Challenges

Being Vulnerable In Debriefs

Debriefs - Experiential Education

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

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

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

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

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

Campfires - Outdoor Education

Vanity Metrics

Vanity Metrics

These days, especially in the la la land of tech startups, there's endless talk of metrics. How many users do you have? For how long have you been in business? How many Facebook fans and Twitter followers do you have? How many daily likes do you get on Instagram?

These endless vanity metrics are amazing at providing a shallow and somewhat pointless insight into how well your business is doing. At the end of the day however, net profit and growth are what will keep you eating smashed avocado, sipping lattes and dressing in daggy jeans and t-shirts for years to come.

Schools unfortunately are no different. They make a huge deal about vanity metrics, in particular the academic results of those leaving Yr 12. There's even whole businesses that have sprung up from ‘consultants’ who help schools analyse these ‘results’ and provide advice on how to improve them. Perhaps I could offer you some snake oil at the same time…

Whilst I'm not saying academic results aren't an important gauge for a school, the obsession over them as being the most important metric, is ridiculously unhealthy and another hangover from the 19th century that just won't go away.

Despite all the academic focus of schools, only a third of school leavers will ever darken the door of a university. So now the majority of students have spent 13 years in school learning academic subjects they’ll never ever use. No wonder 40% of our students are disengaged!

I've previously sat through a couple of exam result analysis. They seem to be the highlight of the year for the principal (or not depending on the numbers). As with political opinion polls, schools will put a spin on their figures no matter what the case, but again this is mostly hot air and a key vanity metric for all involved, because it's not able to accurately reflect or gauge what happens after school and if a student will be successful.

The reality is that this single academic metric fails to consider the complexity of modern education and young adults. To thrive in our rapidly changing world, students need more from their 13 years at school than an academic number. If educators make this number out to be the single most important thing in their entire schooling, educators are unnaturally increasing the pressure on students in those final years.

If you look at some of the most successful people in the world, you’ll find that many of them never even finished school. Therefore, such metrics are purely for vanity, if education is truly about creating individuals who can succeed in life.

The bottom line is that education is about developing young men and women to be balanced, functional and proactive members of society. Through this, they can be enormously successful in everything they do. As a result, schools should broaden the scope of their metrics to cover not just exam results, but successful further training, employment, community service and even post school happiness.

You could even delve into the dangerously taboo topic of successful relationships. How many school leavers end up married and stay married? How many end up in divorce? Whilst many would say this is none of a school’s business, I argue strongly that it is! After 13 years of education through the most formative years of people lives, if you haven't had some impact on their social and emotional well-being and subsequent moral outlook on life, then there's something seriously wrong with the system.

There's so much more that can and should be explored to provide a real picture of the education a child will get at any given school.

Ultimately as teachers, we want to know if our efforts teaching young men and women have had a profound and lasting impact. Has what we’ve done at school actually made a difference socially and emotionally in their lives? Have we equipped them with the skills and a sense of social responsibility and enabled them to thrive in the real world? Or have we just been babysitting and spoon-feeding them to perform in an exam that most of them will never ever need?

I'd be horrified if it were the latter. Teachers have such an amazing impact on their students’ lives. However, until we start measuring far broader results than the vanity metrics of the year 12 exams, we will never truly understand the impact current teaching practices have, nor how we can make it even better to meet the challenges that the future of education holds.

Whilst you can keep your vanity metrics, always be careful to see them for what they are. To really gauge the success of your school this year, start tracking a much broader set of results from employability to happiness. Through this, you can start to really assess the lasting impact you're making in your students’ lives.

Monopoly

Monopoly.jpg

One thing everyone’s looking for is someone who is genuine. This is a real challenge in education because often teachers are placed in situations where they’re teaching something that they’re not particularly interested in. As a result, they don’t have the passion, they don’t have the enthusiasm and therefore, they don’t have that genuine vibe and engagement in what they’re doing. I noticed this myself the other day.

I was supervising a group of students and there were two activities going on. One was table tennis and the other was monopoly. I’ve never really liked table tennis and so I always avoid it and I make up endless excuses as to why I can’t play. Even though it could be quite beneficial and would help me to develop a rapport with some students with whom otherwise it’s hard to develop, in reality, playing the game wasn’t worth it for some superficial rapport.

If I were to play, since I wasn’t really interested in it myself, I mightn’t put much effort into playing. It would have ended up being counter productive. The students would easily see through this and ultimately there’d be no point in pretending I was enjoying what I was doing. As experiential education is as much about relationships as it is about pushing boundaries, there’s no actual benefit from engaging in some sort of activity such as table tennis, if you’re not genuine about it yourself.

