If you want to keep your finger on the pulse of the traditional economy, then keeping an eye on the activity in the main streets of town is a great way to do it. I hear you saying, “Why do I care about economics? Isn’t this about experiential education?”
Good point! But bear with me on this, as there is a point. If we’re training students to be productive members of society who are independent, thoughtful problem solvers and are employable, then you need to understand some of the subtle, and not so subtle shifts happening in society today.
Everyone knows the digital world is here to stay (unless our politicians start a war they can’t finish and everything goes Mad Max on us!) Luckily I know Angry Anderson, so at least I’ll be able to join one of the lawless gangs roaming the desert without too much of a problem. However, before we sharpen our boomerangs, let’s pretend for a moment that we won’t be plunged back into the dark ages and have to fight for every litre of petrol as if it were our last.
Sorry, I’ve digressed slightly, maybe. Retail shops are closing at an alarming rate and what’s replacing them? Nothing! Maybe the occasional ‘pop-up’ shop that’s here and gone in the blink of an eye. However, ‘For Lease’ signs spatter our retail and office fronts and once popular Main Street locations are sitting vacant for longer and longer. Some of it can be attributed to high rent in these locations, which the market should eventually fix. However, often it’s the fact that businesses which were once main stays and anchors of our main streets are gone and nothing has replaced them.
Recently, I went book shopping. We had an end of program dinner and there were a number of prizes I wanted to give out, hence I was in a bookstore for the first time in years! Like many other book stores, it was in a prominent location. However, it was in the middle of a closing down sale. Everything was on special, so I bought quite a few books. When I went to pay, Jennifer, the lady behind the counter asked me if I’d like to join their book club. I guess she’d been instructed to ask everyone, but I didn’t see the point of joining a book club of a business that’s closing down. It’s like a free membership to the Roman Senate in the 5th Century AD. It’s better that you don’t accept it.
This is not to say I don’t read books. Well, to be honest, I actually don’t read as much now. Instead, I listen to them. I can get almost any book I want with a couple of clicks and the quality is generally excellent. Although some readers are “rubbish.” I have returned a few which almost put me to sleep. This is never good when listening to them in the car. So the reading of books is not declining, but the way in which we’re buying and reading them is.
The fact is that here is something that’s been a staple of society ever since Mr Gutenberg got all IT savvy in the 15th Century and decided that ‘copy and press’ with his fancy new International Book Machine (IBM) was a far better and cheaper way of plagiarising books than having teams of monks continuously write out copies with a quill pen under candle light. Monks were now freed up to go out and help do the valuable work of the church, which was mainly selling indulgences to fill the coffers of the Pope and adorn their monasteries with ornate silver and gold.
Despite the printing press replacing a lot of jobs, other jobs emerged from this. However, today we’re not seeing the same redevelopment and reinvention of jobs. Sure you might need someone to monitor automation systems, but this is only a fraction of the workforce that’s being replaced. The lack of new businesses coming to replace old ones in our main streets is a clear and real indication of this shift. The long-term outlook for employment of those we are teaching today, isn’t looking good.
The huge problem is that schools aren’t scrambling to address this. It’s massive. It’s already impacting on our communities and a profession that’s not well-known for being adaptable, is now on the front line of a seismic shift in an economic and social revolution. The traditional classroom, an invention of the industrial revolution, is ill-equipped for what’s coming.
However, there is light at the end of the tunnel which is not just a marauding gang with sharp boomerangs and burning torches. To address this, experiential education needs to massively expand in schools. It needs to make up the majority of the curriculum. The school day shouldn’t just be sitting in a series of classes, going home, doing some homework and then coming back the next day to do it all over again. This only prepares students to be able to sit in a room and do exams, which in the workforce tends not to be very useful.
It’s time to get out of the classroom and change the style of teaching. Change the way in which teachers are being trained and include a significant practical, experiential education component to their training. This is not just more classroom prac work, but is working in a business or an industry totally unrelated to education. This can then translate into a far better understanding of the changing dynamics of the workforce in which our students are growing up and make them far better teachers with some real life experiences behind them.
