Whilst I know it’s ironic that I don’t have a great love of university, considering I’ve managed to collect several degrees over the years, that’s not the point and this is not about me!
The other day I was having a discussion with a graduating teacher and what were the most important things which had or hadn’t been part of the course. The one thing which emerged was the fact that nothing was ever taught, workshopped or even covered about effectively building rapport with students. Thinking back to my days at uni, my course was the same. There was plenty of time wasted on pointless nonsense, but nothing on the most important thing a teacher needs to be able to do.
It seems for universities, that building effective relationships in the classroom is just an afterthought. One of the problems is however, the fact that uni lecturers don’t spend any real time in real school classrooms. Therefore, all of their educational knowledge is heavily theoretical. The lack of practical application becomes obvious throughout teachers’ careers and it’s often something teachers can really struggle with, especially as they become increasingly a facilitator and not someone who has an expert body of knowledge. Consequently, if developing positive rapport in the classroom wasn’t important enough before, it’s now absolutely critical to the success of students’ education, as we learn best from those people to whom we relate.
Previously, a lot of teachers could get away with a strong content knowledge and poor ability to relate to anyone. You would often find these people hiding in boarding schools behind canes. They knew the one textbook back to front and were great at mindlessly reciting it. There’s also the unskilled “yelly type” whose only way of interacting with students is through a raised voice. These types of teachers are great at building fear and contempt, two worthless qualities in education and only lead to further student disengagement.
Why, when it’s abundantly clear that students learn best when they have a positive rapport with their teachers, is this skill not taught at uni? Is it because it’s too hard? Is it because uni lecturers don’t know what rapport is or is it because it can’t easily be tested?
Working in outdoor ed, it’s often hard to assess outcomes for students, as the effects of outdoor education might not be immediately apparent. Sometimes, it takes years for an experience or series of experiences to really solidify into a life changing one for a student. Does this mean we just don’t bother doing it? Does it mean we accept that things such as building rapport and relationships, is often difficult to gauge, but so important that we must do it anyway.
I’ve seen many new and experienced teachers with no ability to relate to students. They could just be hopeless teachers, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that it probably wasn’t part of their training.
However, to improve classroom practice, we need teachers who can build a positive and effective rapport with students. It’s no longer the case of ‘Us and Them!’ the teachers versus the students, those with knowledge and those without. If you still look at education in those terms, it’s time to retire or become a dog trainer, as you’re quickly becoming a dinosaur as we speak.
Most of the work we do in outdoor ed revolves around rapport and relationships. Why? Because life’s all about relationships and working with others. If you want someone to be open to learning from you and your experiences, then you need to develop trust and respect. How do you do this? By listening to students, understanding what their lives are like and what challenges they face. What goals do they have? What makes them happy? What really engages them in something? This takes time, but it’s worth every minute of yours to ensure a positive learning environment.
This is something that can and should be worked on at uni, not just expected of a teacher ‘down the track’. The sooner training can be adapted to focus on what’s important, the faster our schools can become far more engaging and effective places in which to learn.
Recently, I listened to a really rubbish attempt at a debrief that tried to explain FOMO (fear of missing out) to a group of high school students. As I listened to what was being said, it made me think. To be honest, it was approaching the issue from the wrong angle.
The world is a noisy place, filled with pointless distractions and mindless nonsense that really shouldn’t be given the time of day, yet most people focus on the nonsense and miss what’s important in life. The digital world has provided great opportunities for us, but at the same time has provided us with a toxic waste dump of thoughtless opinions from people who have experienced nothing of life.
The teen ‘influencer’ is a classic example of this idiotic gravitation of countless people towards someone whose only talent is taking selfies and vocalising how distressed they are about growing up and how this piece of clothing makes them feel. It’s a sad and pathetic time that will no doubt be looked back upon in years to come with great distain. Revolting youth is no longer about a punk rock movement wanting to change the world. Instead it’s become about marketing companies manipulating our youth in the most revolting ways.
The problem is however, that so many of our youth are captivated by this stupidity. The device addiction that is on the increase is fuelled by the idea that if you don’t get enough likes for a post, or you don’t like enough of other people’s posts, your world will come crashing down. If this is your world, it’s time to find another one in which to live because it’s all a load of rubbish!
