Experiential Education

Outdoor Education And School Culture

Outdoor Education.jpeg

If you’ve ever read anything about organisational management, be it on teambuilding or leadership in the workplace, you’re bombarded with discussions on ‘culture.’ Culture is basically the shared values and beliefs that a group of people see as important and sets the standard for social and behavioural expectations within the group.

I’ve worked for schools which have had good cultures and some, unfortunately, which have had very bad cultures. The result of a school’s culture, good, bad or indifferent, impacts on the quality of the educational experience, the welfare of students and ultimately their growth, development and ability to transition out of school and mature over the long-term. You only have to look at recent examples of initiations happening at some university colleges in Australia to see how bad culture can lead to horrendous situations. Consequently, developing a positive culture with clear behavioural expectations within the school is vitally important for both social and academic growth. How exactly can outdoor education help?

Outdoor ed is a fertile ground for helping build a positive culture within your school as the learning space provides a far more emotional context for learning. It’s this emotional and empathetic side of students with which you need to connect, to be able to build trust and help students develop understanding and empathy for others. To begin with, the outdoors provides us with unique spaces, contexts and experiences which are vastly different from that of the regular classroom. It changes people’s states of mind and when you change your state of mind, you can learn, grow and develop far more effectively.

In a noise-filled digital world, an outdoor education experience is an opportunity for students to disconnect from the noise and reconnect with themselves and their peers. Taking a group out into a wilderness setting will change the dynamics for them and often students will become more open to discuss feelings, concerns and share stories and experiences which they would otherwise never share. When they have the time and headspace to do this, it enables you to work on all the soft skills such as empathy, teamwork and helping others, not because they have to, but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s often hard to convey these sorts of ideals within the structure and busyness of a normal school day, but when students are put in a situation where they have to live and experience something for themselves, that’s when you can get significant gains in a short period of time.

However, outdoor education experiences are not a quick fix solution and it can’t be done in isolation. What happens in the outdoors needs to be effectively transferred and translated back to daily school life for it to have any real impact. To begin with, ask yourself, what do you want to achieve from your outdoor program? Is it just a fun experience for students hiking or canoeing in the bush? Or is it far deeper than that? Are you aiming to push comfort zones, test thresholds and building resilience? Are you aiming to develop students’ empathy for others? Understand diversity? Gain independence? Build healthy relationships? To maximise the effectiveness of your outdoor ed programs and consequently use them to help build a positive culture within your school, you need to be clear about your objectives. They need to be natural, genuine and acceptable within the school body so you can get strong buy-in from the staff, parents and students before you even think about going off site somewhere.

This buy-in across the board is extremely important, as you can’t develop culture in isolation. One residential program I worked on a number of years ago had a few cultural problems to say the least. One of them was a confusion over what the actual aims and objectives were for the program. On the one hand you had experienced outdoor education staff who would lead the expeditions with clear set expectations that the students were leading each trip and were responsible for everything. The only time we would step in was if there were a safety issue. On the other hand, you had teachers back at base who were teaching lessons during the day and providing an old style of boarding house supervision at night with an overwhelming sense that the students needed to be constantly directed and told what to do. This was a massive disconnect, which ultimately left students confused and feeling disempowered, as they were expected to be independent problem solvers one moment and mindless regimented robots the next. Admittedly, this was an unusual situation. However, it highlights how an outdoor program can’t successfully shape culture in isolation. The learning and expectations need to be carried and supported back into the classroom and daily life at school, otherwise the value of the experience can become seriously diminished.

In contrast, I was working for a school in Melbourne and had the great opportunity to go out on a rock climbing expedition with a group of year 10 students. One of the students we took out with us was a special needs student who usually had a carer with him. However, this time there was no carer. I went on the trip fully expecting to spend most of my time looking after this one student, but to my great surprise all of the students in the group took it in turns to help him. They made sure he was included in the group, made sure that at meal times he was looked after and they genuinely encouraged him every day when rock climbing, even though he couldn’t do any of the climbs the other students were doing. This was an amazing thing to see. Each night after dinner, we ran a debrief about the day and discussed some wider issues around social responsibilities. The thoughtful ideas that were expressed by the students blew me away. This was a school that had instilled in its students a wonderful and genuine culture of caring for others. There was no confusion. There was no disconnect. There was a natural clarity of responsibility and purpose.

When I looked back at the way in which the outdoor education program was sequentially structured at that school from year 5 through to year 10, I could see how the clear aims and objectives, the staff, student and parent buy-in and the continuation of the same themes of community service and social responsibility back at school were all working together to help build this very positive culture. This is the critical key to success and can provide enormous benefits for students and staff throughout their time at the school. If you want to develop and shape positive culture in your school, then leverage outdoor experiences by setting clear goals and expectations and transferring them from what happened in the outdoor context, back into the wider context of life at your school. The process does take time, but the benefits that you’ll see over the long-term can be astounding.

