I love to try new things! The fact is that if we’re not living somewhat outside our comfort zones, we’re not doing much living at all. Life is about growth and without growth, we start to go backwards. When I recently jumped in the deep end and created a podcast about experiential education, it was not only a new experience, but a challenging one into which I had to put a lot of thought, time and effort to make it work.
It started out from listening to someone else’s podcast. Since I travel a lot for work, I’ve listened to a lot of podcasts in the car. What struck me though, was the fact that most of them were just conversations about topics I was interested in. However, there was nothing there in terms of really interesting experiential education. Certainly, there were shows out there about education, but they weren’t looking at the future of education. They were looking more at doing the same sort of things that have been done for about 200 years, but adding in a computer to the equation to make everyone feel that that’s progress. I’ll let you in on a secret… “It’s not!”
So I thought, who are some interesting people with whom I want to talk about what cool unique programs are they running? This was the starting point. I reached out to my first guest, explained what I was up to and asked if she were interested in being on the show. I was excited to get a very fast response. The only problem was, I had no recording equipment, never interviewed anyone before and massive time pressures from work.
Often people get to a point with an idea and even though it’s a great idea about which they’re excited, sometimes the first or second hurdle put a nail in the coffin of the idea and it falls onto the trash heap of dreams. That was not to be the case for me. Having already set a bunch of ludicrous goals, this was just another on the list. With my first guest lined up and booked in, I went out and bought a couple of lapel microphones which plugged into my iPhones. Buying stuff is the easy part. Everyone’s great at spending money. It’s what you do next with your purchase that either makes it worthwhile, or just another bit of gear that gathers dust.
With my tech equipment ready, I now needed some questions… This was probably the most challenging part of the whole process. I needed to research my guest and what cool things were being done in experiential education. Since I ended up with a broad range of guests, this meant that no single interview was going to be the same as another. I’d originally come up with a range of generic questions, which I promptly threw out. In researching the individual programs and backgrounds of the different guests, I found that I needed to explore more specific topics with each guest, rather than just try to ask the same questions of different people.
Added to this, when the interview was in progress, half the questions went out the window, as I found myself exploring other topics and issues which the guest brought up. By diving down the rabbit hole, it produced a far more interesting interview as well. For each subsequent guest, I was able to improve my listening skills and ask far better follow up questions on something said. For the first few interviews, I was too nervous for this and preferred to stick to my script, but as I became more comfortable with the fact that I could ask unscripted questions on the fly, it made it far easier to conduct a better interview. After all, the interviews were all aimed to explore their work in experiential education, not just for me to make it to the end of the script. In the end, out of roughly ten questions, I was usually only asking five or six. Everything else was simply further exploration of what had already been said.
As I conducted all the interviews in person, this added to the slight challenge of distance as some guests lived down the road and others in different countries. The craziest two recording days I had was towards the end of 2017. I had two days off work and I needed to record three interviews in two different states! I flew from Canberra to Melbourne first thing in the morning, hired a car, drove to rural Victoria, recorded the interview, back in the car to Melbourne, caught another plane to Adelaide! After staying with a friend overnight, I was off the next morning, to record two interviews one after another. Next, I was back on the plane to Canberra that evening and a 2.5 hour drive home! It was hectic, but worth it!
With a bunch of raw interviews recorded which covered a range of topics, it was now down to editing and adding some theme music. This wasn’t that hard, but still time consuming to ensure that each episode sounded good and wasn’t full of sound errors.
I won’t delve into the technical side of the whole podcast process but looking back on Season 1 for me I’ve learnt so much from the whole experience. On the one hand I now know how to conduct an interview with someone and draw out some key points from the work they do. I also learnt so much about other ways of doing things in education. There really is a huge gap that’s only growing bigger and bigger as schools are so slow to adapt to the changing world. Seeing some amazing standout programs such as the Australian Science & Maths School, really showed me what’s possible for education today, rather than just doing the same thing over and over… ‘because that’s the way we’ve always done it!’ type of attitudes with which so many schools are still battling.