I’ve heard a number of people talk about FOMO and each time, I get the sense that it’s the wrong approach, focussing on all the things that people are worried about missing out on, rather than being excited to miss out on things that are meaningless. We shouldn’t be talking about the fear of missing out. Instead, we should be talking about the Joy of Missing Out and why being able to get away from the pointless noise is the best thing we can do!
The first thing we need to do is acknowledge that the digital world is filled with rubbish. Unfortunately, we have a generation of kids who have been baby sat by smartphones. (Receive another look of distain from our future descendants). Despite some great technology that’s been invented and some amazing digital gems out there, most of what occupies the digital world is noisy rubbish, deliberately designed to capture and hold our attention for ridiculous amounts of time. The idea that ‘something is happening in the world and I’m not part of it,’ is a mantra that marketing people want you to believe. The more we think we’re missing out, the more we need to be online getting bombarded by marketing messages. Therefore, the first thing we need to do is take it out of the equation and realise that what we’re actually missing out on are real relationships and experiences with real people.
The problem is that if we focus our attention on the fear of missing out on something. We actually miss the opportunity to be excited about the fact we can happily miss out on something and the world will not collapse. It will not implode if we don’t go online for a month or miss seeing what some random stranger ate for breakfast. It’s a challenge for us to retrain a generation addicted to the noise. However, it can be exciting missing out on something because through doing so, you can have an experience that nobody else is having.
Consequently, we should be focusing on the great benefits of missing out. One program I worked on, we took everyone’s phones for 24 days. The impact this had was so positive. Time was spent with each other, not with a random digital stranger that could now even be a chat bot. Students started to appreciate the fact that it really didn’t matter that they weren’t connected for extended periods of time. Their experiences were real and far more fulfilling than before. It’s a wonderful experience being able to disconnect from the world. Forget the FOMO and start focusing on the JOMO! It’s great not to have to worry about the endless noise and once we’ve instilled in others that it really is just noise, then we can start to help and support them to enjoy the moments they miss out. Enjoy the quiet. Enjoy finding his or her own fun and not relying on what the rest of the world tells them is fun.
The noisier the world gets, the more important it is for us as outdoor educators to help our students cut through that noise and appreciate the fact that sometimes missing out on what ‘everyone else is doing’ is the most joyful experience you can imagine.
Recently, I wrapped up a program with a few words at the end of the night. Often these can be events which contain lots of words, but mean very little and by the end of the night you need a punchy statement that cuts through to ensure you leave a lasting impression.
I’d wrestled with my speech for days. First writing it and then rewriting it a number of times. To be honest, I do this for every speech I present, and often what is expressed during the speech is completely different from anything I’ve actually written down.
The evening had dragged on a little and the cook who’d had all day to prepare for one single meal had managed to serve dinner an hour late… but that’s another story for another time! I had a three page speech ready to go with a bunch of last minute notes scrawled all over it in marker pen for good measure. However, the energy of the room had changed and once this happens, if you go with plan A speech (which was already plan H speech), then you’re going to lose the audience and miss an opportunity to deliver something thoughtful and meaningful which leaves a lasting impression.
Hence, despite all the time and effort I put into the speech, out of the original six pages of ideas, one paragraph survived! It was a quick and witty interlude which set some historical context. Everything else was gone and it was impromptu speaking time!
At the start of the program, I’d asked all the students, “What’s something special about you that you bring to the community?” This stumped everyone, as they weren’t expecting this sort of question. However, the question wasn’t designed to confound everyone. It was designed to get them thinking. Therefore, I referred back to this conversation and asked again but in the past tense, “What did you bring to the community?”
This then led me to the most important point of the evening. I always find myself doing this at business functions, parties and any sort of gathering. One of the first questions I ask is, “What do you do?” This is an easy, yet rubbish question. Great for small talk, but it preloads so many false assumptions about someone based upon a job. The extension of this to the school context is that teachers always ask, “What do you want to do?” This expects a student to have all their plans in place, despite the fact that due to the rapidly changing digital world, by the time they graduate, a stack of jobs that exist today will no longer exist.
