Recently, I was reading a fascinating book about airplane crashes and how poor decision making ultimately led to disaster and the huge loss of life. What was striking about this was the similarity to so many coronial inquests for outdoor education incidents.
Much like many fatalities on outdoor expeditions, each of the airplane disasters could have been avoided. However, fatigue and poor decision making ultimately led to disaster. So why are we so impaired by fatigue and why do some organisations still not see this as a major problem?
One school, which shall remain unnamed, for which I worked a number of years ago, were vehemently opposed to any discussion around fatigue, despite numerous concerns being raised by staff around the impact it was having on the welfare and well-being of the staff. The implication was that we were just being lazy and trying to get out of work. I would suggest 80+ hour weeks backed up by driving vehicles full of students was a bit over the top. However, I’m not going to dwell on the rest of that experience, other than to say it was a pre-loaded disaster waiting to happen.
When we’re fatigued, a number of things happen which reduce our ability to make clear, informed and reasonable decisions. The harder we try, the less effective this becomes. Our focus narrows further and further into a tunnel vision that cripples our ability to make sound, reasoned judgment. This was evident in the cockpit recordings of each of the plane crashes outlined in the book. Instead of clear, thoughtful and decisive action, mistake, after mistake, after mistake was made, culminating in the inevitable plane crash. Experienced pilots forgot their training. Simple corrective actions weren’t taken.
The same is true of fatalities in outdoor education in which fatigue adversely impacts on the ability of an instructor to make reasonable, informed decisions. Research has shown that multiple shifts of work and not sleeping for 24 hours (which counts poor/broken sleep within the mix), has the same effect on decision making that being drunk has. Do we ever allow teachers and instructors to be drunk at work? No! So why do we allow fatigue to be overlooked?
If you examine the black box flight recordings of the conversations inside the cockpit, it becomes abundantly clear that for example, despite evidence to suggest that all the pilots needed to do to save the plane and those they were responsible for was to push down on the controls to increase speed and prevent a stall, they kept pulling back on the stick, consequently condemning the plane and all onboard.
However, before we call them stupid, which is the temptation of a back-seat pilot with no airtime, let’s look at the effects which fatigue has on people and why it’s not surprising that such poor decisions were made in the air and also in the field, for so many expeditions which have gone disastrously wrong.
When people are fatigued and/or drunk, their reaction time slows, their ability to solve complex problems is significantly inhibited and their ability to perform even the most regular and simple tasks becomes compromised.
The only solution for fatigue, is sleep, not push through it as a former boss of mine would always profess was the way he always did it and we should do the same! That, in my opinion, is idiotic in the extreme and will eventually result in someone getting killed. However, you can always learn a lot from idiots as they demonstrate the dangers of what not to do. Often this can be even more beneficial than someone telling you what you should do.
Good decision making is one of the best risk management strategies you can have. You see something that hasn’t gone to plan, doesn’t fit or doesn’t feel right. You assess the problem, adapt and respond accordingly. Good outdoor leaders will continually do this throughout any program. Most of the time, what they do isn’t even noticeable. Other times, it’s clear that there’s a problem and there’s a shift in plans to address it. The same is true with airlines. Most of the time you have no idea that corrective action was taken, which is the way it should be. Unfortunately, when we’re fatigued, that vitally important, broad problem-solving skill set stops working. We can only focus on single tasks and, even then, we might only be able to focus on a single part of a single task, which is even worse.
Often fatigued individuals will also focus on something that is completely irrelevant to the problem at hand. Instead, they become entrenched in a minor detail and they can obsess over it, as it’s the key to solving their current problem. However, their tired-self can’t even rationalise the fact that they’re grabbing onto something which is completely pointless, again due to their diminished capacity to make rational decisions.
Unfortunately, in outdoor ed incidents, we generally don’t have first hand recordings of the events as they transpire, which we do have for the airline industry. Listening to these recordings, it becomes clear that minor and irrelevant concerns become the sole focus of someone who is fatigued. The death spiral starts and there’s no way out. If you compare this with coronial inquests into outdoor education fatalities, on many occasions, you can see how fatigue might have impaired judgment and might have contributed to triggering the repeatedly poor decisions and the downward spiral which ultimately resulted in the fatality.
