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.
This week is just a quick heads up on a podcast I’m launching soon called Xperiential Education (www.xperiential.education)
Over the past year, (in my spare time), I’ve been travelling around and interviewing some fascinating people who work in experiential education. Now my definition of experiential education is very broad and intentionally so. This is not a podcast about classroom practice nor is it about outdoor education. It’s about a whole range of interesting and unique approaches as to how leaders, teachers, trainers and businesses are educating others, be it at home, in school, at a retreat or specialised venue, on the job, or any other context where those with experience in life create valuable and meaningful learning experiences for others.
We’re at a pivotal moment in history. Technology has suddenly impacted on everything that we do, so as the world rapidly changes how does education need to change to remain relevant? Does it digitise? Or does it take a step back into more traditional approaches? Or are we yet to really discover and understand what the next step forward is in education? This is just one of many great topics I’ve been able to cover with my guests, with the overall aim of discovering some really effective and powerful learning experiences.
I’ve tried to keep the interviews as diverse as possible, covering:
Theatre & Performance
I hope you enjoy Season 1 of the podcast. This has been a challenging and interesting learning experience for me as well and I look forward to people’s feedback. The full guest list is below and links and show notes will be added on the Xperiential Education website as each episode goes to air.
Season 1 (not in episode order)
Cyn Smith – Tihoi Venture School - NZ
Adrian Deakes – V&A Museum – London
Dr Brendan Nelson – Australian War Memorial – Canberra
Rebecca Cameron – Former Australian Federal Police Officer
Matt Purcell – GovHack - Canberra Grammar
Glenys Thompson – Australian Science & Mathematics School – Adelaide
Mary Preece – Bundanon Trust
Noel Mifsud – Antarctic Adventures & Christian Brothers College – Adelaide
Tim Nolan – Wesley College Clunes – Victoria
Some of the ideas that these great educational leaders have shared with me are truly amazing. Please send me a message with any feedback, ideas or guest suggestions for Season 2. I look forward to sharing with you some great insights into learning through doing and hope you can use them in your own work!
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.
Teacher education is a subject that's always hotly debated by teachers, academics and politicians. Depending on which way standardised test results are going and how close to an election it is, can determine how a teacher is taught how to teach. Try saying that quickly!
However, this isn't a great way of determining what the future needs of education should be, nor the best way to determine how the next generation of teachers should be trained. It's high time we added a bit more controversy to this topic. The fact that when I was at school, I was taught by teachers who couldn’t teach at all, led me to think about how I gained the skills I have today both as a teacher and entrepreneur. The reality is that most of it was learning through experience.
There have been many studies into how teachers should be trained and what the focus of their training should be. However, many of these ideas seem to be completely out of touch with how rapidly the world is changing. If we don’t suitably adjust this way of thinking, then we risk failing the next generation of staff and students in an epic manner. How a teacher was teaching twenty years ago, is quite different from how they should be teaching today. The sad reality is that whilst the world has changed, many schools have essentially remained the same and are still stuck firmly in the past, still reminiscing about a world of big hair dos, bad fashion and videos that were killing radio stars.
This doesn’t mean we need to radically change our theories on education and re-imagine a classroom full of holograms and corporate ads. What it does mean however, is that we need actually to look back further than the 1980s to what educational ideas and practices were used in the past and I mean way into the past, before the industrial revolution created today's dysfunctional classroom environment.
What did you just say? We need to look further into the past to find solutions for the future??? Well in a word, yes, but before you don a pair of chaps and jump into the Delorian let me explain.
Most education prior to the industrial revolution was experiential. It was done through apprenticeships, through mentoring and working with others who had mastered a trade or a skill before. You learnt by a bit of theory and a lot of practice and this is something that’s been sadly lost in our rush to become a ‘smart country’ where every well-educated grad student can live a life of under-employment and making coffee in the exploding multitude of trendy cafés.
