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.
I felt the bracing cold of Canberra, as I stepped from the car in anticipation of another challenging weekend at GovHack. I can understand why the Federal Parliament has a winter recess! However, despite this, I was rugged up and ready.
Walking up to the Snow Centre (Canberra Grammar’s amazing technology building), it was lit up with the GovHack and CGS logo projected onto the wall, looking more like a night club, than a school. Thinking of which, imagine how much money you could make from doing pop-up night clubs in schools on the weekends and in the holidays! Think about it! You have the venue, the sound systems, plenty of parking… You just need a liquor licence and you could make a ton of money! Hmmm I could be onto something… (patent pending © David Gregory 2017!!!)
Anyway, walking in, the place was buzzing with excitement. Even the registration process was cool, as I lined up to register. It was in a darkened room, illuminated by a number of computers. My name badge had been printed on this cool looking Perspex, which in the darkened room appeared to glow.
Armed with my badge and my laptop, I walked around and said hi to a few people I’d met last year. However, my nerves were starting to kick in. For me this sort of event, at least getting started is way outside my comfort zone. I may run around the countryside mountain biking, hiking, exploring new places and speaking to large audiences without any problems, going into an unknown project with a team of people I haven't even met yet is a tough and challenging experience for me. However, that's the whole point! Part of the challenge for me in doing something like this, is the fact that it is confronting and nerve wracking stepping out into the unknown.
Whilst I often talk about ways in which to push others outside their comfort zone, it makes little sense to be teaching this, unless you're going to do it yourself. Despite the nerves, the apprehension and not knowing how that night was going to turn out let alone the whole weekend, I walked in. Always worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a team, I pushed through this negative thinking, in anticipation of what could be. As usual, I was proved wrong on this. At the team forming point, I met some amazing and diverse people with whom I ended up working.
Whilst there are prizes for the most innovative use of data and a range of other categories, for me success was more to do with finding a team and working with that team to produce something interesting over the next forty six hours.
The excited noise of the crowd subsided, as ACT organiser Matt Purcell introduced the evening and ran through the rules of the event and provided a rundown of everything that was happening over the weekend and most importantly what was for dinner!
At the conclusion of his presentation, there was hurried activity as teams scrambled to their breakout rooms to start hacking, or grab a can of drink from the fridge, both good options! For our team, the first challenge was to get to know everybody's names and work out what everybody's strengths were. We quickly went around the table and introduced ourselves with a quick background as to what we do and why we were competing at GovHack.
Most teams had been organised beforehand and many of them had already devised some idea of the sort of projects they were going to work on. However, when you’ve just created a brand-new team with people you’ve never even met before, suddenly the challenge of this exercise escalates. Not only do you have to get to know people and work out their strengths really quickly, you have to come up with a cohesive and innovative idea using government data and produce at least a semi-working prototype within forty six hours.
For many, this might be an overwhelming task. However, I believe the key to success in this is effective communication. Even though we weren't able to go straight to a room and start working on our project, we were able to communicate effectively with each other and through our discussions and brainstorming, ideas started to flow and slowly come together.
As I've said many times before, for me being innovative is really hard sitting around a table. Yet this time, I found as ideas were being thrown up as to what datasets could be used, I was able to start bouncing ideas back that over the next hour and a half started to form into something quite interesting. The only thing which stumped all of us was the team name, which in the end pretty much ended up being based upon the solution that we created.
So what did we come up with?
After harassing countless government mentors and asking them what their biggest problem was, we came up with a mashup idea which evolved from using the cat restricted area data to chase down rogue cats, to a mobile app which allows drivers to quickly and accurately report injured wildlife to ACT Wildlife services. With the ultimate aim of faster rescue services and better data-capture on injured wildlife, our team got to work to research the impact of this in more depth and then built a business case and prototype from this.
The day seemed to evaporate as we brainstormed, planned and developed the idea. The sun had set and the rich tantalising smell of Indian food wafted through the air. With the organisers catering for 170 people, I've never seen so many massive buckets of curry in my life. It was a much needed and appreciated meal after a long day of hacking!
I headed off around 8:30 that evening after what had been a very productive day of team work. We’d all been working on our individual tasks, which were all contributing to the big picture of our overall project.