Now not all outdoor ed fatalities have fatigue as a contributing factor, but if we’re aware of the fact that it’s one of the most dangerous problems we can face even as experienced instructors, then we can put systems in place to manage and avoid fatigue and it’s related hazards. If we don’t want staff to be working ‘drunk’ from fatigue, then we must have good systems in place for managing this.
How long is an acceptable shift? What are the tasks that each staff member is doing during this time? What driving is involved? Can the load be shared? What if someone feels fatigued? What backup plans do you have in place?
The outcome of each of the airplane crashes was that systems to monitor and address fatigue were introduced, the result being, safer air travel. For outdoor education, this is something that must be addressed. It can’t be pushed through. It can’t be ignored. It can’t be put off for a discussion later in time. The end results, like the fatal vehicle accident in New Zealand where the teacher fell asleep at the wheel, are self-evident that fatigue and good decision making don’t go hand in hand. Do you have a fatigue management system in place? If not, make it your number 1 priority today as it’s vital that we and our industry ensure we keep safe those for whom we’re responsible. It’s essential to have instructors with clear heads and great decision-making skills, so that every outdoor experience is a wonderful and rewarding one for everyone.
Tin Tin is awesome! If you haven’t read any of the comics, or seen the cartoons or movies, where have you been hiding so shut off from the world? Tin Tin is the young investigative journalist who finds himself on all sorts of global adventures. From treasure hunting to jewel thieves, to kidnapper and opium smugglers, Tin Tin is a crime fighting machine. However, I really worry about him.
It’s not the fact that he gets shot at quite often nor that he finds himself in crazy pursuits in cars, on bikes, boats and planes. No, it’s the fact that he gets hit over the head and knocked out so many times. Yet a few hours later, he’s back chasing the bad guys around… until he gets hit over the head again. In most stories, this happens to Tin Tin two or three times and each time he’s ok. His dog, Snowy seems to get drunk quite often too, but that’s another issue entirely.
Whilst Tin Tin is just a story and cartoon characters can bounce back from pretty much anything, unfortunately in real life, we’re not quite built the same way and one knock to the head causing someone to go unconscious is a very serious matter and a second knock can be deadly. If Tin Tin were a real person, he’d either be in a coma, have serious onset of CTE or dead.
It doesn’t even take someone to be knocked out to suffer a serious concussion and if they don’t follow a recovery plan as directed by a medical professional, then they risk going back to an activity too soon and risk the second impact syndrome which can kill. If you don’t have a comprehensive return to play/sport or activity plan at your school or organisation, then you need one today! Yes today! Don’t wait for someone to be seriously injured or killed to do something about it. Whilst that may sound dramatic, it is because it’s one of those injuries which isn’t as obvious as someone bleeding profusely from their body and isn’t as easy to treat, as each person recovers differently and at different speeds. In many cases, this is a minimum of 21 days with a planned recovery process overseen by a doctor. However, again, 21 days is the current thinking around minimum recovery times and may change or be different for individuals depending on age, development, severity of the knock and so many other factors and could be months for someone to fully recover.
For most schools, the main causation of this type of injury is sport, not getting whomped over the back of the head by international drug smugglers. However, I remember going on an excursion once when I was in Year 4 to a deer farm in Tamworth, which then turned out to be an enormous drug plantation, so anything is possible and fighting crime and international drug smugglers is probably way more interesting than a normal day at school. However, failing that, your injuries are mostly going to be from sports. Therefore, you need to be able to do an initial concussion test and assessment and then if this assessment suggests a concussion in a student or player, you need to site them out and they need to be seen and assessed by a medical practitioner.
For the case of Tin Tin, he could probably afford to get knocked out maybe once a month or every second month and although his writing and bad guy chasing may suffer and he’d have to put a lot of activity on hold, he might be ok with the occasional blow to the head. Having said that, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. Added to his woes, if he’s not getting whomped over the back of the head, the bad guys are chloroforming him. All in all, Tin Tin by all measure should be dead by now. However, thanks to cartoon laws of reality and physics, he and his drunk dog are back again fighting crime and saving the day.
Since we can’t rely on these wonderful alternate reality laws of physics and health, make sure you have a concussion assessment and return to play with a plan in place so that you don’t risk the worst case scenarios that unfortunately happen to people back here in the real world.
How often do you review the programs you’re running and how they’re being run? Are there any specific activities which require specialised training, experience or knowledge? When it comes to experiential or outdoor education programs, there are often key activities which need specific training and or experience so they’re able to be run effectively, efficiently and safely. However, when one team member moves on, standards change or complacency creeps in, this can become a significant risk to your organisation and programs.
