This week it's story time! What's been your worst day at work? Has there been a day when nothing has gone right, where everybody seems to be against you and when you just wished the day would end? I've had many days like that over the years, between paranoid conspiracy theorists ringing me up over and over again when I worked for a politician, to my bus catching fire whilst trying to pick up a group of stranded students, there have been some exceedingly long and frustrating days. However, one of the more bizarre days happened in my first job at a Retravision store. Whilst at that stage they were the biggest retailer of electrical appliances, they’ve been replaced by other retailers of electrical appliances and online retailers.
It was a Thursday morning and a day like any other. I arrived around 8:20 ready to setup. However, overnight the electrical fuse box at the back of the store had been vandalised. An electrician had arrived and was working on the wiring outside the loading bay. There were only two of us in the shop that morning. The owners and the floor manager were away, leaving us to open and run everything.
My colleague told me not to turn anything on until we got clearance from the electrician, so we waited around and several coffees later, the electrician finished his work and it was time to turn everything on. I started upstairs with the wall of TVs. They were the old sort which had a large vacuum tube inside of them, a standard and popular feature of any electrical goods store. One by one I turned the TVs on until the 15 metre wall was illuminated with the flashing of the same mindless daytime TV channel.
Just as I finished turning the last one on, I heard a loud hissing noise. Stepping back, I glanced back along the wall and heard another hissing sound, then another and another all coming from different TV sets. Suddenly there was a loud bang! Dark black smoke plumed from the back of a TV at the start of the wall. This was followed quickly by another loud bang! More nostril burning smoke billowed from behind the TVs. There was another hiss, and another each time followed quicker by more loud bangs as the smoke grew denser. TV after TV continued to explode in rapid succession from one end of the wall to the other. Set after set after set hissed and exploded. The room now choked with dark black acrid smoke.
I stood before the smouldering ruins of what once was tens of thousands of dollars worth of TVs, now nothing more than lifeless screens. How was I going to explain this one? I nervously walked downstairs to break the news to Barry. Thinking which, out of a staff of nine, three were named Barry. What are the odds of that? Anyway, the Barry that was there with me that day was one of the salesmen and not the Barry who owned the business who I'd have to explain this to later.
“There’s a slight problem upstairs,” I said to Barry, which was probably a tiny understatement as the smoke had set off all the alarms and was so thick it started to linger its way downstairs. Barry quickly dashed up the stairs brandishing a fire extinguisher that was to prove totally and utterly useless. At the top of the stairs he stopped dead in his tracks.
“Oh crap!” he exclaimed, seeing the extent of the problem. “I'd better tell the electrician,” he continued as he dashed back down the stairs and ran out the back.
All I could hear from the back of the building was a series of loud swear words, sounding as if they were coming from the electrician. It turned out that somehow instead of leaving the power set on 240 volts, he had somehow upped it to 410 volts, consequently overloading the entire system and blowing the crap out of everything. Thankfully, salesman Barry made the phone call to owner Barry and filled him in on all the details of what had happened. Storeman Barry was out on a job and completely oblivious to anything that had happened. He is not actually part of the story but given that he was also named Barry, he at least deserved to be mentioned.
Over $40,000 worth of TVs were destroyed that day, never to transmit another awful daytime TV show again. It took about a week for the caustic smell of burnt electrics to finally make its way out of the upstairs showroom and another week to finally replace all of the televisions that blew up that day. Whilst for me, it wasn't actually that bad a day at work. However, for the electrician, things could only get better.
As with all revolutions, phenomenons and fads, there’s an exciting lead up period. There’s a booming peak before the steady decline towards normalisation. Eventually, people fall back to what they know best and how things were in the past. Whilst some things will have changed, other things will feel different. However, in the case of social media and especially those people who have become social media ‘stars’ simply by lifting their shirts, uploading stupid videos of their cats or some other similarly pointless exercise that for five minutes some people find funny, there’s got to be a point at which people’s interest fades and popularity declines. It’s like the life cycle of a child’s superstar on steroids! They’re in movies, on TV, splashed over the cover of trashy magazines and super popular for this brief fleeting moment in time. But then, their popularity wanes. People become disinterested and they don’t have the requisite skills to be able to cope with the lack of attention. Often, they turn to alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism when they realise what little substance there is in their lives. This can be a fast decline into irreparable emotional damage, with many a child star ending it all at their own hands. A hefty price to pay for those fifteen minutes of fame.
