Just a short one this week about an interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years in outdoor ed programs has been that of clustering. What I mean by this is the group dynamic of needing to be close together when in large open spaces. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s interesting to watch how this can change over a longer-term program as students become more comfortable with their surroundings and the natural environment. For students from cities, most of the groups with which I’ve worked, big open spaces tend to be uncomfortable. When it comes to hiking, canoeing and camping, no matter how much space you have, the students tend to need to be very close together, even if they’re not friends.
I started to notice this across a number of canoeing expeditions where we were paddling on quite wide lakes. Whilst you never want a canoe group to be too far away from boats to boat, quite often students will paddle right on top of each other, rather than giving everyone else room to move. The same is true when they’re setting up their tents at the campsite. No matter how large and unoccupied the camp ground, the students tend to cluster together with tents almost on top of each other and rather than use free time to socialise with friends, they often cluster into one large group.
This is definitely a very primitive comfort zone issue and the fact that students feel safer in large groups when out in the wilderness. From a management point of view, this is great, as it’s easier to keep track of where everyone is. Just look for the massive group and listen for the noise. However, the problem with this is that as a group they can miss so much about the environment around them. They can miss the opportunity to switch off and just enjoy the peace and quiet of the unique landscapes and environments they will most likely never see again.
As I mentioned however, for longer programs, this distance seems to increase. Students feel more comfortable in the environment in which they’re in and as this comfort increases, they don’t need to be as close together to each other as before. They also develop an attitude that it is quite safe and this adds to the de-clustering effect. It’s interesting to watch this transition too as it creates greater moments for reflection and relaxation and opens students’ minds to so much more. It enables them to switch off from a massively connected world. It enables them to focus on the beauty of the world. Students can focus also on how much bigger the world is than just their own lives and their own experiences.
It’s not often that I write about history, however, having studied mediæval history at uni, many aspects of it really didn’t make sense until I went and visited some of the places where these events occurred. Half of what goes on in Game of Thrones, was just daily life for many people throughout this period. At one point, the Pope was concerned about the level of violence throughout Europe. To deal with this issue, he made a decree that on a certain day nobody was to carry a weapon, therefore the world would have a break from violence and be made safer. Sadly, only the honest people followed this edict and were horribly slaughtered as a result.
From the age of the Vikings to the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, we covered a lot of ground at uni and there are so many places left to go to be able to put the pieces together. However, as I was in Wales, it was time to get a greater understanding of the expansion of the Normans and Edward I’s conquest of Wales. This conquest brought Wales under the control of the English monarch in 1283 and despite skirmishes and uprisings, its remained as part of the United Kingdom to this day. To establish and maintain his power base in Wales, Edward built a series of castles to fend off the Welsh princes. The scale of one of these castles is hard to understand until you’re actually there.
Despite Cardiff being the capital of Wales today, with its own amazing castle, for Edward I, due to a Roman legend about a foreign king coming and falling in love with a Welsh princess and ruling the land, it was important to build his capital in Cænarvon the centre upon which the legend was based, which helped him gain, or appear to gain, legitimacy in his kingship.
All of Edward’s castles were designed by the architect James of St. George. James was a Savoyard (from modern Italy), and he incorporated elements in his design from Europe and the Middle East.
The fact that he built so many so quickly is amazing. I spent the morning climbing up and down the various towers, which I’m sure at one point were all linked together. However, due to the castle being in ruins, not everything remains intact. The time and energy required to get up and down the dizzying spiral staircases is surprising. If you could imagine trying to do that in full armour whilst being attacked by someone with a sword, you start to appreciate not living in mediæval times, add to that the Black Death and infant mortality and a six hour wait in a modern hospital waiting room doesn’t seem so bad.
