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.
A lot of my work has been on long-stay residential programs, running anywhere from 4 weeks to 6 months. The educational benefits of these extended programs are massive, yet so many schools still opt for the quick sub-contracted hit and miss approach with a week here and there, which, from an educational point of view don’t seem to achieve much. However, the merits or lack thereof for short discrete programs is a topic for another time.
With any long-stay program, there are still a number of risks to its educational value. These stem mainly from school administrators who don’t quite understand the real value of the program. Some inherit long-stay programs as part of a new job. The problem is however, when inheriting something like this, it’s like rifling through your long-lost great aunt’s deceased estate. There’s lots of weird stuff that you don’t understand. It looks cool, but you’re not sure what it really does. Therefore, you might keep it… you might not… but perhaps you should just leave it for the moment and it’ll somehow magically become apparent one day what it’s really for! Others panic about students missing out on academic lessons and love to interfere by unnaturally inserting academic content for the sake of it, for fear they won’t make up the mandated hours, or worse, it might affect the Yr 12 marks!!! This is more nonsense than anything else, as it’s usually thought up by people whose only experience has been in schools and as a result, they don’t understand real-life and what students actually need.
The reality is that the social and emotional skills developed in these programs when done correctly can significantly improve overall student performance. There’s often a mad rush to cram more into the daily life of a student, as schools, in the desire to be ‘the best,’ think that more activity and movement means better ‘well-balanced’ children. However, this is a total load of rubbish as quantity never results in quality and you’re just going to burn students out and make them hate learning. Instead, it’s important to improve the quality of each experience and take the time to reflect on how that experience unfolded. Reflect on whether it were effective and successful.
Despite these potential misconceptions of why and how a long-stay program should run, whatever the case might be for the structure of the program, there’s a common and often overlooked problem of student reintegration as they return to their regular life. Unfortunately, this is something I’ve seen done very poorly over the years and can lead to feelings of isolation, frustration and significantly reduce the impact of the educational experience.
When students have been away from home for an extended period of time, something changes in them. There’s a level of independence that’s gained, as well as a valuable bonding with their peers. This is a great outcome in itself, as this should be one of the key aims of these programs to be able to create thoughtful independent young men and women who are set up ready to face challenges and be successful in life.
However, despite this increased independence and the constant buzz of activity that comes with being on camp, what happens when students return home? Life is back to ‘normal’! The community in which you’ve been living is suddenly gone. Mum, dad and teachers are telling you what to do once more and in the evening, the bedroom is empty and the fun chatter that goes with getting to sleep each night is deafeningly silent.
As a result, for students returning home, this can be even more challenging than leaving and spending time away from home. The reality is that students have come back changed, having had some amazing experiences and spent what feels like a significant part of their life away from family. Yet at the same time for everyone else back home, for them, their daily routines and working life have continued and they’re expecting the exact same boy or girl to return as if no time had passed at all. Often families are not prepared for the independent young man or woman who comes back.
Unfortunately, without a good reintegration plan and process, the return home can be extremely frustrating for the student and those around. To avoid this, the reintegration process needs to involve teachers, parents and the students to ensure a smooth and effective reintegration that maximises the benefit of the time spent away.
Teachers need to understand that the students going away, are usually coming back more independent and therefore their teaching style should reflect this. Whilst this isn’t always possible, it should at least be acknowledged in the methodology of teaching post program. If the staff at the main campus are in tune with the aims, objectives and style of learning being utilised on the long-stay program, this enables a far smoother reintegration process back in the regular classroom. A complete lack of understanding can have a dramatic and opposite effect, causing tension and unnecessary disruption in class. One effective way to help develop this understanding, is by rotating each of your staff through a long-stay camp or if this isn’t possible have them go on an extended part of the camp and be buddied up with one of the experienced staff members running the program. Getting them to visit the campus for a day is a complete waste of time, as it provides no understanding of the actual program. You can never truly describe an experiential program and all its intricacies. You just need to experience it for yourself.
