Leadership

What's The Point Of Outdoor Education?

Hiking - Outdoor Education

I’ve been reading a number of articles lately which have had a common theme about where education is headed. Given the number of theories on how people learn and retain information best, it always strikes me as odd when experienced educators, usually in management positions, suddenly think that more time in a classroom equates to greater results for the school.

Whilst this might work for some students, what’s the point of having a cohort of super intelligent and well educated doctors who have the bedside manner of a pathologist? Many big companies pay people like myself large amounts of money to run team building and leadership programs for their staff, because they don't have the capacity to effectively deal with people, work as cohesive teams, adapt and problem solve! Just as an aside, if you are from a big company and you have a large amount of money to give away, I’m more than happy to run a corporate team building weekend for you!

If this is what more and more organisations are looking for, why then is it so hard for schools to see the value in what outdoor education does? I can’t for the life of me work it out! Many schools have outdoor education as a token gesture annual year level camp. More often than not, they also get someone else to run it for them. The problem with this is the fact that activities in isolation don't add up to the long-term benefit that a well-structured outdoor ed program can deliver and it's these long-term benefits that make all the difference to the overall educational experience.

The whole point of modern education should be to provide students with a dynamic skill set to tackle the challenges of life, not just academic, but social and emotional as well! This is where outdoor education comes in. Forget about the specific activities for a moment. Worrying about this can be a distraction from the wider picture, so instead think about what emotional and spiritual goals you want to achieve from your programs. Be specific with it too! Do you want doctors with a good bedside manner? Do you want trades people who can setup and run their own enterprises? Do you want kids to be honest, responsible and functional members of society? Or do you just want a number so the principal can feel good about themselves? Anyone can get an academic result. To be honest, it's probably one of the easiest things in education. Yet producing independent, innovative, determined and compassionate young men and women is a far more difficult challenge for educators.

Briefing The Kids Before Kayaking

Briefing The Kids Before Kayaking

The world however, needs young men and women to be equipped with far more than a university entrance rank. By only focusing on academics, you're actually setting kids up for failure and failure is something modern adolescents aren't very good at handling. I’ll talk about the lack of resilience in kids today in another article, but for now I’ll stick to the point. You need to provide more than academics and a token gesture of a year level camp each year. Outdoor education needs to become an integral part of your school's program and culture.

What should you do about it? Well, for starters, the school needs a director of outdoor education, one who's experienced in developing and delivering innovative, sequential learning programs that link together and increase the challenge that the students must face as they progress through the years. Then allocate time throughout the year to challenge students in their social and emotional growth through outdoor activities. Better still, look at a longer term year 9 or 10 program. Let's be honest, these two years could be a complete waste of time, so you may as well do something constructive with them, rather than just let them tread water until they're a bit more mature. There's some awesome long-stay programs being run around the world, so check them out and see how you could shape the lives of your students with something like this. If all else fails, at the very least, link every year level camp to real social and emotional outcomes so that teachers can work towards achieving them, not just ‘getting away’ for a week.

The whole point of outdoor education is to push kids outside their comfort zone and to challenge them. It's not until we begin to feel uncomfortable about something new, that we actually start to develop and grow as individuals. It's this emotional and social growth that becomes invaluable to the child’s overall education. The more they're given real opportunities to deal with the reality living with others, working as a team and reflecting on their own life and actions, the more balanced an individual will be.

Forget the insane drive for academics at all cost. Whilst it produces some pretty numbers that everyone can go ‘ooooh and ahhhrr’ for about five minutes, all of this is often meaningless and easily forgotten. Whilst it helps the principal make out that they're doing a great job, it also produces crappy soulless lawyers, crooked politicians, rubbish doctors and rude tradesmen who don't wipe their shoes at the door.

Outdoor Ed is more important than ever to help develop real life skills for each and every student. Don't leave leadership, team building and resilience to someone else. It's a vital part of education for young men and women so they can lead healthy balanced and wonderful lives.

Helpership

Leadership - Experiential Education

After a recent hike, during our debrief, one of the students made a comment which was quite profound. It made me seriously rethink my approach to the whole subject of leadership. We were talking about what makes someone a leader. ‘Taking control’, said one student, ‘making things happen,’ said another. This continued for some time with similar answers more about command and control than anything else, until one boy called out, ‘helping others!’
 
I asked the boy to explain what he meant and the discussion continued further around the topic of helping others out. Suddenly, one of the boys said, ‘Well, why not call it helpership?’ I thought about this for a moment and it struck me. What a profound statement! Whilst I’m sure someone has come up with this before, I’d never actually looked at leadership from that point of view. Even though as a leader, that’s exactly what you’re doing, I’d always explained leadership in a different way, more about looking for opportunities and inspiring those around you than the idea of helping others.
 