We must do something about this massive problem now! We will continue to see the subtle shift on our streets. More shop fronts closed up and not rented. Fewer checkout chicks at the supermarket and bank tellers have all but been replaced by automation and machines. Whilst these are not bad things in themselves, efficiencies are great in any operation. However, the real problem that we need to address is the preparation of our students for a world in which there are fewer jobs and few opportunities for a single occupation approach. We must be leveraging our programs to train adaptability as the number one priority. The world is changing and our most successful students will be the ones who are able to not only cope, but thrive in an environment in which the goal posts are continuously changing. If you don’t believe me, go for a walk along the high street in any town. Chances are, we’re only seeing the beginning of this trend and we need to do something about it right now!
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of professional development. Most people will groan when they hear PD, as they’ve experienced the classic ‘first day(s) back’ professional development time, which could be just a complete waste of time and energy for all involved. From what I’ve experienced over the years, you may as well have another day of holidays and it would be far more beneficial. Whilst much of this is done to save money and meet the mandatory PD hours requirements for teachers, are teachers actually learning anything that will improve their teaching practice or professionalism, or is it just an exercise in futility?
Don’t get me wrong! PD is vitally important, but is self-initiated and directed learning a far better approach? What I’ve been doing recently for my own PD has been through two different forms. The first has been reconnoitering new areas of the countryside to further develop a program. This is always an exciting and challenging time as now you’re exploring new areas with which you’re unfamiliar and trying to find suitable tracks, trails, rivers and campsites which are suitable for the age and experience level of the group for which you’re planning. Sometimes, it’s easy and quickly falls into place. Other times, it’s like trying to get out of a darkened pit full of goblins whilst being stalked by a ring-obsessed weirdo.
On this occasion, it was closer to the latter, as we found out the new area was not a nice babbling brook surrounded by gentle countryside, but rather a vicious, shallow, rapid-flowing white water filled gorge. We were about 2km in when we realised how nasty it was getting and what was supposed to be a pleasant three hour paddle, took seven hours! Thankfully, we didn’t have to battle orcs along the way, but at some points I was hoping that eagles would come and rescue us. Sadly, it was not to be and we had to navigate and negotiate the gruelling gorge that went on for several kilometres.
During this time, we’d also looked at mountain biking, canoeing and hiking as options in and around Canberra as there are some amazing national park areas with great tracks and trails throughout. Despite the fact that a number of these options weren’t particularly suitable to take students on, this was an extremely successful trip. From a professional planning point of view, even if you’re not going to change your program in any measurable way, going on “reccies” is a useful exercise, as you’re reinforcing your own skill set for navigation, route assessment, logistics planning and risk management. It’s all these concerns that you suddenly find come back to the front of your mind when looking at new areas that can naturally feed-back into your existing program and help you re-think, re-assess and improve upon what you’re already doing.
The other PD I’ve been doing has been the more traditional kind, in terms of workshops and conferences. Sometimes these are hit and miss when it comes to helping you in your teaching role, but that mainly comes down to what sort of conference you’re going to and which sessions you attend. The first one I went to was a digital schools’ conference. It was basically exploring how technology can be better used in education. I sat in on a couple of sessions which were excellent as the presenters hit the nail on the head! It’s not really about the technology. It’s about the use of technology as part of a wider educational experience. When you boil it all down, the skills you’re learning in STEM and trying to innovate with are exactly the same as what’s being learnt through outdoor education.
The core principles of innovation are:
• Problem solving, risk taking, adaptability, teamwork and leadership.
The core principles of outdoor ed are:
• Problem solving, risk taking, adaptability, teamwork and leadership.
Simple right? Well sadly, it’s not always the case and often teachers can see the use of technology or coding as the end goal or the learning outcome. As in outdoor ed, often schools see the outcome as getting kids outdoor or learning how to ride a bike or canoe. These are all just the means through which these core cognitive and experiential skills are being developed.
