Whilst a lot of what I like to talk about is constantly pushing limits, trying new things and taking risks, after a recent experience I thought it’s worth dialling things back for a moment and looking at limits with a bit of context around it.
Whenever we feel pushed outside of our comfort zone, we have a choice. Push back and confront the challenge, or step back and say ‘no that’s not for me.’ More often than not, I’ll push back in a big way and take the challenge. However, it’s important to also be considering the risks that are involved in making such decisions.
I was recently in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, in the USA. This is a wonderful country town about 100km from Yellowstone National Park. The town is surrounded by massive steep mountains, most notably Rendezvous Mountain, where Jackson Hole ski resort is. To say this is steep terrain is an understatement. This is one of the steepest mountains I’ve ever skied. As my experience in super steep terrain was limited, I took some ski lessons to work on this.
Jackson Hole Ski Resort
It was a great and valuable time spent developing my skills in unfamiliar and often extreme terrain. Riding up the Tram, the cable car to the top of the mountain, you get a sense of just how gnarly the slopes are as you glide over the top of them. We’d been practising skiing down a lot of black and double black diamond runs, which were, intense, challenging and exhilarating all at once. Whilst I can’t say that I was entirely comfortable with any of these runs, they pushed my limits in a good way. However, there was one run, where I knew I’d reached my limit.
Travelling to the top of the mountain with the ski instructor, we left our skis and walked over to the top of a run called Corbet's Couloir. This is a legendary run amongst extreme skiers and I was about to find out why! The entrance itself was roped off, closed by ski patrol for whatever reason that morning. However, walking around to the side we could see the drop in. A tiny cornice forms at the top of the run and to get in, it’s literally a jump from the cornice into a massively steep chute hemmed by the rocky outcrops that form the peak of Rendezvous Mountain.
If you were to ski this and jump in, from there, given the steepness below, as soon as you land, you’d suddenly accelerate and would have to make two critical turns to avoid the walls and another rocky outcrop before running down into the slightly wider chute below. If you stuffed the landing, you’re gone. If you’re going too fast, you’re gone. If you lose balance, you’re gone. If you catch an edge, you’re gone. You get the picture!
Gauging the entry and the sheer insanity of it sent a nauseating feeling through me. I felt unsteady on my feet and took another step back from the rope. Now I’ve skied some crazy things over the years. I’ve booted off cornices, skied steep and deep powder and even taken on the Lake Chutes double black extreme run in Breckenridge, CO. But this was something completely different, the feeling was different, the feeling was dark.
Breckenridge's Lake Chutes
In that moment, I realised something really important. This wasn’t my run. This was no longer pushing my comfort zone. This was just massive injury or death written all over it. Other than saying the feeling was dark, it’s hard to describe it any other way. Whereas every other place we went to, I felt pushed and challenged. I didn’t feel foreboding. No matter how intangible this may sound, it’s an extremely important measure of what’s reasonable to push boundaries, versus what’s unreasonable and pure insanity. Whilst everyone’s scale of this may vary, understanding your limits is very important in terms of managing risk and not getting yourself killed.
Even though you don’t want to be confronted by situations like this, or experience these sorts of feelings all the time, it’s worth experiencing something like this occasionally, as a healthy reminder that we can push the boundaries of ourselves and those around us, but we also have limits and understanding those limits can help us improve our own management of risk and remind us that we’ve already achieved an extremely high level to even be up at the top of the mountain. Rather than jump off a cliff to get back down, I was much happier to ski down another double black run and live to ski another day.
A short one this week, just to let you know that the Xperiential Education Podcast is Live!
The first two episodes are out and another will go live tomorrow! It’s been a wonderful educational experience for me traveling to meet the different educators and cover a huge range of topics and educational contexts. Please join us on this great journey for updates and some key links check out the website & twitter feed:
Web - www.xperiential.education
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/experientialeducationpodcast/
You can subscribe to the Podcast on:
If you’re running a cool experiential education program, please get in touch, I’m always searching for great new ideas for shows and exploring different techniques and strategies for experiential education.
A lot of my work has been on long-stay residential programs, running anywhere from 4 weeks to 6 months. The educational benefits of these extended programs are massive, yet so many schools still opt for the quick sub-contracted hit and miss approach with a week here and there, which, from an educational point of view don’t seem to achieve much. However, the merits or lack thereof for short discrete programs is a topic for another time.
With any long-stay program, there are still a number of risks to its educational value. These stem mainly from school administrators who don’t quite understand the real value of the program. Some inherit long-stay programs as part of a new job. The problem is however, when inheriting something like this, it’s like rifling through your long-lost great aunt’s deceased estate. There’s lots of weird stuff that you don’t understand. It looks cool, but you’re not sure what it really does. Therefore, you might keep it… you might not… but perhaps you should just leave it for the moment and it’ll somehow magically become apparent one day what it’s really for! Others panic about students missing out on academic lessons and love to interfere by unnaturally inserting academic content for the sake of it, for fear they won’t make up the mandated hours, or worse, it might affect the Yr 12 marks!!! This is more nonsense than anything else, as it’s usually thought up by people whose only experience has been in schools and as a result, they don’t understand real-life and what students actually need.