Parents also need to understand the potential feeling of isolation and frustration faced by their son or daughter on return. To minimise this, it’s important to meet with all parents prior to the return of the child and run a good debrief session with them. It’s important to explain what experiences their child has had, the style of teaching and learning that was employed and provide specific strategies for how they can continue this back at home. It should be made clear that the long-stay program is just the beginning of a life-long process of experiences, reflection and growth and to make the most of this, it must be continued. The last thing parents should be doing is treating their son or daughter as a poor child who’s just suffered great hardships at ‘bootcamp’ and must be taken care of once more. If parents are going to take this approach, they might as well not send students anywhere or let them doing anything… ever! This is the fastest way to destroy all learning that’s occurred, so try to emphasise this when debriefing.
In the excitement of having the students return, a lot of schools fail to leverage this great opportunity with parents. Whilst schools are amazing at the glossy brochure approach before hand, they’re not so great with the explanation as to why they needed to take the students away in the first place and how this educational experience can be continued in a powerful way back home. It’s essential to have parents as part of the overall learning experience prior to students leaving and especially on the return home. The “next steps or what now?” is so often overlooked, yet it’s vital to help maximise the long-term learning and development that the opportunity of the long-stay program afforded them.
Finally, but most importantly, the students themselves. Over the years we’ve run different reintegration processes and sessions to provide students with strategies as they return home. It usually involves some sort of debrief and celebration. The closing of one chapter and the beginning of a new one.
I started thinking about this and how it could be effectively explained with an experiential metaphor. I was running a mountain bike expedition as the final wrap up for one long-stay program and we’d been riding quite tough and exciting terrain all week. On the last day I decided to change the pace and as an alternative, ride around the bike track of Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra. In comparison with the rest of the week, this was an easy ride. At the end of it, I facilitated the wrap up for the month-long program and set the scene by starting with the change of pace and change of environment that we’d just experienced. As it was such a stark contrast, it made it far easier to do. From there, I tied it back into the fact that the group was about to go back to a change of pace and a change of environment and went on to discuss the challenges they’d faced and skills they’d learnt.
However, why did this mountain bike riding to cycleway riding transition provide a good metaphor? All the skills of persistence, determination and adaptability that were required earlier in the week when riding hard, were still required now in a different context. We had to be aware of different paths. We had to be mindful of pedestrians and we were now back in a cityscape. It was through this very clear connection and example that we were able to make the debrief relatable and powerful. This then opened up the discussion to what other skills can be transferred and how can they be applied when facing other potential challenges and flowing into the fact that life will change for them the next day and strategies to help them continue their journey.
Setting the scene and clearly articulating that this is an important transitional time is vitally important to reduce the chance that your students will feel isolated and frustrated on return. The longer the program, the more intense these feelings may be. On the six month program on which I worked for a number of years, this was often a massive challenge, as they were no longer children, nor acting as children.
It’s important for teachers and parents to acknowledge the change and continue to provide opportunities for students to push the boundaries of their comfort zone, to take responsibility and allow them to grow. Through doing so, the educational benefit of time away and the measurable result will be felt throughout the school and into the future. Most importantly, you will be able to maximise the effectiveness of the long-stay program which will massively improve the ability of each and every student to face life’s challenges head on and succeed in whatever they decide to do with their lives.
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.
After a recent hike, during our debrief, one of the students made a comment which was quite profound. It made me seriously rethink my approach to the whole subject of leadership. We were talking about what makes someone a leader. ‘Taking control’, said one student, ‘making things happen,’ said another. This continued for some time with similar answers more about command and control than anything else, until one boy called out, ‘helping others!’
I asked the boy to explain what he meant and the discussion continued further around the topic of helping others out. Suddenly, one of the boys said, ‘Well, why not call it helpership?’ I thought about this for a moment and it struck me. What a profound statement! Whilst I’m sure someone has come up with this before, I’d never actually looked at leadership from that point of view. Even though as a leader, that’s exactly what you’re doing, I’d always explained leadership in a different way, more about looking for opportunities and inspiring those around you than the idea of helping others.
However, when working with students, especially younger ones, the idea of helpership makes a lot more sense. Through a straight forward comment of one of the students, I immediately found this to be a much easier and more accessible way for students to understand leadership than any other method I’ve come across before. We continued to run with it and the discussion turned out to be a very productive and meaningful one for the students who had come up with the idea, as well as for all the other students involved.
