A Teachable Moment
Recently, I was on an expedition along the spectacular south coast of New South Wales. Despite having a group of Year 9 boys with me, it was a spectacular trip! The expedition itself was a journey of around 30 km from Dolphin Point in the North, to North Durras in the South. Rather ironic that the most southerly point is called North, but of course everything is North of something, unless you’re at the South Pole.
Given the fact that the group of 18 boys on the expedition had been trained in all the requisite skills beforehand, I framed my briefing so they were running the expedition, not me. Consequently, the boys get the opportunity to explore, take on challenges and make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t.
From a staffing point of view, the other teacher and I were there purely as the ‘safety blanket’ just in case a poor decision were to be made in the dangerous risk category. This means, we only ever would intervene if there’s a serious safety risk. If they walk in the wrong direction for an hour, I don’t care, because it’s not a dangerous risk. If they’re thinking about crossing a flooded river filled with snakes and piranhas, then this is my moment to facilitate a discussion on risk. At the end of the day, however, the students are running the trip and I encourage them to do everything possible themselves without the intervention of staff.
At no point with high school students do I want to be working on the premise that I’m ‘taking’ them out on a trip. Anybody can take a group of students out, blindly lead them around the bush and call it a hike. However, from an educational point of view, this doesn’t make any sense because there are no real learning opportunities that are created from this when you drag students around as if you’re the Pied Piper. Sure, you might wander around the wilderness for a couple of days, see some sights and ‘rough it’ a little. The students might feel a bit uncomfortable being out camping, but ultimately that's about it. There's not much actual learning involved in this scenario.
So for starters, avoid ‘taking’ students on a trip. Their parents can take them on a trip. Any sort of teacher can ‘take’ them on a trip. But as an experiential educator you must let them take you and lead you on the trip. For some teachers, this is way too hard and they don’t want to give up control. I saw an embarrassing example of this in my favourite café in Berry one day. The guy in front of me ordered a coffee, but then instead of letting the barista make it, the man wanted to pour his own milk in. The owner just stared at him and said, “why did you come out for coffee if you want to make it yourself?” Sometimes you really just need to let go!
Anyway, back to the coastal expedition and two different approaches to the same issue. We’d had really high seas for the past week and this raised a few red flags in terms of our risk management and our assessments of the locations. However, there wasn’t anything significant enough to mean we had to cancel or redesign the trip.
Day 1, we hiked along 7 kilometres of beach before reaching a headland that jutted out into the sea. Approaching this point, I positioned myself towards the front of the group, knowing the headland was one of those potentially dangerous points on the expedition that required active supervision.
Since I’d already put all the decision-making responsibilities onto the students, I didn't move into this position to take over. Instead, I put myself there acting in my role as ‘safety manager,’ to facilitate a discussion about the location and the hazard. I wasn't going to suddenly jump in and say, ‘Right, I’m in control now! Follow Me!’ If I did this, it would defeat the whole purpose of what we’re trying to achieve. Why? Because I can’t tell my students one thing and then do the complete opposite whenever I feel like it. Students quickly see through people who aren't authentic and honest, so if you decide to jump in randomly here and there whenever it suits you, good luck building trust after that! It remained up to my students to make an informed assessment and determine for themselves how they should proceed once they have all the information.
I need to be very clear at this point. I’m not going to put the students in any danger if they make a poor decision. I’ll use this opportunity to further expand on actions and consequences and keep working on it until they make a sounder decision.
At this point of the headland, there are two ways around. There’s one path up to the right, as we were traveling south and are on the East Coast of Australia, which goes up and over the headland via a bush track. To the left is the ocean and directly in front of us, are the rocky platforms that step up and down to make up the headland.
I’d stopped at a vantage point a few metres above sea level at the point where we could go no further. From here I could see around to the beach on the other side of the headland. The swell was powerful and as I watched, I could see multiple sets of waves lining up before crashing on the platform below.
To this point, the boys hadn’t been paying much attention to what was going on around them. They’d been hiking for almost 2 hours. They’d been walking and talking and everything had been easy going. The simple act of walking along a beach isn’t particularly hard so it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security.
Gathering the boys together on the rocky platform I said, “Ok, this is one of the points that you need to carefully assess and make a decision on. We have a couple of options available to us.” One of the boys immediately said, “Let’s just go straight ahead!”