I also had the wonderful opportunity to present on innovation and how the chaotic and imprecise science it is to develop an idea into something that solves a much wider real world problem. I also explored how this can be translated into the context of education and why this is now such an important part of the modernisation of education that might one day see us escape from the industrial revolution hangover upon which our curriculum’s based.
The second conference I went to was more closely related to outdoor education and covered some fascinating insights into concussion identification and management. This was a great up-skilling opportunity for me, as whilst I’d understood and had managed a number of concussions over the years, I was able to get a far greater understanding of what happens with the injury and how it manifests itself. This is something that a senior first aid course would never cover and even with the wilderness courses I’ve done, it was only ever touched on briefly. Yet attending a comprehensive keynote presentation by a leading medical specialist in the field, was an amazing learning opportunity.
PD can be both insanely frustrating if it’s done poorly, or immensely beneficial if it’s done well. Some people might perceive PD at conferences as junkets, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. From the Wilderness Risk Management Conference I attended last year to the various ones I’ve been to this year, it’s helped me attain a much greater understanding of my own professional practice and helped me to reflect and review what I do as an outdoor educator and how I go about doing it.
I have to admit I have great memories of the enforced PD days from school days past. At one school I was once part of an English/History faculty. We taught an integrated unit called Valley In Perspective, that combined English/History/Geography and Outdoor Education. It was in some ways a little heavy on the academics for my likings, but overall it worked quite well. We were always allocated a day at the start of term for ‘meetings,’ which was code for sitting in the office and wasting lots of time, something which I can’t stand doing. However, one of the teachers had a boat and so instead of sitting in the office, we went and spent the day on his boat. We would discuss work for about an hour, but then would relax for the rest of the day lazing about the deck or going sailing and usually having fish and chips for lunch. Whilst many a useless manager would say this was a waste of time, it was an excellent team building exercise and our team of four worked exceptionally well together, despite the school being a disastrous toxic mess in which to work.
Ultimately, PD is vitally important for renewing and up-skilling you in your professional life and can have great benefits when done well. Meetings can be of some value, so long as you limit their time and have clear goals and objectives from the outset. However, to get any real-residual benefit from professional development, you need to go out, test your existing skills and continually learn new ones which can help you to become a far more effective educator throughout your life.
Ok! You’re probably back at work this week after having had six or seven weeks off over the summer break. Sadly, as with pretty much every other year, you’re most likely sitting in a school hall/auditorium being talked at by someone with ‘great’ ideas about teaching. They’re probably talking endlessly about some new crappy research or study they’ve done over the break whilst you were just lazily stretched out on the beach.
I always enjoy the attempted guilt tripping by some people in schools, as it highlights how poorly they’ve thought through the whole back to school concept each year. One strange person I used to work with would regale everyone with stories of how hard he worked in the holidays. None of us ever knew on what exactly, as there was never anything that actually needed doing over this time, but all the same, apparently he’d turned up each day to do it.
However, rather than force everyone to politely sit in meetings all day on the first day back, why not carry on the spirit of the holiday season and have a day out! Since sitting in a room tends to achieve nothing anyway, what have you to lose?
Now what would be a far better use of time would be the welcome back staff initiatives day! Don’t tell them in advance. Surprise everyone with it. Come up with a day of challenging adventures and activities involving team building and problem solving. Start with something like a locked room scenario and then move onto a scavenger hunt style rogaine for which the clues ultimately lead to a central location where staff gather for a BBQ dinner to celebrate the start of a new year.
This not only would be awesome fun, but gets teachers in the frame of mind for a year ahead in which they might face challenges they’ve never come across before. Helping staff to build practical confidence working with others and solving problems can help with all sorts of unforeseen issues that crop up every year in schools. The dinner afterwards to celebrate is always a good way to show gratitude in advance. Often we only have parties or celebrations at the end of things, but what better way to motivate and build staff morale than saying thank you ahead of time.