However, when working with students, especially younger ones, the idea of helpership makes a lot more sense. Through a straight forward comment of one of the students, I immediately found this to be a much easier and more accessible way for students to understand leadership than any other method I’ve come across before. We continued to run with it and the discussion turned out to be a very productive and meaningful one for the students who had come up with the idea, as well as for all the other students involved.
 
Often leadership gets confused with the sense of largess military or political leadership. The vision of a president tweeting something stupid or a repressed dictator joyfully pressing launch buttons for his collection of inter-continental ballistic missiles, further confuses the subject as neither of these projected figures are true leaders. Often for students it’s even harder trying to understand the concept of leadership when bombarded with these political figures in the news every day. When people hear the term ‘world leader,’ they think of visible public figures who have somehow risen to power and often obtained their position through dubious means. Whilst this is a misconception about leadership, it’s an easily made mistake.
 
The reality is that a leader is there to help others and not themselves. If you look at leadership in a military sense, leaders are helping others to achieve goals under demanding and often life-threatening circumstances. If you look at it from a business sense, leaders are helping others to achieve common goals and a vision for their company that’s greater than any of its individual parts. If you look at leadership in sport, again it’s all about helping others to achieve common goals that the individual could never achieve alone.
 
However, for many, leadership is a concept that’s hard to grasp and it’s often confusing and difficult for people to differentiate between qualities of a leader and traits of a manager. Much of this comes from experience and context and many students might also only see leadership as what teachers do. They could see it through their sports’ teams in which someone has been nominated as captain and everybody must listen to the captain or else be dropped from the team. Again, these are not necessarily the best ways to learn about leadership unless the person in that position is actively helping others.
 
If team building and leadership are important goals for your school, then instead of working with complex leadership theory (of which there’s a huge amount of literature), start with the concept of helpership. It immediately changes the conversation and makes the discussion more accessible. Rather than somebody being in charge and dictating orders, which is what a lot of younger people perceive leadership to be about, frame the discussion around helping others. This approach can change the entire mindset as to what an individual can do to become a leader. As a result, you can develop leadership and mindfulness in students as they look for ways to help each other, rather than thinking that they need to tell each other what to do.
 
As students progress through their high-school years, they’re searching for a sense of self, a sense of belonging and a sense of how they can make a difference in the world. Consequently, developing positive leadership qualities throughout this time is vital and can make a huge difference to their lives and the lives of those with whom they’ll interact no matter what they choose to do.
 
Ultimately, this can be a powerful lesson and an important one to develop leadership skills in young men and women. Whilst leadership development is often far more complex than the idea of helpership, if students have it in their minds when they’re just starting to think about leadership and where they fit into the world, this can have a profound impact on their longer-term leadership development and success as a leader.
 
Helpership starts the conversation in an assessable way so students can begin to understand that, unlike the political egotists of the world, leadership is not about you. It’s about others. It’s about shared goals and values. It’s about the welfare of others. It’s about putting yourself second and the needs of others first. It’s about service.

So when you’re thinking about your next leadership program for teens, why not simply re-frame the language? You don’t have to call it a helpership program, but it’s well worth using the concept of helpership as a key idea to help students to start to really understand what leadership is all about.

Team Building Activities

Team Building - Outdoor Education

There are so many fantastic team building activities for kids, which can vary from simple trust activities with little to no equipment, right up to obstacle courses or races that require significant preparation. However for the purposes of simplicity here are three simple ones which I love to use.

1. Entangled Hands: Get the kids to stand in a circle shoulder to shoulder and put all their hands into the circle and take someone else's hands. They can't both be the same person's hand! Then they have to work as a team to unravel the knot of hands without letting go until they're all standing in one big circle hand in hand. This is a fun activity that kids can get into and do with no equipment needed. Key to the success of the team in this game is effective communication. There's lots of communication needed to achieve the untangled circle, as it will involve co-ordinating with each other, stepping up over arms and twisting around every which way! A great variant to add in is for them to do it without talking!

2. Shared Sight: You're going to need a blindfold, two ropes and a couple of random obstacles for this one! Lay out the ropes so they snake around the room to make up a course that must be travelled, then randomly place some obstacles such as soft toys or drink cans along the way! The idea is that one kid is blind-folded and the other, using only their voice has to safely guide them through the course without touching any of the obstacles or the rope along the way. This game not only requires communication, but a huge amount of trust as well, therefore helping to meld participants into a cohesive team.

Raft Building
Raft Building

In small groups of 4-6 kids, set clear parameters as to how many pieces of equipment they can use. From the collection of materials they then select and use these limited resources to build a sea-worthy raft, that will not only float, but safely carry all members of the team across the river and back. It's amazing how many variations of a raft are created each time, some far more effective than others. In this activity the kids must work together to design, build, then paddle the raft as a team. It's a great way to engage all members of the team and whilst some may be stronger in design or building, others may be stronger in paddling and steering.

