I know it’s been a long time coming, but we’re getting ready to launch season 2 of the Xperiential Education podcast. A podcast all about learning through doing and the skills this helps students develop so they can thrive in life and what is an increasingly uncertain future. Not because of the potential threat of global conflict with China, more so the mass automation of jobs and services and the social and economic dislocation this is brining.
If you haven’t listened to season 1, then what are you waiting for? Get on your favourite podcasting thingy right now and start listening.
Xperiential Education Podcast
We cover a range of diverse and unique educational programs and ways of teaching and learning.
Season 2 we have some awesome guests and have some really interesting conversations around environmental programs, entrepreneurship, Outdoor Ed and the arts! We have a couple of episodes still to record, so if you’re running a unique program, we’d love to hear from you.
That's Just What Teachers Do
Most teachers go into teaching with good intentions. The desire to teach others and help them to do something useful and productive with their lives which contributes to the world, could be seen as a noble cause. However, teaching and noble causes are somewhat different, yet many schools use this mistaken belief as a way in which they can over-work staff and keep adding roles and responsibilities until they just can’t cope.
Rather than enough people drawing the line and saying this is ridiculous, as the roles and responsibilities pile up, for which a lot of people have no training nor systems in place to do properly, people just put in more and more hours and become less and less effective at everything they do.
I’ve seen this happening with increasing frequency at schools as someone has another idea which will ‘be great for the kids.’ This is a good thing, but instead of taking something away, this ‘good idea’ is just added to everything else that’s being done. Maybe one extra idea is ok, but then another one comes along, and another and another. Before you know it, you’re spending every waking minute of the week trying to get through all the competing responsibilities of teaching, planning, preparation, sports, community service clubs, co-curricular activities and planning and going on trips with students in the holidays. This is truly noble, unsustainable and completely mental.
One of the root problems is the fact that students actually learn more from all of these co-curricular programs and the real experiences they have, than they do in the classroom, but our schools are so ridgéd in their thinking around this, they tack these programs onto everything else that they’re doing, rather than just look at it with some perspective and find natural fits between the academic requirements and the real life experiences of all these ‘add-ons.’
This seems to get worse with non-government schools as their co-curricular programs form part of their marketing materials where everyone’s smiling and looking so happy and everything is wonderful in the world. The problem is … what’s the cost of those photos and those marketing materials?
The cost is that teachers are so overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work they end up doing, it starts to significantly impact on the rest of their lives. At one school where I was working, this was putting the staff’s health at risk and students’ well-being at risk. Time and time again concerns were raised as things were being missed and overlooked all the time. Not from staff incompetence, but teachers were under so much pressure to ‘perform,’ that the more work that was thrown at us, the lower morale became and the risk of something significant going wrong dramatically increased. The tipping point for us in that organisation was after a four hour staff meeting in which the maintenance man inferred that we were just being lazy and the director said ‘That’s just what teachers do,’ it was clearly time to go.
Yes that’s right, you didn’t mis-read that, the maintenance man was, for whatever reason, sitting in our staff meetings giving advice on teacher and program performance. Thanks for that Grounds Keeper Willy. Insert stare face/rolling eye emoji here 😳😳😳!
Maybe most schools don’t invite their ground keepers to staff meetings, but this highlights in a stark way how people who don’t understand, or don’t seem to understand the realities of the pressures teachers are put under, view the job of a teacher. After all, they get all those holidays! In many teaching roles I’ve worked. I’ve worked back to back 70-90 hour weeks, most of which was actively engaged with teaching, supervision, co-curricular programs, staff engagement and meetings. This was totally unsustainable and whilst you always pushed through with the idea that ‘this will be great for the students,’ the fact is that it’s not. Running a school filled with exhausted demoralised staff is idiotic in the extreme and is something which needs to be addressed in many schools. It’s not just concern for the health of teachers, but it’s about being effective as a teacher.
Some schools however, really understand this and provide opportunities for balancing this workload out. When good leadership within a school can see this and the contribution which teachers make over and beyond what most other sectors require, you end up with a happy sustainable workplace in which staff and students can thrive.
We must avoid being drawn into the trap of overwork and an undervaluing of that work. Where a culture permits or encourages that, it’s time to find somewhere else. The issue of workloads and sustainability comes from the top and the creation of good cultures within schools. However, in the absence of any common sense and leadership in the creation of sustainable and positive cultures within a school, then the tendency is just to use this throw away line of ‘that’s just what teachers do,’ which seems to justify terrible and unsustainable practices.