The next day started slowly, but the pace picked up to frantic levels as the deadline approached. We’d completed the project and the video just in time. However, after the first attempt to export the video from iMovie to YouTube failed, I had to do it manually and when I did, the computer was telling me it would take 26mins to upload the video and there were 13mins to go!!! Not able to rely on a timely server crash, I quickly re-exported the video at a much lower res and nervously cancelled the upload, removed the file and started again! The smaller video file uploaded quicker than I expected and thankfully with 4 mins to go, it was in!
Honey I Hit a Roo! - https://youtu.be/Gpi8EZiYi2Q
As the upload was confirmed, a great feeling of relief and achievement flooded in. It felt great to have successfully completed a project that two days ago, we had no idea about. Whilst at this point, it’s easy to reflect and say there was nothing to worry about, which in the end was true, if I hadn’t challenged myself and pushed myself outside my own comfort zone, I’d never have met such a great team who included Yogesh, Anthony, Ian and Mahathir and been able to create a really cool solution to a massive problem in Australia.
For the remainder of the year, I encourage everyone to do something that’s way outside their comfort zone. Don’t just teach it! Actually do it! Through this, you can become far more confident and effective in your own work and your own life. For me, this was such a great weekend, meeting new people and reconnecting with others I hadn’t seen in a long time. If you’ve never been to something like GovHack, then you must save the date for next year! A huge thankyou to Canberra Grammar, Matt Purcell and all the other GovHack volunteers who made it such an amazing weekend! Great work for me! It was a wonderful experience and the atmosphere of the whole event spoke volumes about how well it was done!
The trajectory of life is a challenging issue about which to talk with teenagers. Unless we understand it ourselves as educators, how can we impart that knowledge and experience onto young impressionable minds that are being constantly bombarded with competing thoughts and feelings?
It’s exceptionally hard to convey to a teenager what life could be like in 5, 10 or even 20 years’ time, especially now that life and society is constantly changing. What can we do?
When I do goal setting sessions with teenagers, and ask the question what are your long-term goals, often I get the overwhelming response: ‘I want to be rich and have a hot wife’; or ‘I want to be rich and have a super fit husband.’ It’s usually the boys who have this very immature approach and all they can think about is about money and hot women. Thanks again to social media for reinforcing shallow delusions.
When you drill down and ask students why they want to be rich and have a hot wife, it turns out that it’s more to do with the notion of popularity at school, than anything real, which is quite unsurprising given their age.
Often, it’s a difficult conversation to have when you suggest that maybe the trajectory of their life may not turn out to be what they want it to be. The reality is, that most peoples’ lives never quite work out the way they envisaged. However, despite the stark reality of life’s challenges, it doesn’t mean that students can’t reach their goals. Instead, as teachers, it’s important that we are able to prepare them for the speed bumps and hurdles along the way.
Many teachers would simply say, ‘You have to work hard at school, go to uni, work hard on your job, then you’ll be successful.’ At this point I’d totally disagree with them. Unless students can establish what their vision of success is, then it’s unreasonable that teachers frame life in this way, because all it’s really doing is reinforcing the shallow ideas of money and a hot wife and not taking into consideration the complexity of life.
Some people have the idea of that success is all about a career and money but what does success look like to you? What’s meaningful in your life? What makes you happy? Not everybody wants to be a lawyer. Not everybody wants to be a doctor. Not everybody wants to be an engineer. Yet for some schools I’ve worked at, unless you’re fighting hard to get into one of those three career paths, then sadly, it makes it impossible for many students please their parents.
I also pose this question to students as part of goal setting. Is pleasing your parents something that will make you happy? Or is pleasing your parents just something to keep them at bay and not necessarily make you happy? I’ve come across many former students of mine who have done exceptionally well academically, but then spent years in the wilderness because they weren’t doing what they really wanted to do. They weren’t doing what they really felt was right for them and as result, weren’t the slightest bit happy with their lives. They were living out someone else’s dreams, not theirs. What seemed like a rocket fuelled ride towards success, with great school results and a wonderful university education, they were disengaged at work and looking for something real.
One of my aims with goal setting is to have students to think about how they see their life developing and start to plan how they want their life to develop. At the same time, there’s the need to help them understand it’s not always going to be easy. Your goals aren’t just going to fall into your lap. When this happens however, we’ve also provided them with the skills to consolidate, adapt and move forward again towards those goals.
We achieve this through experiential education as a metaphor for getting through other challenges in life. However, it can’t be done in isolation. There must be follow through after a program has run its course and there needs to be ongoing support from parents and mentors to help students more effectively plot and track the trajectory that they’re on.
