For me the new year is always an exciting time. I love Christmas for one as it’s a time of hope and reflection on the goodness in humanity. It also helps us move on from mistakes of the past and look forward to the future possibilities in life. However, as I mentioned around this time last year, it’s got nothing to do with shallow New Years’ resolutions that barely last till sunset on 1st January. It’s far deeper and far more important than that.
The end of the year is instead a time to think big! If you look at the story of Christmas, a simple baby clothed in nothing more than a collection of rags in a barn, surrounded by farm animals brings a message of hope, the likes of which the world has never seen before. It’s simple. It’s raw. It’s completely unassuming and it’s shaped the world for millennia. That simple message of hope has brought people together, healed wounded relationships and helped generations to imagine a better world.
Our world is far from perfect and the reality is that it’s filled with inequality, despair, hatred, greed and fear. However, with massive problems, come great opportunities. Whether it’s through food aid, clean water projects, affordable shelter or education, as global citizens living in Western democracies we can make a difference.
If you take a quick look for example at the World Food Program - www.wfp.org. They’re fighting famine and starvation across 80 countries and helping feed approximately 80 Million people each year. What’s the cost of a single meal to keep someone alive? 39¢ which equates to $1.17 per person, per day! When you think how much we spend on a coffee, this puts into perspective the extent of the inequality in the world and how even going one day without a latte could feed someone for half the week!
Back in 2010, Josette Sheeran set out 10 Ways To Feed The World and whilst hunger is still a major issue, the core principles of how individuals and groups can help address this major problem remain the same. It’s about taking real action and this is what makes the difference in any situation. If you do nothing, nothing will change. If you take real action, then you can change the lives of others for the better.
In a world where people believe they’re making a difference by changing their Facebook image overlay or liking an image after another tragic bombing, shooting or vile act, we need to avoid such shallow sentiments and look for real ways to make a difference. Even if it’s just making a difference to one person, one family or your local community, this will have more of a lasting impact than the pointless liking of a digital image that will disappear as quickly as it appeared. Armchair activists that think they’re doing something by clicking a button, are as useful as fly screens on submarines and should be avoided at all costs.
Hence, what can you do? On one level, you could donate to an organisation that helps feed countless people across the world. On a much more pro-active level, you could join a community service group, help out a disadvantaged school (sadly in Australia we have many disadvantaged schools despite our overall national wealth) or you could even help out with meals on wheels for elderly members of the community. There are so many opportunities to make a difference and once you break down the problem into smaller parts and take some action to do something about it, you can start to make a real difference.
Despite this, as just one example, you don’t have to focus on hunger. There are countless other social, economic, health and well-being issues throughout the world that need to be addressed. From clean water, to education, to poverty, to slavery and freedom of expression, the world needs your help. Even if it’s only a small contribution, it’s still important and far more effective than doing nothing at all.
In 2018, don’t let enormity of the human condition overwhelm you or stop you from looking at the opportunities to make a difference. As my old friend said, ‘How do you eat an elephant?’ I replied, ‘Why the hell do you want to eat an elephant?!! That’s kind of weird and upsetting!’ He then told me it was a metaphor and he really didn’t like to eat elephant (or so he says…). But seriously, how do we take on massive problems? We approach them one step at a time. If everyone took on even just a small community service project, or helped someone out in just a little way, with each step, we move closer to a better world and one in which inequality, violence, hatred and fear is a thing of the past.
As this year comes to an end, think about the importance of the Christmas message that remains so strong and important after 2,000 years and from this, consider what positive impact can you have on the world as we know it, throughout the year ahead.
As a teacher you work hard throughout the year, but as with all hard work, there’s a payoff and for me, it’s the summer holidays! Having seven clear weeks to do whatever you like is something that many people never get to do until retirement. For me, that’s way too far away to even think of and I don’t want to save up all the fun and adventures for when I’m not physically able to do them. Bit pointless and a bit too industrial revolution style for me!
However, back to the annual pay off! Now if you’re doing teaching just for the holidays, perhaps you need to find another profession. What I’m talking about is not just getting away from work. For me, this break is a great opportunity to travel, discover the world, experience new things and ultimately learn something new.
Unfortunately, too many people waste all this time doing virtually nothing! I’ve never really understood this. Sure, I could spend a week at the beach, relaxing, sunbaking and going for swims and this could be extremely refreshing, but if I did this for seven weeks, I’d be bored and I’d be thinking I’m wasting opportunities. Even with a week of hanging around, that leaves six weeks for something new, exciting, challenging and meaningful.
A few different things I’ve done in this time over the years have included a TV & Radio presenting course, being an extra in a feature film, playing a corpse in a short student film and being a cook for a snowboarding program. This last one was a great opportunity to travel to the US, challenge myself to improve my culinary skills, live at altitude for an extended period and push the boundaries with my snow skiing. Next year, I plan to travel overseas to do an intensive language course to try and learn a new language in a really short period of time.
None of these experiences have been the stock standard ‘holiday’ experience. They’ve challenged me in different ways, opened my eyes to new possibilities and other cultures, enhanced my world view and ultimately helped me to improve my teaching. Every year I get more professional development value from this extended break than I have ever gained from any conference, workshop or the dreaded first day back PD sessions. This time is important for your professional development as a teacher and what you learn yourself can have a marked impact on the way to teach.