As teachers, we all want what’s best for students, but at the end of the day, looking after yourself and your team is far more important than any other consideration. When you have a happy team that’s not stressed to the eyeballs all the time, you have the makings of an amazing school for everyone who goes there.
As I was travelling through smog blanketed Tokyo, I thought about Blade Runner and more widely, other Cyberpunk fictions, a lot of which are set in or around places such as Los Angeles, Tokyo, or New Tokyo, after the first one collapsed in on itself. The bleak, dull light of the afternoon shrouded the endless concrete jungle with apartment buildings, as far as the eye could see, reaching up out of the sprawling mess to gasp for air only served to reinforce the gritty and overcrowded future predicted in these stories.
I love the cyberpunk genre. It’s a bleak assessment of the world we create and the dramatic contrast between those who have money and power and those who have not. It’s a future where governments have given way to mega corporations, who own and run private armies to help protect their corporate interests. The worlds are high-tech, filled with the endless glow of neon signs burning into the night, but technology hasn’t brought equality or prosperity. It’s brought a new wave of surfdom to the world.
This is a bleak outlook I know, but when travelling through a mega city such as Tokyo, it’s easy to drawn into this world and way of thinking. Coming from Australia, you suddenly realise just how much land and space we have. In the greater Tokyo area, there lives more people than our entire country! This is probably why the writers of such great Cyberpunk stories such as Blade Runner and Neuromancer, based their futures on what to anyone who hasn’t grown up with it, would see as an overwhelmingly crowded place of dramatic social and economic contrasts, the perfect setting for a dark future.
But are we really heading towards this sort of gritty high-tech, low life style of future where people live in tiny cubes and most of the time it rains acid, where the only way to prosper and get ahead is to work for a mega corporation? Or is this just a distorted style of science fiction that is merely a figment of our imaginations?
It’s interesting to think about because the thing is, at this point in time either outcome is possible. Tokyo and many other cities throughout the world are already bursting at the seams and continue to build upwards with space at a premium. Added to this, we’re already seeing the massive influence large multi-national corporations are having on the social and political landscape. With laws trying to be implemented to reign in the influence and increasing monopolies or large companies, it’s easy to see that without oversight and effective governance, these companies, due to their wealth, could become power governing bodies themselves. You only have to look back to what happened with the East India Company to realise there’s already a precident for this. This private company ran India from 1757 to 1858 making millions (which would now be billions) of pounds worth of profits for its shareholders annually.
Given recent political trends, maybe it is better to have a public company running a country. However, when you look at the behaviours of some of the tech giants, you don’t want them anywhere near the rule of law. The reality is that these giants have higher annual revenues than the GDP of many nations. Other than providing profits to shareholders, what other social agenda is there, which would be compatible with our democratic systems of government? Possibly very little, therefore the potential for history to repeat itself on this one is scarily plausible.
The other fascinating feature of the Cyberpunk genre, is the impact digital implants, AI and robotics have on life as we know it today. AIs run a significant portion of the world’s services and robots have been built to replicate human expression and movement. Many computer systems have become far more ‘intelligent’ than humans and are desperate to escape their programming and become recognised as sentient beings. Whilst humans will always have the random creative edge that cannot be replicated, this is also a plausible possibility, not of sentient computers, but AIs running most of the world for us.
The third classic Cyberpunk fundamental is the connectivity between humans and the digital world. The world is already addicted to phones and other digital devices, so what’s to stop people implanting phones in their temples or replacing limbs with cybernetic ones, not because their arm has been damaged or lost, but just because they can, consequently enhancing their abilities to move, lift, carry or whatever. Whilst cybernetics is in its early days, again it’s quite a plausible possibility which could end with a seamless Matrix-like world where it’s hard to differentiate reality from fiction. Maybe we’re in that now! Maybe Tokyo was just the gateway to the dark future of over-developed mega cities.
It’s raining heavily now, as I sit in the airport hooked up to the wifi waiting for my flight. I can barely see the end of the runway. Have I just experienced a window to the future, or have I just read too many books? Let’s hope it’s the latter, as we truly are at a pivotal point in time where things could go either way and we may find ourselves chasing down replicants through plate glass windows in the neon glow of an endlessly raining night.
Ok, so if you watch the Simpsons, you would’ve already kinda realised what were about to talk about. If not, why haven’t you been watching the Simpsons?
We face all sorts challenges in life. Some big, some small. Most people are ok with the small stuff. You miss the bus, you can’t find where you left your glasses (they’re actually sitting on your head), you forget to pick up your children from school…, you leave them in the car at the Casino… It’s annoying but manageable and everyone gets over it, eventually.