Understanding and drawing on our own experiences as teachers, can be powerful in helping students to evaluate where they’re at and what skills they might need to develop to be able to stay on their chosen path.
What does the trajectory of your life look like? For someone in their 20s and 30s, it can be easier or harder depending on their approach and their attitude. For me, in my 20s the trajectory of my life didn’t look anything like what it is today.
My life was looking very much like a downward spiral into the abyss. I didn’t have the focus. I didn’t have a vision for the future and I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do. Nothing I was doing made me happy, which made it extremely hard at work, as well as deciding what good opportunities for the future were, versus rubbish opportunities.
However, if you have a clear idea in your mind what you’re trying to achieve and what makes you happy, then everything else in life falls into place far more easily. When you’re making informed decisions based upon what drives you and what makes your life exciting and interesting, suddenly, you’re back on that path to success.
Through sharing your own experience, you’re then able to impart that to be successful, life’s trajectory is not always going to be a linear one. There may be set backs but from setbacks, you can regroup, rebuild and become even stronger. Consequently, as part of a much broader part of any experiential education program, you can use the various activities and challenges as a metaphor for the trajectory of life. By relating success or failure in activities your students will face in life, can provide immensely powerful teaching and learning moments for your students.
Through this approach, you can help your students avoid years in the emotional wilderness and get them thinking, ‘Wait a minute, I can decide my destiny. I can build my life how I want it to be built!’
It’s that passion and desire to build a life of one’s own making, that’s often lost in the daily grind of school and the focus on the academic end goal for a university entrance rank. It’s important however, that students can start to develop real ideas of where they want to take their lives and from a teaching point of view, for teachers to provide them with the skills and ability to seek out opportunities, deal with setbacks, and keep moving towards their goals. It’s never going to be a straight and easy path. However, with the right grounding at school, it makes it so much easier.
One thing everyone’s looking for is someone who is genuine. This is a real challenge in education because often teachers are placed in situations where they’re teaching something that they’re not particularly interested in. As a result, they don’t have the passion, they don’t have the enthusiasm and therefore, they don’t have that genuine vibe and engagement in what they’re doing. I noticed this myself the other day.
I was supervising a group of students and there were two activities going on. One was table tennis and the other was monopoly. I’ve never really liked table tennis and so I always avoid it and I make up endless excuses as to why I can’t play. Even though it could be quite beneficial and would help me to develop a rapport with some students with whom otherwise it’s hard to develop, in reality, playing the game wasn’t worth it for some superfical rapport.
If I were to play, since I wasn’t really interested in it myself, I mightn’t put much effort into playing. It would have ended up being counter productive. The students would easily see through this and ultimately there’d be no point in pretending I was enjoying what I was doing. As experiential education is as much about relationships as it is about pushing boundaries, there’s no actual benefit from engaging in some sort of activity such as table tennis, if you’re not genuine about it yourself.
Conversely, there was the game of monopoly being played and one of the kids said to me, “Hey Sir, do you want to be on my team?”
My immediate reply was, “Sure! Sounds like fun!”
The difference was that I love Monopoly. However, I made sure that I didn’t take over control of the game, because even thiugh I’m pretty competitive at Monopoly, I was still the invited number two team member. On a side note, Monopoly is so much fun. I always love having the car but we didn’t get the car. Actually, I also like the battleship, as well and the dog, but I digress.
Anyway the point is, it’s such a fun game and the difference here was that when I was involved, I was attentive, I was exploring options, I was whispering strategies and tactics with my teammate and we were taking turns of rolling the dice. The fact that I was genuinely interested in playing the game made all the difference and it’s something you just can’t make up or fudge your way through.
The end result was that I got to know more about my teammate than I otherwise would have and it created a rapport that enabled far better engagement from him in many other activites. To be able to engage students effectively is just as much, if not more about the positive role modeling that you can provide as a teacher than your knowlege in any specific subject area. This helps you draw on that positive, professional relationship to be able to encourage students when they’re struggling with their own challenges or even just in helping shape their attitude towards new activities or ways of thinking.
Suddenly, through doing something that you really emjoy (and it doesn’t have to be Monopoly), it can open up dialogues later on and enables you to teach more effectively because when students see that you’re interested, passionate and engaged in something, they’re more likely to become interested, passionate and engaged in other things as well. This can only come from when you’re honest and geniune about what your own interests and passions are. Don’t try to ‘fake it until you make it,’ as kids will see through this everytime. Just be yourself and things will naturally fall into place.