What’s really important however, about going to a place such as Cænarvon Castle, walking through the dark halls, peering out from the battlements and standing on the towers looking out over the surrounding township and the sea, is that you start to gain a real understanding of history. Through technology, we can now travel places without leaving the classroom, which is good in some ways, but the virtual world can never replace the real world experience of going somewhere. You can’t feel the icy wind on your cheeks, smell the dank odour of the dungeons and be amazed at the sheer enormity of the structure, as you walk through the gates. All of this is lost in the virtual experience.
Although taking your class overseas to tour the various castles, monasteries and cathedrals of Europe may be a more challenging task than switching on a virtual world, the difference this will make is enormous. At the very least for your own teaching, travel far and wide to as many places as you can to see and experience sites such as Cænarvon Castle. This will have a huge impact on your ability to better understand and teach that part of history.
Using the environment as part of an experiential education program is vitally important. So how does the environment change or improve the way in which you can engage with students? Many times, I’ve had some great fireside chats with groups of students that would have never been possible in the classroom. There’s something remarkably special about the natural environment that breaks down barriers within groups and allows for discussions and experiences totally different from a classroom and the built environment. It can often be and should be an even safer place for discussion, as it’s separated from our daily routine and connects us with thousands of years of human experience and relationship with the land.
If you think about how a classroom operates, you have a teacher at the front and no matter how hard you try to create a ‘new classroom’ through open planning or adding bean bags and colourful shelving, the reality is, the space still operates in the same way. A group comes in, a teacher is there, you have a class, the group leaves and the teacher is there ready for the next class. So this is a process. It’s quite structured, regardless of how laissez-faire you want to be about it.
However, the natural environment, whether it be in the bush, the rocky mountain wilderness, a rainforest or coastal setting, there’s very little structure to it and consequently, this space changes the emotional dynamics and experience of the group. In terms of experiential education, if you’ve been on a challenging hike, canoe activity, or maybe a team building task, whatever the case may be, it’s a shared experience and should be debriefed afterwards. However, think of where that debrief should take place and how much the environment will impact on its effectiveness. If you’re running out of a basecamp with building and rooms, what’s going to happen if you take the debrief inside? What unnatural distractions and complications have you just added to the group dynamics? Alternatively, what will be the group’s behaviours and dynamics, if you find a quiet place away from anything man-made? Test the theory out for yourself. However, from my experience, there’s a dramatic difference. The reality is that people are more open to sharing and listening to thoughts, feelings and ideas, than they are in built up environments.
The natural environment provides a wonderful connection with our heritage, which is often forgotten in a highly connected world that is full of endless noise and distractions. Getting back to a natural environment can change the way your students feel, the way in which they are able to express themselves and ultimately has a powerful and positive impact on their learning. It’s interesting when you take a group out of a city and bring them into a unique bush setting.
I was speaking with Mary Preece, the education manager for Bundanon Trust, an art centre in the Shoalhaven. Mary has found a similar phenomenon as she works with a lot of city kids. As part of their art program, they take students out into some beautiful Australian bush locations on the property. They have no phone connectivity, there are no buildings around and the only way the students can get to where the workshops are being conducted is by walking. From the moment the students get off the bus, there’s literally a collective sigh of relief and after that initial transition, one of the activities they do is to lead the group into a rainforest. As they walk the students down into the gully, the natural light is filtered and it becomes slightly darker and the students respond by becoming naturally quieter. This experience with the rainforest, enables the staff to create an extremely relaxed and peaceful environment, free from the noise of everyday life, somewhat of a rarity in this day and age, since many schools mistakenly believe that cramming as much into a student’s day as possible is the best method of creating ‘well-balanced’ individuals.
However, without the constant bombardment and endless white noise of the world, it enables students to focus on what’s truly important in life and lets them live in the moment for what can be a very different and immensely effective learning experience. The reality is that for tens of thousands of years, humans have been connected with the natural environment and being away from the built up environment helps us reconnect with a physical and emotional connection that’s being strained by modern life.
