Experiential Education Podcast
This week is just a quick heads up on a podcast I’m launching soon called Xperiential Education (www.xperiential.education)
Over the past year, (in my spare time), I’ve been travelling around and interviewing some fascinating people who work in experiential education. Now my definition of experiential education is very broad and intentionally so. This is not a podcast about classroom practice nor is it about outdoor education. It’s about a whole range of interesting and unique approaches as to how leaders, teachers, trainers and businesses are educating others, be it at home, in school, at a retreat or specialised venue, on the job, or any other context where those with experience in life create valuable and meaningful learning experiences for others.
We’re at a pivotal moment in history. Technology has suddenly impacted on everything that we do, so as the world rapidly changes how does education need to change to remain relevant? Does it digitise? Or does it take a step back into more traditional approaches? Or are we yet to really discover and understand what the next step forward is in education? This is just one of many great topics I’ve been able to cover with my guests, with the overall aim of discovering some really effective and powerful learning experiences.
I’ve tried to keep the interviews as diverse as possible, covering:
Theatre & Performance
I hope you enjoy Season 1 of the podcast. This has been a challenging and interesting learning experience for me as well and I look forward to people’s feedback. The full guest list is below and links and show notes will be added on the Xperiential Education website as each episode goes to air.
Season 1 (not in episode order)
Cyn Smith – Tihoi Venture School - NZ
Adrian Deakes – V&A Museum – London
Dr Brendan Nelson – Australian War Memorial – Canberra
Rebecca Cameron – Former Australian Federal Police Officer
Matt Purcell – GovHack - Canberra Grammar
Glenys Thompson – Australian Science & Mathematics School – Adelaide
Mary Preece – Bundanon Trust
Noel Mifsud – Antarctic Adventures & Christian Brothers College – Adelaide
Tim Nolan – Wesley College Clunes – Victoria
Some of the ideas that these great educational leaders have shared with me are truly amazing. Please send me a message with any feedback, ideas or guest suggestions for Season 2. I look forward to sharing with you some great insights into learning through doing and hope you can use them in your own work!
When To Say Nothing At All
Recently I was involved in a Year 6 program in which I was one of the lead instructors for the outdoor activities. However, the students’ year 6 teachers were the ones running the overall program. This creates an interesting dynamic and is one with which I've worked over the years. It's something that can work exceptionally well, or end up in an unmitigated disaster.
To avoid such disasters, clear lines of communication and responsibilities are vitally important. However, this is not about demarcations of responsibilities and how to effectively communicate in a team environment. This is about the value of understanding when not to be involved.
My involvement in the camp started on day two. We were running a canoe session for the students to introduce them to some basic canoeing skills before taking them on the expedition the next day. Given the age of the students and their experience, this was very much a day where we were actively teaching and running the activity to ensure skills were being effectively learnt and that the group was being safely managed. In sessions like this, there's a lot of proactive engagement and interaction with the group throughout.
At the end of the training session, the teachers walked the students back up to the campsite, whilst my colleagues and I packed the canoe trailer ready for the next day. For me, this was an important distinction in what we were doing and what we were trying to achieve from an educational point of view. The year 6 teachers who were on the camp were there to develop better relationships with their students and we were there to facilitate a safe, yet appropriately challenging environment in which this could occur.
The next morning, the other outdoor ed teachers and I drove the canoes down to the boat ramp from where we were starting out. Usually, if I were running a high school program, the students would be there doing most of the work themselves. However, this was a different situation and therefore required a different approach. By the time we’d unloaded all the canoes and had everything set up ready to go, the students and the teachers arrived. The other instructor and I organised everyone as quickly as possible with their PFDs and paddles ready to get on the water.
It wasn't long before we had the students working in teams to carry the canoes to the water's edge, at which point I helped them onto the water. As the other instructor took the front of the group and I took the back, we proceeded to paddle our way up a river for the next few hours. Covering 8 km in total and having just learnt all the basic canoeing skills the day before, this was a big day for the year 6 students and we spent a lot of the time actively instructing students, helping them to correct and improve their techniques, as well as carefully managing the group.