I’m now in the process of recording Season 2 of the podcast, so if you’re running a unique experiential education program, I’d love to hear from you before I fill all the guests, but hey, if we can’t fit it in this time, there’s always Season 3!
Ultimately, if there’s some sort of fantastic idea you have, then no matter what the obstacles are that crop up, you can find a way around them. It was a lot work to complete this project, but anything worth doing always involves some significant effort. I encourage everyone to find something cool that can contribute to either education or helping others from your own experience. The best time to do it is always right now, so don’t delay. Get your next project up and running today and let me know how it goes!
This is a bit different in some ways from what I usually talk about. However, at the same time it's exactly what I'm on about. I was watching a documentary on Twisted Sister the other night. For those of you who don't know who they are, they're a 70-80s glam rock band that took stage performance to the next level. Google them and watch some of their film clips. My two favourite songs are We’re not Gonna take it! And I Wanna Rock! There pretty cool film clips, especially if you don't like classrooms and psycho teachers!
Anyway, even though they’re not one of my favourite bands, they have such a fascinating history of adversity and rising to the challenges that were constantly thrown up in front of them. It shows how such drive and determination paid off, despite what seemed to be a world conspiring against them at every turn.
From the start, they were weird! A bunch of glam rockers dressed up in outrageous costumes and performing on the fringe of the rock scene. Unlike many performers today who think the only way to get their big break is through a contest, they played the pub scene in New York State. Despite everyone having rough and quiet beginnings, not knowing if anyone were going to show up to their performance, they quickly found a following of dedicated fans who followed them from venue to venue for each of their shows.
They became so popular in the live rock scene, they were selling out shows wherever they went. However, they could land a record deal. If they'd started today they could've recorded their own songs and have them playing on YouTube and ITunes within days. However, the world was a very different place in the 70s & 80s and getting heard by anyone in the music industry was tough. But they continued to play and do what they loved to do.
They got their big break where they were going to perform at the Palladium theatre. The show sold out in record time, but one of the band members collapsed and the performance had to be postponed. Instead of record executives who were originally booked in to see the big show, they got secretaries and assistants showing up the next time around. As a result, no record deal was struck. This went on and on. Then they finally managed to sign a deal, but the executive died of a heart attack on the way home. So that fell through. Then they signed a deal in the U.K. But the record company went bust and back home they were black listed by Atlantic Records who threatened to fire anyone who tried to sign them.
By this point most people would've given up. Generation Y certainly would have, but not Twisted Sister. They kept going and going and trying to find new ways of opening doors every time one slammed shut in their face. At one point they drove 56 hours across America to play a 29min show! Now that's determination!
This endless struggle would’ve destroyed most people and they probably would've given up and begun resentfully making coffee somewhere and claiming they could've been big, but the universe stopped them. Well Twisted Sister grabbed the universe and bent it to its will! Their big break finally came in England when they were doing a live show and did such an epic performance, they got the attention of a British Atlantic Records executive who signed them up for a record deal! Much to the disgust, it would appear of the head of Atlantic Records US, who had blocked an album deal for so long, obviously realising there was money to be made from this deal, he finally capitulated and with this deal their album went platinum!
This shows how being tenacious and persistent can pay off. If you truly believe in something, even when the odds are not only stacked against you, but people are actively working against you, if you stick to your guns and keep working towards your goal, you can achieve anything. If it doesn't work to start with, or if doors keep closing, instead of giving up in five minutes and blaming the world for stopping you, keep working on it. Keep knocking on doors. Keep coming back. Keep fighting to do what you love and despite the odds against you, if you stick with it, you can achieve some amazing things.
To get the full understanding of the roller coaster ride they had, watch the documentary We Are Twisted Sister. It really is an eye-opening journey of how what seemed a hopeless pursuit, ended in a platinum record deal and one of the greatest live performance rock acts in history.
Work satisfaction is always an interesting challenge. Often people are in jobs just because of the money and I can’t criticize that as a motivation. After all, people need to live. However, what do you really want to be doing? A vitally important question for those looking at jobs, looking at careers, and setting goals is “Do you really want to be working in the job you’re in?” Or do you want to be doing something else? Often we look at other people’s jobs and think, ‘Wow, that looks amazing! I really want to be doing that!’