Often leadership gets confused with the sense of largess military or political leadership. The vision of a president tweeting something stupid or a repressed dictator joyfully pressing launch buttons for his collection of inter-continental ballistic missiles, further confuses the subject as neither of these projected figures are true leaders. Often for students it’s even harder trying to understand the concept of leadership when bombarded with these political figures in the news every day. When people hear the term ‘world leader,’ they think of visible public figures who have somehow risen to power and often obtained their position through dubious means. Whilst this is a misconception about leadership, it’s an easily made mistake.
The reality is that a leader is there to help others and not themselves. If you look at leadership in a military sense, leaders are helping others to achieve goals under demanding and often life-threatening circumstances. If you look at it from a business sense, leaders are helping others to achieve common goals and a vision for their company that’s greater than any of its individual parts. If you look at leadership in sport, again it’s all about helping others to achieve common goals that the individual could never achieve alone.
However, for many, leadership is a concept that’s hard to grasp and it’s often confusing and difficult for people to differentiate between qualities of a leader and traits of a manager. Much of this comes from experience and context and many students might also only see leadership as what teachers do. They could see it through their sports’ teams in which someone has been nominated as captain and everybody must listen to the captain or else be dropped from the team. Again, these are not necessarily the best ways to learn about leadership unless the person in that position is actively helping others.
If team building and leadership are important goals for your school, then instead of working with complex leadership theory (of which there’s a huge amount of literature), start with the concept of helpership. It immediately changes the conversation and makes the discussion more accessible. Rather than somebody being in charge and dictating orders, which is what a lot of younger people perceive leadership to be about, frame the discussion around helping others. This approach can change the entire mindset as to what an individual can do to become a leader. As a result, you can develop leadership and mindfulness in students as they look for ways to help each other, rather than thinking that they need to tell each other what to do.
As students progress through their high-school years, they’re searching for a sense of self, a sense of belonging and a sense of how they can make a difference in the world. Consequently, developing positive leadership qualities throughout this time is vital and can make a huge difference to their lives and the lives of those with whom they’ll interact no matter what they choose to do.
Ultimately, this can be a powerful lesson and an important one to develop leadership skills in young men and women. Whilst leadership development is often far more complex than the idea of helpership, if students have it in their minds when they’re just starting to think about leadership and where they fit into the world, this can have a profound impact on their longer-term leadership development and success as a leader.
Helpership starts the conversation in an assessable way so students can begin to understand that, unlike the political egotists of the world, leadership is not about you. It’s about others. It’s about shared goals and values. It’s about the welfare of others. It’s about putting yourself second and the needs of others first. It’s about service.
So when you’re thinking about your next leadership program for teens, why not simply re-frame the language? You don’t have to call it a helpership program, but it’s well worth using the concept of helpership as a key idea to help students to start to really understand what leadership is all about.
It's funny how easily we find ourselves sitting back and taking our working lives so contentedly. Almost every job is repetitive. Some are vastly more repetitive than others, for example working on a production line. However, sometimes even with variety at work, it can still become repetitious.
Recently, my colleagues and I spent some time developing new options for the outdoor ed program. The main aim of this was to have plans B, C, D, etc just in case weather or circumstances prevented us from going with plan A. For this, we headed Canberra to conduct some “reccies” (reconnoitres), to assess the suitability of different expeditions in areas.
Covering three different modes of transport, hiking, mountain biking and canoeing, one of the aims was to have an expedition that could link these together into a seamless journey. So off we went into the Brindabella ranges! This is a mountain range just south of Canberra through which the Murrumbidgee River flows and at points, narrows into mini gorges to create some exciting white water.
After driving around for about an hour and half in the troopie through some amazingly creepy hillbilly country trying to find public access to the river, it appeared we were out of luck. The upper section of the river where we wanted to put in, seemed to be completely hemmed in by private properties filled with wrecked cars and uninviting signs. Thankfully, we weren’t chased out by too many toothless, gun toting madman trying to protect their moonshine stills. With no way in, we decided to head back down to where we left the other vehicle and paddle from there.