Raft Building - Team Activity

The real test comes when the kids have to carry the raft down to the river banks and it hits the water for the first time!! Does it float? Yes!!! Does it float with everyone on it?... Well ummm...

There are a huge range of skills being developed in this activity and it's such a fun one to do. It builds confidence, communication, leadership, teamwork, trust, cooperation and coordination! Even if the raft completely falls apart on the water, it's the process the kids have used in creating that craft that's so important in the overall learning process. If all else fails, you're still going to have a great laugh seeing these makeshift vessels breakup and see the kids scrambling to grab all the pieces before they float away!

A Teachable Moment

The Rocks In Question - Risk Management

Recently, I was on an expedition along the spectacular south coast of New South Wales. Despite having a group of Year 9 boys with me, it was a spectacular trip! The expedition itself was a journey of around 30 km from Dolphin Point in the North, to North Durras in the South. Rather ironic that the most southerly point is called North, but of course everything is North of something, unless you’re at the South Pole.
 
Given the fact that the group of 18 boys on the expedition had been trained in all the requisite skills beforehand, I framed my briefing so they were running the expedition, not me. Consequently, the boys get the opportunity to explore, take on challenges and make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t.
 
From a staffing point of view, the other teacher and I were there purely as the ‘safety blanket’ just in case a poor decision were to be made in the dangerous risk category. This means, we only ever would intervene if there’s a serious safety risk. If they walk in the wrong direction for an hour, I don’t care, because it’s not a dangerous risk. If they’re thinking about crossing a flooded river filled with snakes and piranhas, then this is my moment to facilitate a discussion on risk. At the end of the day, however, the students are running the trip and I encourage them to do everything possible themselves without the intervention of staff.
 
At no point with high school students do I want to be working on the premise that I’m ‘taking’ them out on a trip. Anybody can take a group of students out, blindly lead them around the bush and call it a hike. However, from an educational point of view, this doesn’t make any sense because there are no real learning opportunities that are created from this when you drag students around as if you’re the Pied Piper. Sure, you might wander around the wilderness for a couple of days, see some sights and ‘rough it’ a little. The students might feel a bit uncomfortable being out camping, but ultimately that's about it. There's not much actual learning involved in this scenario.
 
So for starters, avoid ‘taking’ students on a trip. Their parents can take them on a trip. Any sort of teacher can ‘take’ them on a trip. But as an experiential educator you must let them take you and lead you on the trip. For some teachers, this is way too hard and they don’t want to give up control. I saw an embarrassing example of this in my favourite café in Berry one day. The guy in front of me ordered a coffee, but then instead of letting the barista make it, the man wanted to pour his own milk in. The owner just stared at him and said, “why did you come out for coffee if you want to make it yourself?” Sometimes you really just need to let go!
 
Anyway, back to the coastal expedition and two different approaches to the same issue. We’d had really high seas for the past week and this raised a few red flags in terms of our risk management and our assessments of the locations. However, there wasn’t anything significant enough to mean we had to cancel or redesign the trip.
 
Day 1, we hiked along 7 kilometres of beach before reaching a headland that jutted out into the sea. Approaching this point, I positioned myself towards the front of the group, knowing the headland was one of those potentially dangerous points on the expedition that required active supervision.
 
Since I’d already put all the decision-making responsibilities onto the students, I didn't move into this position to take over. Instead, I put myself there acting in my role as ‘safety manager,’ to facilitate a discussion about the location and the hazard. I wasn't going to suddenly jump in and say, ‘Right, I’m in control now! Follow Me!’ If I did this, it would defeat the whole purpose of what we’re trying to achieve. Why? Because I can’t tell my students one thing and then do the complete opposite whenever I feel like it. Students quickly see through people who aren't authentic and honest, so if you decide to jump in randomly here and there whenever it suits you, good luck building trust after that! It remained up to my students to make an informed assessment and determine for themselves how they should proceed once they have all the information.
 
I need to be very clear at this point. I’m not going to put the students in any danger if they make a poor decision. I’ll use this opportunity to further expand on actions and consequences and keep working on it until they make a sounder decision.
 
At this point of the headland, there are two ways around. There’s one path up to the right, as we were traveling south and are on the East Coast of Australia, which goes up and over the headland via a bush track. To the left is the ocean and directly in front of us, are the rocky platforms that step up and down to make up the headland.
 
I’d stopped at a vantage point a few metres above sea level at the point where we could go no further. From here I could see around to the beach on the other side of the headland. The swell was powerful and as I watched, I could see multiple sets of waves lining up before crashing on the platform below.
 