The reality is that the social and emotional skills developed in these programs when done correctly can significantly improve overall student performance. There’s often a mad rush to cram more into the daily life of a student, as schools, in the desire to be ‘the best,’ think that more activity and movement means better ‘well-balanced’ children. However, this is a total load of rubbish as quantity never results in quality and you’re just going to burn students out and make them hate learning. Instead, it’s important to improve the quality of each experience and take the time to reflect on how that experience unfolded. Reflect on whether it were effective and successful.
Despite these potential misconceptions of why and how a long-stay program should run, whatever the case might be for the structure of the program, there’s a common and often overlooked problem of student reintegration as they return to their regular life. Unfortunately, this is something I’ve seen done very poorly over the years and can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration and significantly reduce the impact of the educational experience.
When students have been away from home for an extended period of time, something changes in them. There’s a level of independence that’s gained, as well as a valuable bonding with their peers. This is a great outcome in itself, as this should be one of the key aims of these programs to be able to create thoughtful independent young men and women who are set up ready to face challenges and be successful in life.
However, despite this increased independence and the constant buzz of activity that comes with being on camp, what happens when students return home? Life is back to ‘normal’! The community in which you’ve been living is suddenly gone. Mum, dad and teachers are telling you what to do once more and in the evening, the bedroom is empty and the fun chatter that goes with getting to sleep each night is deafeningly silent.
As a result, for students returning home, this can be even more challenging than leaving and spending time away from home. The reality is that students have come back changed, having had some amazing experiences and spent what feels like a significant part of their life away from family. Yet at the same time for everyone else back home, for them, their daily routines and working life have continued and they’re expecting the exact same boy or girl to return as if no time had passed at all. Often families are not prepared for the independent young man or woman who comes back.
Unfortunately, without a good reintegration plan and process, the return home can be extremely frustrating for the student and those around. To avoid this, the reintegration process needs to involve teachers, parents and the students to ensure a smooth and effective reintegration that maximises the benefit of the time spent away.
Teachers need to understand that the students going away, are usually coming back more independent and therefore their teaching style should reflect this. Whilst this isn’t always possible, it should at least be acknowledged in the methodology of teaching post program. If the staff at the main campus are in tune with the aims, objectives and style of learning being utilised on the long-stay program, this enables a far smoother reintegration process back in the regular classroom. A complete lack of understanding can have a dramatic and opposite effect, causing tension and unnecessary disruption in class. One effective way to help develop this understanding, is by rotating each of your staff through a long-stay camp or if this isn’t possible have them go on an extended part of the camp and be buddied up with one of the experienced staff members running the program. Getting them to visit the campus for a day is a complete waste of time, as it provides no understanding of the actual program. You can never truly describe an experiential program and all its intricacies. You just need to experience it for yourself.
Parents also need to understand the potential feeling of isolation and frustration faced by their son or daughter on return. To minimise this, it’s important to meet with all parents prior to the return of the child and run a good debrief session with them. It’s important to explain what experiences their child has had, the style of teaching and learning that was employed and provide specific strategies for how they can continue this back at home. It should be made clear that the long-stay program is just the beginning of a life-long process of experiences, reflection and growth and to make the most of this, it must be continued. The last thing parents should be doing is treating their son or daughter as a poor child who’s just suffered great hardships at ‘bootcamp’ and must be taken care of once more. If parents are going to take this approach, they might as well not send students anywhere or let them doing anything… ever! This is the fastest way to destroy all learning that’s occurred, so try to emphasise this when debriefing.
In the excitement of having the students return, a lot of schools fail to leverage this great opportunity with parents. Whilst schools are amazing at the glossy brochure approach before hand, they’re not so great with the explanation as to why they needed to take the students away in the first place and how this educational experience can be continued in a powerful way back home. It’s essential to have parents as part of the overall learning experience prior to students leaving and especially on the return home. The “next steps or what now?” is so often overlooked, yet it’s vital to help maximise the long-term learning and development that the opportunity of the long-stay program afforded them.
Finally, but most importantly, the students themselves. Over the years we’ve run different reintegration processes and sessions to provide students with strategies as they return home. It usually involves some sort of debrief and celebration. The closing of one chapter and the beginning of a new one.
I started thinking about this and how it could be effectively explained with an experiential metaphor. I was running a mountain bike expedition as the final wrap up for one long-stay program and we’d been riding quite tough and exciting terrain all week. On the last day I decided to change the pace and as an alternative, ride around the bike track of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. In comparison with the rest of the week, this was an easy ride. At the end of it, I facilitated the wrap up for the month-long program and set the scene by starting with the change of pace and change of environment that we’d just experienced. As it was such a stark contrast, it made it far easier to do. From there, I tied it back into the fact that the group was about to go back to a change of pace and a change of environment and went on to discuss the challenges they’d faced and skills they’d learnt.
