Today we find ourselves at an exciting time in history. The digital revolution has dramatically changed the world and continues to do so at a frantic pace. Unfortunately, many people haven’t yet realized the scope of what’s going on. We’re in the midst of the second greatest Renaissance in the history of the world! Never before have we seen such upheaval and rapid change than that of the digital age. However, before we explore how the digital age is swiftly destroying the effectiveness of our traditional education system, let’s look back at the last Renaissance which took roughly 300 years to run its course.
From the 14th Century onwards, a radical shift in thinking occurred in Europe. Rather than just mindlessly stabbing each other with swords, knowledge was emerging as power. This social and cultural ‘rebirth’ which started in Italy, was driven by powerful families such as the Medici who sought out ancient texts from Greece, Rome and the Middle East. From this came different ways of thinking and monumental shifts in Art and Culture that transformed the world. A form of education known as Humanism reintroduced philosophy, poetry and progressive thinking to a Europe that was still emerging from the dark ages. The result was that now, nation states had more intelligent and well-educated people who could crack a witty joke before stabbing you with their sword.
Unlike today, during the Renaissance, England was in the process of exiting Europe after the 100 Years War, Russia had a slightly aggressive foreign policy stance and there was conflict in the Middle East. It was a time when the world was flat, the sun revolved around the earth and the printing press had just been invented. The Chinese had already invented similar mass production printing approximately 600 years earlier, but we shouldn’t let the facts get in the way of a good European story!
Legendary artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo were busy sculpting and painting naked frescoes all over the Vatican. However, the Council of Trent in 1564, decided that nudity was shockingly unnatural and consequently employed another artist, Daniele da Volterra to take his paint brush to the shocking nudes and paint underpants on them, thus ending the constantly whispered sniggers of blushing visiting nuns.
Let’s now race ahead to the 18th and 19th centuries to the next period of massive upheaval, known as the Industrial Revolution. This was a time when Britannia ruled the waves, the Prussian government had just limited the working week for children to 51 hours and everyone was smart enough to realise that ‘clean coal’ was complete nonsense. Jobs were being lost to automation and children were far better at using new steam powered technology than their Luddite parents. From steam trains to ships and cotton mills, everything in England was being exponentially scaled up, including the mass production of education.
In 1833, the British Government passed the Factory Act, making it compulsory for children in factories to receive two hours of education a day. By 1880, it was compulsory for children up to the age of 10 to go to school and in 1902 a system of secondary schools was established. Thus the ‘modern’ education system was born most of which still remains in place today.
Born from the dark satanic mills of Industrial England, the world of 1902 is a far cry from the world of 2018! However, what’s both exciting and worrying at the same time is the fact that the world of 2030 can, and most likely will, be vastly different from today.
The first Renaissance took around 300 years to run its course. However, in the next 10 - 15 years, we face an enormous challenge as the digital tsunami of change bears down upon us! To be honest, teenagers being able to use snapchat to communicate has not been a huge leap for mankind. Despite the average teen’s ability to play with technological devices that have more processing power in them than the first moon landing, this has done little to prepare them for the change that’s upon us. According to a recent Four Corners report, over 5 million jobs will either disappear or be significantly restructured over the next 10 - 15 years, which is around 40% of the entire Australian workforce. We’re not talking 100 years. We’re not talking generational change over 50 years. We’re talking 10 Christmas’ dinners away and almost half the jobs in Australia will have permanently changed!
Where does that leave us as educators? To put it into a school context, for those of you who lead a K-12 school, the students who are now in Kindergarten will be graduating into a vastly different social and economic world. Businesses are automating every single process they can to reduce the need for and cost of human labour, as well as leveraging emerging technologies such as AI (Artificial Intelligence) and robots that can learn. Consequently, many ‘white collar’ jobs are now disappearing.