This year, if you don’t have any plans, it’s time to make some. If you say it’s too late, then you’re just not trying hard enough. The first time I went to Japan, I booked it all the day before. By 9:45pm the next evening I was off to discover a new culture! Be bold, be adventurous and do something completely different. Nobody wants to hear about how you sat at home for over a month and did chores. That’s boring, so don’t be boring! There are plenty of accountants and lawyers who have already monopolised that talent, so do something people might be interesting in hearing about. Do something totally left field that others wouldn’t expect!
Normal people never change the world and as a teacher, you have the power and influence to change a generation. However, without understanding and experiencing a wide range of things in your own life, you will never truly be well placed to effectively shape the lives of others. Get out there! You have the time, you have the opportunity so this year find something new and exciting to do and have a wonderful and memorable summer break!
Goal setting is always one of those fun, challenging and extremely valuable activities. However, in the busyness of life we often forget to assess, evaluate and celebrate how well we actually went towards achieving the goals we set for ourselves.
As the year comes to an end, it’s worth looking back and evaluating how well you did. For me, I set quite a number of quite challenging goals this year, including a tough fitness goal of running 1000km. Some of my efforts have been very successful and others are still a work in progress. However, I didn't really appreciate what I’d achieved versus my perception of what I’d achieved, until I took the time to sit down and review each goal. Since I wrote all my goals down at the start of the year, it’s made it easier to go back and check out what I wanted to get out of this year and compare that with what I’ve actually been able to do.
As a result, I've been very excited, since when I looked back and reviewed my list, I didn't realise how many goals I'd accomplished until I went back through and took stock of it all. We often get caught up in how immensely busy modern life is and often you complete one thing, only to roll straight into the next thing with little time for reflection. Unlike winning a race, often when you complete a goal, there’s not the great pinnacle of success moment and spontaneous fanfare at which point fireworks burst into the sky and a Ferris Bueller style street parade randomly appears and sweeps you along in song and dance.
Instead, the completion of personal goals are often quiet moments we have with ourselves that we might only share with a couple of close friends before moving on to the next thing we have happening in our lives.
However, it’s worth taking the time to look back and assess your own overall performance. For me, this isn’t an opportunity to tell you all about what I did or didn’t get done. It’s a chance for you to look at your own goals and celebrate the successes and failures along the way. Why are we celebrating failure? Failure is one of our greatest teachers and looking back to see what worked, we often don’t even think about improving further our success. However, when something doesn’t work, then this is an opportunity to explore why, change tactics and improve on this for next time.
For me the failure was my fitness goal. It was this year’s bridge too far! Although having said that, I did run across several bridges. Anyway, I’d set myself the goal of running 1000km. At the start of the year, all was going well and I was covering about 5-6 km per day. Having reverse engineered my goal through working out how many days of the year there were and how many I wouldn’t be able to run due to travel, or commitments, it worked out that I would need to only run about 4km a day. Easy right? Well, in theory it was. However, life tends to get in the way of good plans and I found myself missing too many days due to work commitments. The further into the year, the longer the days at work seemed to become and the shorter the daylight. This made it increasingly difficult to cover the distance.
However, although on the surface it might appear that the goal was a failure, I’d experienced the same issues the year before, as I attempted my goal of running 500km in 2016. The end result was that I was able to cover just 300km in 2016. It was a bit disappointing as I’d only reached just over half way to my goal.
From a goalsetting point of view there were two things I could have done after I didn’t make it in 2016.
2. Double my goal and push myself harder to achieve it.
If you choose Number 1, that’s not really goal setting and it’s not really challenging you, nor allowing you to grow. It’s like my saying I’m not going to smoke in 2017, when I’ve never smoked before in my life. Wow, I’ve just achieved Zen by doing nothing!
If you choose Number 2, as I did, the added challenge of the new goal means it’s going to push you harder and require you to take more action to achieve it.
Despite increasing my goal and improving upon my efforts to achieve this new target, at this point in time, I'm not looking as if I'm going to achieve it. I’m going to revisit why this is the case and how I’m going to fix it for 2018. However, despite not getting there this year, I managed to smash the previous year's distance and as at today, I’ve have run 620km and for me, this in itself is an achievement and something with which I’m very happy and proud. Whilst it might not be the headline figure of the 1000km, it’s still twice what I ran last year. Next year's goal will now be 1250 km, but to get there, I’m going to have to review the root causes of why I didn’t get there this year and make sure I address that as quickly as possible.
This is why we should embrace our failures, as the experience that comes from failure can provide us with the most valuable lessons. For me on fitness, it’s consistency of approach. When it’s cold in winter and dark outside, I know I can still find opportunities to run, perhaps at the gym. Or if this is going to be an issue, increase the length of my runs during the summer so that there are less kms to cover in the winter. There are plenty of possible solutions for this that I can continue to explore and work out what works best for me.
Despite how busy it gets at this time of year, take the time, sit down and review all your goals. How many of your goals were successful? How many weren’t? What were the factors which contributed to your success or failure? Write this down! Expand on this and truly understand what action needs to be taken to change this. Through conducting an honest goal-setting analysis, this can help you focus on the strengths and weaknesses in what you’re doing and can massively improve your ability to get the most out of each and every challenge you set yourself.
Once you’ve reviewed your 2017 list, celebrated your wins and have your strategy for improvement ready, it’s now time to start planning for an even greater and more successful 2018. All the best for achieving some wonderful goals in life, work and your community for the next 12months.