How often do you review your team dynamics and skill set? What are the strengths of your team? What are the gaps in your team? Can those gaps be amended through staff training or training courses? Do you have a system in place for constantly assessing and reviewing this?
To be clear, to begin with micromanagement of staff is definitely not needed here and can be massively counterproductive. However, the opposite is also true. If you have staff whose skills are never developed, reviewed or improved, this can lead to complacency, poor work and an ‘expert’ blind spot situation where everything will be ok, because it always has been. For your organisation, there needs to be a happy and effective medium for this. With no reviews or identification of key skills and experience, or the blind expectation that everyone has the same level of skill because you set a qualification as a minimum standard for employment, then you’re deluding yourself into a false sense of security and setting yourself up for problems down the track.
One place I worked, we had all field staff training as a minimum with a Cert IV in outdoor recreation. However, the skills and abilities of each member of staff varied enormously. Their ability to engage students in the group, their ability to setup ropes courses, expeditions and debrief activities all varied massively. Yet they all had the same qualifications. The potential risk in this situation is that you can’t simply allocate staff to activities without understanding their strengths and weaknesses in specific areas. However, the positive of this is that you need people with different and complementary skills to make it a fun and dynamic working environment.
That same organisation for which I was working, despite having gaps in training and skills, the team dynamics were really positive as the task and role allocations were done based upon those complementary skills. For example, I can’t reverse trailers. I try, but it never ends well. So one of my colleagues always reversed the trailer. Conversely, some of the team were squeamish with ticks, blood and open wounds, which I wasn’t, so I ended up removing all the ticks and patching up all the gaping open wounds.
At the end of the day, we worked well together. However, there were still gaps in skills and understanding of a range of things which caused a number of breakdowns in communications and challenges along the way. It’s therefore critical, even if things are running reasonably well, to review the skills needed to run the programs for which you’re responsible, as part of your ongoing risk management. So often people think of risk management as simply the documentation you’re creating. However, it’s far more than that and the skills and experience of your staff is critical to the way in which risk management is developed and implemented.
What are the strengths of your team? What are the gaps in their skills and what training do they need to help close these gaps? Often general risk management training is overlooked versus activity specific training. However, activity specific training, whilst it develops a great set of specific skills, is often the broader contexts of risk management that gets missed when we focus on one specific area. Hence, it’s important to keep this in mind when reviewing the training needs of your team.
Once you’ve been able to identify the gaps, then it’s important to provide opportunities for training, or on the job experience to help the team members to improve their skills in this area. This can make a huge difference to the safety and coherence of the organisation and the team dynamics.
External training is also critical to ensure that the right skills are being developed and being done in a way that’s also at arm’s length so that internal processes and procedures are also being challenged and tested to help ensure industry standards are up to date and being met. What are your gaps? If you haven’t reviewed where you’re at for a while, then it’s time to do so right now. Identify your skills’ gaps and ensure you get your team trained in each of those areas of need to ensure you’re running safe, awesome experiential outdoor programs for your students.
Catering is a really important part of your program. Any camp, school excursion or overseas school trip needs to have good food, with considerations made for any dietary needs. This could be based upon allergies, religion or preference.
The complexity of this can, at times, get a bit overwhelming. Some are justified, some are ridiculous and indulgent. The ongoing challenge is however, to ensure you push through the fact that some parents push stupid diets on their children and focus on the fact that getting the catering right for your critical needs students is vitally important.
For most students, it’s fairly clear and obvious that they’re a vegetarian, they can’t eat nuts or seafood or whatever the case may be and you simply provide this information to your camp catering team to sort out. However, it’s important not to set and forget this, as things can always slip through the cracks and when they do… you can have some of the most dangerous situations on hand.
On one program I was running, we were using a hardtop catered camp site for part of it. I walked in to have dinner and saw that it was a pasta dish with a tomato sauce. However, as I looked a bit closer, I saw some tiny prawns in it. I quickly looked around the room as this was not on the menu plan and one of our students was anaphylactic to shellfish. I spotted him down the back of the dining room, having just sat down to eat. I dashed down and immediately said not to eat the pasta. Despite being old enough to have some level or self-regulation, he hadn’t seen the prawns in the food. Thankfully, he hadn’t eaten anything and I arranged for another meal.