The benefit and curse which social media has created is that it increases people’s ease of access to a world of attention, but at the same time exposes them to the swift brutality of the decline. The decline can happen just as rapidly as it kicks off, so you could be an instant hit on Youtube. You could be an instant hit on Instamagram or any other social media platform, but what happens when your posts don’t get as many likes? Do you just start deleting them? What happens when you don’t get as many views? How does that make you feel? Why have people turned away from you? Five minutes ago, you were on top the world, now you’ve been replaced by a cat falling from a table.
The song Don’t Cry for Me Argentina comes to mind because Eva Perón is this very naïve woman who becomes engulfed in the fascist machine of Argentina through her marriage to Juan Perón. All is wonderful for her and the country, until it’s not. Her public image hid the true horrors of her husband’s brutal regime. Now social media provides the flawless front to soulless money making machines, prepared to chew up lives without a second thought.
The danger that comes with those living their lives through social media and being totally reliant on this for their window to the world, is that they become disconnected from reality and being built up only to fall horribly. Social media mightn’t be the fascist dictatorship that causes people to disappear in the same way that was seen in Argentina, but it is a machine. Despite the window dressing of equality and democracy of expression, the reality is that it’s designed to exploit people. It’s designed to get you addicted. It’s designed to manipulate your emotions and ultimately, it’s designed to make money.
Whilst marketing has its place, the unethical ease with which young people can be built up to be a ‘star’ and then promptly trashed by the machine is a blight on society. Many young users might not be aware of the fact that what they’re experiencing is just a temporary, shallow and empty cycle and in the end, they’re unable to adapt when their posts start to get less likes and interest in them fades away. This unfortunately leads to increased mental health issues over the long-term, as the rapid burn of internet popularity, quickly fizzles out.
To combat this, it’s important for young people to have a range of life skills and relationship skills which have been developed in the real world. If you have the skills to develop positive and healthy relationships, contribute to your community in a meaningful way and have the ability to think, adapt and grow through working with others, then you can safely use social media as a tool, levering the technology to your advantage. This way, you’re not at the mercy of the soulless emotional roller coaster that is trashing so many young lives today.
If you approach the world of social media with the understanding that, like all other technology, it’s only a tool and not the be all and end all of life, then no matter how fast your social network grows, you’ll always remain grounded in the fact that at the end of the day, likes are just a meaningless gesture that require no real thought, but time spent with real friends, experiencing real things is priceless.
Living in the moment is one of the biggest challenges for most people today. Often there’s so much meaningless noise surrounding people’s lives that it manifests itself in the idea of being ‘busy.’ People justify not living in the moment, through an endless search for meaning somewhere in the future. “What am I doing later today? What am I doing tomorrow? What am I doing on the third Saturday in June next year?” The questions roll on and on and the moment is lost.
The advent of social media has only helped douse this problem with a super-charged accelerant, thus adding to the deafening and pointless noise in everyone's lives. Seriously people, nobody really cares what you had for breakfast!
This noisy meaningless activity and ease of access to cameras on devices has added another element to the way in which people are living their lives through deferment and missing some wonderful experiences along the way. The way so many people do this now is through snapping or recording moments and sharing them online with countless people they don't know.
People are becoming increasingly addicted to the internet to fill a void in their lives. It’s like trying to ‘Keep up with the Joneses’ but on steroids! I was at an Easter celebration earlier in the year and this culminated in two big events. The town in which I live on the NSW South Coast has an annual Easter parade. The Year 10 girls from the local high school have the opportunity to go in what's called the Blessing of the Fleet and one of them is crowned the princess each year.
The Blessing of the Fleet itself is an annual Christian ceremony conducted by the local Catholic Priest under the careful watch of St. Peter, patron saint of fishermen, to ensure the safe passage and return for the local fishing fleet. It’s a fun, colourful event in which local businesses and community groups create themed floats to transport the princesses along the main street and down to the harbour.
Every year, the floats are built using movie, music and popular literature themes, basically pirates, musicals and all things Disney. The floats and costumes are amazing, often with months of phenomenal planning design and construction going into them.