Why Is Experiential Education So Important?

Rafting - Outdoor Education

This is a crossover post between my education blog and business blog, as it fits in both. However, since Experiential education is any education where you just go out to do something. It’s not about theories. It’s not about book work. It’s about getting in and actively problem solving or engaging in a real world activity that’s malleable, has real consequences and outcomes which are either positive or negative, depending on how somebody approaches the task.

So why is this so important? One of the big problems with mainstream education, is the fact that most of it is completely impractical. Most academics would yell savage rebukes and cast terse derision on me from their lofty ivory towers, which incidentally were all built by tradesmen and artisans. However, I’m not here to knock academics and the role in education, because they play an extremely important role, but it’s not one for everyone. Experiential education, on the other hand, is for everybody. It’s the way people have learnt for tens of thousands of years. One of my favourite lines from The Simpsons, is when Homer turns the hot water on, scolds himself and yells out in disbelief. “What?! H Means Hot!” This really sums up how experiential and education works. You do something and there is a real consequence.

Much of this has been lost by the drive of politicians to make sure that academic standards are high. Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate into practical jobs for students leaving school. A whopping 2/3 of school leavers will never go to uni, yet almost the entire educational framework is based around training to encourage everyone to go to uni. It just makes no sense! This is only scratching the surface of a much broader issue, so over the next while on this blog and my education one, I’m going to explore more practical ways of learning through experiential education. What lessons do people remember the most? It’s the ones where they see or experience a real outcome not just the theory of an outcome.

Stop! Paddle Time!

Canoeing - Outdoor Education

Last month I talked about team building activities which are great to engage kids of all ages. It helps them come out of their shells and challenges them in ways that Xboxes can't. Whilst these activities might last an hour or two, what happens if you want to make this a longer, more involved and more challenging experience? Since I've now canoed more kilometres (about 147km) this year than I've run so far (134km), I thought it was high time to talk about it.

Canoeing is one of the best ways you can keep kids engaged in a team building activity over a number of hours or even days on expedition. There's something magical about travelling to a remote inaccessible location along a winding river, barricaded on two sides by pristine wilderness or high vaulting cliffs and nothing but water in front of you. But it's not just about the scenery, sadly most of which teenagers don't appreciate. It's about the journey and the experiences along the way.

Amazing Scenery

Amazing Scenery

The canoe expedition has a multitude of challenges for the kids, beginning with loading the canoe! Getting the balance right is so important because if they're going to be paddling somewhere over a long period of time, trying to do that with a lopsided boat is really hard and sometimes it just means you go around and around in circles. For a high school group, I wouldn't load the boats for them, I'd demonstrate how to do it, then let them use their initiative to pack their own boat. This is always an interesting process to watch with some students getting it straight away, whilst others have to repack several times. It also means nobody can stand around and let others do the work for them.

Getting into a fully laiden boat is the next challenge! Most people will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid getting their feet wet, and in doing so I've seen some spectacular fails! Everything from pushing down too hard on the gunnel (side of the canoe), to stepping on the canoe with one foot, leaving the other foot on the river bank and the boat slowly but surely slipping away from under them. Then there's the inevitable splash! Life lesson: Don't be afraid to get your feet wet!

Glassy Smooth Water

Glassy Smooth Water

When you eventually get away from the shore, (which can take a while) it's time to paddle. Before any expedition, it's important to have run various skill sessions with the kids, to ensure they can execute a range of paddling, steering and emergency skills. Including forward stroke, J-stroke, sweep stroke, ruddering, emergency stops and X-rescues. All of these skills require teamwork and co-ordination and by doing this you also help manage the risk involved in the activity. As you travel along on the expedition it's good practice to cruise up to each boat and just see how the techniques are looking, providing feedback to correct, as well as reinforce if the students are doing it well.

After a few kilometres, everyone usually settles into a nice consistent rhythm and now it's a great opportunity for the kids to talk with each other! If you've got hours on end to chat with someone you don't know very well, this provides such a valuable opportunity for some great social development along the way. I've had some fantastic chats and some of my most memorable teaching and mentoring moments in a canoe, so it's far more than just a nice paddle around. It's about relationship building and communication! It's astounding what issues, questions and concerns can come up from your canoe buddy when having to sit and paddle with them for hours on end. Everything from favourite movies to life goals and ambitions can come out, but don't ever force it! Just use this opportunity to enjoy the environment around you and let the conversation flow naturally.

