What's the point of spending time and energy setting up an outdoor ed program aimed at building leadership, teamwork and initiative, then subsequently provide no opportunities for students to actually take responsibility for any of this themselves?
So often I see teachers ‘run’ programs, in that they take the students out, think for them, navigate for them, constantly give instructions on how to do everything and determine the whole schedule for each and every day.
Realistically, students can get this sort of experience any day of the week at home or in the classroom. So don't make the mistake of doing this in your experiential education program!
The command and control operational management style is often starkly noticeable if contracting out your program out to a third party. Whilst some organisations are great, many of them process groups the way you'd process cattle through a dairy. They get herded in, run through the process and led out the other end none the wiser. For cows, the experience seems ok, having chewed a bit of cud and hung out with some other cows. However, has the cow learnt or achieved anything from this? Not really! The only enlightenment she’s achieved is having less milk. But there's lots of money in pointless processes. Look at government departments. They're great at it! I mean really great at it! I guess when you’re onto something good, you should stick to it.
Experiential education however, is not about a process of running fun activities for the sake of it. There’s so much more depth to it than that. It’s about the opportunity to lead, not to be led! The opportunity to take risks, not to have someone tell you what to do. It's about teamwork and decision making.
For teachers, to giving up the reigns and allow students be challenged, experience new things and grow from this may feel awkward and difficult at first. However, if you don’t, then you’re wasting some fantastic educational opportunities.
I've seen teachers on experiential education trips wanting to control and run everything and I mean everything!!! From setting up tents, to collecting firewood, to holding onto a bag of cereal in the morning and dishing it out flake by flake. Some teachers just can't let go of control. If you're like this, it's time to stop as you're not helping anyone with anything.
You need to stand back and allow your students to take the risk of leadership, decision making and self-management and allow them to have the chance to shine and the chance to fail! They're going to learn more from this than they ever will if you were to jump in and catch them before they fail. All you need to do is frame an effective debrief if they do fail, to create a great learning opportunity from this. Conversely, when they display initiative and leadership, use this to extend and challenge your students. You will be amazed the difference this makes.
To be able to do this effectively, when you get into the field, provide your students with a clear and detailed briefing on what needs to happen and what roles need to be fulfilled. Only do this once, as failure to listen can lead to some great learning opportunities for those who choose not to. On the conclusion of your brief, the responsibility needs to then be given to your students to make it all happen. Your role now is purely a safety one to ensure that the wider range of risks are monitored and addressed without intervention in the group decision-making process. The only time you now step in, is if there is a potentially dangerous risk that arises and requires your experience and knowledge to manage.
By allowing students the chance to take on responsibilities they’d not normally have, helps to super charge the learning opportunities in a short period of time. Mistakes are made, tempers are frayed and people are pushed well outside their comfort zones. Whilst this may sound like chaos to some people, it’s a natural and highly effective way of teaching and learning for everyone involved. You can achieve more growth and development from any of your experiential education activities by allowing your students to run them themselves, rather than having you or any other teacher do it for them.
So for your next experiential education activity: Set it up once, let go of the reigns and allow your students to take the initiative and shine.
One of the hardest things for Outdoor Education Programs is they take a lot of hard work to create. Lots of thought, time and effort go into designing, developing, assessing and testing a program. However, once a program is up and running, it’s far easier to repeat the same trips, rather than creating new experiences all the time. After all, most students only ever do that program once, so for students, it’s a new experience.
Consequently, people get into the pattern of doing the same things over and over again. When you’ve got a good program going, despite the repetition, people often stick with it. The problem with this however, is that it can lead to organisations becoming complacent. Staff become happy with the daily run of the mill program and fail to renew and change.
This creates stagnation within an organisation and when an organisation stagnates, a number of problems emerge. If don’t have a culture of continuous improvement within your organisation, you risk becoming complacent in what you’re doing. Complacency can lead to operational and organisational blind spots. When dealing with outdoor activities that involve various levels of risk, this creates a dangerous problem, often known as the expert blind spot.
The expert blind spot often occurs when you have a teacher or instructor who’s very good at the task. The same thing has been done for years and years and complacency and a false sense of security can start to creep in. When you believe you know everything there is to know about an activity and you can do it without even thinking about what you’re doing, you’re now in the danger zone, without even realising it.
Henry Doherty, the successful Irish businessman famously said, ‘Be a student as long as you still have something to learn, and this will mean all your life!’ This is a poignant statement that’s so true for everybody that’s ever lived. No matter how much experience you have, you can always learn something new. If you get to the point where you can learn no more, then you’re just lying to yourself and everyone around you.