Instead, as educators we should be asking a far more powerful and meaningful question, “Who do you want to be?” Thus, I put this to them! After ten weeks of living in a community and building real relationships with real people, what have you learnt about the importance of community? What qualities and skills did you end up bringing to our community? What did you learn about yourself and others?
It’s so important that we impress on our students that their lives are not defined by a job. It’s not defined by a single result as they leave school. Instead, it’s defined by that simple statement, “Who do you want to be?” What are the qualities you bring to a community? How do you treat others? How do you take the skills you’ve learnt and not only grow within yourself, but to work within and lead others in a community?
Our measure of success for students should be their ability to answer this question! As the world becomes increasingly automated, jobs change. However, relationships and being able to help solve global problems through technology and communities, will become even more important for every single person so…
“Who do you want to be?”
If you’ve ever read anything about organisational management, be it on teambuilding or leadership in the workplace, you’re bombarded with discussions on ‘culture.’ Culture is basically the shared values and beliefs that a group of people see as important and sets the standard for social and behavioural expectations within the group.
I’ve worked for schools which have had good cultures and some, unfortunately, which have had very bad cultures. The result of a school’s culture, good, bad or indifferent, impacts on the quality of the educational experience, the welfare of students and ultimately their growth, development and ability to transition out of school and mature over the long-term. You only have to look at recent examples of initiations happening at some university colleges in Australia to see how bad culture can lead to horrendous situations. Consequently, developing a positive culture with clear behavioural expectations within the school is vitally important for both social and academic growth. How exactly can outdoor education help?
Outdoor ed is a fertile ground for helping build a positive culture within your school as the learning space provides a far more emotional context for learning. It’s this emotional and empathetic side of students with which you need to connect, to be able to build trust and help students develop understanding and empathy for others. To begin with, the outdoors provides us with unique spaces, contexts and experiences which are vastly different from that of the regular classroom. It changes people’s states of mind and when you change your state of mind, you can learn, grow and develop far more effectively.
In a noise-filled digital world, an outdoor education experience is an opportunity for students to disconnect from the noise and reconnect with themselves and their peers. Taking a group out into a wilderness setting will change the dynamics for them and often students will become more open to discuss feelings, concerns and share stories and experiences which they would otherwise never share. When they have the time and headspace to do this, it enables you to work on all the soft skills such as empathy, teamwork and helping others, not because they have to, but because it’s the right thing to do. It’s often hard to convey these sorts of ideals within the structure and busyness of a normal school day, but when students are put in a situation where they have to live and experience something for themselves, that’s when you can get significant gains in a short period of time.
However, outdoor education experiences are not a quick fix solution and it can’t be done in isolation. What happens in the outdoors needs to be effectively transferred and translated back to daily school life for it to have any real impact. To begin with, ask yourself, what do you want to achieve from your outdoor program? Is it just a fun experience for students hiking or canoeing in the bush? Or is it far deeper than that? Are you aiming to push comfort zones, test thresholds and building resilience? Are you aiming to develop students’ empathy for others? Understand diversity? Gain independence? Build healthy relationships? To maximise the effectiveness of your outdoor ed programs and consequently use them to help build a positive culture within your school, you need to be clear about your objectives. They need to be natural, genuine and acceptable within the school body so you can get strong buy-in from the staff, parents and students before you even think about going off site somewhere.
This buy-in across the board is extremely important, as you can’t develop culture in isolation. One residential program I worked on a number of years ago had a few cultural problems to say the least. One of them was a confusion over what the actual aims and objectives were for the program. On the one hand you had experienced outdoor education staff who would lead the expeditions with clear set expectations that the students were leading each trip and were responsible for everything. The only time we would step in was if there were a safety issue. On the other hand, you had teachers back at base who were teaching lessons during the day and providing an old style of boarding house supervision at night with an overwhelming sense that the students needed to be constantly directed and told what to do. This was a massive disconnect, which ultimately left students confused and feeling disempowered, as they were expected to be independent problem solvers one moment and mindless regimented robots the next. Admittedly, this was an unusual situation. However, it highlights how an outdoor program can’t successfully shape culture in isolation. The learning and expectations need to be carried and supported back into the classroom and daily life at school, otherwise the value of the experience can become seriously diminished.