However, why did this mountain bike riding to cycleway riding transition provide a good metaphor? All the skills of persistence, determination and adaptability that were required earlier in the week when riding hard, were still required now in a different context. We had to be aware of different paths. We had to be mindful of pedestrians and we were now back in a cityscape. It was through this very clear connection and example that we were able to make the debrief relatable and powerful. This then opened up the discussion to what other skills can be transferred and how can they be applied when facing other potential challenges and flowing into the fact that life will change for them the next day and strategies to help them continue their journey.
Setting the scene and clearly articulating that this is an important transitional time is vitally important to reduce the chance that your students will feel isolated and frustrated on return. The longer the program, the more intense these feelings may be. On the six month program on which I worked for a number of years, this was often a massive challenge, as they were no longer children, nor acting as children.
It’s important for teachers and parents to acknowledge the change and continue to provide opportunities for students to push the boundaries of their comfort zone, to take responsibility and allow them to grow. Through doing so, the educational benefit of time away and the measurable result will be felt throughout the school and into the future. Most importantly, you will be able to maximise the effectiveness of the long-stay program which will massively improve the ability of each and every student to face life’s challenges head on and succeed in whatever they decide to do with their lives.
This week is just a quick heads up on a podcast I’m launching soon called Xperiential Education (www.xperiential.education)
Over the past year, (in my spare time), I’ve been travelling around and interviewing some fascinating people who work in experiential education. Now my definition of experiential education is very broad and intentionally so. This is not a podcast about classroom practice nor is it about outdoor education. It’s about a whole range of interesting and unique approaches as to how leaders, teachers, trainers and businesses are educating others, be it at home, in school, at a retreat or specialised venue, on the job, or any other context where those with experience in life create valuable and meaningful learning experiences for others.
We’re at a pivotal moment in history. Technology has suddenly impacted on everything that we do, so as the world rapidly changes how does education need to change to remain relevant? Does it digitise? Or does it take a step back into more traditional approaches? Or are we yet to really discover and understand what the next step forward is in education? This is just one of many great topics I’ve been able to cover with my guests, with the overall aim of discovering some really effective and powerful learning experiences.
I’ve tried to keep the interviews as diverse as possible, covering:
Theatre & Performance
I hope you enjoy Season 1 of the podcast. This has been a challenging and interesting learning experience for me as well and I look forward to people’s feedback. The full guest list is below and links and show notes will be added on the Xperiential Education website as each episode goes to air.
Season 1 (not in episode order)
Cyn Smith – Tihoi Venture School - NZ
Adrian Deakes – V&A Museum – London
Dr Brendan Nelson – Australian War Memorial – Canberra
Rebecca Cameron – Former Australian Federal Police Officer
Matt Purcell – GovHack - Canberra Grammar
Glenys Thompson – Australian Science & Mathematics School – Adelaide
Mary Preece – Bundanon Trust
Noel Mifsud – Antarctic Adventures & Christian Brothers College – Adelaide
Tim Nolan – Wesley College Clunes – Victoria
Some of the ideas that these great educational leaders have shared with me are truly amazing. Please send me a message with any feedback, ideas or guest suggestions for Season 2. I look forward to sharing with you some great insights into learning through doing and hope you can use them in your own work!
Recently I was involved in a Year 6 program in which I was one of the lead instructors for the outdoor activities. However, the students’ year 6 teachers were the ones running the overall program. This creates an interesting dynamic and is one with which I've worked over the years. It's something that can work exceptionally well, or end up in an unmitigated disaster.
To avoid such disasters, clear lines of communication and responsibilities are vitally important. However, this is not about demarcations of responsibilities and how to effectively communicate in a team environment. This is about the value of understanding when not to be involved.
My involvement in the camp started on day two. We were running a canoe session for the students to introduce them to some basic canoeing skills before taking them on the expedition the next day. Given the age of the students and their experience, this was very much a day where we were actively teaching and running the activity to ensure skills were being effectively learnt and that the group was being safely managed. In sessions like this, there's a lot of proactive engagement and interaction with the group throughout.
At the end of the training session, the teachers walked the students back up to the campsite, whilst my colleagues and I packed the canoe trailer ready for the next day. For me, this was an important distinction in what we were doing and what we were trying to achieve from an educational point of view. The year 6 teachers who were on the camp were there to develop better relationships with their students and we were there to facilitate a safe, yet appropriately challenging environment in which this could occur.
The next morning, the other outdoor ed teachers and I drove the canoes down to the boat ramp from where we were starting out. Usually, if I were running a high school program, the students would be there doing most of the work themselves. However, this was a different situation and therefore required a different approach. By the time we’d unloaded all the canoes and had everything set up ready to go, the students and the teachers arrived. The other instructor and I organised everyone as quickly as possible with their PFDs and paddles ready to get on the water.