Why do we like going to the beach? Why do we like going bushwalking? Why do we like going to lookouts and seeing the natural environment in all its beauty? Why do we like a cool breeze in summer? Why does a change in season, change our mood? It’s all of these environmental connections that have developed over millennia, we often lose through our modern lifestyle. The more we’re connected through digital technology, which can massively improve some parts of our lives, unfortunately, the more distant we can become from ourselves and those around us. It’s really important that with modern life, we don’t lose that connection with our natural environment. Consequently, building opportunities into educational programs for environmental connectivity is extremely important and valuable for staff and students alike.
How does a change in the environment change our state of mind? How does it change our health? How does it change how we relate to others? With youth mental health an increasingly massive issue, the more that educators can enable students to be in touch with and control over their emotions, the better equipped they will be to develop the resilience that’s needed to survive and thrive in a rapidly changing world.
Experiential education is not just about running a series of activities so students can experience something different and schools can cram another thing on top of their programs to justify their fees and distract parents from the fact that they’re still stuck in the 1980s. It’s much deeper than that. Experiential education is an immersive method of education that when combined effectively with the natural environment, can massively improve student health, well-being and their ability to relax, clear their minds and be open to new thoughts, ideas and ways of doing things, which are all critically important skills in a rapidly changing world. Carefully structuring activities with environmental connectivity in mind, is vitally important in a noise filled world to help students reflect and become mindful of where they’re at in their own lives and where they want to be going. This ability to disconnect from the connected and built up world, even for a short period of time, can provide some amazing long-term benefits that last well beyond a student’s time at school. The noisier the world gets, the more important it will be to ensure you have thoughtful and effective environmental connectivity as part of your experiential education program.
An interesting phenomenon is whenever I’ve taken groups out on canoeing expeditions. We tend to paddle on quite wide lakes. There are very few areas where it narrows to the point that we’re either paddling a rapids or we’re paddling close together or need to be paddling close together. However, given the wide open river, the students I work with tend to all cluster together in really small groups. They only use a tiny part of the river. The same is true when they’re setting up their tents. They clustered together in a really small groups despite having masses of open space which they can utilise. This is interesting from the aspect of is this something that we’re finding with city students. Are they afraid of open space or are they made to feel uncomfortable by open space?
As the camps progress, this distance seems to increase. They feel more comfortable in the environment. They don’t need to be as close together to each other as before. There’s a sense that it is quite safe where we are. That’s quite safe doing what we’re doing. It’s this interesting transition that occurs because of being in the natural environment.
This is why it’s so important to use the natural environment as part of any of your Experiential Education Programs. It opens students’ minds to so much more. It enables them to relax. It enables them to switch off from a massively connected world. It enables them to focus on the beauty of the world and to focus on how much bigger the world is than just their own lives and their own experiences.
You can even try with exactly the same question, the same topic basically. See how effective it is covering an important topic and it could be talking about bullying. It could be talking about dogs. It could be talking about decision making. It could be talking about relationships. If you talk about any of these in the classroom, you get one same answers. However, if you talk about these in a different setting, in a wilderness setting, in a bush setting, you will get an entirely different set. It is going to be more involved. It’s going to be more relevant and it is going to be more effective as a learning process for those students. It will enable them to reflect on their answers and how they feel about their answers. Whereas if you do it on class, all they’re thinking of is the next recess break or the next class. You lose that. Therefore, it is vitally important to use the environment as part of your Experiential Education Programs.
A short one this week, just to let you know that the Xperiential Education Podcast is Live!
The first two episodes are out and another will go live tomorrow! It’s been a wonderful educational experience for me traveling to meet the different educators and cover a huge range of topics and educational contexts. Please join us on this great journey for updates and some key links check out the website & twitter feed:
Web - www.xperiential.education
Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/experientialeducationpodcast/
You can subscribe to the Podcast on:
If you’re running a cool experiential education program, please get in touch, I’m always searching for great new ideas for shows and exploring different techniques and strategies for experiential education.