It's a great cavalcade and a special day for the community. However, as the parade rolled by, I noticed countless people in the crowd, all with their phones out recording it and this is the bit I don't understand. They’re actually missing the experience of the parade. Instead of living in the movement and experiencing the parade in front of them, they’re seeing everything through the lens of the camera, ironically capturing a moment they've just missed.
That evening, following the celebrations, there was a firework display on at the harbour. It's always a great night. The fireworks are shot off from along the breakwall, each explosion reflected in the water and glistening brightly.
Taking photos of fireworks going off can be spectacular, but that kinda missed the whole point of being there. I've watched NYE fireworks on TV and it's never ever the same as actually being there. That burst of light when the colors explode in front of you. The noise and concussion of the blast and the smell of the gunpowder can never be replicated on a tv, a screen, a device, or anything. Fireworks have to be experienced in the moment, right there, right then! It’s the anticipation when you hear the dull thud of the shell fired off, watch it jet up into the air before exploding into a myriad of colors followed by the boom and smell of burning gunpowder.
It’s all these cool parts which combine together and make it amazing. However, once again, people were sitting there filming everything and viewing it through the tiny screen of their phones. What's the point in that? They've just turned a great experience into nothing more than another pointless moment deferred to be watched, or not, at some point in the future.
I often wonder who actually sits down and watches fireworks like that after the event? There are thousands of hours of video footage uploaded to YouTube every single day. Yet who’s watching this nonsense? I don’t want to watch fireworks on a computer screen. I want to experience it in the moment. I want that real, shared experience that can't be replicated by any network, website or device. This comes back to my point about living in the moment. Some people go to great lengths to show others what they're doing, at the cost of living in and experiencing that moment themselves.
Whilst I can't do justice to fireworks displayed that night, every shell that went up exploded in a beautiful rainbow of colors. The burning magnesium lit up the night sky and the finale culminated in one of the most amazing endings I’ve ever experienced. It was so cool! You could feel it building. The number of shells being fired into the air increased rapidly. They got faster and faster. Suddenly the sky erupted in colour and concluded with a massive boom. All went silent. The crowd erupted with united applause!
As I said, I can't do justice to the experience. You really just had to be there, but that's pretty much the point. These moments can’t be replicated in word, thought or on screen. These moments can't be shared with people who weren’t actually there. Most of all, I can't truly convey how much I enjoyed the experience. Since you weren’t with me, you can't understand how that moment felt.
The reality is that people are losing their ability to live in the moment. Their lives are so crowded with the noise of the world, they miss special moments such as the parade and fireworks displays. So, it’s important to put the phone away, to forget about sharing what's going on with people who aren’t there, because they will never really understand or appreciate the experience unless they live it themselves. Instead, tune out from the meaningless noise of the world and share the moment with those around you.
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.
This is something everyone seems to hate doing, which I understand, because it can be quite an involved and time consuming task. As a teacher, you're always under a lot of competing time pressures. Whilst effective risk management needs to be a culture within your organisation, for the moment I'm just going to focus on the paperwork.
There's also often confusion between the development of risk assessments and their practical application. Risk assessments and management systems (RAMS) are living documents, not something that you write just to make the principal happy and then file it away until something goes wrong, at which point everyone scrambles for the dusty document.
RAMS embody what dangerous risks there are for an activity or location and how those risks are managed or mitigated to reduce or remove the dangerous elements of that risk. Consequently, when you put it into practice, they result in well-planned activities in which the participants come back essentially the same way they left, but having experienced something new, unique and awesome.
There are three key areas of risk that you're always looking to effectively address:
As each of these elements can be extremely fluid and dynamic, generic risk assessments that are not tailored and considerate of the specific location, group involved, time of year, potential weather conditions, equipment being used and type of activity is a recipe for disaster. So don't do this. It's really bad practice and potentially exposes you and your organisation to a massive legal minefield.
One time, I was auditing the risk management systems for a school and it quickly became apparent that all their risk assessments had simply been blindly copied and pasted from one activity to another with absolutely no regard for the content.
I'd read only two paragraphs of the first document and it was obvious that the title and activity listed had absolutely nothing to do with what was written below. They were two completely different things.
