Kids Perceptions of Risk
I've touched on the topic of kids’ differing perceptions of risk before. However, it's not a one off issue that can be easily dealt with. It's an ongoing concern that requires constant attention, as the adolescent brain doesn't perceive risk in the same way an adult brain does.
To highlight this point, on my recent visit to the US, I was struck by this problem at a bus stop. I was in Park City, which is in the mountains in Utah and to say it was cold would be an understatement. It was around -20 deg C. The late afternoon air bit viciously every time you drew a breath. I was rugged up in two layers of thermals plus another four layers on top of that.
I'd just been shopping for some supplies for dinner. Walking along the pavement, I noticed two teenage girls huddled together at the bus stop. I could see they were shivering and not wearing much at all. They each appeared to be wearing some leggings (tights or something like that) and a light top. With their teeth chattering, they were debating if they should keep waiting for the bus or go inside and risk missing it.
Listening in for a few moments. It became apparent that they'd ducked out of the house to quickly go to the shops and didn't think they’d need a jacket (or pants). At this point I started thinking about Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but I quickly dragged my mind back from this. I rustled in my pocket and thankfully it was still there. I had a pair of hand warmers which I'd taken with me up the mountain. Once it hits below about -5, I like to keep my hands warm.
Pulling them out, I offered them to the girls. They thanked me and grabbed the hand warmers. Clutching them in their hands, they then hugged them close to their pale faces. Another five minutes went by. I chatted with the girls to try and keep their mind off the cold. They sounded increasingly despondent as the bus was running late.
“Why don't you duck inside over the road?” I said, pointing to a restaurant opposite. “I’ll signal when I see the bus.” The girls looked at me, looked at each other, then the restaurant. It was an easy decision. They dashed across the road and into the warmth of the building.
Another 10mins of waiting in the freezing cold and the bus finally arrived. I waved to the girls, who ran over and jumped onto the heated bus. Huddled together at the back, still shivering, that was the last I saw of them.
Whilst I'm sure they were ok in the end and I did ask if they were ok to get home, it does highlight a serious problem with teens’ attitudes towards risk. I see it time and time again with activities I run, be it skiing, mountain biking, canoeing, hiking, whatever the case may be. I’ll see a student without a helmet, without a jacket, no PFD and when you challenge them on it, you get the excuse, ‘but it's only just…’ and therein lies the problem. The idea that (in the girls’ case) it's only just down the street, (so I won't need a jacket), unfortunately follows through to everything else that teenagers do. They have this complete lack of awareness to risk. This is different from risk taking behaviour where they're seeking our risky activities. This is just a total lack of forethought. Everything in the adolescent brain is purely focussed on reward, or the outcome. It's not worried too much by the details in between.
Whilst all of this poses a massive challenge for a teacher from a risk management point of view, it also provides some great learning opportunities too. I don't mind when kids do things like this (within reason), because it teaches them a valuable lesson. For example, one ski program I worked on, we spent a lot of time briefing and preparing the kids for the first day. However, no amount of clear instruction will ever be enough for some people. They need to experience everything first hand.
With snowboarders, one of the most frequent injuries that occurs, is the broken wrist. To counter this, we instruct all our snowboarders to wear wrist guards. Most do, however, one boy in 10th Grade, it being the first time he'd ever snowboarded, decided not to wear them. It was the first run of the first day of a 10 week program. He slipped, fell forward, put his hand out, landed on his wrist and broke it. I asked him, when we got to the medical centre, ‘Where were your wrist guards?’
‘Umm… I had them on me!’ he said defensively. ‘They were just in my pocket!’
I looked at him and I'm pretty sure he knew what I was thinking, ‘so what valuable lesson do we learn from this?’ I said rhetorically.
Even though, as teachers, we go to great lengths to manage all sorts of risks, we can never underestimate kids inability to perceive risk in the same way adults do. Even though the ‘only just’ excuse frustrates me to no end, it provides a great learning opportunity through debrief and reflection.
As a result, we need to use these opportunities where kids disregard risk and ignore their own safety, not as disciplinary issues, but as learning experiences. It's not about getting someone in trouble to prove that you're right. It's about giving them the opportunity to reflect on what they did, or didn't do and what happened as a result, in such a way that they can learn from the mistake and not repeat it in another more critical or dangerous context.
The moment I stepped onto the plane, behind me was a group of students from a regional high school. I know the one, because I applied for a job there a number of years ago. I didn't take it up, because I was offered another job at exactly the same time. One was going to be classroom based, the other outdoors. Needless to say, I took the outdoor one.
Other than that random pointless segway about jobs, seeing a school group boarding the plane got me thinking about overseas travel with school groups. I’ll talk risks at another time as this is a whole topic on its own. Instead, as the headline says, I'm going to talk about Japan. It's the second time I've been and it's an amazingly different country from our own. Despite the fact that lots of people in Australia eat sushi rolls, this is a far cry from the reality of the wonderful world of Japan.