Recently I was involved in a Year 6 program in which I was one of the lead instructors for the outdoor activities. However, the students’ year 6 teachers were the ones running the overall program. This creates an interesting dynamic and is one with which I've worked over the years. It's something that can work exceptionally well, or end up in an unmitigated disaster.
To avoid such disasters, clear lines of communication and responsibilities are vitally important. However, this is not about demarcations of responsibilities and how to effectively communicate in a team environment. This is about the value of understanding when not to be involved.
My involvement in the camp started on day two. We were running a canoe session for the students to introduce them to some basic canoeing skills before taking them on the expedition the next day. Given the age of the students and their experience, this was very much a day where we were actively teaching and running the activity to ensure skills were being effectively learnt and that the group was being safely managed. In sessions like this, there's a lot of proactive engagement and interaction with the group throughout.
At the end of the training session, the teachers walked the students back up to the campsite, whilst my colleagues and I packed the canoe trailer ready for the next day. For me, this was an important distinction in what we were doing and what we were trying to achieve from an educational point of view. The year 6 teachers who were on the camp were there to develop better relationships with their students and we were there to facilitate a safe, yet appropriately challenging environment in which this could occur.
The next morning, the other outdoor ed teachers and I drove the canoes down to the boat ramp from where we were starting out. Usually, if I were running a high school program, the students would be there doing most of the work themselves. However, this was a different situation and therefore required a different approach. By the time we’d unloaded all the canoes and had everything set up ready to go, the students and the teachers arrived. The other instructor and I organised everyone as quickly as possible with their PFDs and paddles ready to get on the water.
It wasn't long before we had the students working in teams to carry the canoes to the water's edge, at which point I helped them onto the water. As the other instructor took the front of the group and I took the back, we proceeded to paddle our way up river for the next few hours. Covering 8 km in total and having just learnt all the basic canoeing skills the day before, this was a big day for the year 6 students and we spent a lot of the time actively instructing students, helping them to correct and improve their techniques, as well as carefully managing the group.
We eventually made it into camp by mid-afternoon at which point we ran a demonstration as to how to set up a tent and allow the students to work in small teams to replicate what they’d been shown. It was at this point that the other outdoor ed teacher and I transitioned from a very active role into a passive role. The year 6 teachers took over the afternoon's activities, which included gathering firewood and a couple of different games. Meanwhile, we faded into the background to cook dinner.
I do enjoy cooking and it was a BBQ, so it was quite easy to get everything prepared and cooked for the group of around 40 people. It was dark by the time we finished and the students were keen to light the fire. Remaining removed from the situation, we cleaned up from dinner, made a cup of tea and sat back watching the group now sitting around a blazing fire.
With most groups with which I work, I would’ve been over at the fire running a debrief, or an evening session of some sort. However, that wasn't the point of this whole exercise. Even though we all work for the same school, there was a distinct difference in what the group needed from the staff who were there. The year 6 students needed to hear stories and share stories around the fire with their teachers, whom they were now getting to know in a completely different context. It was for that reason, we sat back and didn't directly involve ourselves until much later in the evening.
As outdoor educators, this is a really important thing to understand. What are the educational and emotional needs of the group and how are they best served? It can often be the case that we feel we need to be involved in absolutely everything that happens on a campout or activity. Yet this couldn't be further from the truth. The benefit that the other staff and students received from us taking a back seat at this point of the day was huge. The temptation is often to lead the discussion or allow the focus of the evening to fall upon you as an instructor. After all, you've just safely lead them up a river. Why not spend the next hour regaling them with stories of everything else you've ever done!
To do this would be totally counter-productive, because the relationship that needs to be built at this point is not between yourself and the group that you've just actively managed up the river. The relationship that needs to be built is between the class teachers and their students. At the end of the day, the memory of your instructing them in canoeing will fade into a distant memory. However, the memory of their classroom teacher telling stories, cooking marshmallows and laughing around the fire will last a lifetime.
