many expeditions which have gone disastrously wrong.
When people are fatigued and/or drunk, their reaction time slows, their ability to solve complex problems is significantly inhibited and their ability to perform even the most regular and simple tasks becomes compromised.
The only solution for fatigue, is sleep, not push through it as a former boss of mine would always profess was the way he always did it and we should do the same! That, in my opinion, is idiotic in the extreme and will eventually result in someone getting killed. However, you can always learn a lot from idiots as they demonstrate the dangers of what not to do. Often this can be even more beneficial than someone telling you what you should do.
Good decision making is one of the best risk management strategies you can have. You see something that hasn’t gone to plan, doesn’t fit or doesn’t feel right. You assess the problem, adapt and respond accordingly. Good outdoor leaders will continually do this throughout any program. Most of the time, what they do isn’t even noticeable. Other times, it’s clear that there’s a problem and there’s a shift in plans to address it. The same is true with airlines. Most of the time you have no idea that corrective action was taken, which is the way it should be. Unfortunately, when we’re fatigued, that vitally important, broad problem-solving skill set stops working. We can only focus on single tasks and, even then, we might only be able to focus on a single part of a single task, which is even worse.
Often fatigued individuals will also focus on something that is completely irrelevant to the problem at hand. Instead, they become entrenched in a minor detail and they can obsess over it, as it’s the key to solving their current problem. However, their tired-self can’t even rationalise the fact that they’re grabbing onto something which is completely pointless, again due to their diminished capacity to make rational decisions.
Unfortunately, in outdoor ed incidents, we generally don’t have first hand recordings of the events as they transpire, which we do have for the airline industry. Listening to these recordings, it becomes clear that minor and irrelevant concerns become the sole focus of someone who is fatigued. The death spiral starts and there’s no way out. If you compare this with coronial inquests into outdoor education fatalities, on many occasions, you can see how fatigue might have impaired judgment and might have contributed to triggering the repeatedly poor decisions and the downward spiral which ultimately resulted in the fatality.
Now not all outdoor ed fatalities have fatigue as a contributing factor, but if we’re aware of the fact that it’s one of the most dangerous problems we can face even as experienced instructors, then we can put systems in place to manage and avoid fatigue and it’s related hazards. If we don’t want staff to be working ‘drunk’ from fatigue, then we must have good systems in place for managing this.
How long is an acceptable shift? What are the tasks that each staff member is doing during this time? What driving is involved? Can the load be shared? What if someone feels fatigued? What backup plans do you have in place?
The outcome of each of the airplane crashes was that systems to monitor and address fatigue were introduced, the result being, safer air travel. For outdoor education, this is something that must be addressed. It can’t be pushed through. It can’t be ignored. It can’t be put off for a discussion later in time. The end results, like the fatal vehicle accident in New Zealand where the teacher fell asleep at the wheel, are self-evident that fatigue and good decision making don’t go hand in hand. Do you have a fatigue management system in place? If not, make it your number 1 priority today as it’s vital that we and our industry ensure we keep safe those for whom we’re responsible. It’s essential to have instructors with clear heads and great decision-making skills, so that every outdoor experience is a wonderful and rewarding one for everyone.
No you can’t do that! … It’s not safe!
This is the deafening catch cry of the fleet of helicopter and drone parents who put the apocalypse, now pilots to shame. Be safe! Take Care! Don’t do this! Don’t do that!
Stop! I wanna go home… take off this uniform and leave the show!
With such an increasingly large group of paranoid parents who don’t want anything to happen ever, unless it’s a participation award ceremony where the trophies have had their razor sharp edge buffed off, it’s difficult to know how damaging this will be over the long-run. But damaging it is and damaging it will continue to be for years to come.
In an attempt to make the world ‘safe and perfect’ for their wonderfully ‘perfect’ children, parents continue to cripple their kids into a false sense of security and confidence, or made them insanely dependent, depressed and anxious about the world. Either way, it’s not a healthy way to raise children.
Everyone learns and grows from taking risks, be they physical or emotional risks. If we don’t step outside of our comfort zone and do something, then we make little progress. We don’t learn from our mistakes and we’re unable to understand our true capabilities and grow as a result. Despite the world getting safer and being a far more stable place than it has ever been, for some reason, (probably social media driven) parents seem more fearful and paranoid about everything. They therefore aim to remove all risk and all potential challenges from their children’s lives. There’s just one massive problem with this. It’s insanely stupid and crippling for children and it increases the risk of harm to those children dramatically.