The educational benefit for this sort of day for both staff and students is the fact that the more education needs to focus on the transference of experiences and the development of practical skills, the more teachers need to have this sort of skill set themselves. This is therefore not only a great way to start the year, but a great way to help positively develop staff in a fun and proactive way.
Unfortunately, if you’re reading this on the first day back this year, you’re probably sitting in a room filled with teachers dreading the next six hours. But hey, there’s always next year! Have a wonderful year ahead!
With the start of a new year, there’s always the hope and anticipation of something new and something better! People look for change and there are high hopes all around that that change will actually come.
However, we all know most people can’t keep a New Year’s resolution for more than a day or so, so let’s not even bother with that. Instead, I want to look at why teachers must be prepared to reinvent themselves over and over again.
For most people this can be difficult, but for teachers even more so. In the past year, I was running a program which had many challenges arise throughout, one of which was the chef walking out, leaving us to cater for eighty people ourselves. Now I won’t go into all the details surrounding this as we don’t have that much time, but when I expected other teachers to adapt, jump in and get cooking, I got the response from many of them, ‘We’re just teachers, we can’t be expected to cook.’ Having run a number of businesses, as well as residential programs, this approach doesn’t sit well with me, as sometimes we find ourselves in situations, not of our own making, but we have to find a solution one way or another.
This made me think, after I quickly worked out how to cook for eighty people with one other staff member who was prepared to give it a go. Why are so many teachers reluctant to try anything new?
To me, this seems at odds with the whole concept of teaching. You really do need to be able to think on your feet and adapt to situations as they change. Although most teachers will never be in a situation where you find yourself cooking for a lot of people, you never know what you might need to do to remain relevant in today’s changing world.
For me, teaching others has always been at the core of what I’ve done. Whilst I may move from business to education, to politics, to business and back to education, empowering others to develop and grow within themselves appears in every single context in which I’ve worked. However, to truly appreciate the place of education in today’s rapidly changing world, the experiences outside of education have been far more valuable than the experiences within education itself.
Ultimately, I’ve found myself reinventing myself time and time again. From electrical salesman to political staffer, computer technician, teacher, barista, café owner and tech entrepreneur, each time I’ve changed what I’ve been doing, I’ve felt far more energised and motivated than before and it has all helped me be a better teacher. Fancy that! Experiential Education is the best form of education possible.
However, most teachers and most people never reinvent themselves or what they do. If they start to feel stale in what they’re doing, they will often just grind it out and keep doing the same thing in the hope it will get better. The fact is that it won’t! Stale teachers, are hopeless teachers, incapable of doing anything useful, let alone teach. Now there’s not the need for anyone to reinvent themselves as many times as I have, unless you really feel like it. However, taking time out from teaching to work in another industry, or completely different role, is not only healthy, but moving forward, I believe, will be critical to the success of teachers in the modern world. If teachers are expected to teach their students how to be flexible, adaptable, dynamic, critical thinking problem solvers, then they themselves need these sorts of qualities and the only way you get these qualities is through real life experience, which often doesn’t happen inside the confines of a school.
Therefore, at the tipping point of the new year, are you feeling stale? Are you feeling like you’re no longer being challenged? If so, why not take some time off and go and work in another job, something completely different. The experience and skills you will gain from this will be more empowering and worthwhile than a thousand staff ‘development’ days and when you go back to teaching, this experience away from teaching will have made you a far better teacher than before. Having gone in and out of education for years, I’ve found every time I come back, I’ve learnt something new and useful, because it’s through our experiences that we always learn the most. Why not give something new a go this next year? With so much to be gained, it’s always well worth it!
This year has been an interesting one to say the least. When looking back, it’s hard to know where to start as every single month has been filled with adventure, drama, challenges and most of all, problem solving on the run. To say I’ve learnt a lot about leadership, business, politics and education would be somewhat of an understatement. I’ve also learnt very quickly how to cook for eighty people, but the details of that is a story for another time. For now, it was just another day in the life of random problem solving that needed to be done.