Conversely, there was the game of monopoly being played and one of the kids said to me, “Hey Sir, do you want to be on my team?”
My immediate reply was, “Sure! Sounds like fun!”

The difference was that I love Monopoly. However, I made sure that I didn’t take over control of the game, because even though I’m pretty competitive at Monopoly, I was still the invited number two team member. On a side note, Monopoly is so much fun. I always love having the car but we didn’t get the car. Actually, I also like the battleship, as well and the dog, but I digress.

Anyway the point is, it’s such a fun game and the difference here was that when I was involved, I was attentive, I was exploring options, I was whispering strategies and tactics with my teammate and we were taking turns of rolling the dice. The fact that I was genuinely interested in playing the game made all the difference and it’s something you just can’t make up or fudge your way through.

The end result was that I got to know more about my teammate than I otherwise would have and it created a rapport that enabled far better engagement from him in many other activities. To be able to engage students effectively is just as much, if not more about the positive role modeling that you can provide as a teacher than your knowledge in any specific subject area. This helps you draw on that positive, professional relationship to be able to encourage students when they’re struggling with their own challenges or even just in helping shape their attitude towards new activities or ways of thinking.

Suddenly, through doing something that you really enjoy (and it doesn’t have to be Monopoly), it can open up dialogues later on and enables you to teach more effectively because when students see that you’re interested, passionate and engaged in something, they’re more likely to become interested, passionate and engaged in other things as well. This can only come from when you’re honest and genuine about what your own interests and passions are. Don’t try to ‘fake it until you make it,’ as kids will see through this every time. Just be yourself and things will naturally fall into place.

As an important footnote here, we actually won Monopoly so I was very happy with that, but at the end of the day, it was more to do with the fact that for over an hour a whole group of students and I played an interesting, fun-filled game that everyone wanted to play and left with a better connection than before.

The Trajectory Of Life

Trajectory of Life - Experiential Education

The trajectory of life is a challenging issue about which to talk with teenagers. Unless we understand it ourselves as educators, how can we impart that knowledge and experience onto young impressionable minds that are being constantly bombarded with competing thoughts and feelings?

It’s exceptionally hard to convey to a teenager what life could be like in 5, 10 or even 20 years’ time, especially now that life and society is constantly changing. What can we do?

When I do goal setting sessions with teenagers, and ask the question what are your long-term goals, often I get the overwhelming response: ‘I want to be rich and have a hot wife’; or ‘I want to be rich and have a super fit husband.’ It’s usually the boys who have this very immature approach and all they can think about is about money and hot women. Thanks again to social media for reinforcing shallow delusions.

When you drill down and ask students why they want to be rich and have a hot wife, it turns out that it’s more to do with the notion of popularity at school, than anything real, which is quite unsurprising given their age.

Often, it’s a difficult conversation to have when you suggest that maybe the trajectory of their life may not turn out to be what they want it to be. The reality is, that most peoples’ lives never quite work out the way they envisaged. However, despite the stark reality of life’s challenges, it doesn’t mean that students can’t reach their goals. Instead, as teachers, it’s important that we are able to prepare them for the speed bumps and hurdles along the way.

Many teachers would simply say, ‘You have to work hard at school, go to uni, work hard on your job, then you’ll be successful.’ At this point I’d totally disagree with them. Unless students can establish what their vision of success is, then it’s unreasonable that teachers frame life in this way, because all it’s really doing is reinforcing the shallow ideas of money and a hot wife and not taking into consideration the complexity of life.

Some people have the idea of that success is all about a career and money but what does success look like to you? What’s meaningful in your life? What makes you happy? Not everybody wants to be a lawyer. Not everybody wants to be a doctor. Not everybody wants to be an engineer. Yet for some schools I’ve worked at, unless you’re fighting hard to get into one of those three career paths, then sadly, it makes it impossible for many students please their parents.

I also pose this question to students as part of goal setting. Is pleasing your parents something that will make you happy? Or is pleasing your parents just something to keep them at bay and not necessarily make you happy? I’ve come across many former students of mine who have done exceptionally well academically, but then spent years in the wilderness because they weren’t doing what they really wanted to do. They weren’t doing what they really felt was right for them and as result, weren’t the slightest bit happy with their lives. They were living out someone else’s dreams, not theirs. What seemed like a rocket fuelled ride towards success, with great school results and a wonderful university education, they were disengaged at work and looking for something real.

