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.
As with all revolutions, phenomenons and fads, there’s an exciting lead up period. There’s a booming peak before the steady decline towards normalisation. Eventually, people fall back to what they know best and how things were in the past. Whilst some things will have changed, other things will feel different. However, in the case of social media and especially those people who have become social media ‘stars’ simply by lifting their shirts, uploading stupid videos of their cats or some other similarly pointless exercise that for five minutes some people find funny, there’s got to be a point at which people’s interest fades and popularity declines. It’s like the life cycle of a child’s superstar on steroids! They’re in movies, on TV, splashed over the cover of trashy magazines and super popular for this brief fleeting moment in time. But then, their popularity wanes. People become disinterested and they don’t have the requisite skills to be able to cope with the lack of attention. Often, they turn to alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism when they realise what little substance there is in their lives. This can be a fast decline into irreparable emotional damage, with many a child star ending it all at their own hands. A hefty price to pay for those fifteen minutes of fame.
The benefit and curse which social media has created is that it increases people’s ease of access to a world of attention, but at the same time exposes them to the swift brutality of the decline. The decline can happen just as rapidly as it kicks off, so you could be an instant hit on Youtube. You could be an instant hit on Instamagram or any other social media platform, but what happens when your posts don’t get as many likes? Do you just start deleting them? What happens when you don’t get as many views? How does that make you feel? Why have people turned away from you? Five minutes ago, you were on top the world, now you’ve been replaced by a cat falling from a table.
The song Don’t Cry for Me Argentina comes to mind because Eva Perón is this very naïve woman who becomes engulfed in the fascist machine of Argentina through her marriage to Juan Perón. All is wonderful for her and the country, until it’s not. Her public image hid the true horrors of her husband’s brutal regime. Now social media provides the flawless front to soulless money making machines, prepared to chew up lives without a second thought.
The danger that comes with those living their lives through social media and being totally reliant on this for their window to the world, is that they become disconnected from reality and being built up only to fall horribly. Social media mightn’t be the fascist dictatorship that causes people to disappear in the same way that was seen in Argentina, but it is a machine. Despite the window dressing of equality and democracy of expression, the reality is that it’s designed to exploit people. It’s designed to get you addicted. It’s designed to manipulate your emotions and ultimately, it’s designed to make money.
Whilst marketing has its place, the unethical ease with which young people can be built up to be a ‘star’ and then promptly trashed by the machine is a blight on society. Many young users might not be aware of the fact that what they’re experiencing is just a temporary, shallow and empty cycle and in the end, they’re unable to adapt when their posts start to get less likes and interest in them fades away. This unfortunately leads to increased mental health issues over the long-term, as the rapid burn of internet popularity, quickly fizzles out.
To combat this, it’s important for young people to have a range of life skills and relationship skills which have been developed in the real world. If you have the skills to develop positive and healthy relationships, contribute to your community in a meaningful way and have the ability to think, adapt and grow through working with others, then you can safely use social media as a tool, levering the technology to your advantage. This way, you’re not at the mercy of the soulless emotional roller coaster that is trashing so many young lives today.
If you approach the world of social media with the understanding that, like all other technology, it’s only a tool and not the be all and end all of life, then no matter how fast your social network grows, you’ll always remain grounded in the fact that at the end of the day, likes are just a meaningless gesture that require no real thought, but time spent with real friends, experiencing real things is priceless.
Living in the moment is one of the biggest challenges for most people today. Often there’s so much meaningless noise surrounding people’s lives that it manifests itself in the idea of being ‘busy.’ People justify not living in the moment, through an endless search for meaning somewhere in the future. “What am I doing later today? What am I doing tomorrow? What am I doing on the third Saturday in June next year?” The questions roll on and on and the moment is lost.
The advent of social media has only helped douse this problem with a super-charged accelerant, thus adding to the deafening and pointless noise in everyone's lives. Seriously people, nobody really cares what you had for breakfast!