One of the big problems with current teacher training is that it’s so heavily based upon theory and transferring that theory through a standard style of classroom. Whilst many schools claim to be innovating, the classroom remains the same in nature, no matter how many fancy tables, break out areas or bean bags you’ve put in it. The reason is that most of the learning stems from the teacher’s ability to engage in a meaningful way, rather than how the furniture works. If your teachers aren’t engaging, students are going to struggle to learn anything useful.
So back to teacher training! When I did my training, I did a course called a Graduate Diploma of Education. It was a 12 months add-on after I completed my degree in History and Politics. The year after I finished, the course turned into a 2 year Bachelor of Education. Would spending another mindless year in the classroom have made me a better teacher? No, but it would have made more money for the university and I’d still be paying off crippling student loans having achieved the sum total of nothing.
The reality is that if I’d been forced to complete a 2 year degree in Education, rather than a 12 month Graduate Diploma, I wouldn’t have even bothered. I thought at the time, 5 years worth of university study to become a teacher was a bit of a joke and I still do. It doesn’t improve teaching. It simply perpetuates more of the same repetitive theories of education and adds little value to the overall quality of the teacher.
Unfortunately, due to the large amounts of money involved and the fact that too many politicians equate more pre-service study at uni with better long-term standardised test scores, the university education for teachers is going to even more ridiculous extremes. You now have lots of first year out teachers who have stayed on at uni for so long, they’ve completed a Masters in Education, only proving a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous.
When I look at new teachers with Masters degrees. I laugh because it’s a complete joke that you have a brand-new teacher who has a Masters in something they’re not yet experienced in. I’m not saying Masters degrees are bad, because I have managed to collect a couple of them myself, though none in Education. However, this is something which is now being over-sold/over-studied by new teachers.
If new graduates with Masters Degrees was all that it took to re-engage the 40% of our students who are totally disengaged with education, the standardised test results would be through the roof and we’d be well on the way to surpassing Kazakhstan for literacy and numeracy.
However, despite longer university courses and rigorous ie arduous standards for teacher registration, Australian schools are still not making the impact that’s needed in terms of student engagement.
What other options are there to help address this massive problem? This is where looking to the past can be helpful for the education of the future. In my experience, the most effective teachers I’ve worked with are those who have done something totally different from teaching. The worst teachers I’ve worked with are the ones who have gone to school, gone to university to become a teacher and then returned to the exact same school at which they were a student. There’s usually some deeper dysfunction which drives a person to do this, as they’re often running and hiding from something in the real world (usually themselves), but that’s a far more complex issue beyond the discussion for today. As a general rule, it’s not healthy to return to the school you attended no matter how good you thought the experience was, because your belief in ownership and ties with the school might forever perversely affect your judgment about the nature of education and how it needs to continually evolve to meet the changing needs of staff and students.
Back to the issue of good teachers. What makes a good teacher? One factor is diversity of experience. If you’re teaching students to think for themselves, take risks and become a caring and well-balanced member of society, what better way than to be taught by other caring, risk-taking well-balanced members of society?
Unless you understand and have experienced the world outside of education for yourself, how can you possibly prepare others to do the same? This is where we start looking to the past. As I mentioned earlier, for thousands of years young men and women learnt trades or life skills from the experience of others. They could have had apprenticeships or been indentured in all sorts of trades and professions, but the benefit was, they were learning directly from those who knew exactly what they were doing. Whilst this lacked efficiency in the world of the industrial revolution, the positive adult role modelling and mentoring combined with learning by doing, remains one of the most powerful means through which we learn.
Unfortunately, schools too often perpetuate this cycle of school to uni and back to school by not insisting on anything but uni qualifications. What if teacher registration instead were changed to require a new teacher to have completed at least 12 months of other work outside of education? Therefore, instead of wasting someone’s time with another year of pointless study, line them up with internships in companies, banks, cafes, factories, on farms, in real industries, though perhaps avoiding government departments. This forces new teachers to be adaptable and to take on skills and roles which might make them feel discomfort, but ultimately these provide massive opportunities for personal growth. This could appear to have nothing to do with education on the surface, but the reality is gaining the skill-set that students now need to be developing to thrive in the future. This style of work experience that would be happening outside the sheltered world of schools can provide great life skills which teachers can leverage over the long-term in their teaching practice helping them to be far more genuine and effective.