As an important footnote here, we actually won Monopoly so I was very happy with that, but at the end of the day, it was more to do with the fact that for over an hour a whole group of students and I played an interesting, fun-filled game that everyone wanted to play and left with a better connection than before.
It's time to once again brave the cold of Canberra for a weekend of hacking! Whilst it would be more fun to be spending the weekend hacking a top-secret mainframe, unfortunately that's not what this sort of hacking is all about. So for the moment, the secret as to what happened to Harold Holt after he went for a swim and who has the Maltese Falcon, will remain safely hidden in the depths of the top secret bunker under Parliament House for the time being...
Instead, GovHack is a weekend all about hacking together ideas and code in a useful manner to do something productive and constructive with huge government datasets. If you have some free time and you don't know what to do with yourself, why not check out http://www.data.gov.au/ . There's over 30,000 freely available government datasets found here for you to get creative with. Everything from health stats to wave heights out at sea make up this enormous collection of data. Sadly, despite trying, I couldn't find anything about the second gunmen on the grassy knoll or the current whereabouts of the magic pudding.
Whilst last year's experience at GovHack was an amazing one, it was somewhat overwhelming as a first time participant, from the point of view I had no idea how the weekend was going to play out. However, that was part of the excitement, not knowing who I was going to meet or what I was actually going to be doing. This time however, it's exciting for a different reason. Now I kind of know what I'm doing and with that knowledge, I know exactly what time I need to line up for food before the crowd arrives.
Despite having this advantage over others for the food line, the real excitement for me comes back to the fact that whilst I know how it all works this time around from a logistical point of view, the datasets are different, the projects will be different, the challenges and prizes will be different and the team might be different. Once you throw in all these new variables it's an entirely new challenge and experience.
This can be seen as a reflection on how technology is shaping our lives in such a dramatic way. Whilst in the past, experience could make you an expert in a certain area and from one year to the next it wouldn’t change much. For example, if you read lots of books on ancient Rome, you would most likely be an authority on the subject. However, 12 months on since the last GovHack challenge, technology has changed, the world has move forward, (with the exception of North Korea) and what I thought I was reasonably good with back then, I find has completely changed by now. No longer can we get away with creating a mash up of bus schedules and Pokémon Go stops, because literally nobody cares about Pokémon Go anymore. Whilst this might be a wonderful reflection on the progress our society has made in a year, one good thing the game did, was that it got a lot of shut-ins out of their windowless basements and running around town chasing imaginary creatures.
Despite the shifting sands of technology, game fads and social media, no matter how much the world changes, there remain some key educational groundings and skills that are essential for the challenge of GovHack. Being able to analyse and solve real-world problems is what this weekend is all about. Forget the technology, as I said, it constantly changes and so with that, you just have to accept the inevitable change and realise that is now just another variable in the problem-solving process.
For anyone considering going to something like this, it is a fantastic experience and is of immense educational value. You will learn more in one weekend problem solving with others, than you will in six months in a classroom. Even if you know nothing about the technology, it's your ability to look at a problem in a unique way and find creative solutions that will lead you to success. This is really a microcosm of what mainstream education should be about. As the world changes so rapidly, education needs to realise this and catch up with the fact that teachers need to be teaching students how to be looking at problems, considering options and working out solutions.
If you haven't already got yourself organised to go to a GovHack event, then get to right now to do something about it. Find your nearest location and register to attend, because it will be one of the most memorable weekends of your year. If in the process, you happen to find out who has the Maltese Falcon, I am willing to pay handsomely for that information…
These days, especially in the la la land of tech startups, there's endless talk of metrics. How many users do you have? For how long have you been in business? How many Facebook fans and Twitter followers do you have? How many daily likes do you get on Instagram?
These endless vanity metrics are amazing at providing a shallow and somewhat pointless insight into how well your business is doing. At the end of the day however, net profit and growth are what will keep you eating smashed avocado, sipping lattes and dressing in daggy jeans and t-shirts for years to come.
Schools unfortunately are no different. They make a huge deal about vanity metrics, in particular the academic results of those leaving Yr 12. There's even whole businesses that have sprung up from ‘consultants’ who help schools analyse these ‘results’ and provide advice on how to improve them. Perhaps I could offer you some snake oil at the same time…
Whilst I'm not saying academic results aren't an important gauge for a school, the obsession over them as being the most important metric, is ridiculously unhealthy and another hangover from the 19th century that just won't go away.