How do we address the new reality that’s bearing down upon us faster than a handshaking, baby-kissing politician on election day? Do we A) stick some more computers and a robot in a classroom and hope a bit more eLearning ‘fixes’ it? Or B) radically shift our thinking and approach, to prepare staff and students for a rapidly changing world?
For me, the only answer is B). However, the radical shift, is basically not so radical after all and something which was originally suggested over 100 years ago by Kurt Hahn and John Dewey that learning through experience and reflection is the best educational approach to help prepare students for the challenges and complexities of life.
After watching the Four Corners episode, I decided to start my research project and learn how other experiential educators are addressing the tsunami of change. Since podcasts are trendy right now, what better way than to create a podcast about experiential education? Turns out, it’s a great way to meet interesting people and learn from their experiences.
Added to this, I love to try new things and it’s something I’ve always encouraged staff and students, to do! If we’re not living somewhat outside our comfort zones, we’re not living much at all. When I recently jumped in the deep end and created Xperiential Education (the podcast), it was not only a new experience, but a challenging one into which I had to put a lot of thought, time and energy to make it work. From this, a really valuable picture emerged of shifts in education, preparing students for an unknown future.
As an outdoor education teacher, the first episode was all about outdoor education and I travelled to New Zealand to Tihoi Venture School near Lake Taupo where I spoke with the Director Cyn Smith about their long-stay residential program for Year 10 boys. It’s a back to basics program without technology that focusses on relationships and social and emotional growth through experience and reflection. Conversely, the final interview I did with Glenys Thompson, Deputy Principal of the Australian Science & Mathematics School (ASMS) in Adelaide with its STEM focus, is heavily tech-based. However, the educational methodology for this program is essentially the same as the Tihoi Venture School’s back to basics program. Ultimately, the ASMS program is not about the technology itself, which is often a trap into which STEM programs fall. It’s all about learning and growth through experience and reflection and has produced some amazing outcomes for students.
From outdoor ed, to science, to art, to drama and ultimately to the workplace, I’ve found the core principles needed for our students to be successful in a world of constant change regardless of the environment are: critical thinking, problem solving, risk taking, adaptability and teamwork. The only way to effectively build and develop these skills is from within the students themselves through practical experiential education. Real experiences, creating authentic teachable moments, lead to reflective practices and growth within students.
Teachers who are still spoon feeding all the answers to their students to ensure they do well in exams, are failing their classes dismally. Although schools that approach education this way may get some great ‘headline’ marks for their glossy brochures, their graduating students will find it increasingly difficult to cope in a world 10 - 15 years from now that requires a flexible and adaptable skill-set that cannot be rote learnt. It has to be through interactions with others and experiences that involve levels of risk and potential for failure that students learn best.
From this, a couple of key questions for school leaders come to mind, “What are we preparing our students for?” and “How can we prepare them?”
The ‘let’s keep doing what we’ve always done’ approach is bound to fail on every level, as it did during the first Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. Let’s forget about those who don’t like change for the moment. They’re going to be left behind anyway. One of the most powerful drivers of our younger generation today is that of social justice. Millennials love a good cause, so why not leverage that in their education? The ASMS is doing exactly that, as they’ve structured their entire program around taking massive global social and economic issues that need addressing and empowering their students to develop practical solutions that leverage technology to create a better outcome for others in the world. Unless your students have that social and emotional context and skill set, this isn’t going to work well, but it’s exactly what’s needed to maximise the educational opportunities for students and prepare them for the challenges of the unknown future.
To help prepare your school, staff and students for those 10 short Christmases away and the seismic social and economic shift that’s happening around us, here’s a few suggestions:
1. If you don’t have an outdoor ed program, start one. The skills developed are the exact same critical thinking, adaptability and teamwork skills your students need to be successful in life. It also helps to build that elusive ‘resilience’ that everyone’s talking about these days.
2. Create some industry partnerships to allow students to work in businesses, social enterprises or community groups as part of an integrated, experiential education program. Many new jobs will be service-based and increasingly reliant on a person’s ability to socially interact with others. Create some authentic and mutually beneficial situations in which these interactions can occur.