In contrast, I was working for a school in Melbourne and had the great opportunity to go out on a rock climbing expedition with a group of year 10 students. One of the students we took out with us was a special needs student who usually had a carer with him. However, this time there was no carer. I went on the trip fully expecting to spend most of my time looking after this one student, but to my great surprise all of the students in the group took it in turns to help him. They made sure he was included in the group, made sure that at meal times he was looked after and they genuinely encouraged him every day when rock climbing, even though he couldn’t do any of the climbs the other students were doing. This was an amazing thing to see. Each night after dinner, we ran a debrief about the day and discussed some wider issues around social responsibilities. The thoughtful ideas that were expressed by the students blew me away. This was a school that had instilled in its students a wonderful and genuine culture of caring for others. There was no confusion. There was no disconnect. There was a natural clarity of responsibility and purpose.
When I looked back at the way in which the outdoor education program was sequentially structured at that school from year 5 through to year 10, I could see how the clear aims and objectives, the staff, student and parent buy-in and the continuation of the same themes of community service and social responsibility back at school were all working together to help build this very positive culture. This is the critical key to success and can provide enormous benefits for students and staff throughout their time at the school. If you want to develop and shape positive culture in your school, then leverage outdoor experiences by setting clear goals and expectations and transferring them from what happened in the outdoor context, back into the wider context of life at your school. The process does take time, but the benefits that you’ll see over the long-term can be astounding.
Work satisfaction is always an interesting challenge. Often people are in jobs just because of the money and I can’t criticize that as a motivation. After all, people need to live. However, what do you really want to be doing? A vitally important question for those looking at jobs, looking at careers, and setting goals is “Do you really want to be working in the job you’re in?” Or do you want to be doing something else? Often we look at other people’s jobs and think, ‘Wow, that looks amazing! I really want to be doing that!’
However, job envy is an interesting problem. For example, often people look at the work I’ve done over the years and say to me, ‘Oh, you have the best job!’ You work in the best location.’ Some of the time, they’re quite right, because I’ve shaped the way in which I’ve worked, to be in jobs and locations that I’ve really enjoyed. However, sometimes no matter how fun the job might appear, due to of the culture within an organisation, it can be a horrible place in which to turn up to work everyday.
The best job I had to date, was as Director of Outdoor Education for a Victorian School. Unfortunately, it was only a long service leave replacement role and for some reason, the person I was replacing wanted his job back!! Unbelieveable!!!
When I started this job, I was thrown in the deep end. It was the busiest time of the year. All the camps and activities were happening one after the other. I had three weeks to prepare the entire program for hundreds of students and staffing to match, the remaining six weeks were to run the program. It was intense! A non-stop ride, as I was responsible for three campuses. It meant back to back meetings, travel, reccies, risk assessments, medical reviews and a wide range of other preparations to ensure everything ran smoothly. However, despite the long hours, I really enjoyed the job.
Another intense job I had, was on a winter snowsports program and it was fantastic. We were up first thing in the morning, had breakfast, drove to Thredbo, skied the morning, drove back down to Jindabyne and had lunch before teaching classes until 5 o’clock. There was a short break between the end of lessons and dinner, then back into prep for the evening. This was a relentless job, but what made it enjoyable was the team with which I worked.
In another outdoor education role I had many years ago, the culture within that school was so toxic and so destructive that no matter how enjoyable the activities might have been, it was horrendous to go to work everyday. The bottom line was that staff weren’t valued. When there were important issues to discuss, staff members were ignored and marginalised. This led to resentment and total dysfuntion within the organisation. Ultimately, it was a situation where you had an insanely enjoyable program in which we ran mountain biking, kayaking, sea kayaking, hiking and an enviable fitness program over six months, but as the culture grew more toxic, it didn’t matter how much fun it could have been. It ended up completely unfulfilling. Sadly, people employed to help the social and emotional development of teenagers, were totally incapable of growth themselves.