However, job envy is an interesting problem. For example, often people look at the work I’ve done over the years and say to me, ‘Oh, you have the best job!’ You work in the best location.’ Some of the time, they’re quite right, because I’ve shaped the way in which I’ve worked, to be in jobs and locations that I’ve really enjoyed. However, sometimes no matter how fun the job might appear, due to of the culture within an organisation, it can be a horrible place in which to turn up to work everyday.
The best job I had to date, was as Director of Outdoor Education for a Victorian School. Unfortunately, it was only a long service leave replacement role and for some reason, the person I was replacing wanted his job back!! Unbelieveable!!!
When I started this job, I was thrown in the deep end. It was the busiest time of the year. All the camps and activities were happening one after the other. I had three weeks to prepare the entire program for hundreds of students and staffing to match, the remaining six weeks were to run the program. It was intense! A non-stop ride, as I was responsible for three campuses. It meant back to back meetings, travel, reccies, risk assessments, medical reviews and a wide range of other preparations to ensure everything ran smoothly. However, despite the long hours, I really enjoyed the job.
Another intense job I had, was on a winter snowsports program and it was fantastic. We were up first thing in the morning, had breakfast, drove to Thredbo, skied the morning, drove back down to Jindabyne and had lunch before teaching classes until 5 o’clock. There was a short break between the end of lessons and dinner, then back into prep for the evening. This was a relentless job, but what made it enjoyable was the team with which I worked.
In another outdoor education role I had many years ago, the culture within that school was so toxic and so destructive that no matter how enjoyable the activities might have been, it was horrendous to go to work everyday. The bottom line was that staff weren’t valued. When there were important issues to discuss, staff members were ignored and marginalised. This led to resentment and total dysfuntion within the organisation. Ultimately, it was a situation where you had an insanely enjoyable program in which we ran mountain biking, kayaking, sea kayaking, hiking and an enviable fitness program over six months, but as the culture grew more toxic, it didn’t matter how much fun it could have been. It ended up completely unfulfilling. Sadly, people employed to help the social and emotional development of teenagers, were totally incapable of growth themselves.
When you have incompetent management within an organisation, it destroys teams and destroys the integrity and character of a workplace. What I came into years before, which was a happy and exciting place in which to work, turned into a miserable, arduous, horrendous place that was turning over staff faster than you could blink.
As you can see on the outside, being able to turn up to work everyday in shorts and a t-shirt, teach a few lessons then go for a bike ride sounds fantastic! At one point it was. However, throw in poor management and a toxic, cancerous culture, then no matter how good it looks on the outdside, the rotting core destroys the organisation from within. The end result for us was that the programs being run were only ever half-assessed and from an educational point of view, quite ineffective.
So, one of the really critical things you need to consider whenever you’re looking at a new job or re-evaluating your current one, you have to enjoy what you’re doing because enjoyment and fulfillment sparks the next level of commitment. It sparks you to have ideas. It enables continuous improvement and it enables growth within an organisation. As that organisation grows and flourishes, so can everything else about your life. However, if you stay in a job just for the sake of the money, no matter how good that money is, eventually, you’ll end up bitter and twisted and resentful only damaging your life and the lives of those around you.
Are you happy at work? Is your job fulfilling? Are you feeling that what you’re doing everyday is important and valued? Or are you just collecting money? When you can honestly answer these questions of yourself, then you’re ready to assess how worthwhile what you’re doing truly is. If it’s just for the money, it’s time to start looking for new opportunities. However, if you feel valued and enjoy what you do, then you’re already in the right place!
I've been reading a lot of business books lately. Some are amazing, some are total crap and some are just repeating everything else that everyone else has already said, yet still pretending that they thought of it first. Whilst business books are great to read, I reached saturation point last week and everything started appearing to be exactly the same. I've also been driving thousands of kilometres to get to meetings and listening to audio books along the way, but again everyone's sounding the same, telling me the same thing over and over and I needed a break. Ok, so quick sidebar and for those of you thinking about writing a book on business. Please resist the temptation of reading the audio book yourself, unless you have some form of training in media production. It's a rare thing to come across someone who can write logically and fluently and perform their own work with an entertaining flair, most business writers can't!