We eventually made it into camp by mid-afternoon at which point we ran a demonstration as to how to set up a tent and allow the students to work in small teams to replicate what they’d been shown. It was at this point that the other outdoor ed teacher and I transitioned from a very active role into a passive role. The year 6 teachers took over the afternoon's activities, which included gathering firewood and a couple of different games. Meanwhile, we faded into the background to cook dinner.
I do enjoy cooking and it was a BBQ, so it was quite easy to get everything prepared and cooked for the group of around 40 people. It was dark by the time we finished and the students were keen to light the fire. Remaining removed from the situation, we cleaned up from dinner, made a cup of tea and sat back watching the group now sitting around a blazing fire.
With most groups with which I work, I would’ve been over at the fire running a debrief, or an evening session of some sort. However, that wasn't the point of this whole exercise. Even though we all work for the same school, there was a distinct difference in what the group needed from the staff who were there. The year 6 students needed to hear stories and share stories around the fire with their teachers, whom they were now getting to know in a completely different context. It was for that reason, we sat back and didn't directly involve ourselves until much later in the evening.
As outdoor educators, this is a really important thing to understand. What are the educational and emotional needs of the group and how are they best served? It can often be the case that we feel we need to be involved in absolutely everything that happens on a campout or activity. Yet this couldn't be further from the truth. The benefit that the other staff and students received from us taking a back seat at this point of the day was huge. The temptation is often to lead the discussion or allow the focus of the evening to fall upon you as an instructor. After all, you've just safely lead them up a river. Why not spend the next hour regaling them with stories of everything else you've ever done!
To do this would be totally counter-productive, because the relationship that needs to be built at this point is not between yourself and the group that you've just actively managed up the river. The relationship that needs to be built is between the class teachers and their students. At the end of the day, the memory of your instructing them in canoeing will fade into a distant memory. However, the memory of their classroom teacher telling stories, cooking marshmallows and laughing around the fire will last a lifetime.
It's important to understand the context in which you’re running, facilitating and leading any sort of activity. This can help you to understand the needs of the group and adapt your approach and involvement with the group accordingly. As the main part of the evening's activity came to an end, this then provided the opportunity for us to re-join the group and chat with the staff as the students started to make their way to bed.
As teachers, we want to make the most of any opportunity to help and teach others. However, this can lead to the temptation of becoming too involved with a group when there is no need to be. The next time you find yourself in a situation where you're running a session as the expert in that particular activity, when the activity is over, sit back, observe the dynamics of the group and assess whether you really need to be directly involved for the rest of the day, or is it time to sit back, make yourself a cup of coffee and let others take the lead.
Teacher education is a subject that's always hotly debated by teachers, academics and politicians. Depending on which way standardised test results are going and how close to an election it is, can determine how a teacher is taught how to teach. Try saying that quickly!
However, this isn't a great way of determining what the future needs of education should be, nor the best way to determine how the next generation of teachers should be trained. It's high time we added a bit more controversy to this topic. The fact that when I was at school, I was taught by teachers who couldn’t teach at all, led me to think about how I gained the skills I have today both as a teacher and entrepreneur. The reality is that most of it was learning through experience.
There have been many studies into how teachers should be trained and what the focus of their training should be. However, many of these ideas seem to be completely out of touch with how rapidly the world is changing. If we don’t suitably adjust this way of thinking, then we risk failing the next generation of staff and students in an epic manner. How a teacher was teaching twenty years ago, is quite different from how they should be teaching today. The sad reality is that whilst the world has changed, many schools have essentially remained the same and are still stuck firmly in the past, still reminiscing about a world of big hair dos, bad fashion and videos that were killing radio stars.
This doesn’t mean we need to radically change our theories on education and re-imagine a classroom full of holograms and corporate ads. What it does mean however, is that we need actually to look back further than the 1980s to what educational ideas and practices were used in the past and I mean way into the past, before the industrial revolution created today's dysfunctional classroom environment.
What did you just say? We need to look further into the past to find solutions for the future??? Well in a word, yes, but before you don a pair of chaps and jump into the Delorian let me explain.