3. Find ways to empower staff and students to adopt real causes and make a difference in the world. This sets the scene for a life of responsibility and consideration for others and will empower our students to shape this radically changing world with the values and moral compass they’ve been encouraged to build throughout their formative years at school.
However, the most important and the easiest thing to build into your school’s program is reflective practices.
“We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.” - John Dewy
The time spent on reviewing what worked, what didn’t and how to improve next time, is far more powerful than any other approach and is adaptable to any subject and situation. This allows students to take risks and fail, yet not be afraid of failure and that’s key to surviving and thriving in a world of constant change.
We’re now in the middle of the second renaissance or global rebirth, driven by the rapid changes in technology which are reshaping our world. Whilst our traditional education system still needs to be majorly overhauled to address this shift, we shouldn’t worry too much about the future. We have a generation of students who genuinely care about the world and we still have the ability to develop unique educational programs in our own schools which can develop the social and emotional skills needed for students to succeed in whatever they choose. We are living in the most exciting time in history and as educators, we can help shape a wonderful future for our students and the world no matter what happens in 5, 10, 20 or 100 years’ time!
‘We’ve got that covered,’ are often the famous last words of people who under-estimate what’s needed in terms of risk management and who are also over-confident in their ability to deliver. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this so often in schools where people think they have everything covered, that risk management is just an annoying document or ‘it’s someone else’s job to do that.’ The reality is that, one, it’s everyone’s job. Two, nobody else can do it for you and three copy and pasting someone else’s mistakes leaves you liable to their lack of ability to assess and implement good risk management, leaving massive holes in everything.
I’ve also seen schools going down the path of employing someone to do all the risk assessments for them. Now this is problematic on a number of levels. One, I could write endless risk assessments and be confident that we’ve minimised our foreseeable risks and have documented it well. However, that’s like my taking a driving test for someone else. I know I can drive, but can they? What actual understanding of risk do teachers have and why are there still so many issues with risk management?
The fact is that unfortunately, the majority of teachers have never had any training in risk management. They’re suddenly expected to know how to write a risk assessment for school excursions, without any training whatsoever. I’ve had some people say to me, ‘But our teachers know how to manage students, so they’re ok.’ I’ve never understood this, as being able to manage a group of students in a classroom, is fine, but risk management for school excursions and activities is far more complex than this and there’s so many considerations and random factors which play into good risk management. These go well-beyond the ability to count the number of students you have with you and make sure they stay together.
Risk management training is critically important for all teachers to have. Whilst it does take time and experience to fully develop these skills, there needs to be a solid foundation of training and understanding so that teachers can become good risk managers which helps them in the classroom, on the sports field and wherever else their excursions, international tours and programs may take them.
As a starting point, we decided to take our 20 plus years of experience in school risk management and distil it into a 3 hour training course to help teachers develop a solid understanding of risk and risk management and what they need to do when taking any group for a school excursion or activity. How to write a risk assessment for school excursions is like risk management 101 for teachers. It covers everything to get started so they can run safe school excursions and activities for their students.
Professional development for teachers is extremely important for their ongoing development. It’s not just classroom practice they need to develop, but all those other skills to ensure they’re keeping their students safe.
Risk management in schools is an interesting and challenging problem. Firstly, there’s nothing in teachers’ training which helps them to understand the role and responsibilities of planning for and managing risk. Secondly, what actually are the risks? What could be considered a hazard or risk in the classroom, is vastly different from what could be considered a risk on the sports field, out on camp, or on an international study tour.
In years gone by, this wasn’t too much of a worry as most teachers weren’t involved with the sheer volume of additional co-curricular programs, excursions, activities and overseas trips which now form part of a normal year at school. Added to this, the focus of risk management in schools has also predominantly been on buildings, grounds, office spaces, classrooms and boarding houses and not on the specific activities which go on outside the school grounds on a daily basis.