Despite all the academic focus of schools, only a third of school leavers will ever darken the door of a university. So now the majority of students have spent 13 years in school learning academic subjects they’ll never ever use. No wonder 40% of our students are disengaged!
I've previously sat through a couple of exam result analysis. They seem to be the highlight of the year for the principal (or not depending on the numbers). As with political opinion polls, schools will put a spin on their figures no matter what the case, but again this is mostly hot air and a key vanity metric for all involved, because it's not able to accurately reflect or gauge what happens after school and if a student will be successful.
The reality is that this single academic metric fails to consider the complexity of modern education and young adults. To thrive in our rapidly changing world, students need more from their 13 years at school than an academic number. If educators make this number out to be the single most important thing in their entire schooling, educators are unnaturally increasing the pressure on students in those final years.
If you look at some of the most successful people in the world, you’ll find that many of them never even finished school. Therefore, such metrics are purely for vanity, if education is truly about creating individuals who can succeed in life.
The bottom line is that education is about developing young men and women to be balanced, functional and proactive members of society. Through this, they can be enormously successful in everything they do. As a result, schools should broaden the scope of their metrics to cover not just exam results, but successful further training, employment, community service and even post school happiness.
You could even delve into the dangerously taboo topic of successful relationships. How many school leavers end up married and stay married? How many end up in divorce? Whilst many would say this is none of a school’s business, I argue strongly that it is! After 13 years of education through the most formative years of people lives, if you haven't had some impact on their social and emotional well-being and subsequent moral outlook on life, then there's something seriously wrong with the system.
There's so much more that can and should be explored to provide a real picture of the education a child will get at any given school.
Ultimately as teachers, we want to know if our efforts teaching young men and women have had a profound and lasting impact. Has what we’ve done at school actually made a difference socially and emotionally in their lives? Have we equipped them with the skills and a sense of social responsibility and enabled them to thrive in the real world? Or have we just been babysitting and spoon-feeding them to perform in an exam that most of them will never ever need?
I'd be horrified if it were the latter. Teachers have such an amazing impact on their students’ lives. However, until we start measuring far broader results than the vanity metrics of the year 12 exams, we will never truly understand the impact current teaching practices have, nor how we can make it even better to meet the challenges that the future of education holds.
Whilst you can keep your vanity metrics, always be careful to see them for what they are. To really gauge the success of your school this year, start tracking a much broader set of results from employability to happiness. Through this, you can start to really assess the lasting impact you're making in your students’ lives.
Many organisations have irrational obsessions and unhealthy relationships with their written risk assessments. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do written risk assessments because you should. They’re an extremely important part of a risk management framework. However, what is unhealthy about them, is the demand from management to have a written risk assessment, but once it’s done, it just gets filed and nothing else is done with it. Yet if something goes wrong, the first question is, ‘Where’s your risk assessment?’
This is a bizarre way to operate because you can write all the risk assessments in the world, but unless your staff are understanding of and actively managing risk, all your paperwork means absolutely nothing. Despite this reality, the paperwork obsession remains a top priority for many organisations, but unless every activity is being run by switched on professionals who pro-actively manage risk within the organisation, then no matter how good your paperwork is, you’re exposed.
The practical reality is that you can write whatever you like in a risk assessment document but often, once it’s written, it’s quickly forgotten. It soon gathers dust and like vampire in the night, it never sees the light of day again, until a pile of fanged marked corpses prompt someone into action.
You simply can’t afford to place yourself or your staff in a situation where this is the standard operating procedure. The end result, if something does go wrong, is usually expressed through head scratching and befuddled proclamations, ‘Well, we wrote a risk assessment!’ However, there can’t be a disconnect between the documentation and the implementation. They must be reflective of each other.
One organisation I previously worked for were totally and utterly obsessed with written risk assessments. I was tasked with auditing their risk assessments and methodology. However, from the moment I started reading what they had in place, it became evident there was absolutely no connection between the activity and what had been written. Subsequently, it became perfectly obvious that nobody had actually read any of the paperwork, which left me wondering what they’d been doing. Not only did their pointless documentation have to be re-written from scratch, a significant process of change management was required to refocus the culture within the organisation to be one that was proactive in its assessment and management of risk.
Often the source of this problem is that many organisations don’t have people who truly understand risk management at the top. Just because someone has reached a leadership position, doesn’t mean he actually knows anything about management, least of all, risk management. Therefore, if you put someone in the situation where he is supposed to be managing risk, yet doesn’t understand risk beyond filing a written document, it’s little wonder that he’s focussed on paper pushing nonsense and not on organisational culture.