Having said that however, in my frustration of endless repetition in business tomes and the drones of their authors reading them to me, I woke the other morning to an offer I couldn't refuse! It was a free gift from my purveyor of fine audio books, obviously because I either spend too much money with them, or just not enough. Anyway, the gift was in the form of Girt, (a mysterious word whose usage came to prominence when written into Australia’s national anthem and means surrounded).
The book Girt is about the settlement history of Australia. “Ugh! Yuck! Australian history,” I hear you cry. “How boring!” Well having a degree in Medieval European History, I thought that too. However, nothing could be further from the truth (with the exception perhaps of Hilary's approach to online messaging). I downloaded my free gift and started listening to it right away. Written and narrated by historian David Hunt, this is an astoundingly hilarious account of the unspoken tales of Australian history that show how a nation was discovered by accident more than design and built on the back of dodgy deals generally involving rum and settled predominantly by people who really didn't want to be here. However, due to their rampant compulsion to blow their noses on something nice, rather than wipe it on their sleeves, they were transported here for all the handkerchiefs they borrowed!
I won't go into all the details of the book as I can hardly do it justice and, after all, you can read or listen to it yourself. I will say however, that it was a rolling barrel of laughs as David explored how dysfunctional the early days were in the new British Colony of New South Wales. Although I do note some important general guidelines for those future empire builders looking to send their criminals far far away:
1 Don't make the currency of your new penal colony an alcoholic beverage. If I have to explain why an entire country's economic system shouldn’t be rum-based then please close this window now and go and update your fb status to stupid.
2 Beware the high number of seamstresses in the phonebook. You might get more than your seams taken up.
3 Quickly trademark the name Macquarie and register all the domains you can. You’re guaranteed to make a fortune licensing the use of this name.
4 Don't go to hospital!
If I'm not making any sense, it's either because I'm writing this late at night, or you still haven't read the book!
Ok, so there is a point to all this, other than recommending a fantastic book. The book was so far removed from business, it was the refreshing break I needed from my business. When we focus on something so much, we often lose touch with other things which excite us and make us happy and that's been the case for me. Listening to a wonderful and interesting history that had nothing to do with work or business was great. It gave me the chance to switch off and really enjoy myself and that's so important for anyone, not just entrepreneurs, to be able to do. Take some time for yourself, recharge, refocus and just take the time to enjoy life.
As for Girt, even if you're not into history, read it. It's the most engaging and interesting history book I've ever come across and you will be richer for the experience.
For thousands of years, society has had social anchors for young people when they're growing up, developing and transitioning into adulthood. However, with the digital dislocation that’s occurred, many of these social anchors have been hacked away and have left our youth floating aimlessly in the infinite digital world. The process of self-discovery has suddenly changed into something quite different.
Often, youth would have parents, mentors or peers with whom they’d have a whole range of different experiences. From this, they would learn and experience the world from within supportive smaller community groups. They would learn about expectations within the social group and within society and through a process which is often seen as an important transitional coming-of-age, children were brought into the adult world reasonably well equipped to face the challenges that life can bring, but also prepared for all the subsequent opportunities and responsibilities that come with adult life.
However, for many cultures, this process has been completely scuttled by the digital age. Consequently, children are not finding mentors from within communities. Instead they’re trying to find out how they fit into the world through sites such as Google. The problem is that Google is not exactly the best place to find out reasonable answers when in search of complex emotional questions such as, Who am I? If searching for your place in the world has come to this, you are most likely to find some random spiritual nonsense websites or links to a cool Jackie Chan movie in which he has amnesia and spends the entire movie running around, yelling ‘Who am I?’ at people. Unless you want your life evolving as a Jackie Chan movie in which amnesia is the main theme, perhaps a more traditional approach is needed. There are certainly better ways of developing a sense of identity and a sense of self, than asking the soulless digital world what it thinks.