In addition to this, rotations through industry partners should be encouraged every 5-10 years as part of a well-designed and well-organised professional development program. The reality is that the world has experienced a seismic shift and will continue to change at an increasingly rapid pace. If you want people capable of teaching children how to adapt to this new paradigm, then teachers need to have experienced life in the real world themselves.
There’s no real benefit in being taught by someone who has only had school as the measure for life’s experiences. However, there’s immense benefit that can be gained from teachers who have experienced life’s ups and downs in various diverse contexts. This makes better teachers and can improve student engagement.
The world is never changed by easy options or sheer luck. It’s changed by those who take risks, backed by action and have the moral framework and persistence to see it through. We’re at a time where the direction of the world is in flux and this provides us with a great opportunity to shape our world in a positive and meaningful way. Consequently, we can’t afford to lose the next generation into the emotional wilderness because we’re not prepared to take the action necessary to help build brilliant young men and women who can and will change the world.
It’s time we reconsidered the way we train and maintain our teachers in their careers, to ensure we’re able to maximise the effectiveness of the time students spend at school and help them transition smoothly and effectively into adult life.
Often teachers like to tell others what to think. I know my teachers did when I was at school. In fact, they had an entire system in place there which actively stifled creative thinking.
However, as creative and independent thought becomes an increasingly important skill for students to have, how do we help develop creative thinkers?
Firstly, whatever you do, don't give students all the answers! This is a total cop out, much of which is borne from easy access to someone else's thoughts. What better way to study a novel for English, other than watch the movie and download all the crib notes! After all that's what everyone else is doing!
The problem with this approach is that you end up thinking exactly the way someone wants you to think, but ultimately other people's thoughts and feelings can never be your own and the most powerful lessons are based upon our own experiences, not others.
I see it all the time in education. Teachers feel the need to tell you exactly what a text means, what a character represents, what underlying themes are at play. All of this places a huge amount of perspective bias on a text. But what a text, a song, a piece of art or an engineering system means to one person, may be completely different to another! It's through encouraging and supporting this difference of perspective that drives creative thinkers.
If there were only ever one answer to everything, then between Google and Wikipedia, the world would be a perfectly balanced and happy place. Yet that would be a boring world in which to live.
Thankfully, instead there are endless answers, perspectives and feelings that are generated from literature, art and science that's taught in schools. The key to unlocking the value of this is by allowing students to explore and communicate their own personal perspectives.
Music for example is an easy way to spark discussions about abstract feedback such as feelings and interpretation. Give your students a song to listen to over and over and see what emotional response they have and ask them why. Whilst some songs will entice similar responses, there's countless ones that will have vastly different meanings for different people, because they're applying their own thoughts and experiences to the subject matter.
The artist may have had one idea stemming from life, but to be brutally honest, that means nothing to the listener. It's only from our own lives that we can draw our own emotional interpretations. Understanding this can be a powerful tool to help students develop a sense of independence, self-worth and identity and should be encouraged.
One song which fascinates me is Mad World, by Gary Jules, which is the theme song to Donnie Darko, which again is a movie which is amazingly complex and what it means to me is totally different from what it means to everyone else with whom I've discussed it.
There's no point in my analysing the song nor the movie here because I can only express my thoughts and feelings on it. Instead, listen to it a few times. How does it make you feel? Who do you think of when you hear it? This can be applied to so many songs. We listen to music, not because we care about the artist’s experiences. It's all an expression of our own. This is true for literature, art and science. They're all reflections of our own experiences and emotional responses.
So no matter what you're doing, there's never just one answer. Allow your students to explore and apply their own perspective. This encourages them to be creative and develops their critical and independent thinking skills, skills which will help them thrive in an ever-changing world.