Packing the canoes we put in the boats at a ford that ran a shallow and constant stream over the road, which quickly turned into some gentle rapids. Getting on the water, I was slightly nervous, as I’d never white water canoed before. Having paddled down many rivers in a kayak with a spray deck on, it's a totally different feeling being in an open canoe and only having a single blade. Sitting in the front of the boat we paddled down towards the first rapid. A nervous pain started stabbing me in the stomach. I suddenly found myself way outside my comfort zone.
As we hit the first rapid, the boat got caught on a rock. I quickly shifted my body to counterbalance the boat that was now tilted up at a high angle with the gunnel almost touching the water. It was probably the most precarious place you could imagine to have put the boat, and we’d only paddled about 50m. Seemingly, it wasn’t a good start to what was going to be a very interesting day. After being perched awkwardly on the rock for a few minutes, which felt like hours, we finally managed to shuffle our way off and back into the stream. The canoe righted itself with a bang and bumped clumsily across several other rocks as we went. I was now hoping the entire day wasn’t going to be like this.
Thankfully, the river widened and deepen a little, so became quite a pleasant paddle… well for a short period of time anyway. As my nerves eased, I tried to start reading the river ahead, anticipating any potential bumps and helping my colleague navigate and avoid them. After about half an hour, the river began to narrow once again and the land started to drop away at a much steeper rate. I became increasingly nervous, as I could see the bubbling white water in front of me getting funnelled down into an even tighter stretch of the river. Despite having a highly-experienced instructor in the back of the boat steering, I was a bundle of nerves as I clung on to my wooden paddle for dear life.
We sat midstream back-paddling and maintaining our position, as we discussed tactics of how we were going to approach and attack the next set of rapids. With a plan clearly in our minds, we paddled hard towards the first rapid and as we hit it, we turned hard right! With only inches to spare, we traversed the second rapid before swiftly changing direction again to negotiate a third one. With my heart pounding and my knuckles going white from gripping the paddle so hard, we slid through the final section and onto a fast-flowing rapid train that bounced us up and down, splashing masses of water over the bow and into my face.
A few hundred metres on, we came to yet another section that was even more extreme. Pulling off into an eddy, we breaked for lunch and examine the rapids ahead from the riverbank. What was becoming increasingly obvious, was the fact the hills were getting steeper around us and we were getting funnelled into a gorge. After lunch and having walked up and down the river examining options, we decided to portage the boats for a couple of hundred metres to avoid some of the more extreme rapids. The feeling of relief rippled through me as I really didn't want to be going down a grade 3 rapid that might’ve slammed us straight into a rock.
It quickly became apparent that canoes weren't really designed to be carried and despite going around some of the rapids being a much safer option, it was an arduous task dragging the canoes and our equipment over the rocky embankment beside the river.
Finding a calm little eddy on the other side, we slid the boat back in and continued on our way. This didn't last long, as the gradient of the river increased and the rocks either side began to appear pillar-like as they reached up higher and higher.
After hitting a few more rapids, the land seemed to just drop away. Pulling in to another eddy, we got out of the boat, and assessed what was a massive grade 3 rapid that split into two streams. Both directions were filled with nasty looking strainers ready for their next customer. Those of you who aren’t familiar with a strainer, it’s an object in the water, usually a tree branch or similar that catches solid objects as the water goes through it. Much like when you cook pasta and strain the water, the strainer in the river will capture you and hold you there. The difference being you don't get tipped out onto a plate and served with a nice tomato and basil sauce, you just get pinned there and drown. Strainers are deadly objects that you want to avoid it all cost.
We’d now hit a point in the river where it was no longer safe to paddle, nor was it easy or suitable to portage due to the increasingly large rocky outcrops. Emptying everything out of the boats we decided to line them down the rapids instead. Lining, if you haven't come across that either is where you attach a rope to the boat and allow the boat to float down the rapid whilst you use the rope to guide it. Sounds easy? Not quite... If the boat tips over at any point you need to let go of the rope immediately. The problem is that as soon as a capsized canoe fills with water, it suddenly weighs around 400kg. Unless you have massive guns, you’ll basically get snatched off the rocks and dragged down into the water, which is not recommended.
