What's the point of your experiential education program? If you can't answer this or aren't quite sure about it, then you're going to struggle providing any real educational value to your students. If you're just running activities for the sake of running them, or because everyone else is doing it, you're missing some great opportunities to make a positive difference in your students’ lives.
Why are you doing what you're doing? The reality is most people can't tell you this and until you can answer this question, everything you do is just like a scatter gun approach, something might hit the mark and work, but chances are it won't. However, if you're clear on exactly what you want to achieve, then you can become laser focused in your approach and be able to consistently hit the mark.
A number of places I've worked had no idea what they were trying to achieve, despite programs having run for many years. ‘We've always done it this way’ doesn't actually mean anything’s actually being achieved. It could simply be the perpetuation of the same mistakes over and over again. Some places chop and change so much, not for continuous improvement purposes. Instead, they're haphazardly searching for something to work.
One program I worked on was so confused as to what they were trying to achieve. They did a bit of everything in an attempt to make everyone happy. Yet as a result, it didn't achieve much. On one hand they claimed to be promoting student independence, yet at the same time provided no opportunities for the students to explore and experience independence in any way. As a result, the activities were more structured around baby sitting and filling in time, due to the absence of any clear educational outcome. Sadly, it appeared a completely wasted opportunity for those students, but from the school's point of view, it was perceived as ‘safe’ and it looked nice in a brochure.
For every experiential education program you run, you need some real educational outcomes to add value and meaning to what you're doing. Activities without a goal, are just that, activities. If they're isolated and don't form a wider strategic vision, you may as well just go outside with your students and stare at clouds floating by, as this will achieve the exact same result, with far less effort required.
Please don't make the other mistake of shoving a bunch of academic outcomes into experiential education to try and make something fit. This again is rather pointless and often a misguided method used to try and justify an experiential education program. Randomly throwing academics in for the sake of it, comes back to not really understanding the question of why and what do we want to achieve?
One example of this was when a school I worked for was trying to make English fit into an outdoor education program. Nobody wanted to confront the fact head on that developing English skills wasn't the reason why we were running the outdoor program. Instead of making a decision and saying for this program, English isn't the focus and personal and social development is, they decided that bush poetry was a way that students would learn to get in touch with nature and as a direct consequence in touch with themselves. Needless to say it didn't work.
Instead of cramming stuff in for the sake of it, focus on what's important. For one program I ran, the whole point was social and emotional development. For another it was team building and leadership. Other ones have focussed on expanding comfort zones and overcoming fears. With each program, there were planned sequential stages to them and clear educational outcomes.
So what do you want to achieve? Do you want a nice glossy brochure approach, which looks wonderful and yet has no substance, or do you want to add to the educational value for your students so they're better equipped to handle anything the world throws at them? I'm personally not big on glossy brochures.
However, if you can answer your overall questions of “Why are we doing this? What do we really want to achieve?” you will find that experiential education opens up so many different opportunities for challenging students, expanding their horizons with unique experiences and promoting positive life-long emotional and social growth.
Don't Believe Everything You Think
Over the past three years, as I've worked on various outdoor ed programs, I’ve seen a pattern repeating itself over and over again. With a new group every few weeks, I've found the same kind of engrained beliefs the students have about themselves presenting again and again at the start of each program.
When the students arrive, I run a session on goal setting. In this, we outline why we set goals, how we go about achieving goals and why we should be setting goals outside our comfort zone! Despite this, it’s not until we actually get out into field and start doing some challenging activities that students get the opportunity to field-test their skill level and resilience.
Often we’ll be running an activity where the students have little previous experience. As a result, they’re hesitant or even fearful of the activity. The feeling of pushing outside one’s comfort zone starts to solidify in the students’ minds. However, I've noticed an increasing number of students shy away from activities that involve any form or risk, or perceived risk of failure.
Some of this feeling of fear is perhaps due to lack of experience. Other fears however, are often inherited from external sources such as parents and family who may have misguidedly told their children to always ‘Be Safe!’ ‘Don't take risks!’ and because their children are so perfect, they can't possibly fail… at anything!
One of the problems this creates is an irrational fear of dangers that don't actually exist and the fear of failure to the point that it's better not to try, than to risk being seen as less than perfect. The number of ‘perfect’ children I now find who have such low self esteem and lack of self belief is astounding!
When setting up activities we run, especially when we’re looking at abseiling, surfing, high ropes courses and even riding a bike, I say to the students beforehand, ‘Don’t always believe everything you think!’
I usually get blank stares, ‘What’s he talking about?’ I leave it at that.! I don’t go into any other details before starting the activity.
Whatever the activity may be, I make sure that it's designed to push the comfort zone and boundaries for each and every student.
Because of their pre-existing self-beliefs and low-levels of resilience, more often than not the students will go into an activity thinking, ‘I can’t do it!’ It's really just their first line of defence to avoid their fear of failure.
Whenever they tell me, ‘I can’t do it,’ I generally respond, ‘Why not?’
In return I usually get ‘Because…. Blah, blah, blah!’