One of my aims with goal setting is to have students to think about how they see their life developing and start to plan how they want their life to develop. At the same time, there’s the need to help them understand it’s not always going to be easy. Your goals aren’t just going to fall into your lap. When this happens however, we’ve also provided them with the skills to consolidate, adapt and move forward again towards those goals.

We achieve this through experiential education as a metaphor for getting through other challenges in life. However, it can’t be done in isolation. There must be follow through after a program has run its course and there needs to be ongoing support from parents and mentors to help students more effectively plot and track the trajectory that they’re on.

Understanding and drawing on our own experiences as teachers, can be powerful in helping students to evaluate where they’re at and what skills they might need to develop to be able to stay on their chosen path.

What does the trajectory of your life look like? For someone in their 20s and 30s, it can be easier or harder depending on their approach and their attitude. For me, in my 20s the trajectory of my life didn’t look anything like what it is today.

My life was looking very much like a downward spiral into the abyss. I didn’t have the focus. I didn’t have a vision for the future and I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. Nothing I was doing made me happy, which made it extremely hard at work, as well as deciding what good opportunities for the future were, versus rubbish opportunities.

However, if you have a clear idea in your mind what you’re trying to achieve and what makes you happy, then everything else in life falls into place far more easily. When you’re making informed decisions based upon what drives you and what makes your life exciting and interesting, suddenly, you’re back on that path to success.

Through sharing your own experience, you’re then able to impart that to be successful, life’s trajectory is not always going to be a linear one. There may be set backs but from setbacks, you can regroup, rebuild and become even stronger. Consequently, as part of a much broader part of any experiential education program, you can use the various activities and challenges as a metaphor for the trajectory of life. By relating success or failure in activities your students will face in life, can provide immensely powerful teaching and learning moments for your students.

Through this approach, you can help your students avoid years in the emotional wilderness and get them thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I can decide my destiny. I can build my life how I want it to be built!’

It’s that passion and desire to build a life of one’s own making, that’s often lost in the daily grind of school and the focus on the academic end goal for a university entrance rank. It’s important however, that students can start to develop real ideas of where they want to take their lives and from a teaching point of view, for teachers to provide them with the skills and ability to seek out opportunities, deal with setbacks, and keep moving towards their goals. It’s never going to be a straight and easy path. However, with the right grounding at school, it makes it so much easier.

Risk Avoidance

Risk Avoidance.jpg

Having recently been to a risk management conference, this got me thinking! Are some schools becoming so risk adverse to the point of harming kids?

When I was at school, I'd never heard of something called an incursion. In fact, I've only heard it in recent times. To me it just sounds like the school is getting raided by teams of crazed militia. I'm not sure whether it's just a stupid term for having a guest speaker, or an attempt by schools to avoid taking kids off site, by bringing the excursion to them.

If it's the latter, then there’s several problems with this, as so much learning occurs by actually getting out there and doing stuff, not by hanging around in the classroom. This is not to devalue the benefits of a guest speaker, but seriously, call them a guest speaker. The next time I go to a school to do a presentation, if they call it an incursion, I may feel like I need to bring a large collection of stray cats and let them loose to cause an expected level of disruption!

There is a serious point to this though. I’ve noticed an increasing number of schools opting for this type of experience for their students (maybe not involving cats), but having ‘incursions.’ The idea of a virtual ‘excursion’ falls into this same area of total risk avoidance and borders on stupidity, because we're creating a generation of people who can't cope with any sort of adversity. They're too used to having everything done for them or being able to do everything at arms’ length through technology. When things get real, they go to pieces.

A recent example of this was on a long-stay camping program. The students aren't allowed to bring phones, because part the aim is for them to have a break from the distraction of technology. One student was caught with his phone, and when confronted with this and the phone was confiscated, he had a complete meltdown.

This same concern ties back into the idiotic notions of incursions. Let's keep everything safe and risk free because we’re worried too much about consequences. I’m sorry to say, the world is full of real consequences and if you don't educate kids and expose them to at least some of this, then you're setting them up for failure. There are many excuses why people want to avoid real experiential education, but if you want kids to learn and grow, you need them to face real challenges, feel discomfort and be able to build up some resilience in anticipation of what will hit them once they leave school. The danger of failing to do this, means that you're just setting kids up for failure. Therefore, by totally avoiding risk, you're actually causing real harm to the students.

So the next time you're thinking of either going to the art gallery, or bringing the director of the art gallery to you, stop being stupid, book a bus and go and see real works of art, rather than have someone just come and talk to you about it. Real experience produces real learning outcomes and there is no substitute for this in life.