The End Of The Day!

The End Of The Day!

Whilst I'll talk more about risks involved in water activities on another occasion, it's worth mentioning that when the going gets tough, everyone needs to adapt to the conditions! Often when paddling in the afternoon you may end up with a decent wind against you. If this happens, keep your boats closer together and try to instill in everyone the need to paddle harder when conditions get harder (whilst you'd think it goes with out saying, it's seriously not often the case). This is a great test of teamwork and a really good debrief activity for the evening, where you can relate the need to adapt to harder conditions when canoeing, to the need to adapt when faced with other challenges in life.

Ultimately canoeing, on one hand is developing physical co-ordination skills, but on the other it's also a fantastic platform for developing team-work and communication skills. It's well worth looking at building in a canoe expedition as part of your outdoor ed program.

The Idea Of Risk And Education

Risk Photo

Why is everyone so afraid of the word risk? To be honest talking about risk is a risky topic in itself, because whenever people think of risk, it conjures up visions of dangerous risk and is usually associated with money grubbing lawyers, soulless insurance companies and drawn out court cases, all of which should be avoided, like the plague or romantic candle lit dinners with Kim Jong Un.
Unfortunately, people become blinkered to anything else, especially when dating a dictator who desperately needs to find a new hairdresser. Seriously though, regardless whether risk is dangerous or not, it fills people with a sense of fear. Not knowing how to deal with one’s fear, leads to a perception that all risk is bad and therefore all risk must be avoided at all cost.
However, every part of our lives involves some form of risk. Whether it be trying a new dish off a menu for the first time, deciding what to do on the weekend or planning to leave your current job in pursuit of a new career. All these things involve risk. However, most of this risk stems from people’s inbuilt fears rather than serious risk of harm. Consequently, not all risk is dangerous risk, but it does make us feel uncomfortable, or even fearful because the outcome is unknown. Often people will delay making decisions, or avoid them entirely, because they want to avoid the risk of making the ‘wrong’ decision.
Education is all about taking risks, yet due to the misconception that risk is just about dangerous risk, there’s a huge disconnect with schools being proactive with their students and educating them how to take measured and reasonable risks to help them develop and grow. Instead, the focus is on ‘playing it safe’ and being totally and utterly risk averse. Once again, the nanny state and its perverse litigious legal system can justify its own existence.
It’s drilled into many children from a young age, ‘be safe’, ‘take care’, ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t do that!’ ‘BE CAREFUL!!!’ It’s fair enough that parents don’t want to put their child in danger. However, I’m not talking about dangerous risks, so if they’re so risk-averse that they’re not even willing to let their kids get dirty playing around in the backyard at a friend’s house, it’s going to cause much, much bigger problems later on.
Unfortunately, the current generation of school-aged kids seems to have been brought up by a generation of paranoid, risk averse parents who are desperate to see no ‘harm’ come to their ‘special child!’ Sadly, as a result of this paranoid parenting, it’s actually damaged many a child’s ability to understand what it means to take a risk, and to be able to take measured and informed risks for themselves. The comfort zones of kids are slowly smothering them into inaction and indecision, then often their perception of risk is either totally over the top, or so oblivious they believe they’re impervious to anything.
There are only two approaches you can take when dealing with risk. You can either accept and proactively embrace the inherent risks that life brings, or you can try to avoid them completely. By trying to avoid any sort of risk and avoid the risk of ‘failure,’ this can do more damage to children, than letting them explore and experience risk from within in a positive framework.
If parents have the ultimate goal of ensuring their child can’t possibly fail at anything in school, they’re missing the point about education and personal development. The reality is that this ‘perfect child,’ ‘perfect world’ approach is disastrously counterproductive and can only lead to a much greater failure in the future. By being over-protective, parents are not giving their children the chance to develop coping mechanisms and the resilience needed to deal with life’s setbacks that will most certainly occur.
Instead of wrapping kids in bubble wrap to protect them from everything, it becomes critical to allow them to explore taking risks within a structured framework such as an experiential education program. This allows them to think for themselves, make decisions and risk failure without massive negative consequences.
Through experiencing what taking risks feels like and helping students step outside their comfort zones, we can help students learn about taking chances in life, which is what life’s all about. It’s not about ‘playing it safe,’ to the point that you never progress and grow as a person. It’s about pushing the boundaries to make the most of opportunities and to become the best you can. Next time you’re running a program, set up an activity that involves a good amount of perceived risk that’s suitable for the age and maturity of your students. Through this, encourage them to take a chance, try something completely new and push beyond the boundaries that have been unnaturally put in place for them by others.
Failing that, there’s always that romantic dinner date…