Lining the boats, followed by 100m of paddling, then several hundred metres of portaging and another extended lining took around two hours. The end of which we’d covered about 500m! The air felt cool as the sun hung low in the western sky. What was supposed to take a couple of hours in total, was now well into its sixth hour. Looking on the map, there was relief in sight as the river appeared to once again broaden. Back in the boats after another short portage, we paddled forth hoping our reading of the map was correct. The terrain around us had changed slightly. It was looking promising that the worst of it was over. As we rounded the next bend, a feeling of relief flooded over me. We were now back to a wide smooth flowing section of the Murrumbidgee!
With the light fading and the day well and truly done, the sight of Thawa Bridge ahead in the distance was a wonderful sight to see. It was just before dark as we stepped out of the boat. I felt a sense of achievement! Despite it being a harrowing experience at the start of the day and feeling completely out of my depth, it’d turned into an excellent adventure.
Often at work, we can become stagnant in our repetitive roles. Experiences such as this push us and remind us that we must also be prepared to push ourselves outside our comfort zones if we want to grow. There’s no point in telling kids they need to push their boundaries and limits, if we’re not prepared to do it ourselves. Feeling the fear that your students feel when they start a new activity for the first time is an important part of understanding why we do what we do.
Experiential education is so important for the continuous growth and improvement for both teacher and student. If you find you’re happy, content and comfortable day in day out at work, you're simply not pushing the boundaries hard enough. Even if you have a program that works exceptionally well, there’s always space for improvement.
Challenge yourself! Go out and find options B, C, D and in doing so experience something new. Ultimately, the more we test our comfort zone, the more we grow. The more we grow in ourselves, the stronger and more confident we become in our own lives. This strength and confidence translates into far better teaching and mentorship for our students.
As a teacher you work hard throughout the year, but as with all hard work, there’s a payoff and for me, it’s the summer holidays! Having seven clear weeks to do whatever you like is something that many people never get to do until retirement. For me, that’s way too far away to even think of and I don’t want to save up all the fun and adventures for when I’m not physically able to do them. Bit pointless and a bit too industrial revolution style for me!
However, back to the annual pay off! Now if you’re doing teaching just for the holidays, perhaps you need to find another profession. What I’m talking about is not just getting away from work. For me, this break is a great opportunity to travel, discover the world, experience new things and ultimately learn something new.
Unfortunately, too many people waste all this time doing virtually nothing! I’ve never really understood this. Sure, I could spend a week at the beach, relaxing, sunbaking and going for swims and this could be extremely refreshing, but if I did this for seven weeks, I’d be bored and I’d be thinking I’m wasting opportunities. Even with a week of hanging around, that leaves six weeks for something new, exciting, challenging and meaningful.
A few different things I’ve done in this time over the years have included a TV & Radio presenting course, being an extra in a feature film, playing a corpse in a short student film and being a cook for a snowboarding program. This last one was a great opportunity to travel to the US, challenge myself to improve my culinary skills, live at altitude for an extended period and push the boundaries with my snow skiing. Next year, I plan to travel overseas to do an intensive language course to try and learn a new language in a really short period of time.
None of these experiences have been the stock standard ‘holiday’ experience. They’ve challenged me in different ways, opened my eyes to new possibilities and other cultures, enhanced my world view and ultimately helped me to improve my teaching. Every year I get more professional development value from this extended break than I have ever gained from any conference, workshop or the dreaded first day back PD sessions. This time is important for your professional development as a teacher and what you learn yourself can have a marked impact on the way to teach.
This year, if you don’t have any plans, it’s time to make some. If you say it’s too late, then you’re just not trying hard enough. The first time I went to Japan, I booked it all the day before. By 9:45pm the next evening I was off to discover a new culture! Be bold, be adventurous and do something completely different. Nobody wants to hear about how you sat at home for over a month and did chores. That’s boring, so don’t be boring! There are plenty of accountants and lawyers who have already monopolised that talent, so do something people might be interesting in hearing about. Do something totally left field that others wouldn’t expect!
Normal people never change the world and as a teacher, you have the power and influence to change a generation. However, without understanding and experiencing a wide range of things in your own life, you will never truly be well placed to effectively shape the lives of others. Get out there! You have the time, you have the opportunity so this year find something new and exciting to do and have a wonderful and memorable summer break!