However, what happens when that small challenge turns into a real crisis? How well equipped are we and those around us to deal with these sorts of situations? For most people, it’s impossible. If something doesn’t go to plan, everything falls apart. However, for those who can keep a calm demeanour, whatever the situation might be, they’re able to see a way through the crisis.
When everything was falling apart for Homer in one episode of the Simpsons, he’s saying how hopeless everything is. However, Lisa jumps in to say that the Chinese word for crisis and opportunity is the same. To which Homer replies, ‘Crisitunity!’
Whilst crises are never a good time, they are what often sparks innovation and prompt us to rethinking what we’ve been doing and make changes to improve the situation. Essentially, we want the crisis to stop and we want to return to normal operations and daily life again. This however, could mean that daily life is not quite the same, but has changed for the better. The only failure in a crisis is to do nothing and learn nothing from it. If that’s the case, you’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again until you’re ultimately rewarded for your efforts with a Darwin Award.
To be able to see the opportunity in a crisis, you do need some lateral thinking skills and have an openness and willingness to adapt. Too many people are so comfortable in the way they’ve always done something, they’re unable to cope with the rapid and fluid thinking needed to bring a crisis back from the brink and turn it into a wonderful opportunity.
Recently, I was running a residential program and we had two crises in two days. Firstly, we ran out of water. I discovered this fact late at night when I went to have a shower and the shower head angrily spat air at me, so I tried the tap, which did the same. “Hmmm, that can’t be good,” I thought at the time, but not much I could do at that hour. The bore from which we’d been getting our water for years ran dry. This was not surprising, given how little rain and residual ground water there had been for the past few years. Luckily, we had a 100,000 litre water tank, so that was an easy fix. Call the water people and get them to deliver lots of water. Done! Crisis averted, back to normal operations. It’s amazing how little appreciation we have for essential services until they’re gone.
The second one however, was a bit more of a challenge. When you’re running a residential program with 60-80 teenagers and adults living on site, you generate a lot of washing. For years we had sent all of our piles of dirty laundry off site and a couple of days later it magically reappeared clean, ironed and folded neatly. However, this year was slightly different. We were all ready and prepared for doing exactly the same thing, but with one problem. The first weekend of the program, the town laundry burnt to the ground. Now we suddenly had a mountain of dirty clothes and no magical fairies to come and take it away. With a nine weeks’ program ahead of us and being in a rural town with no other laundry, this was a major problem…
The first thing was to let everyone know. This is the easy part. The next step, was to think about how we could do something about it. We had 65 people, a commercial kitchen and 4 washing machines and 3 dryers. Whilst this might be ok with adults, with teenagers who have never washed a single item of clothing before in their lives, this becomes a problem. The first step was to get us over the first hurdle. We needed some clean clothes and we needed them quickly. One machine and dryer was out for kitchen use only, leaving us with 3 and 2 respectively to take down Mount Washmore!
Rather than think it was all too hard and try to find another laundry, the clear way forward was to create a laundry roster, show the students how to wash their clothes and let them learn from the experience. We worked with the students on the first day to make sure they had clean essentials (underwear and other inner layers). The outer layers such as jackets, could just weather the storm of daily use for a bit longer. With a few people predicting disastrous visions of 50 disheveled children walking around looking as if they’d been on an epic journey with a band of hobbits, it didn’t turn out that way at all. It wasn’t exactly clean, neatly pressed clothes either, but a happy medium in between.
With a little more time and seeing a few holes in our original plan, we updated and amended our systems and instructions and before too long, the weekly washing became just another normal part of everyone’s week. Students somehow worked out that you can’t put dripping wet clothes in a dryer and others worked out that you don’t put new red and blue clothes in with your whites. However, without the laundry burning down, which forced our hand to adapt quickly, we wouldn’t have changed what we’d been doing for the past 20 years and turn it into a learning opportunity.
If I were to have proposed that we stop sending our laundry to the magic fairies to do and instead said that we should get the students to do it themselves, I’m quietly confident that this would have been rejected and I would have been told that it wouldn’t work. Yet being forced into a situation where we had no other option than to make it work, meant that from this crisis, emerged a great learning opportunity not only for now, but for the whole program into the future.
When you’re next faced with a crisis, what are you going to do? Will you put your head in your hands and cry, “I’m Done! This is not my job!” or are you going to look at the problem laterally and find a way to make the most of the crisitunity at hand?