The fact is, on-site risk management is quite different from off-site risk management. However, often there’s only training available for on-site risks. This makes no sense, as schools continue to run great education programs inside and outside of the confines of the school grounds. As an experienced outdoor education professional, if I were to do a walk-through of an entire school as part of a risk assessment, then I would most likely miss several things because it’s not my specific area of expertise. The same is true when Workplace Safety Professionals attempt to evaluate risk outside of the school. Unless you’re specifically trained in excursion and activity risk, you’re bound to miss something, which can lead to injuries and incidents which could have been avoided.
The only education that teachers seem to have in risk management is that at some point, they’re involved in a trip somewhere, doing something, and rather than having any actual training to be able to manage and help run the program, they’re entirely reliant on learning something about what they should be doing through osmosis. The expectation that they absorb something at some point in time, which then magically enables them to manage risk in a well-planned and professional way, is ridiculous in the extreme. Yet that’s basically what’s been the industry standard. People reference ISO31000 all the time. (This is the international standard for risk management). However, if you’ve ever had enough coffee to drink and made it all the way through the ISO, you’ll realise that it’s so broad and general that just reading this doesn’t give you any real idea about how to manage school excursion and activity risks. It does however, outline what the paperwork should look like.
Sadly, osmosis and reading ISOs is a rather unreliable means through which people gain even a decent baseline understanding of risk management. It’s like letting your English teachers learn about a text for the first time as they read it in class with their students, or your maths teacher, teach themselves by reading a chapter ahead and asking the other teachers a few questions about ‘this whole algebra thing.’ Schools and teachers have a professional responsibility to manage risk wherever their educational programs take them.
Whilst this is a significant concern, which the recent pandemic has focused everyone’s minds on, rather than just continuing to say it’s a concern and something should be done about it, we decided to do something about it. From our 20+ years of running school excursions, camps, co-curricular programs, sports and international tours, we decided to create structured, professional development training for teachers in risk management that’s specific to excursions and activities. Risk management is not generic and for school activities, it cannot be covered effectively by workplace health and safety risk training. When you’re dealing with students, staff, transport, activities, airports, medical concerns, mental health issues, activities and a range of educational programs, teachers need to be trained and confident in their planning and management of these specific inherent risks to ensure programs are well run and enjoyable.
Nobody is ‘just a classroom teacher’ anymore. The more our school programs venture out into the real world, the more important it is to have teachers with great risk management skills. Every time teachers leave the school gates with a group, they’re responsible for the safety and well-being of that group and like the English teacher reading the text as they go, teachers regardless of subject expertise, should not be out on a trip, anywhere, doing anything and making it up as they go. This leads to disaster and at the end of the day, as educators, we want to run great programs which have well-planned safety built into them.
We decided to share our experience of risk management, through online and face to face professional development. Over the years, I’ve had the best moments of my teaching career and seen the most impact, when we’ve been out on some sort of excursion or activity. From this, we want to enable all those teachers who want to improve student learning through amazing real world experiences, to be able to gain confidence and strength in their risk management skills so that every trip of which they’re part, is a memorable one for their students for all the right reasons.
How often do you review the programs you’re running and how they’re being run? Are there any specific activities which require specialised training, experience or knowledge? When it comes to experiential or outdoor education programs, there are often key activities which need specific training and or experience so they’re able to be run effectively, efficiently and safely. However, when one team member moves on, standards change or complacency creeps in, this can become a significant risk to your organisation and programs.
How often do you review your team dynamics and skill set? What are the strengths of your team? What are the gaps in your team? Can those gaps be amended through staff training or training courses? Do you have a system in place for constantly assessing and reviewing this?