To this point, the boys hadn’t been paying much attention to what was going on around them. They’d been hiking for almost 2 hours. They’d been walking and talking and everything had been easy going. The simple act of walking along a beach isn’t particularly hard so it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security.
 
Gathering the boys together on the rocky platform I said, “Ok, this is one of the points that you need to carefully assess and make a decision on. We have a couple of options available to us.” One of the boys immediately said, “Let’s just go straight ahead!”
 
I looked at him and he was one of those passenger students. We always have a lot of passengers and they’re the ones who just want to be taken on a trip. They’re used to be taken everywhere and having everything done for them. It’s people such as him, that demand instant results from no effort, and they’re the ones who tend to make dangerous ill-informed decisions.
 
For such as this student, if I hadn’t put myself in that specific location to facilitate a discussion about risk, they would’ve kept walking down onto the next rock shelf that was awash with the bright white foam of the waves, not noticed the approaching swell and got themselves smashed down by the crashing wave before being swept off the rocks as it withdrew back out to sea. Now they’ve just turned a nice walk on the beach into a coronial inquest. The faster you can identify this type of student the better, because all they see is the reward in a fast solution and perceive no risk or no danger as part of this.
 
I said to the boys, “Wait a minute. Before you make a decision on this, let’s run through the options that are available to us.” I outlined the bush track over the headland versus continuing around the headland. Whilst on the one hand, they were listening to me, more importantly, they were standing watching what the ocean swell was doing. It was only another 30 seconds and I got the result I wanted. The swell surged up and a massive set of three waves, one after the other pounded the rocks below us and a fine ocean spray mist covered us from head to toe.
 
Suddenly the boys’ attitude changed. “We don’t want to go down there!” one said.
“Ok, explain to me why you don’t you want to go down there.”
“Well look at it!” he said, “the waves keep crashing onto the rocks and if you’re down there, there’s nowhere else to go!”
 
The passenger from before, who wanted to proceed because he thought it would be easier then said, “We’ll be fine, let’s just time it and run across!”
The next wave smashed onto the platform, quickly followed by another, covering the entire rock shelf.
 
“Ok, so we have 20 people to get across, how exactly are we going to time it without getting hit by one of those waves?” The boy went silent. He didn’t have an answer as more and more waves crashed powerfully onto the rocks. As it was an incoming tide, it was only going to get worse.
 
I knew very clearly in my mind what decision needed to be made. However, it was still extremely important to let the boys have a discussion amongst themselves and make the decision. They’d been given all the information they required and were standing looking directly at the dangerous environmental conditions themselves. However, I wasn’t going to pre-empt what they were going to do and therefore save them from making a decision. This was an important teachable moment and they had to make the decision for themselves.
 
After a few more minutes of discussion and observation, the boys finally made their decision. “We’re going to go around, Sir!” said one them.
“Ok, good let’s make it happen,” I replied.
Without making a big deal about it, we backtracked a couple of hundred metres and went up and over the headland via the bush track. Before long, we were back on the beach continuing our journey.
 
Alternatively, when we got to that point I could’ve stopped everyone and said, “It’s too dangerous we can’t do this!” and led them around the track myself. However, what would’ve been the point of that? I would’ve wasted a really-important learning opportunity. I would’ve wasted the opportunity to let the boys see what a dangerous situation looks and feels like and wasted the opportunity to let them make an informed decision for themselves.
 
Whilst you can’t plan situations like this and I’d never take students into dangerous situations just for the sake of it, if they arise, use these opportunities as great teachable moments. Don’t just jump in and take control. Instead, see them for what they are, as extremely important learning opportunities for students. If facilitated in the right way, they can empower your student to make well-informed decisions for themselves, not just as a ‘one off’. This gives them the opportunity to grow as they learn to understand and experience the difference between a dangerous risk and a perceived risk.
 
Since the boys had made the decision on this occasion to go around, for the rest of the trip, every other headland we came to, the boys ran through this decision making process and either deemed it was safe to continue, or found an alternate route. I didn’t have to prompt their thinking or intervene at all.
 
In our debrief that evening, we again talked about taking risks. Whilst we’d already dealt with decision making in regards to dangerous risks earlier in the day, that night was a discussion about taking other risks. For example, the risk of trying something new, the risk of going outside our comfort zones, the risk of confronting a fear.
 
Contrasting the potentially dangerous risk the boys had to deal with that day with their own individual perceived risks, was a great way to conclude the day and reinforce the learning from that teachable moment. During this debrief, I experienced one of the most interesting and insightful discussions I’ve ever had with a group, all because we’d been able to seize that moment earlier in the day and use it to get the students really thinking.
 
So whenever you’re presented with a situation like this, embrace it, facilitate the discussion and use this to your advantage to help teach your students valuable lessons they’ll never otherwise learn, nor understand, unless they’ve actually experienced it for themselves.