Breathtaking View Of The Mountain In Niseko
I hate to admit that I studied Japanese at school and now the only two things I can say are thank you and thank you very much. It's a challenging language, but once you're immersed in its culture, things start to gel together. The only exposure I'd had to Japanese culture when I was at school was when we had an exchange teacher come and stay. I remember the warm welcome I gave him, saying hello my name is David in Japanese and then asking him if he liked eating whale. Hopefully, the group I saw on the plane were slightly more sensitive than that when they met their hosts. Although they’d probably ask if we eat kangaroo and crocodile, which for me would be a yes to both!
Amazing Castle In Matsumoto. It's Over 400 Years Old!
Japan itself is an astounding, at times contradictory, contrast of cultures. From the modern, glittering, fast pace of Tokyo to the small rural villages where subsistence farming remains a major part of society, this is a wonderful country. From an educational point of view Japan is a great choice of destination, especially for Western students. Steeped in centuries of history way beyond our own, the dramatic difference in culture and outlook in life makes this a valuable experience for any school group.
The way in which the Japanese live is so different and the amount of bowing is phenomenal. Their temples, their castles, their language, their TV!!! Their food and way of life is just fascinating and will be a real change of pace for any Western school group heading over.
Scrumptious Japanese Food
If you're thinking of an overseas opportunity for your school, Japan is a 9 hour flight from Australia and only 1-2 hour time difference, so your group can hit the ground running as soon as they arrive. I won't go into a list of attractions and things to do in Japan. You can discover those and map them to your own curriculum yourself, as there are so many options from which to choose. The main underlying reason for heading to Japan for a school however, is the dramatic cultural differences.
There are so many overseas trips going out now, but some of them you have to wonder the value. Are you truly experiencing a different outlook on the world with them or is it just tourism? A trip to Japan however, is mind blowing. The dramatic cultural shift can't simply be described. You must experience it for yourself! Admittedly, I'm glad I wasn't there with a group of students, but the educational value of a visit would be immense.
My Background In Risk Management
I realise that already countless people have switched off having read ‘Risk Management’ in the heading and are now watching a video of a fat cat sipping milk from a bowl. If you're still here however, well done for reading this far. I’ll avoid going off on my dolphin party tangent from my last article on risk. Instead this time I’ll jump right in!
Many people learn about risk management from a training course or a lifeless lecture by a lawyer telling you of all the dangers of everything, yet having no practical experience in the field themselves. They might put up an infographic for you to look at with some big red warning signs and after an hour or two you're now qualified in risk management. If you've had this experience, you're probably feeling uncomfortable about the whole process and looking for a much better approach. From the start, let me make something clear. Risk management is a cultural attitude within an organisation, not a check box compliance process. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just plain stupid and dangerous to those around them.
My first job in experiential education was with a private school, working at their outdoor education campus. It was here that risk management was instilled in me as being a natural part of absolutely everything we did. Not paranoid about risk, but very proactive. Before every activity, the team going on that trip would sit down and write out the risk management for it. There was no thought of simply printing out a generic risk management form that nobody bothered to read and everyone blindly signed it. This was an active discussion of the risks and hazards for that specific activity to ensure it was clear in our minds the risks and controls we needed to put in place to ensure a safe well-managed activity was run.
The value of this was immeasurable. On the one hand, you had a current and accountable risk management document for each and every activity, prepared by those who were directly responsible for the safe conduct of the activity. On the other hand, it was building and reinforcing a culture of active risk management. Risk was a regular, open and honest discussion amongst the staff, which kept everyone on the same page and held everyone accountable for the preparation, operation and decision making processes being used. It was never the case of ‘Oh don't worry, I know what I'm doing!’ or ‘It's someone else's job to do that,’ as I’ve found in so many other organisations. It was a continuous proactive and dynamic process.
It's hard for me to understand why anybody wouldn't take this logical approach. Yet, as I said before, this was how I was educated, so I hadn't known it to be any other way, until I moved to another school and the difference was stark and concerning.
As a brief background note on the school I was working for originally, 18 months prior to my starting, there’d been a fatality on one of their overnight hikes. This tragic event sent shockwaves through the school and had dramatically and bluntly shaped much of the focus of the organisation moving forward. The devastating fallout from the fatality lingered for years, yet many important lessons were learnt from this experience.
Fast forwarding 17 years to today, there’s absolutely no reason why it should take a critical incident to change the culture within an organisation, yet sadly it often does because of a lack of real understanding of risk management and its effective usage. With many fatalities, serious injuries and near misses so well documented by the industry and the coroner, working through some of these cases together as a staff can be of great value in starting the process of cultural change towards the goal of proactive risk managers.
When you understand what you're aiming to achieve and how simple oversights can have massive repercussions, then it's much easier to develop the whole team to be working together and thinking along the same lines. The ultimate aim of a proactive risk management culture is to run safe and challenging activities, promote sound decision making and prevent major disruptive events (aka critical incident). There's no future in finding yourself in front of a coroner and your only defence being to say that you at least had all your paperwork in order. At this point, paperwork is quite worthless and purely academic, and you're going to look like a complete idiot and potentially liable, if not culpable.
Creating a culture of risk managers means that your paperwork, which is always required, is actually being put into action and that if anything adverse happens, everyone is equipped to respond swiftly and appropriately. However, you will also find that running an organisation with an embedded culture of risk management, will mean the potential of a significantly disruptive event occurring becomes increasingly unlikely.