Goal setting is always one of those fun, challenging and extremely valuable activities. However, in the busyness of life we often forget to assess, evaluate and celebrate how well we actually went towards achieving the goals we set for ourselves.
As the year comes to an end, it’s worth looking back and evaluating how well you did. For me, I set quite a number of quite challenging goals this year, including a tough fitness goal of running 1000km. Some of my efforts have been very successful and others are still a work in progress. However, I didn't really appreciate what I’d achieved versus my perception of what I’d achieved, until I took the time to sit down and review each goal. Since I wrote all my goals down at the start of the year, it’s made it easier to go back and check out what I wanted to get out of this year and compare that with what I’ve actually been able to do.
As a result, I've been very excited, since when I looked back and reviewed my list, I didn't realise how many goals I'd accomplished until I went back through and took stock of it all. We often get caught up in how immensely busy modern life is and often you complete one thing, only to roll straight into the next thing with little time for reflection. Unlike winning a race, often when you complete a goal, there’s not the great pinnacle of success moment and spontaneous fanfare at which point fireworks burst into the sky and a Ferris Bueller style street parade randomly appears and sweeps you along in song and dance.
Instead, the completion of personal goals are often quiet moments we have with ourselves that we might only share with a couple of close friends before moving on to the next thing we have happening in our lives.
However, it’s worth taking the time to look back and assess your own overall performance. For me, this isn’t an opportunity to tell you all about what I did or didn’t get done. It’s a chance for you to look at your own goals and celebrate the successes and failures along the way. Why are we celebrating failure? Failure is one of our greatest teachers and looking back to see what worked, we often don’t even think about improving further our success. However, when something doesn’t work, then this is an opportunity to explore why, change tactics and improve on this for next time.
For me the failure was my fitness goal. It was this year’s bridge too far! Although having said that, I did run across several bridges. Anyway, I’d set myself the goal of running 1000km. At the start of the year, all was going well and I was covering about 5-6 km per day. Having reverse engineered my goal through working out how many days of the year there were and how many I wouldn’t be able to run due to travel, or commitments, it worked out that I would need to only run about 4km a day. Easy right? Well, in theory it was. However, life tends to get in the way of good plans and I found myself missing too many days due to work commitments. The further into the year, the longer the days at work seemed to become and the shorter the daylight. This made it increasingly difficult to cover the distance.
However, although on the surface it might appear that the goal was a failure, I’d experienced the same issues the year before, as I attempted my goal of running 500km in 2016. The end result was that I was able to cover just 300km in 2016. It was a bit disappointing as I’d only reached just over half way to my goal.
From a goalsetting point of view there were two things I could have done after I didn’t make it in 2016.
2. Double my goal and push myself harder to achieve it.
If you choose Number 1, that’s not really goal setting and it’s not really challenging you, nor allowing you to grow. It’s like my saying I’m not going to smoke in 2017, when I’ve never smoked before in my life. Wow, I’ve just achieved Zen by doing nothing!
If you choose Number 2, as I did, the added challenge of the new goal means it’s going to push you harder and require you to take more action to achieve it.
Despite increasing my goal and improving upon my efforts to achieve this new target, at this point in time, I'm not looking as if I'm going to achieve it. I’m going to revisit why this is the case and how I’m going to fix it for 2018. However, despite not getting there this year, I managed to smash the previous year's distance and as at today, I’ve have run 620km and for me, this in itself is an achievement and something with which I’m very happy and proud. Whilst it might not be the headline figure of the 1000km, it’s still twice what I ran last year. Next year's goal will now be 1250 km, but to get there, I’m going to have to review the root causes of why I didn’t get there this year and make sure I address that as quickly as possible.
This is why we should embrace our failures, as the experience that comes from failure can provide us with the most valuable lessons. For me on fitness, it’s consistency of approach. When it’s cold in winter and dark outside, I know I can still find opportunities to run, perhaps at the gym. Or if this is going to be an issue, increase the length of my runs during the summer so that there are less kms to cover in the winter. There are plenty of possible solutions for this that I can continue to explore and work out what works best for me.