It turned out that the cook had a bag of spare prawns in the freezer and just thought he’d use that to ‘bulk-up’ the dish. The potential consequences of this could have been fatal. Even if you’re really careful with food allergies, it’s important that someone is monitoring this and not just ticking that box before the program and thinking it will have sorted itself out.
Another camp provider I was working with was completely dysfunctional and couldn’t understand dietary needs at all. This was obvious from the signs they had placed on the servery. ‘46 normal’. It wasn’t just the fact that they had odd signs, but then they hadn’t actually catered for any dietary needs at all, so the not-normal were given salad. I ended up having to go out at the last minute and buy some supplies because the caterers were so incompetent. Needless to say they were never used again. However, once again, if you don’t have someone actively monitoring this for your program, you can end up with all sorts of nightmares.
Even in-house, if you’re employing people who are supposedly well-experienced in food preparation and catering for school groups, this is no guarantee that things will go well. Once place I was working the cook (really couldn’t!) kept sending out meals raw. Now a raw hamburger is one thing, but when you have raw chicken breasts coming out for dinner, it’s obvious they’ve got no idea and time to replace them.
Whilst it’s often tempting for schools to contract out their camps to other people to organise and run for them, you’re still ultimately responsible for the health and safety of your students, so someone should be overseeing and observing meals, snacks and drinks throughout the day. In doing so, you can save yourself from far greater problems that can result from bad catering and a lack of attention to this part of your program. You don’t have to be over the top or hyper vigilant, but you do need to have your finger on the pulse as to what everyone is eating.
If some of your providers can’t cater, or the level of complexity of students’ food needs is too great for you to adequately cater for them, its important to have this conversation with parents and find an alternate solution.
In my experience. if you have someone who needs a specific brand or exact item from a gourmet food store, then it’s probably best to document in your program information that some cases might require self-catering. I’ve had this both for extreme allergies and extreme parenting. The extreme parenting and ‘fussy eater’ scenario aside, if you have serious concerns about major food allergies and triggers, then just work with the parents to provide the food themselves. We’ve done this on many occasions and have also provided separate cooking equipment for those students to ensure there’s no cross-contamination.
At times, this is a challenging part of running the program. It doesn’t have to be and putting those plans in place early, talking with parents and the students, as well as monitoring what’s being provided, will help ensure those catering nightmares are well and truly kept at bay.
A lot of people think more is better. The more information you have, the more documentation you have. The more plans you have, all make life so much easier, better and safer.
However, the reality is quite different. Ironically, the more information someone has, the harder it is to make an informed decision. I’ve seen risk management documents which run to 70 pages in length, which nobody is going to read for one, but also, even if you did read it all, there’s way too much information contained within those 70 pages for anyone to make a logical and informed decision. More is most definitely not better.
As humans, our brains can only take in so much info and analyse it before it gets overwhelmed. Too many possibilities become too hard to rationalise and think about logically and the more information and possibilities, the harder it is to respond and make any sort of informed decision.
This is why we see people in high stress situations make very poor decisions, which result in bad outcomes. It’s not the lack of information at hand. It’s too much. Instead of having reams of paperwork, which is supposedly there to help people run programs safely, you’re far better off to only look at key points of data to help you make a far more informed decision than the alternative.
Whilst this may seem counter-intuitive, the fact is that we’re not good at decision making as the stress level increases and the amount of information to analyse increases. We become myopic and our field of vision and understanding narrows. That’s why, sadly, so many coronial inquests on the surface seem so simple and straight forward. Why wasn’t this simple decision made at this point in time to prevent the fatality from happening? Chances are that there was too much information at hand.
We therefore need to simplify what we’re doing and how we’re doing it to improve our decision-making abilities. Nobody is going to read or even be able to use huge documents. They’re only really useful to lawyers post incident to spend more time than is reasonable for them to photocopy and read through so they can bill clients for it. Whilst that’s wonderfully profitable for lawyers, it’s actually not much help to you in the field.
How do you filter out the noise and get to the key information you need? That’s challenging, because each activity is situational. However, if you focus on your key risks and supervision responsibilities, then you’re well on the way to making good decisions. What’s the weather like? What’s the group dynamics like? What are the key activity risks? This is a great start. Also delegating responsibilities and positive team communications and dynamics, is a great way to reduce the burden of decision making on any one person to enable fast and effective reviews and analysis of the information at hand.