To be clear, to begin with micromanagement of staff is definitely not needed here and can be massively counterproductive. However, the opposite is also true. If you have staff whose skills are never developed reviewed or improved, this can lead to complacency, poor work and an ‘expert’ blind spot situation where everything will be ok, because it always has been. For your organisation, there needs to be a happy and effective medium for this. With no reviews or identification of key skills and experience, or the blind expectation that everyone has the same level of skill because you set a qualification as a minimum standard for employment, then you’re deluding yourself into a false sense of security and setting yourself up for problems down the track.
One place I worked, we had all field staff training as a minimum with a Cert IV in outdoor recreation. However, the skills and abilities of each member of staff varied enormously. Their ability to engage students in the group, their ability to setup ropes courses, expeditions and debrief activities all varied massively. Yet they all had the same qualifications. The potential risk in this situation is that you can’t simply allocate staff to activities without understanding their strengths and weaknesses in specific areas. However, the positive of this is that you need people with different and complementary skills to make it a fun and dynamic working environment.
That same organisation for which I was working, despite having gaps in training and skills, the team dynamics were really positive as the task and role allocations were done based upon those complementary skills. For example, I can’t reverse trailers. I try, but it never ends well. So one of my colleagues always reversed the trailer. Conversely, some of the team were squeamish with ticks, blood and open wounds, which I wasn’t, so I ended up removing all the ticks and patching up all the gaping open wounds.
At the end of the day, we worked well together. However, there were still gaps in skills and understanding of a range of things which caused a number of breakdowns in communications and challenges along the way. It’s therefore critical, even if things are running reasonably well, to review the skills needed to run the programs for which you’re responsible, as part of your ongoing risk management. So often people think of risk management as simply the documentation you’re creating. However, it’s far more than that and the skills and experience of your staff is critical to the way in which risk management is developed and implemented.
What are the strengths of your team? What are the gaps in their skills and what training to they need to help close these gaps? Often general risk management training is overlooked versus activity specific training. However, activity specific training, whilst it develops a great set of specific skills, is often the broader contexts of risk management that gets missed when we focus on one specific area. Hence, it’s important to keep this in mind when reviewing the training needs of your team.
Once you’ve been able to identify the gaps, then it’s important to provide opportunities for training, or on the job experience to help the team members to improve their skills in this area. This can make a huge difference to the safety and coherence of the organisation and the team dynamics.
External training is also critical to ensure that the right skills are being developed and being done in a way that’s also at arm’s length so that internal processes and procedures are also being challenged and tested to help ensure industry standards are up to date and being met. What are your gaps? If you haven’t reviewed where you’re at for a while, then it’s time to do so right now. Identify your skills’ gaps and ensure you get your team trained in each of those areas of need to ensure you’re running safe, awesome experiential outdoor programs for your students.
OK! Before you fall asleep with the thought of two days of risk management training, hear me out!
What are the most exciting things you do in education? It probably has nothing to do with sitting in a classroom and completing worksheets. Each year, that puts countless people to sleep.
Education needs to be dynamic, exciting and engaging to equip students with the skills they need for life. However, to run really cool programs like this, we usually have to step outside the school gates and engage with the real world.
Only problem is that when we do this, there’s a whole stack of inherent risks with which we’re suddenly confronted. Everything from your usual stack of peanut allergies, to your bus strangely catching on fire, which to be clear was not actually my fault.
The randomness and richness of the world outside the school gates is the most amazing place in which to learn, but if we’re not trained and equipped to plan for and manage risks in this environment, then we’re putting ourselves and our students at risk.
At this point we have three options:
Don’t go! It’s all too hard! School’s not about the real world anyway. If you take this option, you probably should have become an accountant or a public servant, perhaps both. Complete risk aversion is pointless and damaging and should be avoided.
Just do it! Grab your bags, kids and let’s go! If you take this option, which unfortunately, I’ve seen many teachers do, then you’re setting yourself up for some major problems. Anything can and does go wrong in these situations where well-intentioned teachers don’t take the time to plan, prepare for and run their programs carefully.