When you have incompetent management within an organisation, it destroys teams and destroys the integrity and character of a workplace. What I came into years before, which was a happy and exciting place in which to work, turned into a miserable, arduous, horrendous place that was turning over staff faster than you could blink.
As you can see on the outside, being able to turn up to work everyday in shorts and a t-shirt, teach a few lessons then go for a bike ride sounds fantastic! At one point it was. However, throw in poor management and a toxic, cancerous culture, then no matter how good it looks on the outdside, the rotting core destroys the organisation from within. The end result for us was that the programs being run were only ever half-assessed and from an educational point of view, quite ineffective.
So, one of the really critical things you need to consider whenever you’re looking at a new job or re-evaluating your current one, you have to enjoy what you’re doing because enjoyment and fulfillment sparks the next level of commitment. It sparks you to have ideas. It enables continuous improvement and it enables growth within an organisation. As that organisation grows and flourishes, so can everything else about your life. However, if you stay in a job just for the sake of the money, no matter how good that money is, eventually, you’ll end up bitter and twisted and resentful only damaging your life and the lives of those around you.
Are you happy at work? Is your job fulfilling? Are you feeling that what you’re doing everyday is important and valued? Or are you just collecting money? When you can honestly answer these questions of yourself, then you’re ready to assess how worthwhile what you’re doing truly is. If it’s just for the money, it’s time to start looking for new opportunities. However, if you feel valued and enjoy what you do, then you’re already in the right place!
A while ago I wrote about finding myself outside my comfort zone on a reccie trip with some colleagues. We were white water canoeing, something I’d never done before. It was something I found quite challenging, but a rewarding learning experience.
Learning new skills in outdoor education is a great way to keep things interesting and expand your skill set. However, what happens with something you’re very experienced in? Should you be practising it outside of work? Is what you do on the job enough practice for something at which you’re good?
Snow skiing is something I’ve done since I was 5 years old and an industry I’ve worked in for around 7 years. In terms of outdoor skills, I can safely say, snow skiing is my strongest one. However, despite this experience, I still have plenty to learn and so much more upon which to improve. However, it’s not until your skills are actually put to the test, that you realise just how much more there is to learn and why it’s so important to continually up-skill.
Recently I spent a couple of weeks overseas skiing, as it’s been a number of years since I’ve done an entire season of work at the snow. When doing seasons, you have the time to truly build your skill-set and challenge yourself in so many different ways. However, it’s surprising how quickly you lose some of your finer skills when the season’s over.
Getting back on skis for the first time in a year is always an interesting experience. I love the sound of the boot clicking into the binding, fixing my helmet and lowering my goggles ready to jump on the lift. However, despite having skied many double black diamond runs over the years, I’m not going to head for the highest peak and fang it down the most hectic run as fast as I can, launching off everything I can find. No, that would be idiotic. Instead, I like to find a nice green or blue trail to run up and down to warm up and get a feel for everything again. I’ll probably spend an entire day doing this.
When I’ve had a chance to get my balance back and regain the feel for my skis, I’m ready to start rebuilding my deteriorated skill set that time has eroded. With any outdoor skill, you’ll reach a point where you’re highly competent and things will come back to you quickly. However, without practice, similar to physical fitness, all these hard skills, deteriorate over time. For an instructor, this deterioration is not good and can come from both lack of practice, or only operating at a much lower level of intensity.
If for example I was with a group skiing day in and day out, as is often the case for experienced instructors of any outdoor activity, I might just be cruising all the time on green or blue runs to match the level of ability of the group. However, cruising can lead to complacency and dull your senses to the wider challenges and risks of the activity that you’re leading. To avoid complacency, often called an expert blind spot, you must therefore continually practise and test your own skills at a much higher level to ensure you’re prepared for any contingency. You never know when you’ll need to quickly switch up from cruising instructor to rapid situational risk assessor and responder.
For me, this realisation came when I took a ‘short-cut’ on Whistler Mountain. I wanted to get to the furthest section of the mountain and I could see the lift to where I wanted to reach. I’d been skiing along the top of a ridge line, on a blue home trail. However, I saw what appeared to be a nice descent into the next valley and onto the lift. It was soft and powdery to begin with, but suddenly, on my right appeared a cliff and in front of me was a massively steep chute littered with rocks.