In every outdoor activity there are countless risk factors that must be considered and effectively managed to ensure safe operations and enjoyable experiences. Whilst it's easy to get overwhelmed by the idea of risk management and the enormous task of trying to think of every risk possible, from falling tree branches to unprovoked possum attacks, generally in outdoor ed, risks fall into three main categories. These create a nice triangle which could be used on a pretty PowerPoint presentation, for the world dominating purposes of the illuminati, or to make lots of money mysteriously disappear into places such as Bermuda. Whatever the case may be, the three components which make up the triangle are:
Again, broadly speaking, a failure of one of these area is problematic, but manageable. A failure of two of these areas is dangerous, as the ability to effectively mange the situation seriously diminishes and failure in all three could be catastrophic.
Over the years, I've experienced some interesting situations where one of these areas of ‘normal’ operation becomes compromised. For example, when environmental conditions have unexpectedly turned for the worse, I've found myself in the middle of storms, freezing cold nights, ragingly hot days, white outs, blizzards and everything in between. However, each and every time the situation hasn't been a problem. It's not only been manageable, but it's also been character building for those involved. So why's that?
If the environment itself is the only failing component of the risk triangle, it means you have the right equipment and people are following instructions appropriately, therefore you're just experiencing discomfort, rather than anything else more serious. As a result, the discomfort can provide great learning experiences for the group and not adversely impact on safety.
I will however, qualify something at this point, because someone’s bound to say, ‘What about lightning?’ Let’s take lightning out of the mix for the moment, as getting caught in a thunderstorm is dangerous no matter how you look at it. Supercharged bolts of electricity randomly shooting down from the sky is something you really don't want to be in, especially if you've upset Zeus, Thor or …. at some stage in your life. If you have upset any of these mythical gods for some reason, basically you’re on your own from here on in.
Excluding the wrath of angry gods and severe storms that should be picked up by your weather monitoring practices, getting caught in bad weather is not generally dangerous. However, let's see what happens when we throw a spanner in the works and another component of the triangle becomes compromised. For example, inadequate or poor quality equipment!
On one trip I was leading many years ago, it was late winter and had been raining all morning. We were running a program in the southern highlands of NSW. The hike was around 8km and the forecast was for more light showers. On the surface, not a problem. However, during the lunch stop, we decided to do an equipment check, as most of the students were wearing cheap useless ponchos that their parents had misguidedly bought them to ‘save’ money. This sort of thing will last two minutes in the bush and be torn to shreds in no time at all. You may as well not bother and you’re better off spending that money on an overpriced coffee, as it will have more of an effect on your comfort and well-being than the rubbish poncho. Despite the inadequate rain protection, this wasn’t the major issue, as the most important thing for the students to have was their thermals. This was on their packaging list, but untrusting of the parents and their poor decision made on the rain gear, we thought it best to double check. The result was three pairs of thermals were being carried out of 28 students! This was without a doubt an Epic Fail!!!
Suddenly, we had two components of the risk triangle in play and actively compromised, so our risk profile just shot up dramatically! Hypothermia was at the forefront of my mind and the fact we didn't have any vehicle access to the area only added to this. Given the poor quality of equipment, the lack of essential clothing and the potential for students to be carrying useless summer sleeping bags, we had two options. Accept the high-level of dangerous risk involved with continuing, or modify the plan… Needless to say, we modified the plan, extended the day trip and returned to base.
In stark contrast with this, another trip I led, we were completely smashed by rain, far worse than anything we had experienced the day we had to pull the pin, but the difference was that everyone had thermals and was wearing Gortex jackets. With no epic equipment failure, the situation was uncomfortable for everyone, but completely safe to continue with as planned.
Importantly, the way these three components interact with each other is the determining factor for the real level of risk with which you're working. Many risk assessment schemes fail to take this into account and are focused on writing everything down, but without the understanding of how risk may increase as one or more of these components become compromised or fail. However, it's critical that this is understood and is factored into the risk assessment and management processes and practices for the organisation.
This brings us to the People component of the risk triangle! Unfortunately, there’s no material safety data sheets, engineering limits or forecasts when it comes to people and how they’re going to act, react and behave in any given environment or situation. Even though it’s the most unpredictable and complex factor in the risk triangle, it’s often the least considered and most underestimated. There’s no shortage of stupid people in the world. In fact, many people excel in this area every day of the week and should certainly not be trusted with open flames or power tools, or anything without smooth edges.
The problem is that when you're responsible for people like this who are unpredictable, or taken to doing idiotic thing, it's vital that you watch them and actively manage them. Unlike finding a faulty or damaged piece of equipment and replacing it with a new one, the people risk is far more emotive and complex.
If you can exclude a student from activities who simply will not listen or engage, that could be the best solution as they drag everyone else down with them. However, often schools are reluctant to take definitive action and sadly, sometimes as leaders, we’re stuck with a compounding people risk until their idiocy negatively impacts on the group and someone higher up in the organisation suddenly realises that what you said in assessing the participant risk has now come true. This is not a situation you want to find yourself in and it’s worth having good behaviour management strategies in place, such as higher staff to student ratios or modified programs when the people factor has the increased potential for producing adverse risk to the staff and the group.
As with any other individual component of risk, behaviour alone isn’t necessarily critical and with a good leader more often than not, like every other risk factor in isolation, is not a major concern. However, throw in a bit of bad weather, forget or misuse some vitally important piece of safety equipment and you’re now shaping up for some major issues.