It's important to understand the context in which you’re running, facilitating and leading any sort of activity. This can help you to understand the needs of the group and adapt your approach and involvement with the group accordingly. As the main part of the evening's activity came to an end, this then provided the opportunity for us to re-join the group and chat with the staff as the students started to make their way to bed.
As teachers, we want to make the most of any opportunity to help and teach others. However, this can lead to the temptation of becoming too involved with a group when there is no need to be. The next time you find yourself in a situation where you're running a session as the expert in that particular activity, when the activity is over, sit back, observe the dynamics of the group and assess whether you really need to be directly involved for the rest of the day, or is it time to sit back, make yourself a cup of coffee and let others take the lead.
It's funny how easily we find ourselves sitting back and taking our working lives so contentedly. Almost every job is repetitive. Some are vastly more repetitive than others, for example working on a production line. However, sometimes even with variety at work, it can still become repetitious.
Recently, my colleagues and I spent some time developing new options for the outdoor ed program. The main aim of this was to have plans B, C, D, etc just in case weather or circumstances prevented us from going with plan A. For this, we headed Canberra to conduct some “reccies” (reconnoitres), to assess the suitability of different expeditions in areas.
Covering three different modes of transport, hiking, mountain biking and canoeing, one of the aims was to have an expedition that could link these together into a seamless journey. So off we went into the Brindabella ranges! This is a mountain range just south of Canberra through which the Murrumbidgee River flows and at points, narrows into mini gorges to create some exciting white water.
After driving around for about an hour and half in the troopie through some amazingly creepy hillbilly country trying to find public access to the river, it appeared we were out of luck. The upper section of the river where we wanted to put in, seemed to be completely hemmed in by private properties filled with wrecked cars and uninviting signs. Thankfully, we weren’t chased out by too many toothless, gun toting madman trying to protect their moonshine stills. With no way in, we decided to head back down to where we left the other vehicle and paddle from there.
Packing the canoes we put in the boats at a ford that ran a shallow and constant stream over the road, which quickly turned into some gentle rapids. Getting on the water, I was slightly nervous, as I’d never white water canoed before. Having paddled down many rivers in a kayak with a spray deck on, it's a totally different feeling being in an open canoe and only having a single blade. Sitting in the front of the boat we paddled down towards the first rapid. A nervous pain started stabbing me in the stomach. I suddenly found myself way outside my comfort zone.
As we hit the first rapid, the boat got caught on a rock. I quickly shifted my body to counterbalance the boat that was now tilted up at a high angle with the gunnel almost touching the water. It was probably the most precarious place you could imagine to have put the boat, and we’d only paddled about 50m. Seemingly, it wasn’t a good start to what was going to be a very interesting day. After being perched awkwardly on the rock for a few minutes, which felt like hours, we finally managed to shuffle our way off and back into the stream. The canoe righted itself with a bang and bumped clumsily across several other rocks as we went. I was now hoping the entire day wasn’t going to be like this.
Thankfully, the river widened and deepen a little, so became quite a pleasant paddle… well for a short period of time anyway. As my nerves eased, I tried to start reading the river ahead, anticipating any potential bumps and helping my colleague navigate and avoid them. After about half an hour, the river began to narrow once again and the land started to drop away at a much steeper rate. I became increasingly nervous, as I could see the bubbling white water in front of me getting funnelled down into an even tighter stretch of the river. Despite having a highly-experienced instructor in the back of the boat steering, I was a bundle of nerves as I clung on to my wooden paddle for dear life.
We sat midstream back-paddling and maintaining our position, as we discussed tactics of how we were going to approach and attack the next set of rapids. With a plan clearly in our minds, we paddled hard towards the first rapid and as we hit it, we turned hard right! With only inches to spare, we traversed the second rapid before swiftly changing direction again to negotiate a third one. With my heart pounding and my knuckles going white from gripping the paddle so hard, we slid through the final section and onto a fast-flowing rapid train that bounced us up and down, splashing masses of water over the bow and into my face.