The most important thing is not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Get started today. Read some case studies that are closely aligned to what you're doing on your program and discuss them with your team. Build that culture of the proactive risk manager mindset into your organisation and ensure that you're running the best programs possible with the best framework possible to challenge and really push your students and at the same time ensuring their safety.
There used to be a great period of time for students called ‘work experience week.’ It was a time, usually during year 10 or 11 when every student had go out and find a business or organisation to work for. This was to gain experience and understanding of a workplace. Some schools still do this, which is fantastic, but many have let it slide into oblivion in favour of another ‘precious’ week of academics. Unfortunately, ‘results-obsessed’ principals see little value in the pursuit of non-academic results and are simply focussed on what magical final exam numbers they can get published in the newspaper each year.
However, I don't want to go off on the ‘end result’ tangent just yet, as that's a massive topic in itself. I want to explore the real value of work experience.
Some kids go out and get jobs as soon as they can, which is fantastic. I had my first job at 15 at a skeet shooting club and was paid $50 a day, which back then was huge money! Most kids in my school didn't do this however, and their first exposure to the workforce was through work experience week.
The experiences kids had varied from employer to employer. Some were great, as they were thrown straight into core business tasks. Others sat around photocopying or reading magazines because their employer didn't know how to delegate or integrate another person to the workplace. Sadly, many educators focussed on the latter experience as a means to justify getting rid of work experience week, rather than the amazing variety of positive learning experiences students had which were interesting, motivating and challenging for them.
Whilst specific workplace activities vary so much for work experience week, there are some common core features that provide benefits no matter what the working environment. Since it's not school, you learn that you have to turn up on time, dress appropriately and deal with adults in a whole new way. Starting to understand that you're not going to be spoon-feed everything in life can be a stark realisation for many students.
I ended up working in Parliament House in Canberra. The variety of activities and challenges was amazing. It was parliamentary sitting week and the place buzzed with excitement. I arrived early Monday morning and there was no real time to relax and ease my way into it. Stepping into the office, the activity level was fever pitch. The MP (member of parliament), dashed in and out of the office between meetings, media interviews, parliamentary question time and divisions (where a vote is called for in the house). Press releases had to be done, newspaper clippings had to be read and correspondence from constituents had to be responded to. As I was working for the leader of the opposition, I could see the complexity of the workplace, but also how that complexity was managed.
I was given the task of opening all the day’s correspondence, reading it and categorising it into different portfolios. I remember there were certain tags that had to be applied, positive mail (we’d solved a problem), concerned mail (please look at a problem) and hate mail (you're the problem). The exciting thing for me at 16, was that if the hate mail was really bad I got to put it on the Federal Police pile. Thankfully I only had one of those letters that week. I typed up a summary and then each letter was delivered to the staff member responsible for that portfolio for response. This wasn't just pointless busy work. Reading through people's concerns gave me a greater understanding of the process of government and what issues were affecting people in our communities.
Once I'd completed this task, it was straight onto the next one. There was hardly a moment to catch your breath in this office. I was directed to one of the media officers to read through all of today's clippings (all the newspaper articles which referenced the MP) and highlight positive and negative press, key political issues, any recurring themes etc. This took hours and it was under pressure of a deadline too as today's news, won't always be tomorrow's news. I briefed the media officer on what I'd found, which he already knew and had known for about two hours. I realised the pace at which I'd worked on this was nowhere near fast enough and whilst I'd come to all the right conclusions, the information was now old and had already been acted upon. This was a huge learning moment for me. I thought I'd done a great job of it, but I wasn't used to the idea of a deadline in an hour. I was used to being given two weeks’ notice and reminders that I needed to hand something in and chased for it, if I'd forgotten.
It amuses me now how whiny students get when they miss a deadline and you just give them zero without any chasing. I strongly believe this is the only way they're going to learn how to meet deadlines. Most schools hate it when you do this, because they're worried about parent phone calls and excuses. The reality of the workplace however, is that people aren't going to be reminding you of deadlines. It's up to you to deliver. I learnt from this work experience moment, you have to deliver on time, or else the work you do is worthless.
Through the rest of the week the challenges changed, as it was such an exciting and dynamic working environment. I got to sit in on meetings, go into question time, draft briefs on matters arising from media and correspondence and meet a whole range of diverse new people. If you asked me what I'd learnt during another week of my schooling, I'd give you a blank look. I couldn't tell you. The lessons were never as real as they were during work experience week. The aha moments just weren't there in the same way that they were during a week exposed to the real world.
Why any school would get rid of this baffles me. This should be a regular feature of year 10, 11 and 12 to provide students with a range of different workplace experiences. It can help students with career direction. It can help them with motivation, with life skills, with social skills. It can save them years of wasted time studying for something they like in theory, but don't like in reality. Using work placements as part of the education process is a vital way of bridging the gap between the ‘safe’ theory based academic world and the reality of a workplace environment. If your school’s work experience week has fallen by the wayside, it's time to get it back up and running. The long-term educational benefit far outweighs just another week in the classroom.