You often come across people who carry risk management documents on them as their way of effective risk management or responding if something doesn’t go to plan. However, this is problematic in that the time it takes to find something within that document that may be useful in a critical incident, is just time wasted in actually dealing with the issue at hand.
Whilst this doesn’t mean that this preparation is time wasted on developing good risk management systems, processes and documenting this, it does mean that you need competent people on the frontline running programs who can make informed decisions based on a reasonably small set of data. This takes training and practice, but if you realise that to begin with, the more information at hand, the more difficult it is to make informed decisions, then you’re well on the way to being able to more effectively handle stressful situations and incidents and come out of them with a positive outcome having managed and mitigated the situation at hand.
Therefore, don’t let yourself go down with myopic tunnel vision. Work out what’s important and filter out all the noise. Run some training scenarios and make sure you’re ready for whatever comes your way.
No you can’t do that! … It’s not safe!
This is the deafening catch cry of the fleet of helicopter and drone parents who put the apocalypse, now pilots to shame. Be safe! Take Care! Don’t do this! Don’t do that!
Stop! I wanna go home… take off this uniform and leave the show!
With such an increasingly large group of paranoid parents who don’t want anything to happen ever, unless it’s a participation award ceremony where the trophies have had their razor sharp edge buffed off, it’s difficult to know how damaging this will be over the long-run. But damaging it is and damaging it will continue to be for years to come.
In an attempt to make the world ‘safe and perfect’ for their wonderfully ‘perfect’ children, parents continue to cripple their kids into a false sense of security and confidence, or made them insanely dependent, depressed and anxious about the world. Either way, it’s not a healthy way to raise children.
Everyone learns and grows from taking risks, be they physical or emotional risks. If we don’t step outside of our comfort zone and do something, then we make little progress. We don’t learn from our mistakes and we’re unable to understand our true capabilities and grow as a result. Despite the world getting safer and being a far more stable place than it has ever been, for some reason, (probably social media driven) parents seem more fearful and paranoid about everything. They therefore aim to remove all risk and all potential challenges from their children’s lives. There’s just one massive problem with this. It’s insanely stupid and crippling for children and it increases the risk of harm to those children dramatically.
If you don’t know what it feels like to take a risk, then you have no way to gauge the level, severity or potential consequences of that risk. Teenagers struggle with this anyway, as their brains are wired to only seeing rewards out of any situation. However, couple this with absolutely neither perspective, experience nor understanding of taking risks, then you end up with an extremely dangerous combination of false confidence and the illusion of that everything will produce a positive outcome. This lack of experience and false confidence coupled with a parent who will never let a child take any risks, results in teenagers who will take completely unhealthy and dangerous risks with no thought of or perspective for the consequences.
However, if children are allowed to take risks, they’re going to injury themselves. They’re going to get dirty, scratched, knocked about, but each time this happens, they learn from this and develop a level of resilience. They gain understanding of what they’re capable and of what they’re not capable. They build a level of understanding of risk and from this are able to begin to self-regulate, because they know, if you jump out of a tree and land hard, this could result in a rolled ankle, broken wrist or something that’s unpleasant, but not exactly that bad.
We all learn best through our experiences, so those children whose parents don’t let them take any sort of risk, generally drive them to and from school no matter how close it is and don’t let them out of their sight ever. They don’t allow their children to develop a perspective or gauge for risk and consequently are more likely to take dangerous risks as all they have developed over the years is false confidence and nothing more.
Taking risks diminishes this false confidence and is critical to long term development so as children turn into teenagers, they’re far more switched on to identify real risks and approach them in a more responsible way. The next time parents ask why you’re doing this activity or that activity, have a positive conversation about the benefits of taking risks and growth in a great way from these experiences.
When looking at any activity or required skill within an organisation, there are four levels of competency. As we learn and develop, no matter what the skill or activity is, we all go through these stages from knowing nothing about what we’re doing to being unconsciously competent in what we do.
As we move through each of these stages, it can be quite confronting for many people, especially if they’ve been doing something which isn’t quite right or there’s more to what they’re doing than they’ve ever imagined.
The first stage and often the most confronting realisation for people is unconscious incompetence. This is where you don’t know what you don’t know. It’s the most frustrating point at which we find ourselves and in terms of risk management, the most dangerous point and position someone can be in if they’re responsible for an outdoor or experiential program which involves a level of risk.