One thing that we should be asking ourselves is, who has created the digital age? Has it been people with huge amounts of life experience? Has it been created by people that you would trust with your kids? If you actually looked at some of the real back stories of the people who developed and built the major infrastructure and the major platforms on the internet, you’d be horrified at the lack of moral sense and the total lack of understanding of anything outside of greed and profit. Two great books which explore the horrific and idiot world of tech companies are Disrupted and Chaos Monkeys. These provide just a glimpse inside a world driven by immature, greedy profiteers. Is that from where you want your children to get their moral compass?
It's a sad reflection on society when some of the most influential things are run by people whom you wouldn't let near your children. Yet everyday, they’re being invited into homes, workplaces and school without a second thought. It's like allowing the Pied Piper free reign and access to an entire generation of kids and we all know how that turned out the first time around!
Unfortunately, digital devices have become a fantastic means of babysitting and are justified by people who pretend that, ‘It’s digital learning.’ It’s not. It’s just lazy parenting, the consequences of which are now starting to be felt, with an over-reliance on devices and an underwhelming sense of place and self worth in many children and teenagers. Congratulations modern parenting tactics! You’ve kept them entertained whilst you’ve been sipping your latte, but at what cost?
Ok! I might be being a little harsh here, however, it is a danger if over-relied upon. What are some of the core social anchors of which we need to be aware and we need to re-secure to ensure that we’re bringing up kids in the most positive and proactive way? Family first! It’s important to have a strong, loving family unit, in which both parents communicate well with each other, set expectations and provide love and boundaries for children. Next, they need a wider set of older role models, mentors, who may well be outside the direct family structure, but as the children develop into teenagers, these older mentors become very important in the transition of the teenage boy or girl into young adulthood. These connections are some of the most challenging to find these days, as this is one of the anchors that’s been torn apart by technology and modern society. However, be it through school, sports or a workplace, teenagers need this older type of role model to help them transition from being a child and acting like a child to being an adult and taking on the responsibilities of an adult.
Another important social anchor is that of one-on-one time spent with either mum or dad, away from the rest of the family and disconnected from the digital world. Getting away and hiking together, or riding bikes, or some sort of special one-on-one time is really important to have without the phone or the digital device adding noise. It’s times like this that can help build important bonds and give opportunities for relationship building and building trust that can lead to important, honest and open discussion about any issues that might be being faced by their son or daughter at that time. If parents are providing time, space and opportunities for this to happen, then this is a good way of reinforcing a vitally important social anchor of the family. However, if they’re too busy and leaving these questions to be answered by the frat boys who have built social media, then they’re going to be spending a lot more time later on in life trying to undo this damage.
Technology has significantly impacted on many traditional social anchors for children and young adults in their learning, development and transition into adulthood. Many of these anchors have been torn away to the point that they’ve left many young people lost in a noisy, soulless digital world searching for meaning that isn’t really to be found there. However, despite this sudden impact of technology, being aware of this fact and the potential damage it can have on the development of children and teenagers, parents and teachers can do something about it and through paying more attention to the changing emotional needs of children as they grow and supporting them through time spent together, along with other adult mentors, can have a massive impact on their self esteem and their ability to come of age and thrive in a fluid and ever-changing world.
Recently, I was at a council meeting where they invited members of the community in for a brainstorming session. I liked the sound of it and there was free food, so I decided I had to go along. There were around 30 people there, with a mix of people from Council, business owners, local professionals, and other community members.
The task for everyone was to come up with innovative ideas for creating a modern connected city. Sounds simple, right? As with many other brainstorming sessions, the tables were covered with butchers’ paper and we had permanent markers to jot down notes. A presentation was given by Council as to what they were already innovating with in terms of local services. Whilst this was quite interesting, unfortunately, it seemed to skew the way everyone was thinking about innovation and so instead of people truly throwing out radical and innovative ideas, it merely appeared that they were replicating ideas, or just adding to the ones that Council had already said they were doing.
Whilst there’s usually an advantage to frontloading situations and getting people into the right mind-set, unfortunately in this case, it didn't seem to work and many of the ideas that were being thrown up, were not innovative. They were just pointless and some quite ludicrous.