Sometimes we get so caught up in doing things, such as cooking for eighty people, we can forget just how much we achieve and grow in a year. If I look back at what I’ve done, I’ve actually hit many of the goals I set for myself around this time last year, but also, through the randomness of life, have ended up meeting new people, re-connecting with old friends and achieving so much more than I’d ever imagined. It’s not been an easy year by any stretch of the imagination and I’ve had days where things were almost overwhelming, but through our experiences we grow and I can safely say that I’ve grown a lot over the past twelve months.
Looking back on the year that was, I’ve travelled to the other side of the world twice, zigzagged the Australian countryside for work, business, politics and fun, been to New Zealand, Canada, USA and Tasmania - possibly another country… the jury’s still out on this! I’ve read many books and seen and experienced some amazing things. One of the proudest moments though was when I launched the Xperiential Education podcast, which was not only so much fun to do, the response to it was awesome and I can’t thank our listeners enough for tuning in and providing some cool ideas for the next season, which I haven’t had time to record yet. Sorry… It’s been a kind of hectic year!
Some goals however, still haven’t been achieved, but rather than be disheartened by that fact, it’s an opportunity to explore why they weren’t achieved and what’s the next steps that need to be put in place so that will bring me one more a step closer to achieving them? Sometimes, big goals take longer than a year to achieve, so it’s a better measure to track progress on these, rather than look at it from a binary success or failure point of view. Often in life, things turn out to be far more complicated than first thought, so we need to be able to adapt and quickly!
For me this happened on a number of fronts. The integration of the Xcursion software platform to a number of school databases took longer than I’d expected due to the complexity of the system, but it’s now done, having adapted and problem-solved throughout the year on this project. I found another program I was running needed to essentially be rebuilt from scratch, which always takes far more time to do. Whilst often a single job can be done in a short amount of time, when you find that it’s a repetitive job, it’s better to build a system that works, rather than reinvent the same thing time and time again. However, most people don’t do this, as it initially takes longer to build a system than it does to do a single job. Yet the long-term benefit of creating a system is massive and if you ever want to be truly successful in what you do, then you need to build repeatable and effective systems.
Throw in a state pre-selection, overseas travel, some cool expeditions and the premiere of a film I was involved in last year, then you have tens of thousands of kms travelled, lots of late nights, early mornings tons of coffee and a bunch of cool experiences which at the end of the day, all translate into great relatable, teachable moments for students. The more I adventure outside of ‘traditional’ education, the more I find I can use to relate back to effective teaching and learning practices.
It has indeed been a crazy year filled with so many challenges and both positive and negative experiences, but when we take stock of everything we’ve done over a year, we often find that despite the craziness, we’ve managed to do and achieve far more than we had ever hoped to. I encourage you to take a look back at your own year that’s just been, to see just how much you’ve been able to do and how you can apply this to those you’re teaching. I think you’ll surprise yourself at how much you’ve been able to achieve in such a short period of time!
This year has been an amazing transformative one! The more we learn ourselves, the more effective we are as educators. From working out how to hack together a series of audio recordings into a cohesive podcast series to running a long-stay residential outdoor education program, I learnt a lot about problem solving, adaptability and resilience.
When faced with problems, which to many might seem insurmountable, I’ve learnt there are always ways around them. It’s just taking the time to be resourceful enough to find a workable solution. This is something that from my own experiences, I’ve been able to model and reflect upon with staff and students. I saw an interesting presentation about healthy habits for the brain. One part really stood out. The presenter commented, when working with students, don’t allow anyone, including yourself to say, ‘I can’t do this’. Instead reframe everything into, ‘How can I do this?’ One blocks the creative process. The other opens your mind to endless possibilities. This simple shift has helped me find the answers to countless challenges this year and is something I’ve worked hard to instill in my students, so no matter what is thrown at them, they can open their minds, adapt and find innovative solutions to anything.
Merry Christmas and thanks for reading throughout the year, it really means lot I hope you've had a wonderful challenging year and all the best for 2019!
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.