Most skiers have a home mountain, which they know like the back of their hand. For me this is Thredbo and so I can criss-cross it all day knowing where my random short cuts will take me. However, again this home mountain confidence can lead to complacency and over-confidence in other situations. Practising your skills on different mountains however, and getting into situations such as I did, is a real reminder of how aware and vigilant you need to be in the outdoors.
Rather than panicking, as I stared down the incredibly steep descent, I quickly dug in and attacked the chute, swiftly switching back and forth one sharp turn after another to control my descent, whilst avoiding the jagged rocks protruding from the snow. With a few crunching sounds from under my skis, I cleared the worst of it and glided out the bottom into a wide open section of deep soft snow. Glancing back up, I could now see the insanity of the ‘short cut’ in all its glory. Let’s do that again! I thought…
Whilst this wasn’t an ideal situation in which to find myself, the ability to switch up to a higher level of thinking and respond swiftly is an important thing to be able to do with any of your outdoor skills. This requires practice and pushing your own limits outside of your regular work. Whilst you’d never take a group with you into a situation like this, this sort of experience reminds you of the risks that are inherent with an activity such as skiing, as well as the need to continuously build and improve upon your own skills.
Expertise does lead to complacency and as outdoor educators and instructors we need to practise our own skills and be reminded that there are always limits to our experience and expertise. This helps us to be aware that there are always going to be risks involved and that we must eliminate, manage or mitigate those risks for our programs. However, if we don’t practise and test our hard skills outside of work, the chances are, your comfortable daily operations will become increasingly exposed to potential complacency as the instructor skill-sets deteriorate and activity risks don’t appear as dangerous as they really are.
To help resolve my over confidence and need to rebuild my alpine skill set, it was time for me to go back to ski school and take some lessons again.
Just a short one this week about an interesting phenomenon I’ve noticed over the years in outdoor ed programs has been that of clustering. What I mean by this is the group dynamic of needing to be close together when in large open spaces. Whilst there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s interesting to watch how this can change over a longer-term program as students become more comfortable with their surroundings and the natural environment. For students from cities, most of the groups with which I’ve worked, big open spaces tend to be uncomfortable. When it comes to hiking, canoeing and camping, no matter how much space you have, the students tend to need to be very close together, even if they’re not friends.
I started to notice this across a number of canoeing expeditions where we were paddling on quite wide lakes. Whilst you never want a canoe group to be too far away from boats to boat, quite often students will paddle right on top of each other, rather than giving everyone else room to move. The same is true when they’re setting up their tents at the campsite. No matter how large and unoccupied the camp ground, the students tend to cluster together with tents almost on top of each other and rather than use free time to socialise with friends, they often cluster into one large group.
This is definitely a very primitive comfort zone issue and the fact that students feel safer in large groups when out in the wilderness. From a management point of view, this is great, as it’s easier to keep track of where everyone is. Just look for the massive group and listen for the noise. However, the problem with this is that as a group they can miss so much about the environment around them. They can miss the opportunity to switch off and just enjoy the peace and quiet of the unique landscapes and environments they will most likely never see again.
As I mentioned however, for longer programs, this distance seems to increase. Students feel more comfortable in the environment in which they’re in and as this comfort increases, they don’t need to be as close together to each other as before. They also develop an attitude that it is quite safe and this adds to the de-clustering effect. It’s interesting to watch this transition too as it creates greater moments for reflection and relaxation and opens students’ minds to so much more. It enables them to switch off from a massively connected world. It enables them to focus on the beauty of the world. Students can focus also on how much bigger the world is than just their own lives and their own experiences.
For thousands of years, society has had social anchors for young people when they're growing up, developing and transitioning into adulthood. However, with the digital dislocation that’s occurred, many of these social anchors have been hacked away and have left our youth floating aimlessly in the infinite digital world. The process of self-discovery has suddenly changed into something quite different.