I found myself sitting there feeling quite disempowered, as I frustratingly had no innovative ideas of my own. So why was that? Why was nothing coming to me? I've created and developed a number of innovative products, from the ‘Reducer Flush,’ that limited the amount of water that’s used each time you flush your toilet, as well as software for the livestock industry that provides up-to-the-minute pricing data for farmers, to medical and incident management software for teachers when they're out on excursions. If anyone at that table should have been coming up with ideas, I felt it should have been me…Or should it?
Despite my frustration, and feeling totally and utterly out of my depth, all I needed to do was realise that for me, sitting around a table and brainstorming with other people was never ever going to work. Why’s that you ask? If all it took to be innovative was to sit around a table and talk, then the world would be running short of problems to solve. The number of times I sat around a table at work in this manner, should mean that we have the most amazingly productive and cohesive workplace on earth. Unfortunately, it's not in time spent sitting around the table as that usually results in plenty of stupid ideas and a total lack of productivity.
Innovation is therefore a really tricky thing to understand. I recently read a number of books on early stage start-ups in the US. Many of these start-ups don't actually do anything. All they seem to have done is put a ‘high-performing’ team of people together and try to get them innovate, then at the same time try to delude VCs into giving them money to perpetuate their fantasy long enough in the hope of striking something useful. Think of it being like the gold rush days, where everyone was trying to get a piece of the action and instead of digging for gold in hills that actually might have gold in them, you just dig anywhere you can find a piece of dirt. Taking this approach just means you will get very good at moving mounds of dirt.
So how do we actually innovate? For me, every time I've had a good idea, it's been whilst skiing, paddling or running. It's not until I'm in a creative space that works for me, that I can be creative. Despite many people telling you if you put enough creative people together they will create something amazing, this is not always the case. The opposite can be true as well if you put a lot of creative people together, there is every chance they just go to fight. Can you imagine Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Vincent van Gogh in the same room? Would they work together to create the world's greatest masterpiece that would eclipse all of their individual works? Or would they simply argue and end up throwing paint at each other?
There is so much money in innovation and technology has been a great enabler. Consequently, people are desperate to somehow be part of it and try to invent ways for people to innovate. However, this often fails to recognise how individual and obscure the art of innovation is. Many innovations fail because they're not developed to solve a real-world problem. The truly successful innovations however, when looked at retrospectively seem so obvious. They usually are, because they fix a problem that previously caused great pain or annoyance.
So how do you come up with a simple and obvious solution that people will talk about retrospectively and say how ingenious it is? Firstly, what's your greatest frustration? Secondly, how can you improve or change something to reduce this frustration or fix the problem? Thirdly, when you come up with all sorts of ideas to solve your big frustration, test out the theory to see if it’s also other people’s frustration and check whether your solution would work. Fourthly, take action and do something about it.
With any innovation, it's often the last step that is forgotten. Many people have great ideas every day. However, very few of them have the time, energy and persistence to take the action necessary to turn these innovative ideas into workable solutions that make a difference to people's lives.
Next time you’re at work and you're forced to sit at a table and solve all the world's problems at once, think about where your most creative space is and instead of sitting around the table go to that creative place so you can innovate in a natural and effective way. If you approach innovation in this way, you won't be left at the table feeling disempowered. You can come back to the table with something truly amazing.
The undo button has become an integral part of our lives. Something doesn’t work on the computer, hit the undo button. Get killed whilst playing a game, hit the undo button. Not happy with the last hour of work you just did on a project? Hit the undo button several times, or better still go back to a previous version of the work and start over. There are so many aspects of our lives to which the undo button is being applied. However, for students who have grown up always being able to undo something, what happens when there’s no button?
Education and in particular eLearning, is reliant on the idea of undo and redo. However, life is not always like that. We can’t always just unwind something that we’ve said or done by pressing a button. This is where experiential education becomes so important as part of the educational mix. To put it simply, actions lead to real consequences and we might or might not like the outcome. Just as in real life, if we don’t like the outcome, we still have to live with the result.