It wasn't long before we had the students working in teams to carry the canoes to the water's edge, at which point I helped them onto the water. As the other instructor took the front of the group and I took the back, we proceeded to paddle our way up river for the next few hours. Covering 8 km in total and having just learnt all the basic canoeing skills the day before, this was a big day for the year 6 students and we spent a lot of the time actively instructing students, helping them to correct and improve their techniques, as well as carefully managing the group.
We eventually made it into camp by mid-afternoon at which point we ran a demonstration as to how to set up a tent and allow the students to work in small teams to replicate what they’d been shown. It was at this point that the other outdoor ed teacher and I transitioned from a very active role into a passive role. The year 6 teachers took over the afternoon's activities, which included gathering firewood and a couple of different games. Meanwhile, we faded into the background to cook dinner.
I do enjoy cooking and it was a BBQ, so it was quite easy to get everything prepared and cooked for the group of around 40 people. It was dark by the time we finished and the students were keen to light the fire. Remaining removed from the situation, we cleaned up from dinner, made a cup of tea and sat back watching the group now sitting around a blazing fire.
With most groups with which I work, I would’ve been over at the fire running a debrief, or an evening session of some sort. However, that wasn't the point of this whole exercise. Even though we all work for the same school, there was a distinct difference in what the group needed from the staff who were there. The year 6 students needed to hear stories and share stories around the fire with their teachers, whom they were now getting to know in a completely different context. It was for that reason, we sat back and didn't directly involve ourselves until much later in the evening.
As outdoor educators, this is a really important thing to understand. What are the educational and emotional needs of the group and how are they best served? It can often be the case that we feel we need to be involved in absolutely everything that happens on a campout or activity. Yet this couldn't be further from the truth. The benefit that the other staff and students received from us taking a back seat at this point of the day was huge. The temptation is often to lead the discussion or allow the focus of the evening to fall upon you as an instructor. After all, you've just safely lead them up a river. Why not spend the next hour regaling them with stories of everything else you've ever done!
To do this would be totally counter-productive, because the relationship that needs to be built at this point is not between yourself and the group that you've just actively managed up the river. The relationship that needs to be built is between the class teachers and their students. At the end of the day, the memory of your instructing them in canoeing will fade into a distant memory. However, the memory of their classroom teacher telling stories, cooking marshmallows and laughing around the fire will last a lifetime.
It's important to understand the context in which you’re running, facilitating and leading any sort of activity. This can help you to understand the needs of the group and adapt your approach and involvement with the group accordingly. As the main part of the evening's activity came to an end, this then provided the opportunity for us to re-join the group and chat with the staff as the students started to make their way to bed.
As teachers, we want to make the most of any opportunity to help and teach others. However, this can lead to the temptation of becoming too involved with a group when there is no need to be. The next time you find yourself in a situation where you're running a session as the expert in that particular activity, when the activity is over, sit back, observe the dynamics of the group and assess whether you really need to be directly involved for the rest of the day, or is it time to sit back, make yourself a cup of coffee and let others take the lead.
Teacher education is a subject that's always hotly debated by teachers, academics and politicians. Depending on which way standardised test results are going and how close to an election it is, can determine how a teacher is taught how to teach. Try saying that quickly!
However, this isn't a great way of determining what the future needs of education should be, nor the best way to determine how the next generation of teachers should be trained. It's high time we added a bit more controversy to this topic. The fact that when I was at school, I was taught by teachers who couldn’t teach at all, led me to think about how I gained the skills I have today both as a teacher and entrepreneur. The reality is that most of it was learning through experience.
There have been many studies into how teachers should be trained and what the focus of their training should be. However, many of these ideas seem to be completely out of touch with how rapidly the world is changing. If we don’t suitably adjust this way of thinking, then we risk failing the next generation of staff and students in an epic manner. How a teacher was teaching twenty years ago, is quite different from how they should be teaching today. The sad reality is that whilst the world has changed, many schools have essentially remained the same and are still stuck firmly in the past, still reminiscing about a world of big hair dos, bad fashion and videos that were killing radio stars.
This doesn’t mean we need to radically change our theories on education and re-imagine a classroom full of holograms and corporate ads. What it does mean however, is that we need actually to look back further than the 1980s to what educational ideas and practices were used in the past and I mean way into the past, before the industrial revolution created today's dysfunctional classroom environment.
What did you just say? We need to look further into the past to find solutions for the future??? Well in a word, yes, but before you don a pair of chaps and jump into the Delorian let me explain.
Most education prior to the industrial revolution was experiential. It was done through apprenticeships, through mentoring and working with others who had mastered a trade or a skill before. You learnt by a bit of theory and a lot of practice and this is something that’s been sadly lost in our rush to become a ‘smart country’ where every well-educated grad student can live a life of under-employment and making coffee in the exploding multitude of trendy cafés.