The worrying thing about this is that over many years, I’ve come across countless people in the head of outdoor education or experiential education positions who are unconsciously incompetent. They’ve been promoted as a teacher into a role for which they might have had an interest, but no real or extensive experience. In this case, whoever is put into this role is being failed by the organisation. Having an interest in something versus understanding the role and inherent risks is a totally different thing. If you don’t know the risks of an activity or program, how can you be expected to manage them effectively?
Getting some basic training in the skill or activity then helps someone to move from this first stage to the second one, which is conscious incompetence. This is where you realise you lack certain skills and understand the need to train in, practise and develop those skills. In terms of risk management, this is key to getting things right within your school or organisation. For many of those teachers who have been promoted to positions of responsibility to oversee programs with a range of risks involved, it’s vital that each understands the risks to which they and their staff are exposed and how to effectively manage these risks. Once someone has this realisation, then they can start to plan to address this skills’ gap in themselves and in their organisation.
Further training and experience at this point, then gets you to a position where you’re consciously competent. You still have to work on many parts of the programs and continue to practise and develop your skills, but overall, you’re good at what you do and are able to support and develop others as well.
The final stage is unconscious competence. You know what you’re doing without thinking about it. You have a level of experience and initiation, which guides your decision-making process to support the programs you’re running. In your mind, you have a picture of what a standard program, day or experience should look and feel like and you automatically react and respond if something doesn’t quite fit. For example, if a series of different weather conditions or warnings present themselves, you unconsciously play out various scenarios in your mind as to the potential impact and consequences of this.
A realisation of this for me was on one program. There was a pattern of illness and student behaviours emerging which pointed toward a series of potential injuries. The change of energy in the group, the apparent fatigue that was emerging, meant that a change of plans was needed. Due to the different level of skills and experience amongst the staff team, only a couple of staff could see this pattern emerging and others couldn’t see the problem at hand. The potential negative consequences of not being able to identify risks as they’re emerging can be huge. It’s critical to ensure that you have unconsciously competent staff in your team to help advise you and others on hazards and risks which might not be obvious to others who are still at the lower levels of skills’ development.
Whilst some of these four different levels can be addressed through training, which is vitally important to begin with, the other levels are grown and developed through practice and experience in whatever it is you’re doing. Further training can reinforce this. However, practice really does make perfect. Whatever level you and your colleagues are at now, you will benefit immensely from training and experience to ensure that all your staff are unconsciously competent in whatever it is they’re doing.
Recently, I was working on a residential program and despite students needing to have a phone on them for our risk management as part of the program, we collected everyone’s phones at night. Now this was something which had wide spread support of parents and limited support from students. No surprises there with the Pandora’s box that’s been opened on that front, which is the point of this article.
Whilst many students thought I was the worst person in the world for taking their phones every night, it made me realise something which I suspected, but didn’t quite have the evidence to support it until now.
The phones generally went on charge before homework time in the evening around 7:30 and after prep, bedtime was around 9:45 with lights out at 10pm. With all the phones being recharged in the duty office overnight, I noticed something when I went back to wrap things up for the evening. Depending on what time all the students were settled, I’d generally head back into the office somewhere between 10:30 and 11pm.
Sitting there, writing up the daily notes for the next day’s handover, I’d hear the buzz, bings and blips of the fifty odd phones going off the whole time I was there. To begin with, it was just annoying, but it became progressively more concerning. One evening, I was up past midnight and the phones were still going.
This gave me the sudden realisation of how overwhelming this must be for their minds. Phones are already addictive by nature. This helps us to understand the ongoing problem that teenagers are facing with the inability to switch off from the connected world. If their phones are still alive with notifications late at night and I mean every night, not just weekend, every single night, what chance do they have to be able to cope in class with tiredness and a constant craving for another dopamine hit.
Like coked up lab rats, they become slaves to the device that’s shaping and manipulating their behaviour almost every hour of the day. This is bound to be slowly destroying their ability to cope with the real world and doing unknown long-term emotional damage. Yet parents are still giving their children phones at a phenomenal rate.
We have well and truly thrown in the towel on this one in such a short period of time. We need to pick up that towel and get back in the ring. This is something worth fighting for as large social media companies care nothing for their users and everything about their profits. These companies have built intentionally addictive functionality into their platforms to keep people online and this is the result, endless distractions designed to manipulate the formative years of children. When you see this toxic mess for what it really is, it makes you wonder about the world 2.0 and how regressive social media has been for us.