I had a whole pile of documents to work through. Each one had a different title and date at the top. Each one was signed and dated at the bottom, but the exact same risks were listed for hiking, as they were for canoeing, as they were for rugby, as they were for tennis, as they were for every sport and activity the school did. They not only didn't make any sense, they jumped around here, there and everywhere so much so that if they were subpoenaed by a court, the school would have been found completely negligent and laughed out the door.
Not only had someone written a far too general and poor risk assessment to begin with, everyone else had just blindly copied and pasted it word for word. Nobody had checked it at all and some of them dated back over three years, which I suspect was the point of origin.
Thankfully, most schools I've assessed haven't been like this, but it highlights the danger of the copy and paste approach to risk assessments. The reality is that if you sign off on that document, then you are responsible and potentially liable for what's in that document.
This doesn't mean you need to start from scratch every time. What it does mean though is that you need to develop a specific risk assessment for each individual activity. There may be similar elements from one to another, but be careful that only the similar elements get written in and not just massive slabs of pointless nonsense, so you can make it look as if you've covered every risk possible in the world!
Rather than trying to think of every risk and throwing it for the sake of it, ensure you cover the three key elements that relate to your specific activity:
What are the potential risks and hazards that each of these elements bring to the activity? What strategies are you then going to use to reduce or remove these risks?
Bush fires are for example, a considerable risk in the hotter months, so controls to consider and manage where to hike need to be in place. Controls over campfires need to be in there and active monitoring of information from the rural fire service is a must.
In the colder months, bushfires aren't as much of a concern, whereas exposure of staff and students to cold is. Therefore, a compulsory piece of clothing would be thermals. As each risk is considered, you connect it with a way in which you're going to manage that risk.
The more you write into the document however, doesn't always mean the safer your activity will be, because each risk and control must relate to the specific activity or location. The risk of drowning for example playing tennis would just be stupid and also render the document in the laughable and unreliable category (Yes, that was in one of the documents).
At the end of the day a good risk assessment comes down to your ability to understand the activity you're running and the document you've written and how you and the other staff implement this when running the activity. It's this direct correlation between proactive planning and good practice that will make your risk assessments stand up against rigorous tests and challenges if they were ever called into question. Ultimately though, it's not about the paperwork itself. It's about helping you make every one of your activities safer and easier to manage.
There’s a phenomenon in Education that’s a strange thing to see and experience but when you look at it in more detail, it makes perfect sense. Often schools are quite dysfunctional places from a managerial point of view and you have people who are promoted into management positions who are often inexperienced and totally unsuited for the positions.
A good teacher doesn't necessarily make a good administrator. As a result, if the wrong people get promoted into positions of influence, you risk ending up with what can be a toxic culture. When this happens, you find incompetent managers surrounding themselves with more incompetent managers to try and hide the fact that they’re useless. This is common practice in any organisation, which results in higher staff turnover and lowers productivity.
If this is the case, why do schools keep functioning for longer when a comparable business or organisation would be falling apart at the seams? Why do schools keep rolling along and producing reasonable outcomes? Unfortunately, it comes down to the ability of a school to blackmail its teachers. This might seem to be an extreme statement. However, it's quite an apt analysis of a dysfunctional school.
Despite layers of incompetent managers in a toxic school, you still have genuinely hard-working teachers who want the best for their students. They want good educational outcomes and they want the students to be learning now, despite what the other workplace pressures could be.
Unfortunately, this results in a very strange situation. On the one hand managers are driving a completely different agenda to what the school needs from an educational point of view. On the other hand, you have teachers doing their best for the students, which could be quite out of touch with what the school management sees as valuable. This odd situation can be sustained for a long period of time because the teachers on the frontline do the best they can for their students.
If you have a reliable core group of teachers, despite the incompetent management, often schools just keep rolling along without much of a noticeable problem. As long as nobody in management molests any children or runs the school into bankruptcy, incompetent managers seem to stay for years and years, because their incompetence is often covered up by the hard work and desire of other teachers to provide the best opportunities for students.
However, any sort of hardworking individual no matter how motivated, will end up being worn down by this situation. Despite the desire to help students, the longer poor management remains, the greater the decline of the school. It might be a much slower burn than in private enterprise, but once you have disengaged teachers then the entire school becomes toxic, staff turnover increases and good educational outcomes for students becomes a distant memory.