When you’re reviewing your risk management systems it’s well worth considering the interaction of these three components in the context of your organisation and how you can best address them when running any sort of program. Being aware of how the level of risks escalate as one or more are compromised, will help you to build far greater situational awareness. This keeps your risk management practices alive to ensure safe operations and great educational outcomes.
Friendship in the digital world is an interesting phenomenon, especially amongst teenagers. Since relationships are changing, I feel there’s a need to redefine how we refer to different sorts of friends. On the one hand, teenagers have some friends they know quite well. They probably go to school with, play sports with and hang out with these friends. On the other end of the spectrum, a friend could also be nothing more than a number on a screen.
Given the digital age in which we live, I think we need to split these radically different sorts of friends into two categories. There’s the ‘high-res’ friends (4K) that you see and interact with in real life and real time and ‘low-res’ friends (Internet Friends) that only ever appear as pixelated visages on a screen and may come with some annoying time delay or lag when communicating with them, if you communicate with them at all.
The internet and social media has brought the world so much closer together, especially in terms of people being able to interact with others who have similar shared interests and shared beliefs. However, at the same time, it’s also created a massive disconnect between real friends and those who are often never met in real life, or just appear as a number on a screen.
This can cause significant problems for teenagers as they search for meaningful connections, but especially for teens who struggle making friends at school and who become reliant on the internet for all their socialisation.
The reality is that despite being able to connect with others who may be in similar circumstances or have shared interests, there are many subtle nuances, reactions, facial expressions and body language that go into developing and fostering real friendships. These subtle behaviours and communications are completely lost when those friendships occur online. It’s all these complex subtleties that make up human relationships which are critical to success in all aspects of life and it’s these same complex subtleties, which are most at risk in the digital age.
Whilst some interactions and connections online can be quite good, many should be seen more as the penpals of days gone by where you’d write to someone and learn about their culture through letters, rather than someone suddenly being your new best friend about whom you know very little.
When I was at school, I had a Spanish penpal. We’d write to each other, exchange stories and photos. It was always exciting to get a letter from overseas and through this I gained a wonderful insight into a culture completely different from my own. I enjoyed this a lot, but the reality was that this was a person from another country and quite distant and disconnected from my other friends.
However, as the global network of devices and connectivity grows, the disconnect between people and real relationships increases. The ease at which you can find new ‘friends’ who might have similar interests is remarkable. However, the speed at which these ‘friendships’ fade is also remarkable. It’s almost transactional in nature. ‘I’ll be friends if you like all my posts!’ That sort of thing. However just as fast as the interaction is made possible, people move on to the next person who might, on the surface, appear to be more interesting. The cycle goes on and on and on with friendships being nothing more than superficial at best and toxic and destructive at the other end of the spectrum.
This is the true problem with these low-res friends. It’s often the most vulnerable teens who are searching for friendships online and it’s these teens who need high-res, a.k.a. real friends, they can actually spend time with more than anything else. If they’re experiencing something in life that’s hard or they’re not sure how to deal with it, the low-res friends invariably lose even more resolution and simply fade away into the aethernet. If you have no real connection with anyone, then it’s easy to just leave them in the lurch, especially if helping them makes you feel slightly uncomfortable and many teenagers today don’t like discomfort. It’s a sad harsh reality that needs to be addressed in a meaningful way.
For real relationships to develop and flourish, teenagers need high-res friends, the sort with whom they can go to the park, to the beach, ride bikes, play sport and have sleepovers. I know this may be a way out concept and the paranoid parents of the world don't want to let their children leave the house, as it could be quite scary out there! But the reality is that many of the dangers of the world can now be accessed directly from home. Going outside and playing with real friends is much safer, healthier and leads to far more balanced individuals.
If teenagers understand how to make friends and how to develop friendships in real life with hi-res friends, then equally, they can meet people online and develop friendships over longer distances, through which they can develop a whole range of different and wonderful experiences throughout life with people that have similar interests.
However, the reverse isn’t true. If they make all their friends online first, they have no way of really understanding what relationships are about. They won’t know how to interact with other people properly and in a meaningful way. This problem then flows through to university and the workplace and has the potential to cost a teenager years of their life as they play catchup and try to understand others in the real world around them.
Having said that, low-res friends aren’t all bad because they can open up the world to a whole range of different people which can be wonderful and beneficial. However, the most important thing to begin with is to develop real friendships in real life with high-res friends and then when teenagers have that real world experience, they can go and make as many low-risk friends as they like, but seriously if you’re working through this issue with teenagers, ask them, at the end of the day, what’s more important a high friend count, or friends who count?
Decision-making is something that most teachers love to control and who can blame them! How could you possibly trust kids to make any sort of decision for themselves? Have you seen what their rooms look like at the end of a week? Kids struggle to decide what they want for breakfast, let alone anything important.
However, rather than hoarding all the decision making for yourself, how can we as teachers teach good decision making processes and skills? For many teachers, this will strike fear into their hearts. The idea of letting go the reins and losing control of the class is a nightmare scenario. After all, they’ve spent years perfecting the art of being in control and it’s something that's deeply entrenched into teachers’ psyche.
No teacher wants to go back to the nerve wracking days of feeling out of control, when they first stepped into the classroom to start their teaching practicum. It's an experience that's etched in all teachers’ minds. Whilst some teachers might have been thinking about delivering a good lesson, others, including myself, were just hoping that no chairs were thrown and no dolphins were injured during the lesson.