Being able to undo almost anything and everything at school is creating a generation that’s ill-equipped to deal with the discomfort of making real decisions that have real consequences. Having grown up with the ability to change an answer or retake a test because their parents complained too much is having a detrimental effect. This occurs especially when students find themselves in a situation in which a poor decision can have massive ramifications and no quick and easy reset.
The reality is that if students don’t practise making decisions and experience real consequences, then they become unable to adequately assess real risks when they arise. They are ill-equipped to face the challenges that life throws at them.
This is not to say that students need to be tossed into a bear pit so they can quickly work out how to escape with nothing more than a toothbrush and an elastic band. (Even though this may be quite useful for some students to experience, it’s not quite what I’m talking about.) It’s about the ability to put a student outside his/her comfort zone and facilitate situations in which the student needs to make decisions for himself without the ability to change his mind and do something different half way through which magically changes the outcome in his favour.
Whilst the undo button is a great function, the reality is in life, relationships and work, our actions might have us do or commit to something that can’t be undone. If you think about this more seriously, how much more care and effort needs to go into a decision that you know you can’t easily reverse? If you can’t just flippantly try and undo as a digital experiment might allow you to do, what do your thought processes need to look like to make an informed decision?
The challenge for educators today is to retrain student behaviour to understand this critical factor. We can’t afford to risk our next generation not making any decisions because they feel afraid they can’t just reverse them and might very well have to live with the result. Therefore, educational programs, activities and even our whole curriculum, needs to be more reflective of this.
Create situations in which students must make binding decisions. It could be with the building of a structure that can only be done once. It could be cooking with limited ingredients. It could be anything where the only way to solve the problem is by continuing to move forward and not have the option of resetting or restarting. Whatever way you structure the exercise or learning activity, there should be no easy way out. If failure occurs, then talk about why this happened and then keep moving forward.
The whole point of this is to help students cope with real decision making. While “undo” is great and I’ve used it a lot, the other side of it is that it has the potential to set an unrealistic expectation for life. Life is challenging. Life has consequences. Life truly has no undo button. However, if you’re prepared to make decisions, push outside your comfort zone, weather the storm and ride the rollercoaster of life, then you really don’t need the undo button after all.
I’m always amazed at people who can speak multiple languages. I mean two is awesome, but on my recent travels around Europe, I’ve run into so many people who speak 3-7+ languages and they transition from one to another so smoothly.
As a native English speakers, we tend to be rather lazy when it comes to learning other languages and rely on the fact that someone else has learnt English wherever we go. However, as I found in Japan, the further away from Tokyo, the less likely this is and you find yourself pointing at pictures on menus and smiling a lot.
Europe is quite different though, as it’s a rich mix of cultures and languages due to the open boarders of the EU and the fact that national boarders have been quite fluid for centuries due to trade and of course constant warfare between church and state and state and state and frequent incursions by barbarians, the French and the Germans.
Although I survived this trip without mentioning the war, being a Fawlty Towers fan, it’s always on the tip of my tongue when in hotels and when I did an exchange to Germany when I was still at school, I managed to unintentionally give my host family a present from Australia, which had the El Alamein Fountain on it, which was the battle in which my host’s father fought. Thankfully, it was taken as nice gift, rather than the Fawlty Towers faux pas that it was.
Over the past couple of months, I started refreshing my German in preparation for my trip. The ability to do this on your phone is tremendous, getting daily reminders to do my language session. However, the deeper I delved into the training, the more limited I found it to be. Other than some great reminders and the ability to learn new words, it doesn’t give you the training nor the real world practice needed to converse with native speakers.
As soon as I landed in Switzerland, I had to switch up my mind into German mode. (No, that doesn’t mean I wanted to annex the Sudetenland). It meant I had to focus on what was being said far more actively than I would normally in English. The concentration it took to pick up what was being said was also far greater than being able to flick through questions and match words on an app. As with most things digital, they’re a great help, but no substitute for real world interactions. Suddenly, you’re trying to communicate with people who are fluent and speak far quicker than an AI on any app.