How do you address this? Firstly, you need better managerial oversight. You need better schools’ boards that actually understand the business of education, not just business. They need to look carefully at the connectivity between what teaching staff are doing and what senior management is doing.
Forget the grand strategic building plans. What are the actual educational outcomes for the students? How are they being achieved? Why not get feedback from the students on the entire organization, not just the classroom teacher? This could provide a fascinating insight into how a school is going.
Performance review should be an ongoing process initiated by senior management to ensure continuous improvement for the school. Teachers and students should be able to provide feedback for senior management on a regular basis.
This can provide a much better overview of how well the organisation is going. Is the direction being set by management translating into proactive, positive and effective educational outcomes for students? Or is there a toxic disconnect that’s eating away at the school from within? Unfortunately, due to the slow burning nature of decline within a school, it might take many years to notice the dysfunction. By then, it's too late and all your good staff will have given up and left.
However, by carefully selecting those to manage versus those who should remain in the classroom, this can help to alleviate this concern. Seeking feedback from staff and students and approaching the organisation with a view of continuous improvement, is vital in developing a positive and transparent culture.
You want to avoid the slow burn into decline and instead set a clear vision of what the school stands for and everything the school does should be focused on achieving this ultimate educational goal. As a result, you will increase staff retention and provide the best educational experience possible for your students.
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…
What's the point of spending time and energy setting up an outdoor ed program aimed at building leadership, teamwork and initiative, then subsequently provide no opportunities for students to actually take responsibility for any of this themselves?
So often I see teachers ‘run’ programs, in that they take the students out, think for them, navigate for them, constantly give instructions on how to do everything and determine the whole schedule for each and every day.
Realistically, students can get this sort of experience any day of the week at home or in the classroom. So don't make the mistake of doing this in your experiential education program!
The command and control operational management style is often starkly noticeable if contracting out your program out to a third party. Whilst some organisations are great, many of them process groups the way you'd process cattle through a dairy. They get herded in, run through the process and led out the other end none the wiser. For cows, the experience seems ok, having chewed a bit of cud and hung out with some other cows. However, has the cow learnt or achieved anything from this? Not really! The only enlightenment she’s achieved is having less milk. But there's lots of money in pointless processes. Look at government departments. They're great at it! I mean really great at it! I guess when you’re onto something good, you should stick to it.
Experiential education however, is not about a process of running fun activities for the sake of it. There’s so much more depth to it than that. It’s about the opportunity to lead, not to be led! The opportunity to take risks, not to have someone tell you what to do. It's about teamwork and decision making.
For teachers, to giving up the reigns and allow students be challenged, experience new things and grow from this may feel awkward and difficult at first. However, if you don’t, then you’re wasting some fantastic educational opportunities.
I've seen teachers on experiential education trips wanting to control and run everything and I mean everything!!! From setting up tents, to collecting firewood, to holding onto a bag of cereal in the morning and dishing it out flake by flake. Some teachers just can't let go of control. If you're like this, it's time to stop as you're not helping anyone with anything.
You need to stand back and allow your students to take the risk of leadership, decision making and self-management and allow them to have the chance to shine and the chance to fail! They're going to learn more from this than they ever will if you were to jump in and catch them before they fail. All you need to do is frame an effective debrief if they do fail, to create a great learning opportunity from this. Conversely, when they display initiative and leadership, use this to extend and challenge your students. You will be amazed the difference this makes.
To be able to do this effectively, when you get into the field, provide your students with a clear and detailed briefing on what needs to happen and what roles need to be fulfilled. Only do this once, as failure to listen can lead to some great learning opportunities for those who choose not to. On the conclusion of your brief, the responsibility needs to then be given to your students to make it all happen. Your role now is purely a safety one to ensure that the wider range of risks are monitored and addressed without intervention in the group decision-making process. The only time you now step in, is if there is a potentially dangerous risk that arises and requires your experience and knowledge to manage.
By allowing students the chance to take on responsibilities they’d not normally have, helps to super charge the learning opportunities in a short period of time. Mistakes are made, tempers are frayed and people are pushed well outside their comfort zones. Whilst this may sound like chaos to some people, it’s a natural and highly effective way of teaching and learning for everyone involved. You can achieve more growth and development from any of your experiential education activities by allowing your students to run them themselves, rather than having you or any other teacher do it for them.