Despite how busy it gets at this time of year, take the time, sit down and review all your goals. How many of your goals were successful? How many weren’t? What were the factors which contributed to your success or failure? Write this down! Expand on this and truly understand what action needs to be taken to change this. Through conducting an honest goal-setting analysis, this can help you focus on the strengths and weaknesses in what you’re doing and can massively improve your ability to get the most out of each and every challenge you set yourself.
Once you’ve reviewed your 2017 list, celebrated your wins and have your strategy for improvement ready, it’s now time to start planning for an even greater and more successful 2018. All the best for achieving some wonderful goals in life, work and your community for the next 12months.
Friendship in the digital world is an interesting phenomenon, especially amongst teenagers. Since relationships are changing, I feel there’s a need to redefine how we refer to different sorts of friends. On the one hand, teenagers have some friends they know quite well. They probably go to school with, play sports with and hang out with these friends. On the other end of the spectrum, a friend could also be nothing more than a number on a screen.
Given the digital age in which we live, I think we need to split these radically different sorts of friends into two categories. There’s the ‘high-res’ friends (4K) that you see and interact with in real life and real time and ‘low-res’ friends (Internet Friends) that only ever appear as pixelated visages on a screen and may come with some annoying time delay or lag when communicating with them, if you communicate with them at all.
The internet and social media has brought the world so much closer together, especially in terms of people being able to interact with others who have similar shared interests and shared beliefs. However, at the same time, it’s also created a massive disconnect between real friends and those who are often never met in real life, or just appear as a number on a screen.
This can cause significant problems for teenagers as they search for meaningful connections, but especially for teens who struggle making friends at school and who become reliant on the internet for all their socialisation.
The reality is that despite being able to connect with others who may be in similar circumstances or have shared interests, there are many subtle nuances, reactions, facial expressions and body language that go into developing and fostering real friendships. These subtle behaviours and communications are completely lost when those friendships occur online. It’s all these complex subtleties that make up human relationships which are critical to success in all aspects of life and it’s these same complex subtleties, which are most at risk in the digital age.
Whilst some interactions and connections online can be quite good, many should be seen more as the penpals of days gone by where you’d write to someone and learn about their culture through letters, rather than someone suddenly being your new best friend about whom you know very little.
When I was at school, I had a Spanish penpal. We’d write to each other, exchange stories and photos. It was always exciting to get a letter from overseas and through this I gained a wonderful insight into a culture completely different from my own. I enjoyed this a lot, but the reality was that this was a person from another country and quite distant and disconnected from my other friends.
However, as the global network of devices and connectivity grows, the disconnect between people and real relationships increases. The ease at which you can find new ‘friends’ who might have similar interests is remarkable. However, the speed at which these ‘friendships’ fade is also remarkable. It’s almost transactional in nature. ‘I’ll be friends if you like all my posts!’ That sort of thing. However just as fast as the interaction is made possible, people move on to the next person who might, on the surface, appear to be more interesting. The cycle goes on and on and on with friendships being nothing more than superficial at best and toxic and destructive at the other end of the spectrum.
This is the true problem with these low-res friends. It’s often the most vulnerable teens who are searching for friendships online and it’s these teens who need high-res, a.k.a. real friends, they can actually spend time with more than anything else. If they’re experiencing something in life that’s hard or they’re not sure how to deal with it, the low-res friends invariably lose even more resolution and simply fade away into the aethernet. If you have no real connection with anyone, then it’s easy to just leave them in the lurch, especially if helping them makes you feel slightly uncomfortable and many teenagers today don’t like discomfort. It’s a sad harsh reality that needs to be addressed in a meaningful way.
For real relationships to develop and flourish, teenagers need high-res friends, the sort with whom they can go to the park, to the beach, ride bikes, play sport and have sleepovers. I know this may be a way out concept and the paranoid parents of the world don't want to let their children leave the house, as it could be quite scary out there! But the reality is that many of the dangers of the world can now be accessed directly from home. Going outside and playing with real friends is much safer, healthier and leads to far more balanced individuals.
If teenagers understand how to make friends and how to develop friendships in real life with hi-res friends, then equally, they can meet people online and develop friendships over longer distances, through which they can develop a whole range of different and wonderful experiences throughout life with people that have similar interests.