Have a structured, well-planned approach for all of your programs which documents the steps you need to take to ensure your group is well managed and the focus is on great experiential education outcomes for students, with robust systems in place for contingencies to support this.
For me, the only option when running any excursion, camp, sport or activity is Option 3. However, most schools are operating somewhere in between Option 1, 2 and 3 with many teachers confused about their role and responsibilities when planning and running any programs. Even experienced staff can struggle with this.
You must put the time, energy and effort into building a well-formed plan no matter what the activity is. It could be just going down the road to visit the local court. It could be a year level camp, or an overseas trip. Whatever the case is, you need to ensure you’ve planned for normal operations and contingencies if something doesn’t go to plan, which invariably will be the case. One trip I was on, I received a phone call to say that one of the 5th Grade students had been taken to hospital with a fish hook in his arm! I was pretty surprised by this, since there was no fishing on the program, yet here we were with fish hook in the arm, right next to a vein.
Risk Management Training prepares you for weird random stuff like this and how to respond quickly and effectively no matter what the context.
With a non-delegable duty of care, you also can’t outsource your risk management to another organisation, even if they suggested you can. It just doesn’t work that way.
Instead, you and your school are ultimately responsible for the duty of care over your students for any trips you’re on.
“But they didn’t tell us that at uni!” I hear you say! True, unis don’t actually equip teachers with most of the skills they need with which to teach, but that’s another matter.
At the end of the day, if you’re running any sort of excursion, camp, sport, overseas trip or any other sort of school activity which requires you to produce a risk assessment, you need to be trained in risk management. It’s no good just to copy and paste what the last untrained person produced and put your name to it. That’s a dangerous precedence which will come back to bite you.
Risk management training isn’t about putting you to sleep for two days. It’s about giving you clarity and confidence through practical experienced-based training on how to run effective and safe programs. Get in touch with us today to see how you can build this training in to your professional development schedule to ensure you’re running the best programs possible for your students.
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.
Decision-making is something that most teachers love to control and who can blame them! How could you possibly trust kids to make any sort of decision for themselves? Have you seen what their rooms look like at the end of a week? Kids struggle to decide what they want for breakfast, let alone anything important.
However, rather than hoarding all the decision making for yourself, how can we as teachers teach good decision making processes and skills? For many teachers, this will strike fear into their hearts. The idea of letting go the reins and losing control of the class is a nightmare scenario. After all, they’ve spent years perfecting the art of being in control and it’s something that's deeply entrenched into teachers’ psyche.
No teacher wants to go back to the nerve wracking days of feeling out of control, when they first stepped into the classroom to start their teaching practicum. It's an experience that's etched in all teachers’ minds. Whilst some teachers might have been thinking about delivering a good lesson, others, including myself, were just hoping that no chairs were thrown and no dolphins were injured during the lesson.
Whilst many teachers are used to exercising control over their class, which is a very good idea when dealing with a ratty year seven class to ensure the windows don't get broken, at what point should you start letting go and allowing students to transition into decision makers themselves?
If you want to produce mature young independent thinking adults, at some point you need to relinquish much of the standard ‘classroom’ control associated with education. Many schools profess how wonderful they are at giving students the opportunity to lead, the opportunity to think for themselves and the opportunity to make decisions. However, what's the practical reality of this? Does this really happen? Unfortunately, when I’ve seen this in outdoor education, it's often a case of students being led around on an activity and pretending that they're making decisions along the way, rather than empowering students to take real responsibility for this themselves.
The problem is that students see right through the false veneer of fake ownership and illusionary responsibility. The only way to address this is to actually allow your students to make decisions for themselves. Unless there's a real safety issue that arises, then extract yourself from the process and simply provide the operational framework. Whilst this can be extremely difficult for someone who is used to being in control, it makes a massive difference to the educational outcome.
On one canoe expedition, we were paddling up into the Shoalhaven Gorge. The journey saw us covering around 15km each day, which is a decent distance to paddle, but add to this the fact that it was raining, slightly complicated things. To put this in context, when I said it was raining, it wasn't just drizzling, it was pelting down and had been for some time.