However, despite this challenge, the immersion in the language and culture of the countries made it far easier to learn than playing on the phone. Being surrounded by native speakers, I pushed myself to speak German despite being uncertain of words. I constantly found myself saying half sentences, not quite knowing what a certain word was, or what to say next to complete the sentence. However, the easy option would have been to speak English and not bother, but where’s the fun in that?
Again, this is another fear that needs to be faced or comfort zone boundary that needs kicking down. Sure, it feels weird and awkward that you’re going to say the wrong thing in the wrong way, but hey, lots of people say the wrong thing in their native language. People are more forgiving when it’s your second one. Thankfully I didn’t ask anyone any stupid questions of which I’m aware!
Despite only spending a few days In Switzerland and Austria, I found myself picking up on so many different words, mannerisms and even slang in different regions. I could understand more about what was going on around me and even felt increasingly comfortable about speaking in German. If I’d taken the lazy and easy option, I would have learnt absolutely nothing.
If you’re learning a language, or want to, then the best way to get started is through some lessons combined with some sort of digital trainer. However, to truly gain a handle on the language, you really need to immerse yourself in every way possible by travelling to a native speaking country and only using that language to communicate. It might be challenging to begin with, but so rewarding when you do.
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.
For some strange, inexplicable reason a lot of people love cooking shows. I guess it’s the voyeuristic nature of people wanting to see others under pressure, being shoved outside their comfort zones, yelled at, fail, recover (or not) and it’s ok, because it’s not you! I’m not here to judge the moral compass of these shows and their viewers, as some people love the spotlight and the pressure and it can indeed fulfil an important desire in their life. However, what happens when you swap out the adults and replace them with children?
Cooking is a fantastic activity in which kids can be involved. The sooner you can get children helping out with cooking, making cookies, cakes or meals, the better. It’s a great activity to be doing, giving children the opportunity to measure, follow recipes, experiment and taste a range of different flavours. Added to this, it enables them to be more independent sooner as cooking is a skill to which many children are not exposed until they leave home. Despite the mess, the benefits of spending time with your kids cooking can be wonderful and good bonding time. Ultimately, they can then cook for you and that makes your life way easier!
With all these amazing benefits of cooking for kids, someone had to come along and corrupt it. As I was channel surfing the other day, I came across one of these cooking shows, but for kids. It was the stupid intense part of the show where they have all the children lined up, standing nervously. Some boring douchebag judges are sitting in judgement on how well the children baked a cake, making them feel increasingly anxious, as they provide their expert criticism of each cake and deciding who will stay and who will go.
Whilst I’m a huge fan of honest feedback for kids and it’s healthy to let them try things, fail, help them to understand why it didn’t work and then try again. However, this sort of intense public display of judgement and failure is totally unhealthy and in my opinion, emotionally destructive. Why parents let their kids be subjected to this I have no idea. If you’re an adult on one of these shows, you’ve made a conscious decision to be on there and compete. As an adult, you have the ability (generally speaking) to make rational, informed decisions and understand the risks and rewards that come with being on a TV show with endless armchair critics, ready to jump on Twitter or whatever else and ridicule and blast you for everything you do. However, as a child you have no idea and as a parent, well… you’re idiots for exposing your kids to such an experience.
With mental health issues on the rise amongst young people, there’s absolutely no reason to unnaturally expose them to high levels of stress and anxiety for a tiny bit of public exposure, which even if they won a TV cooking competition, any benefit will quickly fade into insignificance. You only have to look at the trail of destruction left in the wake of childhood actors such as River Phoenix, Cory Haim and countless others to see how false the notion of fame and fortunate from a childhood experience on TV or the big screen really is.
It’s important that we let kids try new things, challenge themselves and do things together with mum and dad such as cooking to help build their experience, relationships and confidence in life. However, it’s also just as important to protect kids from such awful soul-destroying experiences such as reality TV. There’s plenty of time in their lives as they grow and mature to do something stupid like this. However, whilst still a child, it’s important to be protected from an experience that’s merely a shallow marketing exercise created and run by people who are purely interested in the massive amount of money that comes with TV productions such as this, not the welfare of the kids. At the end of the day, why not just turn the TV off and spend some quality time baking cookies with the kids.