However, the reverse isn’t true. If they make all their friends online first, they have no way of really understanding what relationships are about. They won’t know how to interact with other people properly and in a meaningful way. This problem then flows through to university and the workplace and has the potential to cost a teenager years of their life as they play catchup and try to understand others in the real world around them.
Having said that, low-res friends aren’t all bad because they can open up the world to a whole range of different people which can be wonderful and beneficial. However, the most important thing to begin with is to develop real friendships in real life with high-res friends and then when teenagers have that real world experience, they can go and make as many low-risk friends as they like, but seriously if you’re working through this issue with teenagers, ask them, at the end of the day, what’s more important a high friend count, or friends who count?
I see this so often in experiential education. A teacher either gets so caught up in running an activity that at the end of it, there isn’t the opportunity to debrief, or worse, it's simply not even part of the program.
Neither are good approaches, but not having any form of debrief or reflection factored into what you’re doing, is a huge mistake and a wasted learning opportunity.
Experiential education is not just about running fun activities. If it were, it would be called a holiday camp. Yet this couldn't be further from the truth, despite some teachers thinking of it as such. Experiential education is about providing opportunities through real challenges and being able to reflect on how everyone worked through and faced each challenge.
It's essentially the business of providing practical learning experiences that have real measurable consequences as a mechanism for pushing students outside their comfort zones. Through doing this, we’re able to build positive relationships, increase social awareness and promote personal growth.
Often the specific activity through which this is done is quite irrelevant. It really doesn't matter if you hike, canoe, mountain bike, abseil or kayak, so long as the activity is suitably challenging for the students and will extend all involved.
What does matter however, is what you do after the activity is over. During each challenge, you should be actively monitoring the performance of individuals and the group. Keep in mind any stand out behaviours both positive and negative, but also note those in the middle who may lack confidence or just not even try. It's a lot to keep an eye on. However, the more time you spend with groups, the easier to become to know what to look for.
At the end of the activity, it's time to debrief and reflect. Not doing this is a massive mistake for experiential education, because reflection is where the value of the learning comes in. If a group fails at an activity, it's pointless just to say, ‘just try harder next time.’ This is a cop out on the teacher's part and what does try harder even mean?
You need to explore reasons for the failure and discuss this with the group. An activity such as raft building for example is a great test of teamwork, planning and execution. More often than not, I see the crews go down with the makeshift crafts. So why does this happen? Is it that they don't try hard enough? Well no, it's usually because in the excitement and pressure of a time limit, they rush things, they build before they plan or they plan for a craft that is great on land, but not suited to the water!
Whilst this sounds just like the daily operations of a government department, it also produces a similar result. It's not until you gather the group together and talk through the experience, that they start to learn from it. I usually bring in other relevant examples from their lives and get them to think more broadly than just the activity itself. Questions such as, “What’s something else you’ve experienced that didn’t work because you rushed into it too quickly?” Or, “What's something else you have to carefully plan out to make sure it works?”
It's through reflections that the real learning occurs. I've seen far too many teachers run this sort of activity and because everyone ends up getting soaking wet and it descends into organised chaos, they think that it's all over when the students get out of the water. However, the opportunity for learning has only just begun!
It’s your qualities as a teacher that then comes into play to tie in all of the related social and emotional themes to effectively debrief the activity. The more challenging the activity, the greater the need for your group to reflect on it. You’ll often be surprised by the comments students make when you use the experience to reflect on a bigger picture issue or question.
One of the most powerful comments I've heard was after a caving exercise where the students had to make their way out of total darkness. I mean total darkness! There were no luminescent glow worms to help you out. You couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. The only way out was to shuffle along a cramped passageway on your stomach and hold onto the person ahead of you. When we finally emerged from the cave and debriefed the activity, one student, who was afraid of the dark said, “I could feel my friend holding my hand. He kept talking to me the whole time and I knew I'd be ok.” This then led into a wider discussion about looking after each other and some amazing comments from other students in the group.
I never know what to expect when reflecting on an activity, but the bottom line is that it’s a must for each and every program you’re running. It’s through this sort of reflection, that students and ourselves are able to learn the most.