One of the big problems with current teacher training is that it’s so heavily based upon theory and transferring that theory through a standard style of classroom. Whilst many schools claim to be innovating, the classroom remains the same in nature, no matter how many fancy tables, break out areas or bean bags you’ve put in it. The reason is that most of the learning stems from the teacher’s ability to engage in a meaningful way, rather than how the furniture works. If your teachers aren’t engaging, students are going to struggle to learn anything useful.
So back to teacher training! When I did my training, I did a course called a Graduate Diploma of Education. It was a 12 months add-on after I completed my degree in History and Politics. The year after I finished, the course turned into a 2 year Bachelor of Education. Would spending another mindless year in the classroom have made me a better teacher? No, but it would have made more money for the university and I’d still be paying off crippling student loans having achieved the sum total of nothing.
The reality is that if I’d been forced to complete a 2 year degree in Education, rather than a 12 month Graduate Diploma, I wouldn’t have even bothered. I thought at the time, 5 years worth of university study to become a teacher was a bit of a joke and I still do. It doesn’t improve teaching. It simply perpetuates more of the same repetitive theories of education and adds little value to the overall quality of the teacher.
Unfortunately, due to the large amounts of money involved and the fact that too many politicians equate more pre-service study at uni with better long-term standardised test scores, the university education for teachers is going to even more ridiculous extremes. You now have lots of first year out teachers who have stayed on at uni for so long, they’ve completed a Masters in Education, only proving a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous.
When I look at new teachers with Masters degrees. I laugh because it’s a complete joke that you have a brand-new teacher who has a Masters in something they’re not yet experienced in. I’m not saying Masters degrees are bad, because I have managed to collect a couple of them myself, though none in Education. However, this is something which is now being over-sold/over-studied by new teachers.
If new graduates with Masters Degrees was all that it took to re-engage the 40% of our students who are totally disengaged with education, the standardised test results would be through the roof and we’d be well on the way to surpassing Kazakhstan for literacy and numeracy.
However, despite longer university courses and rigorous ie arduous standards for teacher registration, Australian schools are still not making the impact that’s needed in terms of student engagement.
What other options are there to help address this massive problem? This is where looking to the past can be helpful for the education of the future. In my experience, the most effective teachers I’ve worked with are those who have done something totally different from teaching. The worst teachers I’ve worked with are the ones who have gone to school, gone to university to become a teacher and then returned to the exact same school at which they were a student. There’s usually some deeper dysfunction which drives a person to do this, as they’re often running and hiding from something in the real world (usually themselves), but that’s a far more complex issue beyond the discussion for today. As a general rule, it’s not healthy to return to the school you attended no matter how good you thought the experience was, because your belief in ownership and ties with the school might forever perversely affect your judgment about the nature of education and how it needs to continually evolve to meet the changing needs of staff and students.
Back to the issue of good teachers. What makes a good teacher? One factor is diversity of experience. If you’re teaching students to think for themselves, take risks and become a caring and well-balanced member of society, what better way than to be taught by other caring, risk-taking well-balanced members of society?
Unless you understand and have experienced the world outside of education for yourself, how can you possibly prepare others to do the same? This is where we start looking to the past. As I mentioned earlier, for thousands of years young men and women learnt trades or life skills from the experience of others. They could have had apprenticeships or been indentured in all sorts of trades and professions, but the benefit was, they were learning directly from those who knew exactly what they were doing. Whilst this lacked efficiency in the world of the industrial revolution, the positive adult role modelling and mentoring combined with learning by doing, remains one of the most powerful means through which we learn.
Unfortunately, schools too often perpetuate this cycle of school to uni and back to school by not insisting on anything but uni qualifications. What if teacher registration instead were changed to require a new teacher to have completed at least 12 months of other work outside of education? Therefore, instead of wasting someone’s time with another year of pointless study, line them up with internships in companies, banks, cafes, factories, on farms, in real industries, though perhaps avoiding government departments. This forces new teachers to be adaptable and to take on skills and roles which might make them feel discomfort, but ultimately these provide massive opportunities for personal growth. This could appear to have nothing to do with education on the surface, but the reality is gaining the skill-set that students now need to be developing to thrive in the future. This style of work experience that would be happening outside the sheltered world of schools can provide great life skills which teachers can leverage over the long-term in their teaching practice helping them to be far more genuine and effective.
In addition to this, rotations through industry partners should be encouraged every 5-10 years as part of a well-designed and well-organised professional development program. The reality is that the world has experienced a seismic shift and will continue to change at an increasingly rapid pace. If you want people capable of teaching children how to adapt to this new paradigm, then teachers need to have experienced life in the real world themselves.