Most education prior to the industrial revolution was experiential. It was done through apprenticeships, through mentoring and working with others who had mastered a trade or a skill before. You learnt by a bit of theory and a lot of practice and this is something that’s been sadly lost in our rush to become a ‘smart country’ where every well-educated grad student can live a life of under-employment and making coffee in the exploding multitude of trendy cafés.
One of the big problems with current teacher training is that it’s so heavily based upon theory and transferring that theory through a standard style of classroom. Whilst many schools claim to be innovating, the classroom remains the same in nature, no matter how many fancy tables, break out areas or bean bags you’ve put in it. The reason is that most of the learning stems from the teacher’s ability to engage in a meaningful way, rather than how the furniture works. If your teachers aren’t engaging, students are going to struggle to learn anything useful.
So back to teacher training! When I did my training, I did a course called a Graduate Diploma of Education. It was a 12 months add-on after I completed my degree in History and Politics. The year after I finished, the course turned into a 2 year Bachelor of Education. Would spending another mindless year in the classroom have made me a better teacher? No, but it would have made more money for the university and I’d still be paying off crippling student loans having achieved the sum total of nothing.
The reality is that if I’d been forced to complete a 2 year degree in Education, rather than a 12 month Graduate Diploma, I wouldn’t have even bothered. I thought at the time, 5 years worth of university study to become a teacher was a bit of a joke and I still do. It doesn’t improve teaching. It simply perpetuates more of the same repetitive theories of education and adds little value to the overall quality of the teacher.
Unfortunately, due to the large amounts of money involved and the fact that too many politicians equate more pre-service study at uni with better long-term standardised test scores, the university education for teachers is going to even more ridiculous extremes. You now have lots of first year out teachers who have stayed on at uni for so long, they’ve completed a Masters in Education, only proving a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous.
When I look at new teachers with Masters degrees. I laugh because it’s a complete joke that you have a brand-new teacher who has a Masters in something they’re not yet experienced in. I’m not saying Masters degrees are bad, because I have managed to collect a couple of them myself, though none in Education. However, this is something which is now being over-sold/over-studied by new teachers.
If new graduates with Masters Degrees was all that it took to re-engage the 40% of our students who are totally disengaged with education, the standardised test results would be through the roof and we’d be well on the way to surpassing Kazakhstan for literacy and numeracy.
However, despite longer university courses and rigorous ie arduous standards for teacher registration, Australian schools are still not making the impact that’s needed in terms of student engagement.
What other options are there to help address this massive problem? This is where looking to the past can be helpful for the education of the future. In my experience, the most effective teachers I’ve worked with are those who have done something totally different from teaching. The worst teachers I’ve worked with are the ones who have gone to school, gone to university to become a teacher and then returned to the exact same school at which they were a student. There’s usually some deeper dysfunction which drives a person to do this, as they’re often running and hiding from something in the real world (usually themselves), but that’s a far more complex issue beyond the discussion for today. As a general rule, it’s not healthy to return to the school you attended no matter how good you thought the experience was, because your belief in ownership and ties with the school might forever perversely affect your judgment about the nature of education and how it needs to continually evolve to meet the changing needs of staff and students.
Back to the issue of good teachers. What makes a good teacher? One factor is diversity of experience. If you’re teaching students to think for themselves, take risks and become a caring and well-balanced member of society, what better way than to be taught by other caring, risk-taking well-balanced members of society?
Unless you understand and have experienced the world outside of education for yourself, how can you possibly prepare others to do the same? This is where we start looking to the past. As I mentioned earlier, for thousands of years young men and women learnt trades or life skills from the experience of others. They could have had apprenticeships or been indentured in all sorts of trades and professions, but the benefit was, they were learning directly from those who knew exactly what they were doing. Whilst this lacked efficiency in the world of the industrial revolution, the positive adult role modelling and mentoring combined with learning by doing, remains one of the most powerful means through which we learn.