Programs that have been running for many years with the same staff who don’t like to assess, improve or vary the activities, risk falling into this blind spot danger zone. Subsequently, the risk of injuries or catastrophic failures dramatically increases as the blind spot entrenches itself deep into the person’s psyche. Be cautious when you start to hear statements such as, ‘We’ve always done it like this, so it’s fine,’ ‘That weather front’s ok, I’ve been in worse before.’ ‘We don’t need a risk assessment done on that. We all know what we’re doing!’ ‘We’ve done it so many times before, nothing can go wrong…’
What can you do to prevent the expert blind spot creeping in? One of the ways is for continuous improvement to be the goal of your program. What you’ve done last time wasn’t necessarily as good as what you’re going to do the next time. It’s not that you’re doing a sloppy job now but we can always do better. We can always improve on our processes and procedures. We can always improve on our cultural make up within our organisation. We can always find better activities to do. We can always find more challenging activities to do.
Rotate the locations of where you’re going on your programs. Rotate the staff that are running your programs. After all, it’s often staff becoming stale in what they do that can be a great causation for the expert blind spot to creep in. This doesn’t mean you just randomly shuffle your staff for the sake of shuffling it. There needs to be a reason. Plan it that way. Let staff experience different activities. Let staff develop different skills. Send staff on training courses. The amount of new knowledge that I get from every training course I do is immeasurable and it’s not just the content. It’s about engaging with other professionals in the field. Finding out what each does; listening to stories and experiences. If you go in with that attitude ‘I’m looking forward to learning something new,’ you’re going to get a lot out of it. If you go in with the attitude, ‘I know everything and I’ll prove it to you,’ you’re an idiot and the root cause of the problem.
It’s a very tricky dynamic with which to work. I’ve worked with some of these so called “experts” in the past. It’s more an attitude than anything else. Sure each has experience in the field but this blind spot once put me in a situation where we were hit by an extraordinary storm and we were absolutely smashed by it. We were lucky that we didn’t have anything more than a couple of students with hypothermia. I was a junior instructor at the time and despite my objections to going out in that weather, I was told: ‘No it’ll be fine.’ That put us at significant risk of harm. It’s this blind spot where it’s just day in, day out in your daily routine of running a program, ‘no it’ll be fine,’ that creates problems in the long run.
To avoid these problems: Go on some professional development. Open yourself up to an analysis of the program that you’re running. Ask your staff what each thinks of the program. Ask your students what each thinks of the program. Look for feedback that can be used constructively to improve your program, improve your processes and improve the overall experience of everyone involved. Don’t let yourself become stagnant. Don’t let yourself get lulled into this false sense of security that ‘we’ve always done at this way’ or ‘we stick to this because we know this so well.’ Ultimately, that can be counterproductive and that can lead to a dangerous situation with that expert blind spot is your blind spot.
A recent Grattan Institute Publication highlighted that 40% of students in Australia today are disengaged. Therefore, almost half the class in every single school in the country is just sitting there wasting time.
As a teacher, you can usually pick the students that are disengaged and just don’t care. Sadly, some students will never care and no matter what you try, you won’t re-engage them because they just don’t have the drive. As a result, these students drag everyone else down with them, further fuelling the problem. Where do we lose the kids? How did they become disengaged?
Some people cite syllabus content issues, teacher issues, lack of resources, lack of time, lack of relevance. However, often, it's just a lack of motivation that comes from parental disengagement and the ‘comfort’ of modern life.
Unless a student is motivated, the capacity to learn is seriously diminished. If a student doesn't want to learn in one subject, chances are this will flow over into every other subject.
Consequently, the challenge isn’t really the content but the underlying motivation. How then do we motivate kids to actually engage with content? Now this is not about dumbing it down to make all lessons suitable for publication on social media because that defeats the purpose of education. If you dumb everything down, you create a dumb society and you can see the effect of that in many countries today. It’s not where I want to see Australia and therefore we need to find other ways of engaging kids in their education.
A lot of emphasis of late is being put on the STEM subjects which are Science, Engineering and Technology which is excellent, but the reality is the majority the kids who want to take on STEM subjects are the ones who are engaged already, so what about the others who just fall by the wayside, the other 40% and this really comes back to a failing education that needs to continue to evolve.