There’s no real benefit in being taught by someone who has only had school as the measure for life’s experiences. However, there’s immense benefit that can be gained from teachers who have experienced life’s ups and downs in various diverse contexts. This makes better teachers and can improve student engagement.
The world is never changed by easy options or sheer luck. It’s changed by those who take risks, backed by action and have the moral framework and persistence to see it through. We’re at a time where the direction of the world is in flux and this provides us with a great opportunity to shape our world in a positive and meaningful way. Consequently, we can’t afford to lose the next generation into the emotional wilderness because we’re not prepared to take the action necessary to help build brilliant young men and women who can and will change the world.
It’s time we reconsidered the way we train and maintain our teachers in their careers, to ensure we’re able to maximise the effectiveness of the time students spend at school and help them transition smoothly and effectively into adult life.
Often teachers like to tell others what to think. I know my teachers did when I was at school. In fact, they had an entire system in place there which actively stifled creative thinking.
However, as creative and independent thought becomes an increasingly important skill for students to have, how do we help develop creative thinkers?
Firstly, whatever you do, don't give students all the answers! This is a total cop out, much of which is borne from easy access to someone else's thoughts. What better way to study a novel for English, other than watch the movie and download all the crib notes! After all that's what everyone else is doing!
The problem with this approach is that you end up thinking exactly the way someone wants you to think, but ultimately other people's thoughts and feelings can never be your own and the most powerful lessons are based upon our own experiences, not others.
I see it all the time in education. Teachers feel the need to tell you exactly what a text means, what a character represents, what underlying themes are at play. All of this places a huge amount of perspective bias on a text. But what a text, a song, a piece of art or an engineering system means to one person, may be completely different to another! It's through encouraging and supporting this difference of perspective that drives creative thinkers.
If there were only ever one answer to everything, then between Google and Wikipedia, the world would be a perfectly balanced and happy place. Yet that would be a boring world in which to live.
Thankfully, instead there are endless answers, perspectives and feelings that are generated from literature, art and science that's taught in schools. The key to unlocking the value of this is by allowing students to explore and communicate their own personal perspectives.
Music for example is an easy way to spark discussions about abstract feedback such as feelings and interpretation. Give your students a song to listen to over and over and see what emotional response they have and ask them why. Whilst some songs will entice similar responses, there's countless ones that will have vastly different meanings for different people, because they're applying their own thoughts and experiences to the subject matter.
The artist may have had one idea stemming from life, but to be brutally honest, that means nothing to the listener. It's only from our own lives that we can draw our own emotional interpretations. Understanding this can be a powerful tool to help students develop a sense of independence, self-worth and identity and should be encouraged.
One song which fascinates me is Mad World, by Gary Jules, which is the theme song to Donnie Darko, which again is a movie which is amazingly complex and what it means to me is totally different from what it means to everyone else with whom I've discussed it.
There's no point in my analysing the song nor the movie here because I can only express my thoughts and feelings on it. Instead, listen to it a few times. How does it make you feel? Who do you think of when you hear it? This can be applied to so many songs. We listen to music, not because we care about the artist’s experiences. It's all an expression of our own. This is true for literature, art and science. They're all reflections of our own experiences and emotional responses.
So no matter what you're doing, there's never just one answer. Allow your students to explore and apply their own perspective. This encourages them to be creative and develops their critical and independent thinking skills, skills which will help them thrive in an ever-changing world.
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.
Late last year, I was involved with another film project called The Merger! I enjoy the different sort of challenge that comes with a film project. For me however, the biggest challenge was just finding the time to get there. With that in mind, I was able to sneak it in between work days and I’m so glad that I did.
Film projects are lots of fun (although there’s a lot of work behind the scenes that goes into them and a lot of sitting around doing nothing). I think the bigger the budget, the more sitting around doing nothing there is. I would imagine that actors should be very well-read, as the time spent doing nothing at all, is significant.
A few years ago, I was in the movie Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie. Most of the film was done in Australia and I somehow ended up in it as a journalist. The free haircut was probably the most exciting part of the whole experience and when it came to the day of filming, I sat around for eleven hours in a room full of Nazis and did nothing. Ok, so to be honest, they weren’t real Nazis. They were just dressed up as Nazis as we were supposed to be at the Berlin Olympics. Finally, everyone was called onto the set, where we stood around for another hour waiting for something to happen. As if in the blink of an eye, the scene was filmed and everyone was sent back to get changed out of their SS uniforms. Not really the most exciting of days as the illusion of stardom feels so much emptier and extremely uninteresting after thirteen hours of standing around and waiting.
However, I don’t want to discourage anyone from giving this a go. It’s one of those things where I can say, “I’ve been there and done that.” I was however, far more interested when I became involved in two much smaller Australian films. The first one being “The Backyard Ashes,” and most recently, “The Merger,” which are both by Director Mark Grental.