After a long gruelling morning paddle that had lasted several hours, the river split and we turned up into a narrowing section of the waterway. To our right appeared a large sandstone outcrop, which jutted out over the water, forming a natural shelter. The students who were navigating led us over to the shelter, which was large enough to shelter six of our boats. Unfortunately, we had seven, so one boat with two students in it was stuck out in the rain, which was getting heavier.
Given the nature and structure of the shelter, there was no way to allow the students to get out of the boats and all shelter. For the shelter to be of any use they had to be in the water. This created a problem, even though most students were sheltered from the rain, at least two weren’t. This wasn't a problem that I was going to solve for them, so I posed the question, ‘What are your options?’
The group talked amongst themselves for a few minutes, their initial resolution was that they would stay under the shelter and everybody would then have a turn on the outside for five minutes. This meant they would cycle through all the boats every 35 minutes. This seemed fair in a really, pragmatic sense, however, the practical reality of getting boats in and out, especially ones that were fully loaded with gear was just a slight complication to this.
They tried this for ten minutes before realising how difficult this decision was logistically. At this point, it was also lunch time and the students were getting hungry. We could easily eat lunch on the canoes, but again, a tricky initial logistical problem as the food was buried in barrels. Not an impossible task, but fiddly all the same.
I realised I needed to facilitate a discussion with the students. Although it wasn't a huge concern and we could easily have sat there and waited out the storm, which could be another few hours, but then my concern from a safety point of view was hypothermia and so a decision had to be made one way or another so I could factor in a suitable response to avoid students getting too cold. From my point of view, the decision being made was still completely the responsibility of the students. However, I remained diligent in my role as leader to provide the required safety net.
As the students sat there directionless, waiting to be told what to do, which wasn’t going to happen, I threw out another suggestion, “Why don’t you see where we are on the map, then look at where the campsite is and assess how long going it’s going to take us to get there. Then assess other factors, such as the rain, our current shelter and the terrain between here and the campsite. What are some options?
The sound of the students’ voices bounced off the rocky wall of the shelter as they discussed the possibilities and consequences of each option. The reality was the rain wasn’t stopping anytime soon, the canoes were starting to become rather uncomfortable due to the additional few kilograms of water that had been accumulating at the bottom from heavy rain and people were getting hungry. With all these factors at play, it was an interesting discussion to listen to and I had no idea what the outcome would be. I had guessed it was going to be ‘let’s have lunch.’
No matter what the decision was, unless it was ridiculously unsafe, I was ready to go with it. I didn’t frontload the process either to try to get them to decide what I wanted and this is a very important part of the process to ensure that students really are empowered.
The rain kept pouring down relentlessly as they went back and forth with their discussion. I could hear it getting heavier and heavier as the droplets of rain hit the water and splashed back up at us, convincing me that their decision was going to be stay here and have lunch. The students however, seemed to have little interest in the lunch option as they discussed all the various ideas. What I found interesting about this discussion was the fact that the needs of the group seemed to come out as more important than the needs of the individual.
The end result, despite all the uncertainty of for how long the storm was going to continue, was for us to get back out onto the river and keep paddling to camp. The students thought that by doing that, it would mean they could get a fire going, set up their tents for shelter, have something to eat and dry their clothes.
Whilst I was surprised and happy with the decision they made, what really impressed me was the process through which the decision making was made. It was done in a logical manner which explored lots of options I hadn’t thought of myself. Again, if I had just been leading the group on a trip and didn’t let them make any decision for themselves, this wouldn’t have provided any educational benefit whatsoever. I later commended the students on their discussion and decision making process.