Whilst many teachers are used to exercising control over their class, which is a very good idea when dealing with a ratty year seven class to ensure the windows don't get broken, at what point should you start letting go and allowing students to transition into decision makers themselves?
If you want to produce mature young independent thinking adults, at some point you need to relinquish much of the standard ‘classroom’ control associated with education. Many schools profess how wonderful they are at giving students the opportunity to lead, the opportunity to think for themselves and the opportunity to make decisions. However, what's the practical reality of this? Does this really happen? Unfortunately, when I’ve seen this in outdoor education, it's often a case of students being led around on an activity and pretending that they're making decisions along the way, rather than empowering students to take real responsibility for this themselves.
The problem is that students see right through the false veneer of fake ownership and illusionary responsibility. The only way to address this is to actually allow your students to make decisions for themselves. Unless there's a real safety issue that arises, then extract yourself from the process and simply provide the operational framework. Whilst this can be extremely difficult for someone who is used to being in control, it makes a massive difference to the educational outcome.
On one canoe expedition, we were paddling up into the Shoalhaven Gorge. The journey saw us covering around 15km each day, which is a decent distance to paddle, but add to this the fact that it was raining, slightly complicated things. To put this in context, when I said it was raining, it wasn't just drizzling, it was pelting down and had been for some time.
After a long gruelling morning paddle that had lasted several hours, the river split and we turned up into a narrowing section of the waterway. To our right appeared a large sandstone outcrop, which jutted out over the water, forming a natural shelter. The students who were navigating led us over to the shelter, which was large enough to shelter six of our boats. Unfortunately, we had seven, so one boat with two students in it was stuck out in the rain, which was getting heavier.
Given the nature and structure of the shelter, there was no way to allow the students to get out of the boats and all shelter. For the shelter to be of any use they had to be in the water. This created a problem, even though most students were sheltered from the rain, at least two weren’t. This wasn't a problem that I was going to solve for them, so I posed the question, ‘What are your options?’
The group talked amongst themselves for a few minutes, their initial resolution was that they would stay under the shelter and everybody would then have a turn on the outside for five minutes. This meant they would cycle through all the boats every 35 minutes. This seemed fair in a really, pragmatic sense, however, the practical reality of getting boats in and out, especially ones that were fully loaded with gear was just a slight complication to this.
They tried this for ten minutes before realising how difficult this decision was logistically. At this point, it was also lunch time and the students were getting hungry. We could easily eat lunch on the canoes, but again, a tricky initial logistical problem as the food was buried in barrels. Not an impossible task, but fiddly all the same.
I realised I needed to facilitate a discussion with the students. Although it wasn't a huge concern and we could easily have sat there and waited out the storm, which could be another few hours, but then my concern from a safety point of view was hypothermia and so a decision had to be made one way or another so I could factor in a suitable response to avoid students getting too cold. From my point of view, the decision being made was still completely the responsibility of the students. However, I remained diligent in my role as leader to provide the required safety net.
As the students sat there directionless, waiting to be told what to do, which wasn’t going to happen, I threw out another suggestion, “Why don’t you see where we are on the map, then look at where the campsite is and assess how long going it’s going to take us to get there. Then assess other factors, such as the rain, our current shelter and the terrain between here and the campsite. What are some options?
The sound of the students’ voices bounced off the rocky wall of the shelter as they discussed the possibilities and consequences of each option. The reality was the rain wasn’t stopping anytime soon, the canoes were starting to become rather uncomfortable due to the additional few kilograms of water that had been accumulating at the bottom from heavy rain and people were getting hungry. With all these factors at play, it was an interesting discussion to listen to and I had no idea what the outcome would be. I had guessed it was going to be ‘let’s have lunch.’
No matter what the decision was, unless it was ridiculously unsafe, I was ready to go with it. I didn’t frontload the process either to try to get them to decide what I wanted and this is a very important part of the process to ensure that students really are empowered.
The rain kept pouring down relentlessly as they went back and forth with their discussion. I could hear it getting heavier and heavier as the droplets of rain hit the water and splashed back up at us, convincing me that their decision was going to be stay here and have lunch. The students however, seemed to have little interest in the lunch option as they discussed all the various ideas. What I found interesting about this discussion was the fact that the needs of the group seemed to come out as more important than the needs of the individual.
The end result, despite all the uncertainty of for how long the storm was going to continue, was for us to get back out onto the river and keep paddling to camp. The students thought that by doing that, it would mean they could get a fire going, set up their tents for shelter, have something to eat and dry their clothes.
Whilst I was surprised and happy with the decision they made, what really impressed me was the process through which the decision making was made. It was done in a logical manner which explored lots of options I hadn’t thought of myself. Again, if I had just been leading the group on a trip and didn’t let them make any decision for themselves, this wouldn’t have provided any educational benefit whatsoever. I later commended the students on their discussion and decision making process.
As soon as we started paddling though, we got absolutely smashed by the rain. It came in over wave after wave of torrential rain. Yet everyone pressed on and a few kilometres later we arrived at our destination. Despite being totally and utterly soaked and slightly exhausted, as soon as we arrived we had another problem to deal with. Cold wet students and so the race was on to get a fire going in the rain! What impressed me about this was that the earlier discussion that had been led by the students, somehow brought them together as a team and when it came to getting the fire organised, they were already out looking for sticks.