I only became involved by a chance meeting at a political party convention back in 2011. Mark was the guest speaker and a very unusual one to have at a political meeting, because he was funny and interesting. He’d told his story of growing up in a rural community near Wagga Wagga and what it was like being interested in the arts. He’d moved away to study at NIDA and was now back to work on a feature film called The Backyard Ashes. As expected, this was a movie about cricket. As soon as he gave the overview of the film, I was hooked. It was a great Australian Story that tells the tale of a neighbourhood dispute where the main character and his friends are playing backyard cricket and after hitting the ball for six, accidentally incinerates his boss’s prized cat on the barbecue. He collects the ashes of the cat and returns it to the owner. Long story short to resolve the neighbourhood dispute, they then play a game of backyard cricket with the ashes as the prize!
It’s a funny movie and throughout it, I was able to be involved on the set and off the set with a cameo as an extra and also helping out with the post production marketing! I’d never imagined that a chance meeting at a fairly dull political conference could lead to me to meeting so many interesting people and going to so many cool parties. When I saw that Mark was making another film, I decided that I wanted to be involved once again!
The Merger is another sports movie, this time based around AFL. The basic story is that this country football club is basically going to wreck and ruin. The team’s gone, the clubhouse condemned and it’s not looking good. However, there’s a chance to revive things with the idea of enlisting and training refugees to play on the team. I won’t give any more of the plot away and you should go and see if for yourself. It’s a very politically topical movie given the debate in Australia around refuges and what we should be doing as a nation and there’s not an easy solution, as it’s a very emotive and devise debate.
The beauty of art and film however, is that it can present ideas in such a unique way that’s outside of the standard partisan political debate we see in our daily media. If you look at how art has pushed the boundaries for centuries in helping our world modernise, fight for human rights and become more equitable, you start to really appreciate the value of art within our society.
Whilst I have no intention of going into the film industry, for me, being involved in projects in this way, gives me something different to do. It’s a chance to be part of something much bigger and something that’s going to last forever. Whenever I see The Backyard Ashes advertised, or on TV or even on the inflight entertainment, I feel excited to have been part of it all. From the first meeting of the actors and crew, which happened to be at a BBQ, to the green and red carpet premiers in Wagga and Sydney. The people I met, the friendships I developed, the experience I gained and the stories I now have, were all a wonderful part of this. I now have two films I can watch with great pride and also scream out when I spot myself standing obscurely in the corner of a scene.
As we’re now into a new year and the holidays are coming to an end, why don’t you find something you’ve always wanted to try, just for the sake of it. I challenge everybody over the next twelve months to get yourself involved in something completely different. A random project that you’ve always wanted to try out! You never know who you will meet, or where it will take you. Live your life to the fullest and make the most of every opportunity that comes your way this year.
It's funny how easily we find ourselves sitting back and taking our working lives so contentedly. Almost every job is repetitive. Some are vastly more repetitive than others, for example working on a production line. However, sometimes even with variety at work, it can still become repetitious.
Recently, my colleagues and I spent some time developing new options for the outdoor ed program. The main aim of this was to have plans B, C, D, etc just in case weather or circumstances prevented us from going with plan A. For this, we headed Canberra to conduct some “reccies” (reconnoitres), to assess the suitability of different expeditions in areas.
Covering three different modes of transport, hiking, mountain biking and canoeing, one of the aims was to have an expedition that could link these together into a seamless journey. So off we went into the Brindabella ranges! This is a mountain range just south of Canberra through which the Murrumbidgee River flows and at points, narrows into mini gorges to create some exciting white water.
After driving around for about an hour and half in the troopie through some amazingly creepy hillbilly country trying to find public access to the river, it appeared we were out of luck. The upper section of the river where we wanted to put in, seemed to be completely hemmed in by private properties filled with wrecked cars and uninviting signs. Thankfully, we weren’t chased out by too many toothless, gun toting madman trying to protect their moonshine stills. With no way in, we decided to head back down to where we left the other vehicle and paddle from there.
Packing the canoes we put in the boats at a ford that ran a shallow and constant stream over the road, which quickly turned into some gentle rapids. Getting on the water, I was slightly nervous, as I’d never white water canoed before. Having paddled down many rivers in a kayak with a spray deck on, it's a totally different feeling being in an open canoe and only having a single blade. Sitting in the front of the boat we paddled down towards the first rapid. A nervous pain started stabbing me in the stomach. I suddenly found myself way outside my comfort zone.
As we hit the first rapid, the boat got caught on a rock. I quickly shifted my body to counterbalance the boat that was now tilted up at a high angle with the gunnel almost touching the water. It was probably the most precarious place you could imagine to have put the boat, and we’d only paddled about 50m. Seemingly, it wasn’t a good start to what was going to be a very interesting day. After being perched awkwardly on the rock for a few minutes, which felt like hours, we finally managed to shuffle our way off and back into the stream. The canoe righted itself with a bang and bumped clumsily across several other rocks as we went. I was now hoping the entire day wasn’t going to be like this.