This noisy meaningless activity and ease of access to cameras on devices has added another element to the way in which people are living their lives through deferment and missing some wonderful experiences along the way. The way so many people do this now is through snapping or recording moments and sharing them online with countless people they don't know.
People are becoming increasingly addicted to the internet to fill a void in their lives. It’s like trying to ‘Keep up with the Joneses’ but on steroids! I was at an Easter celebration earlier in the year and this culminated in two big events. The town in which I live on the NSW South Coast has an annual Easter parade. The Year 10 girls from the local high school have the opportunity to go in what's called the Blessing of the Fleet and one of them is crowned the princess each year.
The Blessing of the Fleet itself is an annual Christian ceremony conducted by the local Catholic Priest under the careful watch of St. Peter, patron saint of fishermen, to ensure the safe passage and return for the local fishing fleet. It’s a fun, colourful event in which local businesses and community groups create themed floats to transport the princesses along the main street and down to the harbour.
Every year, the floats are built using movie, music and popular literature themes, basically pirates, musicals and all things Disney. The floats and costumes are amazing, often with months of phenomenal planning design and construction going into them.
It's a great cavalcade and a special day for the community. However, as the parade rolled by, I noticed countless people in the crowd, all with their phones out recording it and this is the bit I don't understand. They’re actually missing the experience of the parade. Instead of living in the movement and experiencing the parade in front of them, they’re seeing everything through the lens of the camera, ironically capturing a moment they've just missed.
That evening, following the celebrations, there was a firework display on at the harbour. It's always a great night. The fireworks are shot off from along the breakwall, each explosion reflected in the water and glistening brightly.
Taking photos of fireworks going off can be spectacular, but that kinda missed the whole point of being there. I've watched NYE fireworks on TV and it's never ever the same as actually being there. That burst of light when the colors explode in front of you. The noise and concussion of the blast and the smell of the gunpowder can never be replicated on a tv, a screen, a device, or anything. Fireworks have to be experienced in the moment, right there, right then! It’s the anticipation when you hear the dull thud of the shell fired off, watch it jet up into the air before exploding into a myriad of colors followed by the boom and smell of burning gunpowder.
It’s all these cool parts which combine together and make it amazing. However, once again, people were sitting there filming everything and viewing it through the tiny screen of their phones. What's the point in that? They've just turned a great experience into nothing more than another pointless moment deferred to be watched, or not, at some point in the future.
I often wonder who actually sits down and watches fireworks like that after the event? There are thousands of hours of video footage uploaded to YouTube every single day. Yet who’s watching this nonsense? I don’t want to watch fireworks on a computer screen. I want to experience it in the moment. I want that real, shared experience that can't be replicated by any network, website or device. This comes back to my point about living in the moment. Some people go to great lengths to show others what they're doing, at the cost of living in and experiencing that moment themselves.
Whilst I can't do justice to fireworks displayed that night, every shell that went up exploded in a beautiful rainbow of colors. The burning magnesium lit up the night sky and the finale culminated in one of the most amazing endings I’ve ever experienced. It was so cool! You could feel it building. The number of shells being fired into the air increased rapidly. They got faster and faster. Suddenly the sky erupted in colour and concluded with a massive boom. All went silent. The crowd erupted with united applause!
As I said, I can't do justice to the experience. You really just had to be there, but that's pretty much the point. These moments can’t be replicated in word, thought or on screen. These moments can't be shared with people who weren’t actually there. Most of all, I can't truly convey how much I enjoyed the experience. Since you weren’t with me, you can't understand how that moment felt.
The reality is that people are losing their ability to live in the moment. Their lives are so crowded with the noise of the world, they miss special moments such as the parade and fireworks displays. So, it’s important to put the phone away, to forget about sharing what's going on with people who aren’t there, because they will never really understand or appreciate the experience unless they live it themselves. Instead, tune out from the meaningless noise of the world and share the moment with those around you.