Digital technology is amazing, but we still need everyone to have the opportunity to switch off from it and not be constantly bombarded with messages, notifications and whatever other crap comes through their phones. Despite the large tech companies doing nothing but giving lip-service to social responsibility, we have a responsibility to help students switch off from this potentially dangerous and destructive world and provide them with the opportunity to understand the life and circumstances in which they find themselves living.
It’s time we gave them the opportunity to switch off and build real relationships with real people and not just be mindless slaves, slowly losing their sleep and minds to the wonderful machine that goes bing.
Education without focus, is just like anything else without focus. It’s hap-hazardous at best and pointlessly time-wasting and counterproductive at its worst. However, this seems to be the way education goes these days. It’s all over the place where you’ve got a bit of this, a bit of that and a bit of everything. Yet if you’re trying to please everybody with everything, you invariably don’t end up pleasing anybody with anything. The fact is that the world has changed and in recognition of that, so must education.
Recently, I came across a number of different schools that are targeting specific areas for growth and development. I find this is a fascinating approach and one which has the potential to produce some amazing opportunities and educational results. However, how do you know what your child wants to focus on?
Often, it’s the parents who want their kids to do something, rather than the desire coming from the children themselves. I’ve seen this horrible and damaging sort of situation so often and you know what the end result will be, but it’s like watching a train wreck in motion. There’s not much you can do about it.
The fact is that if this is the case, then no matter how much a parent wants something, it's never really going to be something their son or daughter really wants to do. For example, my parents wanted me to learn the piano. I hated the piano. I didn't enjoy learning. I didn’t enjoy practicing. I didn't enjoy performing. I really didn’t enjoy anything about it. Despite loving to listen to music, I wasn’t someone who wanted to play an instrument of any kind. However, I enjoyed singing and I ended up doing some singing lessons and performances which I really enjoyed.
Yet without both these experiences, I would never have known what I liked and what I should focus on. To begin with, it’s well worth encouraging kids to experience a whole range of different activities and explore interests without the parental pressure and expectations to pick one thing that they really want themselves. This process can help students work out what makes them tick and therefore what they should be focusing on in their education, especially in their high school years.
I remember when I was in primary school at the end of one term, we did a week of trying out a different sort of activity. We were given a range of different options. We could choose bowling, squash, tennis or even roller skating and I don’t mean roller blading. I mean roller skating! Yes, it was still a thing back then and it was so much fun. You'd skate up to the DJ, request a song, then skate around the rink as fast as you could when your song came on! Unfortunately, the skating rink, ‘Skatehaven’ was turned into self-storage units years ago. Such a sad end to a wonderful venue, but back to the main point!
The fact was you were able to choose something and concentrate on it for a week. You’d learn different skills and techniques and you’d be able to challenge yourself doing something new and different. If you didn’t like it, at the end of the week you never have to do it again, but if you liked it, this just opened up a brand-new opportunity and interest for you. That week I chose squash!
This is something I really remember about primary school. Most of the time you don’t remember anything about primary school because it was so long ago and far away and but so much better than it is today. Every maths, English, geography and science lesson all blend into one with very little recollection at all of any that really happened. However, when you do something unique and different it stands out and becomes memorable.
To be honest, I’ve never played squash since, but I did really enjoy that week. I did however, go on to play tennis which is sort of the same thing anyway. Yet schools don’t tend to do many experiential education weeks like this. If they did, it would have a profound impact on a child’s education and development. Think about it this way. You have schools full of dedicated teachers, whose lessons will never be remembered. That to me seems like a complete waste of time and talent. Perhaps a few more memorable weeks each year doing something different wouldn’t hurt at all. In fact, even if you did a month a year throughout high school, that’s still only six months of a student’s education, which is six months more of experiences they will actually remember, learn from and cherish for the rest of their lives. Even taking this time out, they’ll still have five and a half years of blurred generic grey days in classrooms about which to forget.