Before too long, the tents were up, we had a raging fire going, the soaking wet clothes had been swapped for warm dry ones and everyone was happily eating their well-deserved lunch. However, the other teacher and I can’t claim responsibility for any of this happening. The work to get the fire going, the food out and organised and everything else done, was not from us telling the kids what to do. They just did it all themselves. I was amazed, as it’s not something that usually happens with groups like this. I’d like to think that once they realised they were trusted to make decisions, it gave them the opportunity to push the boundaries of this and not wait to be told what to do next. Instead, they used their initiative and found what needed to be done next to ensure they and their friends were warm, comfortable and well-fed.
Despite the rain, the discomfort and the one trip to hospital the next day, this remains one of the most memorable canoeing expeditions I’ve ever had and certainly one of the most rewarding.
Not getting staff to student ratios right is a big concern for experiential education. This comes to the fore when you’re looking at how many instructors you need per activity depending on what sort of activity it is.
For example, with canoeing, you currently need one instructor for every six boats. For kayaking, you also need one instructor for every six boats. The difference being the one instructor for six in canoeing lets you take twelve students, while the one instructor for kayaking lets you take six students. These are very, very rigid ratios. Unlike a former boss of mine who said ‘Oh no! They’re just rough guidelines,’ you should never take them to be rough guidelines because if something goes wrong and you end up in court, you’re going to have to justify why you decided to go against industry standards.
When an industry body sets down guidelines for you to use for the safe operation of activities, you should always use them as a baseline. If you do this, you’re not going to get caught out in a legal sense if you’re operating with a group and something goes wrong.
However, if it were as simple as reading standard ratios from a chart for each activity, then how could you possibly go wrong with this? It all makes sense and is ok from a legal point of view! Or is it?
One mistake that’s often made is underestimating the impact that an individual’s behaviour will have on the group. In your staff to student ratio assessment, you must consider who the participants are. Time and time again I’ve seen situations where schools or organisations are happy to go with the set baseline ratios, possibly to save on costs. However, they don’t consider the actual individuals who make up the group.
Behaviour, especially student behaviour, or more accurately poor student behaviour, adds a significant risk factor that’s often totally underestimated. The reality is that the majority of dangerous situations you can find yourself in when running experiential education programs, is due to poor student behaviour. When this is combined with another risk factor, such as poor environmental conditions, or failing equipment, you have a recipe for disaster on your hands. Consequently, failing to properly assess the impact of student behaviour on your staff to student ratios can set a group up for failure before you even begin.
Some groups I’ve had in the past have included some challenging students. Most of the time, you’re able to manage this quite easily. However, when you have an activity such as abseiling in which you have so many pieces of equipment to setup and things to actively monitor, you need to be laser-focused on one student at a time. You don’t have the leeway to be monitoring other students as you run the activity. Therefore, you have to consider different supervision ratios and regimes when you’re doing specific activities like this.
For a canoe expedition I once ran, on paper the staff to student ratios were fine. We had the right number of instructors, the right number of boats and in fact, our ratios were well within the standard operating guidelines. However, the behaviour of the group of students was so poor that it massively impacted on the entire risk profile of the activity. Forget the weather, forget broken equipment, forget poor judgment. The biggest risk was the students we had with us.
When this was brought to the organisation’s attention, it was dismissed and I was told we had enough staff. However, the practical reality was that due to behavioural issues, we didn’t! We therefore needed another one or two instructors with us to safely run the trip. Despite outlining a ‘hypothetical’ situation of what could happen with the then director, prior to the trip leaving, we were told to deal with it and we’d be fine.
We departed on the expedition as instructed and within fifteen minutes of leaving, it all started to go pear-shaped very quickly. What the other instructor and I had predicted, was happening before our eyes. The student behaviour was horrendous. More akin to a youth at risk program, than anything else. We needed at least another two instructors to safely manage the risk and help manage the behaviour of the group.
What was the point of taking them out all? The organisation didn’t understand the risk they had put everyone in by not providing sufficient staff to student ratios. At twenty minutes in, we pulled the pin on the trip and returned to where we’d started. The group wasn’t going to learn anything and were on the verge of causing a major incident to themselves or those around them. Consequently, they were treated as if they were a youth at risk group, for which we weren’t sufficiently resourced to manage with only two staff. Therefore, despite everything on paper saying we had the right number of staff, the reality was, we were on the verge of a major incident only averted because we pulled the pin on it.
Sometimes groups will press on regardless of these sorts of behaviours with the misguided belief that their students may learn something along the way. However, it’s rare for students such as this to have amazing epiphanies and turn things around. Therefore, you’re only increasing the chance that something’s going to go horribly wrong, if you continue without the right staff to student ratios.
When you’re doing your assessment of risks, avoid this mistake. It’s not always just a simple matter of reading a number from a chart. Even if it’s exactly the same activity, exactly the same location and you’re using exactly the same equipment, the biggest variable factor will always be the behaviour of the participants.
If you are aware that poor behaviour from a specific group could be a factor and you still want to take them out, then make sure you have enough staff allocated to effectively manage this additional risk factor.
I’m not saying don’t give kids the opportunity for a fresh start, because that’s an extremely important part of experiential education. However, you must be realistic about the impact it might have on your activities. If you’re aware of poor behaviour and the potential that this behaviour will negatively impact on the program, then you need to ensure that you have a higher staff to student ratio than what would be considered a baseline. By doing so you’ll be able to effectively manage any behavioural or other concerns arising, deal with the situation and continue without further disruption. This ensures you’re always running safe and engaging programs in which staff and students are not placed at risk of harm due to insufficient supervision and support.