Late last year, I was involved with another film project called The Merger! I enjoy the different sort of challenge that comes with a film project. For me however, the biggest challenge was just finding the time to get there. With that in mind, I was able to sneak it in between work days and I’m so glad that I did.
Film projects are lots of fun (although there’s a lot of work behind the scenes that goes into them and a lot of sitting around doing nothing). I think the bigger the budget, the more sitting around doing nothing there is. I would imagine that actors should be very well-read, as the time spent doing nothing at all, is significant.
A few years ago, I was in the movie Unbroken, directed by Angelina Jolie. Most of the film was done in Australia and I somehow ended up in it as a journalist. The free haircut was probably the most exciting part of the whole experience and when it came to the day of filming, I sat around for eleven hours in a room full of Nazis and did nothing. Ok, so to be honest, they weren’t real Nazis. They were just dressed up as Nazis as we were supposed to be at the Berlin Olympics. Finally, everyone was called onto the set, where we stood around for another hour waiting for something to happen. As if in the blink of an eye, the scene was filmed and everyone was sent back to get changed out of their SS uniforms. Not really the most exciting of days as the illusion of stardom feels so much emptier and extremely uninteresting after thirteen hours of standing around and waiting.
However, I don’t want to discourage anyone from giving this a go. It’s one of those things where I can say, “I’ve been there and done that.” I was however, far more interested when I became involved in two much smaller Australian films. The first one being “The Backyard Ashes,” and most recently, “The Merger,” which are both by Director Mark Grental.
I only became involved by a chance meeting at a political party convention back in 2011. Mark was the guest speaker and a very unusual one to have at a political meeting, because he was funny and interesting. He’d told his story of growing up in a rural community near Wagga Wagga and what it was like being interested in the arts. He’d moved away to study at NIDA and was now back to work on a feature film called The Backyard Ashes. As expected, this was a movie about cricket. As soon as he gave the overview of the film, I was hooked. It was a great Australian Story that tells the tale of a neighbourhood dispute where the main character and his friends are playing backyard cricket and after hitting the ball for six, accidentally incinerates his boss’s prized cat on the barbecue. He collects the ashes of the cat and returns it to the owner. Long story short to resolve the neighbourhood dispute, they then play a game of backyard cricket with the ashes as the prize!
It’s a funny movie and throughout it, I was able to be involved on the set and off the set with a cameo as an extra and also helping out with the post production marketing! I’d never imagined that a chance meeting at a fairly dull political conference could lead to me to meeting so many interesting people and going to so many cool parties. When I saw that Mark was making another film, I decided that I wanted to be involved once again!
The Merger is another sports movie, this time based around AFL. The basic story is that this country football club is basically going to wreck and ruin. The team’s gone, the clubhouse condemned and it’s not looking good. However, there’s a chance to revive things with the idea of enlisting and training refugees to play on the team. I won’t give any more of the plot away and you should go and see if for yourself. It’s a very politically topical movie given the debate in Australia around refuges and what we should be doing as a nation and there’s not an easy solution, as it’s a very emotive and devise debate.
The beauty of art and film however, is that it can present ideas in such a unique way that’s outside of the standard partisan political debate we see in our daily media. If you look at how art has pushed the boundaries for centuries in helping our world modernise, fight for human rights and become more equitable, you start to really appreciate the value of art within our society.
Whilst I have no intention of going into the film industry, for me, being involved in projects in this way, gives me something different to do. It’s a chance to be part of something much bigger and something that’s going to last forever. Whenever I see The Backyard Ashes advertised, or on TV or even on the inflight entertainment, I feel excited to have been part of it all. From the first meeting of the actors and crew, which happened to be at a BBQ, to the green and red carpet premiers in Wagga and Sydney. The people I met, the friendships I developed, the experience I gained and the stories I now have, were all a wonderful part of this. I now have two films I can watch with great pride and also scream out when I spot myself standing obscurely in the corner of a scene.