With the stats suggesting that in Australia 40% of students are disengaged, why not try something different and meaningful to get at least some of those 40% back on track. In what are they interested? What do they love to do? Do you have any idea what drives them? If you don’t know that, you can’t tailor a program for them. Why not have a month every year that’s dedicated to doing different activities and I don’t mean outdoor ed activities, I mean a whole range of community, cultural, sporting and workplace activities to see what actually makes students get excited about their life and contribution to society. Some weeks they will like, some weeks they won’t like but it starts to develop a picture and it starts to give students a feeling for different activities, for different experiences and for different challenges. It lets them develop some ideas of a path that they enjoy and that they want to follow. It lets them explore what they want to explore and this can be tied back into the classroom and academic programs they need to be able to do to get into a specific field which interests them.
There’s a great benefit from this because once you have students re-engaged, they’re actually going to learn and so if you have someone who is learning and someone who is keen, they’re more likely to go on to further education or seek positive employment opportunities or contribute in a meaningful way to their communities. They’re less likely to be disillusioned, disengaged with the life, the universe and everything and sitting at home doing nothing.
With massive levels of youth unemployment in our country and a growing trend towards automation of many entry level and low-level repetitive jobs, it’s time to do something more useful and productive in education. At the end of the day, things like NAPLAN results and standardized tests are pointless numbers which are quickly forgotten like most classroom lessons. The emphasis that has been put on these things, would give you the impression that they’re useful indicators of long-term learning and employability, which they’re not.
At the end of the day, you want young men and women who can think for themselves and be able to help solve the terrible social, environmental and economic mess they’re been left with by previous generations. Finding meaningful experiential education experiences for them to have over the course of their schooling is critical to achieving this and it shouldn’t be lumped as a ‘co-curricular’ or one off activity. Build something useful into the daily lives of students and this will have a profound impact on the way in which they learn.
When we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re expected to have answers or manage risk, this is a massive problem. How can we be expected to put systems in place and plan for contingencies if we don’t understand the situation or context of what we’re expected to be doing.
Many teachers find themselves in this exact situation and are expected to plan for something about which they know nothing. At this point, the major activity and operational risk comes from the person not knowing what they’re doing, rather than the potential inherent risks of the activity itself. Do we let inexperienced drivers get behind the wheel without any training or supervision? Thankfully not. Yet why are so many teachers allowed to run sports, excursions and activities with no idea, training nor experience in what they’re doing?
It literally makes no sense at all to allow someone to take on a role which requires them to plan for and mitigate risks, if they have no idea themselves. The increased risk here comes from the person not knowing what they’re doing at all and they’re simply making things up as they go, which is never good in terms of risk management.
A number of years ago we came across one such group on an expedition. We were in Kangaroo Valley and just starting out on an expedition when we came across a group just finishing an expedition. In talking with them, we quickly realised they had absolutely no idea what they were doing. Their whole risk management plan was apparently based upon the fact that one of the teachers went for a walk and saw a snake, therefore they went canoeing instead because the risk of the snake was too great. I really want to laugh at this point as on that exact same river, I saw a 3 metre Eastern Brown Snake in the water and then it slithered up onto the place we had just had lunch, so seeing a snake in the wild and basing your decision on risk management around a single sighting of a snake seems quite idiotic to be perfectly honest.
Essentially these guys had been out on a multi day canoe expedition with no canoe instructors, no maps, no communications devices and no backup plans. Everything has to run perfectly for them to be ok, which relying on luck for your management of risk, is never a good thing.
One wonders how this group was even allowed to go out on this trip with such a poor basis for the management of the inherent risks, let alone the operational risks which were so obvious to this trip. Unfortunately, trips like this go out every day with no idea what their real risks are and the consequences of this can be horrendous if something goes wrong.
The only way that this sort of situation can be avoided is through training and experience. If any organisation is sending staff out untrained and unprepared in terms of risk management, then they deserve everything they get if something goes wrong. Schools don’t allow untrained teachers in the classroom, so why do they allow untrained teachers in the field.
Whether the teacher is running the trip or not, they need to understand what they’re doing to ensure they’re capable and effective in managing the risks involved outside of the classroom. Therefore, they need to be trained and experienced in general risk management, as well as activity or program specific risk management, so they can minimise the risks involved. The risk of not knowing what you’re doing is far too great and negligent when there’s so many opportunities to get trained and get up to speed with factors of which you should be aware and doing the right things to ensure you’re running awesome, experiential educational programs.
If you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t understand the risks involved or just need a refresher, then get some training today so that you can confidently manage risk no matter what the situation or context. Thus, always run awesome, educational programs for all your students.