So for your next experiential education activity: Set it up once, let go of the reigns and allow your students to take the initiative and shine.
One of the hardest things for Outdoor Education Programs is they take a lot of hard work to create. Lots of thought, time and effort go into designing, developing, assessing and testing a program. However, once a program is up and running, it’s far easier to repeat the same trips, rather than creating new experiences all the time. After all, most students only ever do that program once, so for students, it’s a new experience.
Consequently, people get into the pattern of doing the same things over and over again. When you’ve got a good program going, despite the repetition, people often stick with it. The problem with this however, is that it can lead to organisations becoming complacent. Staff become happy with the daily run of the mill program and fail to renew and change.
This creates stagnation within an organisation and when an organisation stagnates, a number of problems emerge. If don’t have a culture of continuous improvement within your organisation, you risk becoming complacent in what you’re doing. Complacency can lead to operational and organisational blind spots. When dealing with outdoor activities that involve various levels of risk, this creates a dangerous problem, often known as the expert blind spot.
The expert blind spot often occurs when you have a teacher or instructor who’s very good at the task. The same thing has been done for years and years and complacency and a false sense of security can start to creep in. When you believe you know everything there is to know about an activity and you can do it without even thinking about what you’re doing, you’re now in the danger zone, without even realising it.
Henry Doherty, the successful Irish businessman famously said, ‘Be a student as long as you still have something to learn, and this will mean all your life!’ This is a poignant statement that’s so true for everybody that’s ever lived. No matter how much experience you have, you can always learn something new. If you get to the point where you can learn no more, then you’re just lying to yourself and everyone around you.
Programs that have been running for many years with the same staff who don’t like to assess, improve or vary the activities, risk falling into this blind spot danger zone. Subsequently, the risk of injuries or catastrophic failures dramatically increases as the blind spot entrenches itself deep into the person’s psyche. Be cautious when you start to hear statements such as, ‘We’ve always done it like this, so it’s fine,’ ‘That weather front’s ok, I’ve been in worse before.’ ‘We don’t need a risk assessment done on that. We all know what we’re doing!’ ‘We’ve done it so many times before, nothing can go wrong…’
What can you do to prevent the expert blind spot creeping in? One of the ways is for continuous improvement to be the goal of your program. What you’ve done last time wasn’t necessarily as good as what you’re going to do the next time. It’s not that you’re doing a sloppy job now but we can always do better. We can always improve on our processes and procedures. We can always improve on our cultural make up within our organisation. We can always find better activities to do. We can always find more challenging activities to do.
Rotate the locations of where you’re going on your programs. Rotate the staff that are running your programs. After all, it’s often staff becoming stale in what they do that can be a great causation for the expert blind spot to creep in. This doesn’t mean you just randomly shuffle your staff for the sake of shuffling it. There needs to be a reason. Plan it that way. Let staff experience different activities. Let staff develop different skills. Send staff on training courses. The amount of new knowledge that I get from every training course I do is immeasurable and it’s not just the content. It’s about engaging with other professionals in the field. Finding out what each does; listening to stories and experiences. If you go in with that attitude ‘I’m looking forward to learning something new,’ you’re going to get a lot out of it. If you go in with the attitude, ‘I know everything and I’ll prove it to you,’ you’re an idiot and the root cause of the problem.
It’s a very tricky dynamic with which to work. I’ve worked with some of these so called “experts” in the past. It’s more an attitude than anything else. Sure each has experience in the field but this blind spot once put me in a situation where we were hit by an extraordinary storm and we were absolutely smashed by it. We were lucky that we didn’t have anything more than a couple of students with hypothermia. I was a junior instructor at the time and despite my objections to going out in that weather, I was told: ‘No it’ll be fine.’ That put us at significant risk of harm. It’s this blind spot where it’s just day in, day out in your daily routine of running a program, ‘no it’ll be fine,’ that creates problems in the long run.
To avoid these problems: Go on some professional development. Open yourself up to an analysis of the program that you’re running. Ask your staff what each thinks of the program. Ask your students what each thinks of the program. Look for feedback that can be used constructively to improve your program, improve your processes and improve the overall experience of everyone involved. Don’t let yourself become stagnant. Don’t let yourself get lulled into this false sense of security that ‘we’ve always done at this way’ or ‘we stick to this because we know this so well.’ Ultimately, that can be counterproductive and that can lead to a dangerous situation with that expert blind spot is your blind spot.