If you don’t know what it feels like to take a risk, then you have no way to gauge the level, severity or potential consequences of that risk. Teenagers struggle with this anyway, as their brains are wired to only seeing rewards out of any situation. However, couple this with absolutely neither perspective, experience nor understanding of taking risks, then you end up with an extremely dangerous combination of false confidence and the illusion of that everything will produce a positive outcome. This lack of experience and false confidence coupled with a parent who will never let a child take any risks, results in teenagers who will take completely unhealthy and dangerous risks with no thought of or perspective for the consequences.
However, if children are allowed to take risks, they’re going to injury themselves. They’re going to get dirty, scratched, knocked about, but each time this happens, they learn from this and develop a level of resilience. They gain understanding of what they’re capable and of what they’re not capable. They build a level of understanding of risk and from this are able to begin to self-regulate, because they know, if you jump out of a tree and land hard, this could result in a rolled ankle, broken wrist or something that’s unpleasant, but not exactly that bad.
We all learn best through our experiences, so those children whose parents don’t let them take any sort of risk, generally drive them to and from school no matter how close it is and don’t let them out of their sight ever. They don’t allow their children to develop a perspective or gauge for risk and consequently are more likely to take dangerous risks as all they have developed over the years is false confidence and nothing more.
Taking risks diminishes this false confidence and is critical to long term development so as children turn into teenagers, they’re far more switched on to identify real risks and approach them in a more responsible way. The next time parents ask why you’re doing this activity or that activity, have a positive conversation about the benefits of takings risks and growth in a great way from these experiences.
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?
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.
One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you, don't do anything at all
Before you get too worried about my state of mind, if you haven’t worked out the reference already, you should go and play White Rabbit by Jefferson Aeroplane. One, it’s a cool song and two, it’s suitably trippy for this article! If you don’t get what it all means, that’s ok. It’s basically a drug trip song that’s used in just about every TV and movie drug montage ever with the connection to Alice In Wonderland.
Anyway, before I explain it to death, this week, we’re talking about drugs!!!! Today there’s no shortage of them. Students are on just about everything you can imagine to get them moving and motivated, to slow them down and focus them. To stop them sleeping, to make them sleep. To make them more productive, to make them less destructive. To fight bacteria, to promote bacteria. To balance them out, to unbalance them out! To get them regular, to stop them being too regular!
It’s a wonderful world of pharmaceutical profits in every schoolbag! Doctors seem to give out drugs more often than candy… which they’re no longer allowed to give out, because candy may contain traces of nuts.
Whilst drugging kids up to their eyeballs is entirely up to the parents and their doctors, the problem is that teachers then get lumped with this huge responsibility of administering medications when they take students away on camps. Most teachers in my experience are ill-equipped to do this and lack the confidence to do it properly.
In most cases, giving medications is fairly straight forward. You look at the packet and what it says on the box and you follow the instructions. Generally, it’s usually no more than giving a pill, a puff or a small dose of some sort of liquid. If staff are being asked to provide an injecting service, perhaps mum, dad or the doctor should come on camp instead.
Even though it’s a fairly simple process, it can be overwhelming with everything else that’s going on during camp. I found this to be the case on one camp program where we had a lot of students who required daily medications and a lot of other things happening at the same time. It wasn’t until one teacher forgot a student’s ADHD medications in the morning that the problem became really apparent. If you can imagine Bart Simpson on steroids, that’s pretty much what the student turned into without his meds. It didn’t make for a good day at work. Instead, it was just containment and damage control until bedtime thirteen hours later. It’s not something I ever want to go through again. The problem is that it’s so easy to forget medication in this way as one distraction on camp can lead to another and whilst every teacher is trying their best to manage, sometimes things like this can slip through the cracks.
So, how did I solve this crack problem? Well I built an app to remind teachers when medications were due. It triggered alerts 5mins before the medication was due and then another 5mins afterwards if something was missed. Then it was a simple checkbox that showed the right medication, the right student and once it was administered, it was timestamped. This became a core feature of the Xcursion platform and now one of its most frequently used functions.
So now despite the tidal wave of speed coming your way to slow those manic kids down, you can be assured that you’ll be able to get every pill to every student that needs it, on time, every time. It will leave you comfortably numb and happy in the knowledge that you’ve supplied a stack of controlled drugs to small children and prevented them from go troppo all day.
But if you don’t have a way of tracking this with something like the Xcursion app and instead decide to go chasing rabbits, and you know you're going to fall. The best defence when things go completely wrong is to Tell 'em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call. Just ask Alice, when she's ten feet tall…
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.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.