As we’re now into a new year and the holidays are coming to an end, why don’t you find something you’ve always wanted to try, just for the sake of it. I challenge everybody over the next twelve months to get yourself involved in something completely different. A random project that you’ve always wanted to try out! You never know who you will meet, or where it will take you. Live your life to the fullest and make the most of every opportunity that comes your way this year.
It all began with a quick trip to Lismore. I found myself nominated as a finalist for the Alumni of The Year at one of my old unis. (If you’re wondering, I went to three different ones, if you’re not well… it’s too late now!) It was a nice feeling to be nominated and heading back to Southern Cross for the dinner.
The evening itself was a great one and I ran into a number of people I already knew and met so many more interesting people from across Australia who were now doing some amazing things. I always enjoy hearing about other people’s challenges and experiences in whatever they’re doing in life, as it puts your own busy world into perspective. I even met the musician behind the “Bob the Builder” song, which was fun.
After the dinner, I’d planned a quick getaway for a couple of days in Yamba, which was another place I hadn’t been since graduation. It was a warm and wonderful change from the icy conditions of the late winter we’d had in Southern NSW. I went for a couple of runs, ate some local seafood and had a generally relaxing time. It wasn’t until I was heading home that the dramas began.
I left on Monday morning, giving myself plenty of time to get to the airport for my 11:45 flight. Arriving in Ballina, I stopped for coffee and managed to find a wonderful café called …. It was a very smooth double shot latte and just what I needed.
Arriving at the airport, I checked the rental car for marks before dropping the keys back in the box. On check-in, I was informed that the flight was going to be delayed by two hours because of a meltdown of the air traffic control system in Sydney. I thought, ‘Oh well these things happen. I’ll go for a walk.’
I headed off down the road in search of something to do.
I found a homemakers centre in the industrial area and wandered around the air conditioned showroom until I’d seen the same lounge far too many times and considering I don’t own a house to fill with furniture, it was rather pointless. Heading back to the airport, I covered some 5km and was now quite hungry. Stepping into the terminal, I heard over the PA system that there was a further delay in the flight and the airline would be providing food vouchers for everyone on the flight. With my lunch paid for and a new departure time, I was happy to sit and catch up on some work.
For the next hour, I answered some emails and wrote an article, another advantage of being able to work from anywhere. However, as my battery charge diminished, the delays in the flight seemed to increase. There was a momentary reprieve when it was announced the plane had left Sydney and was on its way.
As I had to get a connecting flight to Canberra, I was starting to get a bit concerned about the time. Regardless, I’d worked out that even with another delay I’d still make it. The plane landed and the arrivals area flooded with the passengers out of Sydney. Thinking it would be a fast turn around, I put my phone away and started chatting with a lady who had just sat down next to me. Turns out she was a teacher and had been up scoping out new jobs. We chatted for some time, as the small departure lounge filled with expectant travellers returning to Sydney.
There was a tense anticipation in the air as the plane sat commandingly on the tarmac. Another announcement… ‘We’re sorry to inform you that the pilot of flight JQ451 is over his allowable hours and therefore is unable to fly again today. As a result this flight is cancelled.’ The voice over the PA was suddenly drowned out by hysterical moans and exclamations! The service desk attendant said something to the effect ‘We apologise for the inconvenience…’ but it was barely audible due to the ruckus of bogans swearing.
The departure lounge emptied quickly amid a rabble of angry curses. I remained sitting, thinking of alternate possibilities that could be slightly more constructive and profitable than swearing and yelling at airline staff. In situations like this, you have a couple of options. Quickly turn into an abusive dickhead, or strategise around the problem. As we were already well over the abusive dickhead quota, I decided on the latter.
What were my options? I had three meetings the next day in Canberra starting at 10am. I really wanted to be at all three, but two were moveable. The final meeting in the afternoon had been a long time coming and would’ve been hard to reorganise, so that gave me the hard deadline of 12:30pm landing back in Canberra the next day. Not too bad a scenario!