I looked at him and he was one of those passenger students. We always have a lot of passengers and they’re the ones who just want to be taken on a trip. They’re used to be taken everywhere and having everything done for them. It’s people such as him, that demand instant results from no effort, and they’re the ones who tend to make dangerous ill-informed decisions.
For such as this student, if I hadn’t put myself in that specific location to facilitate a discussion about risk, they would’ve kept walking down onto the next rock shelf that was awash with the bright white foam of the waves, not noticed the approaching swell and got themselves smashed down by the crashing wave before being swept off the rocks as it withdrew back out to sea. Now they’ve just turned a nice walk on the beach into a coronial inquest. The faster you can identify this type of student the better, because all they see is the reward in a fast solution and perceive no risk or no danger as part of this.
I said to the boys, “Wait a minute. Before you make a decision on this, let’s run through the options that are available to us.” I outlined the bush track over the headland versus continuing around the headland. Whilst on the one hand, they were listening to me, more importantly, they were standing watching what the ocean swell was doing. It was only another 30 seconds and I got the result I wanted. The swell surged up and a massive set of three waves, one after the other pounded the rocks below us and a fine ocean spray mist covered us from head to toe.
Suddenly the boys’ attitude changed. “We don’t want to go down there!” one said.
“Ok, explain to me why you don’t you want to go down there.”
“Well look at it!” he said, “the waves keep crashing onto the rocks and if you’re down there, there’s nowhere else to go!”
The passenger from before, who wanted to proceed because he thought it would be easier then said, “We’ll be fine, let’s just time it and run across!”
The next wave smashed onto the platform, quickly followed by another, covering the entire rock shelf.
“Ok, so we have 20 people to get across, how exactly are we going to time it without getting hit by one of those waves?” The boy went silent. He didn’t have an answer as more and more waves crashed powerfully onto the rocks. As it was an incoming tide, it was only going to get worse.
I knew very clearly in my mind what decision needed to be made. However, it was still extremely important to let the boys have a discussion amongst themselves and make the decision. They’d been given all the information they required and were standing looking directly at the dangerous environmental conditions themselves. However, I wasn’t going to pre-empt what they were going to do and therefore save them from making a decision. This was an important teachable moment and they had to make the decision for themselves.
After a few more minutes of discussion and observation, the boys finally made their decision. “We’re going to go around, Sir!” said one them.
“Ok, good let’s make it happen,” I replied.
Without making a big deal about it, we backtracked a couple of hundred metres and went up and over the headland via the bush track. Before long, we were back on the beach continuing our journey.
Alternatively, when we got to that point I could’ve stopped everyone and said, “It’s too dangerous we can’t do this!” and led them around the track myself. However, what would’ve been the point of that? I would’ve wasted a really-important learning opportunity. I would’ve wasted the opportunity to let the boys see what a dangerous situation looks and feels like and wasted the opportunity to let them make an informed decision for themselves.
Whilst you can’t plan situations like this and I’d never take students into dangerous situations just for the sake of it, if they arise, use these opportunities as great teachable moments. Don’t just jump in and take control. Instead, see them for what they are, as extremely important learning opportunities for students. If facilitated in the right way, they can empower your student to make well-informed decisions for themselves, not just as a ‘one off’. This gives them the opportunity to grow as they learn to understand and experience the difference between a dangerous risk and a perceived risk.
Since the boys had made the decision on this occasion to go around, for the rest of the trip, every other headland we came to, the boys ran through this decision making process and either deemed it was safe to continue, or found an alternate route. I didn’t have to prompt their thinking or intervene at all.
In our debrief that evening, we again talked about taking risks. Whilst we’d already dealt with decision making in regards to dangerous risks earlier in the day, that night was a discussion about taking other risks. For example, the risk of trying something new, the risk of going outside our comfort zones, the risk of confronting a fear.
Contrasting the potentially dangerous risk the boys had to deal with that day with their own individual perceived risks, was a great way to conclude the day and reinforce the learning from that teachable moment. During this debrief, I experienced one of the most interesting and insightful discussions I’ve ever had with a group, all because we’d been able to seize that moment earlier in the day and use it to get the students really thinking.
So whenever you’re presented with a situation like this, embrace it, facilitate the discussion and use this to your advantage to help teach your students valuable lessons they’ll never otherwise learn, nor understand, unless they’ve actually experienced it for themselves.
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