A few hundred metres on, we came to yet another section that was even more extreme. Pulling off into an eddy, we breaked for lunch and examine the rapids ahead from the riverbank. What was becoming increasingly obvious, was the fact the hills were getting steeper around us and we were getting funnelled into a gorge. After lunch and having walked up and down the river examining options, we decided to portage the boats for a couple of hundred metres to avoid some of the more extreme rapids. The feeling of relief rippled through me as I really didn't want to be going down a grade 3 rapid that might’ve slammed us straight into a rock.
It quickly became apparent that canoes weren't really designed to be carried and despite going around some of the rapids being a much safer option, it was an arduous task dragging the canoes and our equipment over the rocky embankment beside the river.
Finding a calm little eddy on the other side, we slid the boat back in and continued on our way. This didn't last long, as the gradient of the river increased and the rocks either side began to appear pillar-like as they reached up higher and higher.
After hitting a few more rapids, the land seemed to just drop away. Pulling in to another eddy, we got out of the boat, and assessed what was a massive grade 3 rapid that split into two streams. Both directions were filled with nasty looking strainers ready for their next customer. Those of you who aren’t familiar with a strainer, it’s an object in the water, usually a tree branch or similar that catches solid objects as the water goes through it. Much like when you cook pasta and strain the water, the strainer in the river will capture you and hold you there. The difference being you don't get tipped out onto a plate and served with a nice tomato and basil sauce, you just get pinned there and drown. Strainers are deadly objects that you want to avoid it all cost.
We’d now hit a point in the river where it was no longer safe to paddle, nor was it easy or suitable to portage due to the increasingly large rocky outcrops. Emptying everything out of the boats we decided to line them down the rapids instead. Lining, if you haven't come across that either is where you attach a rope to the boat and allow the boat to float down the rapid whilst you use the rope to guide it. Sounds easy? Not quite... If the boat tips over at any point you need to let go of the rope immediately. The problem is that as soon as a capsized canoe fills with water, it suddenly weighs around 400kg. Unless you have massive guns, you’ll basically get snatched off the rocks and dragged down into the water, which is not recommended.
Lining the boats, followed by 100m of paddling, then several hundred metres of portaging and another extended lining took around two hours. The end of which we’d covered about 500m! The air felt cool as the sun hung low in the western sky. What was supposed to take a couple of hours in total, was now well into its sixth hour. Looking on the map, there was relief in sight as the river appeared to once again broaden. Back in the boats after another short portage, we paddled forth hoping our reading of the map was correct. The terrain around us had changed slightly. It was looking promising that the worst of it was over. As we rounded the next bend, a feeling of relief flooded over me. We were now back to a wide smooth flowing section of the Murrumbidgee!
With the light fading and the day well and truly done, the sight of Thawa Bridge ahead in the distance was a wonderful sight to see. It was just before dark as we stepped out of the boat. I felt a sense of achievement! Despite it being a harrowing experience at the start of the day and feeling completely out of my depth, it’d turned into an excellent adventure.
Often at work, we can become stagnant in our repetitive roles. Experiences such as this push us and remind us that we must also be prepared to push ourselves outside our comfort zones if we want to grow. There’s no point in telling kids they need to push their boundaries and limits, if we’re not prepared to do it ourselves. Feeling the fear that your students feel when they start a new activity for the first time is an important part of understanding why we do what we do.
Experiential education is so important for the continuous growth and improvement for both teacher and student. If you find you’re happy, content and comfortable day in day out at work, you're simply not pushing the boundaries hard enough. Even if you have a program that works exceptionally well, there’s always space for improvement.
Challenge yourself! Go out and find options B, C, D and in doing so experience something new. Ultimately, the more we test our comfort zone, the more we grow. The more we grow in ourselves, the stronger and more confident we become in our own lives. This strength and confidence translates into far better teaching and mentorship for our students.
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.
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.
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.