I see this so often in experiential education. A teacher either gets so caught up in running an activity that at the end of it, there isn’t the opportunity to debrief, or worse, it's simply not even part of the program.
Neither are good approaches, but not having any form of debrief or reflection factored into what you’re doing, is a huge mistake and a wasted learning opportunity.
Experiential education is not just about running fun activities. If it were, it would be called a holiday camp. Yet this couldn't be further from the truth, despite some teachers thinking of it as such. Experiential education is about providing opportunities through real challenges and being able to reflect on how everyone worked through and faced each challenge.
It's essentially the business of providing practical learning experiences that have real measurable consequences as a mechanism for pushing students outside their comfort zones. Through doing this, we’re able to build positive relationships, increase social awareness and promote personal growth.
Often the specific activity through which this is done is quite irrelevant. It really doesn't matter if you hike, canoe, mountain bike, abseil or kayak, so long as the activity is suitably challenging for the students and will extend all involved.
What does matter however, is what you do after the activity is over. During each challenge, you should be actively monitoring the performance of individuals and the group. Keep in mind any stand out behaviours both positive and negative, but also note those in the middle who may lack confidence or just not even try. It's a lot to keep an eye on. However, the more time you spend with groups, the easier to become to know what to look for.
At the end of the activity, it's time to debrief and reflect. Not doing this is a massive mistake for experiential education, because reflection is where the value of the learning comes in. If a group fails at an activity, it's pointless just to say, ‘just try harder next time.’ This is a cop out on the teacher's part and what does try harder even mean?
You need to explore reasons for the failure and discuss this with the group. An activity such as raft building for example is a great test of teamwork, planning and execution. More often than not, I see the crews go down with the makeshift crafts. So why does this happen? Is it that they don't try hard enough? Well no, it's usually because in the excitement and pressure of a time limit, they rush things, they build before they plan or they plan for a craft that is great on land, but not suited to the water!
Whilst this sounds just like the daily operations of a government department, it also produces a similar result. It's not until you gather the group together and talk through the experience, that they start to learn from it. I usually bring in other relevant examples from their lives and get them to think more broadly than just the activity itself. Questions such as, “What’s something else you’ve experienced that didn’t work because you rushed into it too quickly?” Or, “What's something else you have to carefully plan out to make sure it works?”
It's through reflections that the real learning occurs. I've seen far too many teachers run this sort of activity and because everyone ends up getting soaking wet and it descends into organised chaos, they think that it's all over when the students get out of the water. However, the opportunity for learning has only just begun!
It’s your qualities as a teacher that then comes into play to tie in all of the related social and emotional themes to effectively debrief the activity. The more challenging the activity, the greater the need for your group to reflect on it. You’ll often be surprised by the comments students make when you use the experience to reflect on a bigger picture issue or question.
One of the most powerful comments I've heard was after a caving exercise where the students had to make their way out of total darkness. I mean total darkness! There were no luminescent glow worms to help you out. You couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. The only way out was to shuffle along a cramped passageway on your stomach and hold onto the person ahead of you. When we finally emerged from the cave and debriefed the activity, one student, who was afraid of the dark said, “I could feel my friend holding my hand. He kept talking to me the whole time and I knew I'd be ok.” This then led into a wider discussion about looking after each other and some amazing comments from other students in the group.
I never know what to expect when reflecting on an activity, but the bottom line is that it’s a must for each and every program you’re running. It’s through this sort of reflection, that students and ourselves are able to learn the most.
Located on the tropical coastline of far north Queensland, the Daintree Rainforest is an extraordinary location teeming with unique flora and fauna. Unfortunately, two days were no where near enough time to explore this World Heritage listed location. However, having had a glimpse of the beauty and diversity of the area, I'm ready to head back for another trip.
Before I do that though, here is just a short insight into the extraordinary landscape that makes up far north Queensland. A trip away from the cold of the south coast in the middle of winter, is always a pleasant change. Flying into Cairns, I was hit by the airport shock, the feeling when you land somewhere, get off the plane, and find yourself in a totally different climate to where you were a couple of hours ago. It was a warm and humid evening, a drastic change from the sub-zero temperatures in which I'd been camping the previous week.
View Of Daintree National Park From Walu Wugirriga Lookout
I went straight from the airport to the hotel after both of my flights were delayed and crashed in bed after what was a very long week. The next morning however, I woke up early and headed to the Tjapukai Cultural Centre, owned and operated by the local aboriginal people. It was a fascinating insight into how the rainforest tribes lived, as well as a journey through their dreamtime creation story. This was interspersed with boomerang throwing, spear throwing, a look at bush foods and medicines as well as some traditional aboriginal dancers.
While aboriginal history is not a new experience for me, there were some interesting differences between what I've learnt about the tribes and traditions of the south coast of New South Wales, versus the cultural traditions of the tribes of the tropics. Of course, there were massive variations in diet and cultural mythology, due to the extremes of the wet and dry seasons. It was interesting to find out that these are the only tribes who used the three and four pronged boomerangs, which I had never seen before.
Tjapukai Cultural Center
It often amazes me how little we know about our own countries and it's not until we start to explore in more depth and detail that we find out how diverse the experiences are of others who are living in the same country.