Unfortunately, schools too often perpetuate this cycle of school to uni and back to school by not insisting on anything but uni qualifications. What if teacher registration instead were changed to require a new teacher to have completed at least 12 months of other work outside of education? Therefore, instead of wasting someone’s time with another year of pointless study, line them up with internships in companies, banks, cafes, factories, on farms, in real industries, though perhaps avoiding government departments. This forces new teachers to be adaptable and to take on skills and roles which might make them feel discomfort, but ultimately these provide massive opportunities for personal growth. This could appear to have nothing to do with education on the surface, but the reality is gaining the skill-set that students now need to be developing to thrive in the future. This style of work experience that would be happening outside the sheltered world of schools can provide great life skills which teachers can leverage over the long-term in their teaching practice helping them to be far more genuine and effective.
In addition to this, rotations through industry partners should be encouraged every 5-10 years as part of a well-designed and well-organised professional development program. The reality is that the world has experienced a seismic shift and will continue to change at an increasingly rapid pace. If you want people capable of teaching children how to adapt to this new paradigm, then teachers need to have experienced life in the real world themselves.
There’s no real benefit in being taught by someone who has only had school as the measure for life’s experiences. However, there’s immense benefit that can be gained from teachers who have experienced life’s ups and downs in various diverse contexts. This makes better teachers and can improve student engagement.
The world is never changed by easy options or sheer luck. It’s changed by those who take risks, backed by action and have the moral framework and persistence to see it through. We’re at a time where the direction of the world is in flux and this provides us with a great opportunity to shape our world in a positive and meaningful way. Consequently, we can’t afford to lose the next generation into the emotional wilderness because we’re not prepared to take the action necessary to help build brilliant young men and women who can and will change the world.
It’s time we reconsidered the way we train and maintain our teachers in their careers, to ensure we’re able to maximise the effectiveness of the time students spend at school and help them transition smoothly and effectively into adult life.
Creative Independent Thinkers
Often teachers like to tell others what to think. I know my teachers did when I was at school. In fact, they had an entire system in place there which actively stifled creative thinking.
However, as creative and independent thought becomes an increasingly important skill for students to have, how do we help develop creative thinkers?
Firstly, whatever you do, don't give students all the answers! This is a total cop out, much of which is borne from easy access to someone else's thoughts. What better way to study a novel for English, other than watch the movie and download all the crib notes! After all that's what everyone else is doing!
The problem with this approach is that you end up thinking exactly the way someone wants you to think, but ultimately other people's thoughts and feelings can never be your own and the most powerful lessons are based upon our own experiences, not others.
I see it all the time in education. Teachers feel the need to tell you exactly what a text means, what a character represents, what underlying themes are at play. All of this places a huge amount of perspective bias on a text. But what a text, a song, a piece of art or an engineering system means to one person, may be completely different to another! It's through encouraging and supporting this difference of perspective that drives creative thinkers.
If there were only ever one answer to everything, then between Google and Wikipedia, the world would be a perfectly balanced and happy place. Yet that would be a boring world in which to live.
Thankfully, instead there are endless answers, perspectives and feelings that are generated from literature, art and science that's taught in schools. The key to unlocking the value of this is by allowing students to explore and communicate their own personal perspectives.
Music for example is an easy way to spark discussions about abstract feedback such as feelings and interpretation. Give your students a song to listen to over and over and see what emotional response they have and ask them why. Whilst some songs will entice similar responses, there's countless ones that will have vastly different meanings for different people, because they're applying their own thoughts and experiences to the subject matter.
The artist may have had one idea stemming from life, but to be brutally honest, that means nothing to the listener. It's only from our own lives that we can draw our own emotional interpretations. Understanding this can be a powerful tool to help students develop a sense of independence, self-worth and identity and should be encouraged.
One song which fascinates me is Mad World, by Gary Jules, which is the theme song to Donnie Darko, which again is a movie which is amazingly complex and what it means to me is totally different from what it means to everyone else with whom I've discussed it.
There's no point in my analysing the song nor the movie here because I can only express my thoughts and feelings on it. Instead, listen to it a few times. How does it make you feel? Who do you think of when you hear it? This can be applied to so many songs. We listen to music, not because we care about the artist’s experiences. It's all an expression of our own. This is true for literature, art and science. They're all reflections of our own experiences and emotional responses.
So no matter what you're doing, there's never just one answer. Allow your students to explore and apply their own perspective. This encourages them to be creative and develops their critical and independent thinking skills, skills which will help them thrive in an ever-changing world.