In this situation, when something goes wrong, it becomes all about blame and retribution. It’s not about discussing what was the root cause of an incident, it’s about finding scapegoats. This sort of approach is unhealthy and totally counter-productive. What an organisation needs to be able to do is sit down and openly discuss activities that involve risk and be prepared to debrief near misses and learn from each other’s knowledge and experience.
Good risk management procedures stem from this sort of open, honest and pro-active culture of risk managers within an organisation. If everything’s about retribution and blame, you create a culture that wants to cover up anything that doesn’t go 100% to plan. With this, you get a thin veneer giving the impression everything’s fine, yet scratch the surface and you’ll find what can be a toxic mix, priming itself for a significant failure.
To avoid this, there has to be that open and honest conversation about risk, about contingency planning and about response and mitigation. It’s important to have someone at the top setting the tone and facilitating the culture within an organisation to ensure you have a team of proactive risk managers.
Ultimately, documentation is only a tiny part of how your organisation should be assessing and managing risk. The remainder comes down to the professionalism, experience and team work of your staff to ensure that every activity is being run safely and effectively. Once you’re operating with this cultural mindset and have a team of pro-active risk managers, the paperwork takes care of itself.
What's the point of your experiential education program? If you can't answer this or aren't quite sure about it, then you're going to struggle providing any real educational value to your students. If you're just running activities for the sake of running them, or because everyone else is doing it, you're missing some great opportunities to make a positive difference in your students’ lives.
Why are you doing what you're doing? The reality is most people can't tell you this and until you can answer this question, everything you do is just like a scatter gun approach, something might hit the mark and work, but chances are it won't. However, if you're clear on exactly what you want to achieve, then you can become laser focused in your approach and be able to consistently hit the mark.
A number of places I've worked had no idea what they were trying to achieve, despite programs having run for many years. ‘We've always done it this way’ doesn't actually mean anything’s actually being achieved. It could simply be the perpetuation of the same mistakes over and over again. Some places chop and change so much, not for continuous improvement purposes. Instead, they're haphazardly searching for something to work.
One program I worked on was so confused as to what they were trying to achieve. They did a bit of everything in an attempt to make everyone happy. Yet as a result, it didn't achieve much. On one hand they claimed to be promoting student independence, yet at the same time provided no opportunities for the students to explore and experience independence in any way. As a result, the activities were more structured around baby sitting and filling in time, due to the absence of any clear educational outcome. Sadly, it appeared a completely wasted opportunity for those students, but from the school's point of view, it was perceived as ‘safe’ and it looked nice in a brochure.
For every experiential education program you run, you need some real educational outcomes to add value and meaning to what you're doing. Activities without a goal, are just that, activities. If they're isolated and don't form a wider strategic vision, you may as well just go outside with your students and stare at clouds floating by, as this will achieve the exact same result, with far less effort required.
Please don't make the other mistake of shoving a bunch of academic outcomes into experiential education to try and make something fit. This again is rather pointless and often a misguided method used to try and justify an experiential education program. Randomly throwing academics in for the sake of it, comes back to not really understanding the question of why and what do we want to achieve?
One example of this was when a school I worked for was trying to make English fit into an outdoor education program. Nobody wanted to confront the fact head on that developing English skills wasn't the reason why we were running the outdoor program. Instead of making a decision and saying for this program, English isn't the focus and personal and social development is, they decided that bush poetry was a way that students would learn to get in touch with nature and as a direct consequence in touch with themselves. Needless to say it didn't work.
Instead of cramming stuff in for the sake of it, focus on what's important. For one program I ran, the whole point was social and emotional development. For another it was team building and leadership. Other ones have focussed on expanding comfort zones and overcoming fears. With each program, there were planned sequential stages to them and clear educational outcomes.
So what do you want to achieve? Do you want a nice glossy brochure approach, which looks wonderful and yet has no substance, or do you want to add to the educational value for your students so they're better equipped to handle anything the world throws at them? I'm personally not big on glossy brochures.
However, if you can answer your overall questions of “Why are we doing this? What do we really want to achieve?” you will find that experiential education opens up so many different opportunities for challenging students, expanding their horizons with unique experiences and promoting positive life-long emotional and social growth.