After the conclusion of the cultural tour, I caught the Skyrail, which is a gondola that takes you high above the rainforest canopy. There are two stops along the way, where you can get out and walk through some of the rainforest. There are some amazing ancient trees dating back over 500 years dotted through this area, tree ferns and palms everywhere and enormous basket ferns perched high up in the trees. The diversity of species here is astounding, far too many for me to even comprehend.
The boardwalk leads you to several vantage points, enabling you to look out over Barron Falls, which is a massive rock face at the top of the gorge through which a trickle of a river runs, as it's been dammed above the formation. I can imagine though, that when it floods, these falls would return to their former glory and it would be one huge raging torrent through the gorge.
Continuing on my historic journey, I ended up in tiny town called Kuranda, where I boarded the Kuranda Scenic Railway. Apart from the fact that they need to apply some grease to the wheels of the train to stop the ear piercing sound they made going around bends, it was another amazing journey. Built to service the local mines and transport goods to and from Cairns, this railway is a feat of engineering genius, as it negotiates its way along the side of astoundingly steep terrain, crosses massive gullies and tunnels through the mountains. Except for using dynamite to loosen the rocks, all of the tunnels were dug out by hand. As the journey progresses, you're provided with an historic narration of the building and early uses of the railway. The most amazing part of it however, is where the rail line is suspended not far off the cliffs as you roll by a beautiful waterfall dropping hundreds of metres from the top to the river below.
Kuranda Scenic Railway
Stunning Waterfall, Cairns
Finishing the day, I ended it with a giant leap back into the future. Standing on one of the beaches and looking up into the sky, the international space station glided directly overhead. It was nothing more than a bright shining light in the night sky, but seeing that makes you realise how far we've come in a very short space of time.
I always find it exciting exploring new places, but being able to explore new places in your own backyard is even more interesting. From the ancient aboriginal world to the stunning rainforests, this was truly a unique experience and I've learned more about cultural heritage and rainforests in two days, then I had in years of reading books.
The next time you get an opportunity to travel around this great country, if you want to really appreciate some of the history and natural beauty of our nation, then far North Queensland is well worth a visit.
This week it's story time! What's been your worst day at work? Has there been a day when nothing has gone right, where everybody seems to be against you and when you just wished the day would end? I've had many days like that over the years, between paranoid conspiracy theorists ringing me up over and over again when I worked for a politician, to my bus catching fire whilst trying to pick up a group of stranded students, there have been some exceedingly long and frustrating days. However, one of the more bizarre days happened in my first job at a Retravision store. Whilst at that stage they were the biggest retailer of electrical appliances, they’ve been replaced by other retailers of electrical appliances and online retailers.
It was a Thursday morning and a day like any other. I arrived around 8:20 ready to setup. However, overnight the electrical fuse box at the back of the store had been vandalised. An electrician had arrived and was working on the wiring outside the loading bay. There were only two of us in the shop that morning. The owners and the floor manager were away, leaving us to open and run everything.
My colleague told me not to turn anything on until we got clearance from the electrician, so we waited around and several coffees later, the electrician finished his work and it was time to turn everything on. I started upstairs with the wall of TVs. They were the old sort which had a large vacuum tube inside of them, a standard and popular feature of any electrical goods store. One by one I turned the TVs on until the 15 metre wall was illuminated with the flashing of the same mindless daytime TV channel.
Just as I finished turning the last one on, I heard a loud hissing noise. Stepping back, I glanced back along the wall and heard another hissing sound, then another and another all coming from different TV sets. Suddenly there was a loud bang! Dark black smoke plumed from the back of a TV at the start of the wall. This was followed quickly by another loud bang! More nostril burning smoke billowed from behind the TVs. There was another hiss, and another each time followed quicker by more loud bangs as the smoke grew denser. TV after TV continued to explode in rapid succession from one end of the wall to the other. Set after set after set hissed and exploded. The room now choked with dark black acrid smoke.
I stood before the smouldering ruins of what once was tens of thousands of dollars worth of TVs, now nothing more than lifeless screens. How was I going to explain this one? I nervously walked downstairs to break the news to Barry. Thinking which, out of a staff of nine, three were named Barry. What are the odds of that? Anyway, the Barry that was there with me that day was one of the salesmen and not the Barry who owned the business who I'd have to explain this to later.
“There’s a slight problem upstairs,” I said to Barry, which was probably a tiny understatement as the smoke had set off all the alarms and was so thick it started to linger its way downstairs. Barry quickly dashed up the stairs brandishing a fire extinguisher that was to prove totally and utterly useless. At the top of the stairs he stopped dead in his tracks.
“Oh crap!” he exclaimed, seeing the extent of the problem. “I'd better tell the electrician,” he continued as he dashed back down the stairs and ran out the back.
All I could hear from the back of the building was a series of loud swear words, sounding as if they were coming from the electrician. It turned out that somehow instead of leaving the power set on 240 volts, he had somehow upped it to 410 volts, consequently overloading the entire system and blowing the crap out of everything. Thankfully, salesman Barry made the phone call to owner Barry and filled him in on all the details of what had happened. Storeman Barry was out on a job and completely oblivious to anything that had happened. He is not actually part of the story but given that he was also named Barry, he at least deserved to be mentioned.
Over $40,000 worth of TVs were destroyed that day, never to transmit another awful daytime TV show again. It took about a week for the caustic smell of burnt electrics to finally make its way out of the upstairs showroom and another week to finally replace all of the televisions that blew up that day. Whilst for me, it wasn't actually that bad a day at work. However, for the electrician, things could only get better.