Thankfully, the river widened and deepen a little, so became quite a pleasant paddle… well for a short period of time anyway. As my nerves eased, I tried to start reading the river ahead, anticipating any potential bumps and helping my colleague navigate and avoid them. After about half an hour, the river began to narrow once again and the land started to drop away at a much steeper rate. I became increasingly nervous, as I could see the bubbling white water in front of me getting funnelled down into an even tighter stretch of the river. Despite having a highly-experienced instructor in the back of the boat steering, I was a bundle of nerves as I clung on to my wooden paddle for dear life.
We sat midstream back-paddling and maintaining our position, as we discussed tactics of how we were going to approach and attack the next set of rapids. With a plan clearly in our minds, we paddled hard towards the first rapid and as we hit it, we turned hard right! With only inches to spare, we traversed the second rapid before swiftly changing direction again to negotiate a third one. With my heart pounding and my knuckles going white from gripping the paddle so hard, we slid through the final section and onto a fast-flowing rapid train that bounced us up and down, splashing masses of water over the bow and into my face.
A few hundred metres on, we came to yet another section that was even more extreme. Pulling off into an eddy, we breaked for lunch and examine the rapids ahead from the riverbank. What was becoming increasingly obvious, was the fact the hills were getting steeper around us and we were getting funnelled into a gorge. After lunch and having walked up and down the river examining options, we decided to portage the boats for a couple of hundred metres to avoid some of the more extreme rapids. The feeling of relief rippled through me as I really didn't want to be going down a grade 3 rapid that might’ve slammed us straight into a rock.
It quickly became apparent that canoes weren't really designed to be carried and despite going around some of the rapids being a much safer option, it was an arduous task dragging the canoes and our equipment over the rocky embankment beside the river.
Finding a calm little eddy on the other side, we slid the boat back in and continued on our way. This didn't last long, as the gradient of the river increased and the rocks either side began to appear pillar-like as they reached up higher and higher.
After hitting a few more rapids, the land seemed to just drop away. Pulling in to another eddy, we got out of the boat, and assessed what was a massive grade 3 rapid that split into two streams. Both directions were filled with nasty looking strainers ready for their next customer. Those of you who aren’t familiar with a strainer, it’s an object in the water, usually a tree branch or similar that catches solid objects as the water goes through it. Much like when you cook pasta and strain the water, the strainer in the river will capture you and hold you there. The difference being you don't get tipped out onto a plate and served with a nice tomato and basil sauce, you just get pinned there and drown. Strainers are deadly objects that you want to avoid it all cost.
We’d now hit a point in the river where it was no longer safe to paddle, nor was it easy or suitable to portage due to the increasingly large rocky outcrops. Emptying everything out of the boats we decided to line them down the rapids instead. Lining, if you haven't come across that either is where you attach a rope to the boat and allow the boat to float down the rapid whilst you use the rope to guide it. Sounds easy? Not quite... If the boat tips over at any point you need to let go of the rope immediately. The problem is that as soon as a capsized canoe fills with water, it suddenly weighs around 400kg. Unless you have massive guns, you’ll basically get snatched off the rocks and dragged down into the water, which is not recommended.
Lining the boats, followed by 100m of paddling, then several hundred metres of portaging and another extended lining took around two hours. The end of which we’d covered about 500m! The air felt cool as the sun hung low in the western sky. What was supposed to take a couple of hours in total, was now well into its sixth hour. Looking on the map, there was relief in sight as the river appeared to once again broaden. Back in the boats after another short portage, we paddled forth hoping our reading of the map was correct. The terrain around us had changed slightly. It was looking promising that the worst of it was over. As we rounded the next bend, a feeling of relief flooded over me. We were now back to a wide smooth flowing section of the Murrumbidgee!
With the light fading and the day well and truly done, the sight of Thawa Bridge ahead in the distance was a wonderful sight to see. It was just before dark as we stepped out of the boat. I felt a sense of achievement! Despite it being a harrowing experience at the start of the day and feeling completely out of my depth, it’d turned into an excellent adventure.
Often at work, we can become stagnant in our repetitive roles. Experiences such as this push us and remind us that we must also be prepared to push ourselves outside our comfort zones if we want to grow. There’s no point in telling kids they need to push their boundaries and limits, if we’re not prepared to do it ourselves. Feeling the fear that your students feel when they start a new activity for the first time is an important part of understanding why we do what we do.
Experiential education is so important for the continuous growth and improvement for both teacher and student. If you find you’re happy, content and comfortable day in day out at work, you're simply not pushing the boundaries hard enough. Even if you have a program that works exceptionally well, there’s always space for improvement.
Challenge yourself! Go out and find options B, C, D and in doing so experience something new. Ultimately, the more we test our comfort zone, the more we grow. The more we grow in ourselves, the stronger and more confident we become in our own lives. This strength and confidence translates into far better teaching and mentorship for our students.