As soon as we started paddling though, we got absolutely smashed by the rain. It came in over wave after wave of torrential rain. Yet everyone pressed on and a few kilometres later we arrived at our destination. Despite being totally and utterly soaked and slightly exhausted, as soon as we arrived we had another problem to deal with. Cold wet students and so the race was on to get a fire going in the rain! What impressed me about this was that the earlier discussion that had been led by the students, somehow brought them together as a team and when it came to getting the fire organised, they were already out looking for sticks.
Before too long, the tents were up, we had a raging fire going, the soaking wet clothes had been swapped for warm dry ones and everyone was happily eating their well-deserved lunch. However, the other teacher and I can’t claim responsibility for any of this happening. The work to get the fire going, the food out and organised and everything else done, was not from us telling the kids what to do. They just did it all themselves. I was amazed, as it’s not something that usually happens with groups like this. I’d like to think that once they realised they were trusted to make decisions, it gave them the opportunity to push the boundaries of this and not wait to be told what to do next. Instead, they used their initiative and found what needed to be done next to ensure they and their friends were warm, comfortable and well-fed.
Despite the rain, the discomfort and the one trip to hospital the next day, this remains one of the most memorable canoeing expeditions I’ve ever had and certainly one of the most rewarding.
Why are schools so challenged by risk management? This is something I’ve been noticing a lot lately and whilst risk management in schools has never been strong, because it doesn’t form part of a teacher’s training, the fact that it’s so important baffles me as to the lack of attention given to it.
Whilst many a school will scream and curse at this suggestion, claiming that they have a great paperwork system, there lies the problem. A paperwork system based purely on checking boxes and approvals masks the fact that there’s a lack of real risk management understanding and implementation. Paperwork without training and experience is just that, paperwork. It can be dragged out to accuse staff of this or that in an attempt to deflect blame, rather than being a support mechanism for decision making and good operational practices.
One place I worked was obsessed by paperwork. One activity was determined unsafe because the paperwork wasn’t good enough. This was yet another ill-informed and idiotic comment from someone who knew nothing about risk management. The boss also insisted everyone sign every document, before going out on an activity, but when something within that document was materially affecting the safety of the program, nothing was done about it. Now, I admit this was an extreme case, but we learn a lot from these things and the reality is that if a teacher has not had any formal Risk Management training, the teacher shouldn’t be planning or running any sort of activity at all.
Anything from a practical lesson, to a quick trip down the road to a local park, gallery, courthouse or museum, right up to sports, camps and overseas trips, requires a risk management assessment. Teachers must take the time, not just to learn how to ‘do’ paperwork, which I could probably train a team of monkeys on typewriters to do quite a lot better than some of the risk assessments I’ve read over the years, but instead, the most important thing is that they need to train for situational awareness, contingency planning and how to be adaptable and flexible to ensure whatever the activity is, it’s run well.
The number of teachers who are taking groups of students out on activities who are untrained, unskilled and unprepared is worrying. You cannot contract out your duty of care nor your liability to a third party, so if you’re taking a group overseas, then you are responsible for everything that happens regardless of contract providers. These are some of the most dangerous trips to run, as far too many people see this as a holiday, rather than the significantly higher duty of care and potentially reduced resources, yet countless trips head out with a bit of paperwork and teachers who have no ideas what’s in that, nor how to really implement any of it.
This disconnect widens, the more schools employ people to ‘do’ their risk assessments for them. I’ve seen an increasing number of schools put this responsibility on one person and not the people running the trips. At the end of the day, if you aren’t trained and experienced in the management of risk, then you shouldn’t be planning and running a trip at all. This isn’t to say stop doing trips, because that would be stupid and pointless. Instead, get some training so that you can be confident in what you’re doing and start to build a culture within your organisation which understands and has great risk management systems so every trip goes out with confident pro-active teachers who are prepared and situationally aware so that you are always running great experiential education programs for everyone.
Before your next excursion, do a risk management training course and build your skills-set and start to address this disconnect between documentation, implementation and culture. The only way to truly run great programs, is to have that culture of risk management right throughout your organisation.
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.
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.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.