Over the past three years, as I've worked on various outdoor ed programs, I’ve seen a pattern repeating itself over and over again. With a new group every few weeks, I've found the same kind of engrained beliefs the students have about themselves presenting again and again at the start of each program.
When the students arrive, I run a session on goal setting. In this, we outline why we set goals, how we go about achieving goals and why we should be setting goals outside our comfort zone! Despite this, it’s not until we actually get out into field and start doing some challenging activities that students get the opportunity to field-test their skill level and resilience.
Often we’ll be running an activity where the students have little previous experience. As a result, they’re hesitant or even fearful of the activity. The feeling of pushing outside one’s comfort zone starts to solidify in the students’ minds. However, I've noticed an increasing number of students shy away from activities that involve any form or risk, or perceived risk of failure.
Some of this feeling of fear is perhaps due to lack of experience. Other fears however, are often inherited from external sources such as parents and family who may have misguidedly told their children to always ‘Be Safe!’ ‘Don't take risks!’ and because their children are so perfect, they can't possibly fail… at anything!
One of the problems this creates is an irrational fear of dangers that don't actually exist and the fear of failure to the point that it's better not to try, than to risk being seen as less than perfect. The number of ‘perfect’ children I now find who have such low self esteem and lack of self belief is astounding!
When setting up activities we run, especially when we’re looking at abseiling, surfing, high ropes courses and even riding a bike, I say to the students beforehand, ‘Don’t always believe everything you think!’
I usually get blank stares, ‘What’s he talking about?’ I leave it at that.! I don’t go into any other details before starting the activity.
Whatever the activity may be, I make sure that it's designed to push the comfort zone and boundaries for each and every student.
Because of their pre-existing self-beliefs and low-levels of resilience, more often than not the students will go into an activity thinking, ‘I can’t do it!’ It's really just their first line of defence to avoid their fear of failure.
Whenever they tell me, ‘I can’t do it,’ I generally respond, ‘Why not?’
In return I usually get ‘Because…. Blah, blah, blah!’
By this time, I've tuned out as they’ll throw up every possible excuse to avoid trying. These excuses tend to come out in rapid-fire succession, just in case the first one doesn't sound believable enough, they've got the next one ready to go!
What they're basically saying is, ‘What excuse can I make up to protect myself from possibly failing?’ and it's this fear of failure that's increasingly driving behaviours in students.
However, unless there’s some pre-existing medical condition, or some real reason as to why they can’t participate, I ignore their complaints about not being able to do it and instead encourage them to give it a go!
Whatever the activity, we’ll graduate it throughout the day to increase the level of challenge. For example, in mountain biking, we’d start with simple biking skills, how to set your seat height, how to pedal, how to change gears, how to brake, a very important aspect. We move on to how to go over an obstacle, how to go over an obstacle when moving at speed, how to go over multiple obstacles in succession and how to negotiate around berms, downhill at speed. The activity is therefore getting harder and harder, but it's graduating at a pace with which the students can manage.
Suddenly, without realising it, the students are riding on relatively steep terrain covered with some serious obstacles. A couple of hours ago they were telling me, or more to the point, themselves, that they couldn't do it!
With a ropes course, we start with low ropes, which are literally one step off the ground. They're simple stable challenges. However, after this, we ramp it up to a high ropes course where there's an increased perception of risk.
We often have students who are afraid of heights and this is a great activity to seriously push them outside their comfort zone. It makes them feel fear, it allows them to confront their fears head on and I work closely with these students to pushing them through that fear and enable them to truly challenge themselves and their firmly held beliefs. Once you can get them to punch through those self doubts, then their attitudes change, their confidence growth with it.
The same is true with surfing because a lot of students have never surfed before. Some are afraid of the water. Some are afraid of the surf. Some are afraid of getting eaten by sharks. The reality is though, you’re more likely to get killed by a vending machine falling on top of you than you are getting eaten by a shark. But people are still afraid.
No matter what the activity, the biggest challenge for students always comes down to all of the irrational fears that run through their minds telling them they can't do it.
However, once you get them involved and engaged in an activity, the fears disappear from their mind. They forget about all the excuses they made up as to why they couldn’t do something because their minds are now focused on the here and now and before they know it, they’re actually doing the thing they told you they couldn't.
I love to see this when it happens and I use this to positively reinforce those affirmative risk-taking behaviours that the students have pushed themselves to do.
In debriefing the activity, I revisit the issue of facing fears, happily saying to the student, ‘You’ve just achieved something that you told me you couldn’t do. Two hours ago you told me, “I can’t do it,” but what’s happened?’