By this time, I've tuned out as they’ll throw up every possible excuse to avoid trying. These excuses tend to come out in rapid-fire succession, just in case the first one doesn't sound believable enough, they've got the next one ready to go!
What they're basically saying is, ‘What excuse can I make up to protect myself from possibly failing?’ and it's this fear of failure that's increasingly driving behaviours in students.
However, unless there’s some pre-existing medical condition, or some real reason as to why they can’t participate, I ignore their complaints about not being able to do it and instead encourage them to give it a go!
Whatever the activity, we’ll graduate it throughout the day to increase the level of challenge. For example, in mountain biking, we’d start with simple biking skills, how to set your seat height, how to pedal, how to change gears, how to brake, a very important aspect. We move on to how to go over an obstacle, how to go over an obstacle when moving at speed, how to go over multiple obstacles in succession and how to negotiate around berms, downhill at speed. The activity is therefore getting harder and harder, but it's graduating at a pace with which the students can manage.
Suddenly, without realising it, the students are riding on relatively steep terrain covered with some serious obstacles. A couple of hours ago they were telling me, or more to the point, themselves, that they couldn't do it!
With a ropes course, we start with low ropes, which are literally one step off the ground. They're simple stable challenges. However, after this, we ramp it up to a high ropes course where there's an increased perception of risk.
We often have students who are afraid of heights and this is a great activity to seriously push them outside their comfort zone. It makes them feel fear, it allows them to confront their fears head on and I work closely with these students to pushing them through that fear and enable them to truly challenge themselves and their firmly held beliefs. Once you can get them to punch through those self doubts, then their attitudes change, their confidence growth with it.
The same is true with surfing because a lot of students have never surfed before. Some are afraid of the water. Some are afraid of the surf. Some are afraid of getting eaten by sharks. The reality is though, you’re more likely to get killed by a vending machine falling on top of you than you are getting eaten by a shark. But people are still afraid.
No matter what the activity, the biggest challenge for students always comes down to all of the irrational fears that run through their minds telling them they can't do it.
However, once you get them involved and engaged in an activity, the fears disappear from their mind. They forget about all the excuses they made up as to why they couldn’t do something because their minds are now focused on the here and now and before they know it, they’re actually doing the thing they told you they couldn't.
I love to see this when it happens and I use this to positively reinforce those affirmative risk-taking behaviours that the students have pushed themselves to do.
In debriefing the activity, I revisit the issue of facing fears, happily saying to the student, ‘You’ve just achieved something that you told me you couldn’t do. Two hours ago you told me, “I can’t do it,” but what’s happened?’
I encourage all the students to respond individually. Invariably they’ll say, ‘I did it!’ And they’re really excited about it too. You can see it in their faces and in their smiles. They’re excited to have conquered their fear. They’re excited to have done something they’ve never done before.
To conclude the debrief, I’ll do a summation then reinforce my original statement, ‘Don’t always believe everything you think.’
Suddenly, I see lights going on! Some students are having an aha moment! What I said at the start is now making sense. Whilst they mightn’t remember it at the start of the next challenging activity, I’ll remind them of it and consequently they start to further process how to better approach challenging situations.
When students begin to realise their thoughts can shape so much of their lives in both positive and negative ways, this can become a powerful tool to help them master their approach to new challenges and experiences. Instead of telling themselves they can't do something, they've now got a power reference point of how and why they can do something they never thought they could.
Using briefing and debriefing frameworks to provide relatable learning moments, is vital when working with teenagers who might not always feel comfortable nor confident in everything they’re doing, even if they pretend to be.
Whilst life’s not all high ropes, mountain biking and shark dodging, when students can use these more challenging experiences and relate their success in these back to every day life, they start to become more resilient and realise they can push through other challenges they face.
Relating outdoor activities back to a wider context in this way, can be extremely effective in helping teenagers to push themselves outside their comfort zones and grow. It helps them to adopt a better mind-set for the way they should approach the next activity, or the next family matter or the next big decision they need to make in their lives. Chances are if you do the same, it could help you to push through some of your own long-held fears and apprehensions.
So remember, Don’t always believe everything you think!
Policing The Lunch Box
I recently read an article about a teacher writing a letter home to a parent telling them not to bring chocolate cake to school. In terms of earth shattering issues, this is rather low on the scale of importance in the world today, however, still worth a mention.
As a teacher, you see all sorts of weird and wonderful things that kids bring to school for lunch. You smell the amazing aroma of exotic spices and foods from all over the world in soups, pastas, noodles, wraps, burritos and even sandwiches. It makes my mouth water just thinking about it.
My question to the parents is, why didn't you send enough for me too? Some of the lunches I see are amazing and I just wish someone would pack that for me. In comparison, the classic cheese and salami sandwich doesn't seem to cut it anymore.
Whilst I'm a very strong believer that parents should stay out of trying to tell teachers how to teach, with one important exception to the rule, schools should stay out of kids’ lunch boxes.
For some reason, many schools have decided that telling parents what they can and can't give their kids for lunch will solve countless ‘dietary’, ‘allergy’ and ‘lifestyle’ problems. Much of this has been born out of two different concerns. The first one is the increasingly prevalent nut allergies, the second, childhood obesity.