A recent Grattan Institute Publication highlighted that 40% of students in Australia today are disengaged. Therefore, almost half the class in every single school in the country is just sitting there wasting time.
As a teacher, you can usually pick the students that are disengaged and just don’t care. Sadly, some students will never care and no matter what you try, you won’t re-engage them because they just don’t have the drive. As a result, these students drag everyone else down with them, further fuelling the problem. Where do we lose the kids? How did they become disengaged?
Some people cite syllabus content issues, teacher issues, lack of resources, lack of time, lack of relevance. However, often, it's just a lack of motivation that comes from parental disengagement and the ‘comfort’ of modern life.
Unless a student is motivated, the capacity to learn is seriously diminished. If a student doesn't want to learn in one subject, chances are this will flow over into every other subject.
Consequently, the challenge isn’t really the content but the underlying motivation. How then do we motivate kids to actually engage with content? Now this is not about dumbing it down to make all lessons suitable for publication on social media because that defeats the purpose of education. If you dumb everything down, you create a dumb society and you can see the effect of that in many countries today. It’s not where I want to see Australia and therefore we need to find other ways of engaging kids in their education.
A lot of emphasis of late is being put on the STEM subjects which are Science, Engineering and Technology which is excellent, but the reality is the majority the kids who want to take on STEM subjects are the ones who are engaged already, so what about the others who just fall by the wayside, the other 40% and this really comes back to a failing education that needs to continue to evolve.
When education is still stuck in the 19th century and still trying to do the same process or the same learning process as was done at the time of the Industrial Revolution, there’s a big problem. One of the key issues is adaptability. If you tell a student in your lifetime, you’ll have 5 to 10 different careers that’s all well and good but if you can’t equip them to adapt to these 5 to 10 different careers, then they’re being setup for failure. With this in mind, how do we re-engage kids and provide them with the skills they need to take on a world that’s constantly changing?
Much of it comes down to what motivates and drives students. What are they interested in? What’s meaningful to them in their lives? How interested are they in what they’re doing? How interested are their parents?
Parental engagement can have more of an effect on classroom behaviour than a lot of what teachers do. If there’s nothing happening at home, then it’s extremely hard for that lack of drive to convert into student engagement in the classroom. It’s a sad reality, which means many of the 40% of disengaged students, need to be taken out of the classroom and provided with remedial education, outside a regular class structure.
What else then can you do with this 40%? The reality is, you only need to take out 15-25% of these students and the rest will have a greater chance of re-engaging with the class. However, regardless of whatever the percentage is, there are other ways in which the group in question can get great value out of their time at school.
Instead of classwork, they should be involved in a range of different, practical hands-on activities where they can see a tangible result. For example, building things, work experience in real businesses, community service and extended expeditions, to challenge them.
Whilst none of this is part of what our standard education system offers, it’s something which needs to happen. The definition of insanity is by doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The reality is you get the same result every time. Yet if you were to take a different approach, chances are, you’ll get a different outcome.
For many disengaged students, the more experiential you can make your program, the better. Often the lack of support from home can lead students to believe they can’t do anything. Therefore, when sitting in the classroom doing nothing, this is a self-fulfilling prophesy. However, get them out doing something where they can see a tangible result, they will realise they’ve been able to achieve. It’s one of the fascinating dynamics of the new generation. They want their lives to mean something. They want to find meaningful employment and expression. They want to make a difference. However, if all they have is sitting in a classroom, listening to a teacher all day every day, talk about things you’re not interested in, why wouldn’t you become disengaged?
This is about actively engaging students in something such as a trade, in a shop, in the bush or in any number of service organisations. Somewhere functional, somewhere where they can gain experience and learn by doing. Somewhere where they can’t just check out and stare blankly into the distance for years on end. If there are strong ties between industries and schools, if there are a strong ties between community service groups and schools, this can be a great avenue to help re-engage students.
By changing tactics, removing students from the regular classroom and challenging them with a range of experiential education experiences, you’re extending and improving the chances for those disengaged students and at the same time, making classrooms far better learning environments for the other 60% of students. Consequently, we can improve our educational standards and improve the long-term results for all students.