Often, youth would have parents, mentors or peers with whom they’d have a whole range of different experiences. From this, they would learn and experience the world from within supportive smaller community groups. They would learn about expectations within the social group and within society and through a process which is often seen as an important transitional coming-of-age, children were brought into the adult world reasonably well equipped to face the challenges that life can bring, but also prepared for all the subsequent opportunities and responsibilities that come with adult life.
However, for many cultures, this process has been completely scuttled by the digital age. Consequently, children are not finding mentors from within communities. Instead they’re trying to find out how they fit into the world through sites such as Google. The problem is that Google is not exactly the best place to find out reasonable answers when in search of complex emotional questions such as, Who am I? If searching for your place in the world has come to this, you are most likely to find some random spiritual nonsense websites or links to a cool Jackie Chan movie in which he has amnesia and spends the entire movie running around, yelling ‘Who am I?’ at people. Unless you want your life evolving as a Jackie Chan movie in which amnesia is the main theme, perhaps a more traditional approach is needed. There are certainly better ways of developing a sense of identity and a sense of self, than asking the soulless digital world what it thinks.
One thing that we should be asking ourselves is, who has created the digital age? Has it been people with huge amounts of life experience? Has it been created by people that you would trust with your kids? If you actually looked at some of the real back stories of the people who developed and built the major infrastructure and the major platforms on the internet, you’d be horrified at the lack of moral sense and the total lack of understanding of anything outside of greed and profit. Two great books which explore the horrific and idiot world of tech companies are Disrupted and Chaos Monkeys. These provide just a glimpse inside a world driven by immature, greedy profiteers. Is that from where you want your children to get their moral compass?
It's a sad reflection on society when some of the most influential things are run by people whom you wouldn't let near your children. Yet everyday, they’re being invited into homes, workplaces and school without a second thought. It's like allowing the Pied Piper free reign and access to an entire generation of kids and we all know how that turned out the first time around!
Unfortunately, digital devices have become a fantastic means of babysitting and are justified by people who pretend that, ‘It’s digital learning.’ It’s not. It’s just lazy parenting, the consequences of which are now starting to be felt, with an over-reliance on devices and an underwhelming sense of place and self worth in many children and teenagers. Congratulations modern parenting tactics! You’ve kept them entertained whilst you’ve been sipping your latte, but at what cost?
Ok! I might be being a little harsh here, however, it is a danger if over-relied upon. What are some of the core social anchors of which we need to be aware and we need to re-secure to ensure that we’re bringing up kids in the most positive and proactive way? Family first! It’s important to have a strong, loving family unit, in which both parents communicate well with each other, set expectations and provide love and boundaries for children. Next, they need a wider set of older role models, mentors, who may well be outside the direct family structure, but as the children develop into teenagers, these older mentors become very important in the transition of the teenage boy or girl into young adulthood. These connections are some of the most challenging to find these days, as this is one of the anchors that’s been torn apart by technology and modern society. However, be it through school, sports or a workplace, teenagers need this older type of role model to help them transition from being a child and acting like a child to being an adult and taking on the responsibilities of an adult.
Another important social anchor is that of one-on-one time spent with either mum or dad, away from the rest of the family and disconnected from the digital world. Getting away and hiking together, or riding bikes, or some sort of special one-on-one time is really important to have without the phone or the digital device adding noise. It’s times like this that can help build important bonds and give opportunities for relationship building and building trust that can lead to important, honest and open discussion about any issues that might be being faced by their son or daughter at that time. If parents are providing time, space and opportunities for this to happen, then this is a good way of reinforcing a vitally important social anchor of the family. However, if they’re too busy and leaving these questions to be answered by the frat boys who have built social media, then they’re going to be spending a lot more time later on in life trying to undo this damage.
Technology has significantly impacted on many traditional social anchors for children and young adults in their learning, development and transition into adulthood. Many of these anchors have been torn away to the point that they’ve left many young people lost in a noisy, soulless digital world searching for meaning that isn’t really to be found there. However, despite this sudden impact of technology, being aware of this fact and the potential damage it can have on the development of children and teenagers, parents and teachers can do something about it and through paying more attention to the changing emotional needs of children as they grow and supporting them through time spent together, along with other adult mentors, can have a massive impact on their self esteem and their ability to come of age and thrive in a fluid and ever-changing world.
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.