For the first concern, I completely agree with very black and white rules. Any school's stance on maintaining a nut free campus is a great idea. The number of kids today who have a potentially fatal allergy to nuts is alarming and keeping the campus nut free is a smart way of reducing this risk and protecting the community from what can be a confronting and horrendous ordeal.
If someone has an anaphylactic reaction, untreated, their airways close up and they can be dead within minutes. Even if it's treated with an epi-pen, they must get to hospital as fast as possible and there's still no guarantee of recovery.
Now anything which can kill someone in minutes needs to be taken seriously and parents should respect this decision on banning nuts. You're not going to put a brown snake in your kid’s bag which could bite someone and have the exact same result of a fast and painful death, so don't give your kids nuts to take to school.
On the other hand, in some schools, this concern has gone way too far and slowly but surely other foods have been added to a pointless list of contraband, driven by a misguided notion that if you ban lollies, chocolates and cakes, you will miraculously solve the societal problem of childhood obesity. It just doesn't work that way. Unlike an anaphylactic reaction, being fat won't kill you in 5-10 mins and the reality is most kids will burn off their cake fuelled calories, as they run around the playground.
At the end of the day, unless the school wants to provide lunch for everyone themselves, then they need to trust parents to make informed choices about what they're feeding their own children. If the concern is really about healthy eating, then the solution isn’t telling parents what they can and can't give their kids for lunch, because as soon as you tell people they can't have something or do something, it just makes them want to do it more.
If teachers have time to write letters home about the evils of chocolate cake or otherwise to tell parents not to let their kids have this food or that food for lunch, then they seriously have too much time on their hands and need something better to do. There's a reasonable and rational argument for nut free schools, but ultimately, schools need to balance this sort of real risk with a bit of common sense, so they don't start overreaching and trying to exercise control to the point of stupidity.
An operational management plan is essentially the standard operating procedures for your program. Now I hate the term SOP, because it always feels like it's a set of rules that's written down, which ultimately guarantees that nobody ever reads it. So what's the point? Like anything involving people, logistics and risk, it needs to be a living, breathing process that all staff are part of. It has to be clear in the minds of all staff what the process is to run a safe and effective program.
With any experiential education, you need to have some very clear structures in place to both ensure the smooth operation of activities, as well as contingency plans if something goes wrong. Some organisations are obsessed with risk management plans and waivers, thinking this is all the planning they need. They've kept their lawyers happy and there's a document they can produce to prove they at least thought about something before leading the group into the valley of death. Well, there's quite a lot more to it than that and this is where many organisations go wrong.
You’d think it goes without saying that you need a plan, an itinerary, a schedule, risk assessment, student medicals, permission notes, or at the very least a class roll! However, I’ve regularly seen the focus of planning to be on only one or two of these components, rather than properly addressing them all. You must address them all! There's no point in having an itinerary and risk assessment written and not having the logistics and staffing in place to execute your plans.
You always need a functional end-to-end operational plan, that is flexible enough to handle multiple contingencies. Therefore, you need to plan for everything from the perfect operation to various “what ifs” for minor hurdles, emergencies and full crisis response. An effective response though has more to do with the staff’s mental state and ability to respond and adapt to a fluid situation, rather than a rigid written plan that's immediately forgotten when confronted with a complex crisis.
I've seen this done very well, but also extraordinarily poorly, especially when people aren't operating programs all the time and they feel they need to make things up as they go. There's a huge difference between being adaptable and making stuff up on the run. So one massive hint here, Don't Make It Up As You Go! Have a well-structured, executable plan that everyone’s part of that can be quickly enacted if something goes wrong.
What if the weather changes? What if an emergency happens? What if a crisis happens? Are you prepared to switch it up and respond quickly and effectively? I've seen some great written risk assessments where I have mused, ‘wow they've thought of everything!’ but then looking further on, no contingency plans nor any real idea as to how to manage an emergency or crisis.
It's Never Nice Getting Hit By This
I've seen and worked on programs (thankfully not run them) where the organisation had a ‘nothing will ever go wrong’ approach. This is where everything is done on razor thin staffing, based upon the idea that everything will go exactly to plan and I mean exactly to plan! The danger of this, is firstly, it's idiotic in the extreme. When you're dealing with groups of students and staff in different locations and involving vehicles and equipment, something could eventually go wrong. If you have no flexibility and adaptability factored in, then you're asking for a lawsuit and in fact, you deserve the horrendous experience of being dragged through the courts for your stupidity. I never felt safe, nor comfortable on this program. Thankfully, when I brought it to the attention of the organisation and they couldn't see the problem with it, I left and found another place to work that did.
This ‘razor thin’ notion, usually done to ‘save money,’ that works off the basis that everything will go exactly to plan, just increases the pressure, stress and fatigue on staff, which adds to the inevitability of something going wrong. Philip of Macedon (Alexander The Great’s father) put it very nicely. ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’
So with that in mind, here's an outline of how I develop an operational management plan:
If you plan around these 10 steps, then you're well on the way to having a safe, enjoyable and rewarding experience for everyone involved.