I quickly looked up alternate flights from other nearby airports, which in Australia is still quite a trek. Goldcoast was the nearest, but no flights given the lateness of the day. The only other one was Brisbane, which was further away, but had a flight at 7:10pm. I checked the map, I checked the time… I could make it. I quickly rang the airline to see if this were possible and after an anxious wait with my battery running low, it was! Feeling relieved, I dashed to the car rentals to get a car. Nothing was available at any of the 6 different rental businesses!
I was back to square one. That solution wasn’t going to work, so I joined the back of the enormous queue with the other 180 people as the airline scrambled to find accommodation for everyone at short notice in a small town. After almost an hour in line an announcement came over the PA. The airline was willing to reimburse customers up to $150 for their accommodation if they organised it themselves. Fearing the sort of accommodation I was going to get given anyway by the low-cost airline, this was a great alternative. With what little battery I had left, I checked out places to stay and found a nice boutique hotel for $169.00. It looked really interesting and was a heritage listed building so I immediately booked it, as there were only a couple of rooms left. Getting there and back was a minor detail. At least I had a bed!
I waited in line for another hour, as transport into town was arranged to the various motels. It was disorganised chaos however. Buses had arrived and passengers were being ushered onboard. I hung back as a wild rabble of bogans who’d been standing in line drinking for the past hour appeared as if they weren’t going to stop anytime soon. I felt relieved as I overheard they were going to the Best Western. Two other ladies had boarded that bus, but it was full and the bogans ungraciously told them to get off the bus.
Meanwhile, I was standing just inside the terminal with one other lady by the name of Jill. I chatted with her for a few minutes before the other two who’d been thrown off the bus joined us appearing rather frazzled. We were the last four at the airport and after being given an assurance that another bus was on its way and going exactly where I needed to go, I was happy to wait a little longer.
Relieved to get on the bus, despite not knowing the area, we had to direct the bus driver to the hotel. As we pulled up, a feeling of relief and excitement came over me. It was a magnificent old Victorian style two storey mansion. Inside the foyer, it was a beautifully restored building that had once been a girls’ boarding school. With some old uniforms and tennis racquets on display, it had a distinct St. Trinians feel to it!
As we waited on the lounges for the receptionist, it was calming to be out of the din of the airport. However, the tranquility was about to be disrupted again. The receptionist walked out, saw four of us sitting on the lounge and a worried look appeared on her face. I knew at that moment, despite the ladies having asked the airline staff several times if there were enough rooms, there weren’t going to be enough rooms!
Having booked the place myself online, thankfully she had a room for me, but then there was only one room left with a single bed and three ladies! At this point after the rolling problems the looks of horror on the ladies faces said it all. They weren’t going anywhere. They were all staying and that was final. It was almost like a scene out of Fawlty Towers. I asked if there was a spare bed in my room, but no, nothing, just a single. Luckily the hotel had a roll out bed for one and they put that in the room for the ladies, who then worked out the rest.
With my stomach growling having missed lunch and the restaurant in the hotel closing, I said I’d freshen up and then meet everyone in the dining room. The dining room was more Fawlty Towers than reception had been, with everything but a hamster and a man from Barcelona. Despite the historic look and feel, the food was great. With the dramas of the day over, dinner was a wonderful experience. I was able to get to know three total strangers and enjoy a really enjoyable meal with them, an experience that would never have happened if it weren’t for a computer malfunction in Sydney.
It’s often the most unusual circumstances which can lead to the best adventures. The only thing you need to be able to do in this sort of situation is have a sense of humour and always remain adaptable as the situation evolves. If you stress too much about it or just believe the solution is through yelling and swearing at people, you’ll miss out on the possibility of having a much better and memorable experience than what would have happened with the original plan anyway. I ended up shopping for sofas, meeting new people, sleeping in the old headmistress’ office in a slightly quirky and most likely haunted Victorian mansion and ended up back in Canberra for my most important meeting the next day.
In any situation, where tensions may get high due to things not going to plan, never forget that the Chinese word for crisis and opportunity is one and the same. In the words of Homer Simpson embrace and enjoy the ‘Crisitunity!’