I encourage all the students to respond individually. Invariably they’ll say, ‘I did it!’ And they’re really excited about it too. You can see it in their faces and in their smiles. They’re excited to have conquered their fear. They’re excited to have done something they’ve never done before.
To conclude the debrief, I’ll do a summation then reinforce my original statement, ‘Don’t always believe everything you think.’
Suddenly, I see lights going on! Some students are having an aha moment! What I said at the start is now making sense. Whilst they mightn’t remember it at the start of the next challenging activity, I’ll remind them of it and consequently they start to further process how to better approach challenging situations.
When students begin to realise their thoughts can shape so much of their lives in both positive and negative ways, this can become a powerful tool to help them master their approach to new challenges and experiences. Instead of telling themselves they can't do something, they've now got a power reference point of how and why they can do something they never thought they could.
Using briefing and debriefing frameworks to provide relatable learning moments, is vital when working with teenagers who might not always feel comfortable nor confident in everything they’re doing, even if they pretend to be.
Whilst life’s not all high ropes, mountain biking and shark dodging, when students can use these more challenging experiences and relate their success in these back to every day life, they start to become more resilient and realise they can push through other challenges they face.
Relating outdoor activities back to a wider context in this way, can be extremely effective in helping teenagers to push themselves outside their comfort zones and grow. It helps them to adopt a better mind-set for the way they should approach the next activity, or the next family matter or the next big decision they need to make in their lives. Chances are if you do the same, it could help you to push through some of your own long-held fears and apprehensions.
So remember, Don’t always believe everything you think!
I recently read an article about a teacher writing a letter home to a parent telling them not to bring chocolate cake to school. In terms of earth shattering issues, this is rather low on the scale of importance in the world today, however, still worth a mention.
As a teacher, you see all sorts of weird and wonderful things that kids bring to school for lunch. You smell the amazing aroma of exotic spices and foods from all over the world in soups, pastas, noodles, wraps, burritos and even sandwiches. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
My question to the parents is, why didn't you send enough for me too? Some of the lunches I see are amazing and I just wish someone would pack that for me. In comparison, the classic cheese and salami sandwich doesn't seem to cut it anymore.
Whilst I'm a very strong believer that parents should stay out of trying to tell teachers how to teach, with one important exception to the rule, schools should stay out of kids’ lunch boxes.
For some reason, many schools have decided that telling parents what they can and can't give their kids for lunch will solve countless ‘dietary’, ‘allergy’ and ‘lifestyle’ problems. Much of this has been born out of two different concerns. The first one is the increasingly prevalent nut allergies, the second, childhood obesity.
For the first concern, I completely agree with very black and white rules. Any school's stance on maintaining a nut free campus is a great idea. The number of kids today who have a potentially fatal allergy to nuts is alarming and keeping the campus nut free is a smart way of reducing this risk and protecting the community from what can be a confronting and horrendous ordeal.
If someone has an anaphylactic reaction, untreated, their airways close up and they can be dead within minutes. Even if it's treated with an epi-pen, they must get to hospital as fast as possible and there's still no guarantee of recovery.
Now anything which can kill someone in minutes needs to be taken seriously and parents should respect this decision on banning nuts. You're not going to put a brown snake in your kid’s bag which could bite someone and have the exact same result of a fast and painful death, so don't give your kids nuts to take to school.
On the other hand, in some schools, this concern has gone way too far and slowly but surely other foods have been added to a pointless list of contraband, driven by a misguided notion that if you ban lollies, chocolates and cakes, you will miraculously solve the societal problem of childhood obesity. It just doesn't work that way. Unlike an anaphylactic reaction, being fat won't kill you in 5-10 mins and the reality is most kids will burn off their cake fuelled calories, as they run around the playground.
At the end of the day, unless the school wants to provide lunch for everyone themselves, then they need to trust parents to make informed choices about what they're feeding their own children. If the concern is really about healthy eating, then the solution isn’t telling parents what they can and can't give their kids for lunch, because as soon as you tell people they can't have something or do something, it just makes them want to do it more.
If teachers have time to write letters home about the evils of chocolate cake or otherwise to tell parents not to let their kids have this food or that food for lunch, then they seriously have too much time on their hands and need something better to do. There's a reasonable and rational argument for nut free schools, but ultimately, schools need to balance this sort of real risk with a bit of common sense, so they don't start overreaching and trying to exercise control to the point of stupidity.