When education is still stuck in the 19th century and still trying to do the same process or the same learning process as was done at the time of the Industrial Revolution, there’s a big problem. One of the key issues is adaptability. If you tell a student in your lifetime, you’ll have 5 to 10 different careers that’s all well and good but if you can’t equip them to adapt to these 5 to 10 different careers, then they’re being setup for failure. With this in mind, how do we re-engage kids and provide them with the skills they need to take on a world that’s constantly changing?
Much of it comes down to what motivates and drives students. What are they interested in? What’s meaningful to them in their lives? How interested are they in what they’re doing? How interested are their parents?
Parental engagement can have more of an effect on classroom behaviour than a lot of what teachers do. If there’s nothing happening at home, then it’s extremely hard for that lack of drive to convert into student engagement in the classroom. It’s a sad reality, which means many of the 40% of disengaged students, need to be taken out of the classroom and provided with remedial education, outside a regular class structure.
What else then can you do with this 40%? The reality is, you only need to take out 15-25% of these students and the rest will have a greater chance of re-engaging with the class. However, regardless of whatever the percentage is, there are other ways in which the group in question can get great value out of their time at school.
Instead of classwork, they should be involved in a range of different, practical hands-on activities where they can see a tangible result. For example, building things, work experience in real businesses, community service and extended expeditions, to challenge them.
Whilst none of this is part of what our standard education system offers, it’s something which needs to happen. The definition of insanity is by doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The reality is you get the same result every time. Yet if you were to take a different approach, chances are, you’ll get a different outcome.
For many disengaged students, the more experiential you can make your program, the better. Often the lack of support from home can lead students to believe they can’t do anything. Therefore, when sitting in the classroom doing nothing, this is a self-fulfilling prophesy. However, get them out doing something where they can see a tangible result, they will realise they’ve been able to achieve. It’s one of the fascinating dynamics of the new generation. They want their lives to mean something. They want to find meaningful employment and expression. They want to make a difference. However, if all they have is sitting in a classroom, listening to a teacher all day every day, talk about things you’re not interested in, why wouldn’t you become disengaged?
This is about actively engaging students in something such as a trade, in a shop, in the bush or in any number of service organisations. Somewhere functional, somewhere where they can gain experience and learn by doing. Somewhere where they can’t just check out and stare blankly into the distance for years on end. If there are strong ties between industries and schools, if there are a strong ties between community service groups and schools, this can be a great avenue to help re-engage students.
By changing tactics, removing students from the regular classroom and challenging them with a range of experiential education experiences, you’re extending and improving the chances for those disengaged students and at the same time, making classrooms far better learning environments for the other 60% of students. Consequently, we can improve our educational standards and improve the long-term results for all students.
I felt the bracing cold of Canberra, as I stepped from the car in anticipation of another challenging weekend at GovHack. I can understand why the Federal Parliament has a winter recess! However, despite this, I was rugged up and ready.
Walking up to the Snow Centre (Canberra Grammar’s amazing technology building), it was lit up with the GovHack and CGS logo projected onto the wall, looking more like a night club, than a school. Thinking of which, imagine how much money you could make from doing pop-up night clubs in schools on the weekends and in the holidays! Think about it! You have the venue, the sound systems, plenty of parking… You just need a liquor licence and you could make a ton of money! Hmmm I could be onto something… (patent pending © David Gregory 2017!!!)
Anyway, walking in, the place was buzzing with excitement. Even the registration process was cool, as I lined up to register. It was in a darkened room, illuminated by a number of computers. My name badge had been printed on this cool looking Perspex, which in the darkened room appeared to glow.
Armed with my badge and my laptop, I walked around and said hi to a few people I’d met last year. However, my nerves were starting to kick in. For me this sort of event, at least getting started is way outside my comfort zone. I may run around the countryside mountain biking, hiking, exploring new places and speaking to large audiences without any problems, going into an unknown project with a team of people I haven't even met yet is a tough and challenging experience for me. However, that's the whole point! Part of the challenge for me in doing something like this, is the fact that it is confronting and nerve wracking stepping out into the unknown.
Whilst I often talk about ways in which to push others outside their comfort zone, it makes little sense to be teaching this, unless you're going to do it yourself. Despite the nerves, the apprehension and not knowing how that night was going to turn out let alone the whole weekend, I walked in. Always worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a team, I pushed through this negative thinking, in anticipation of what could be. As usual, I was proved wrong on this. At the team forming point, I met some amazing and diverse people with whom I ended up working.
Whilst there are prizes for the most innovative use of data and a range of other categories, for me success was more to do with finding a team and working with that team to produce something interesting over the next forty six hours.
The excited noise of the crowd subsided, as ACT organiser Matt Purcell introduced the evening and ran through the rules of the event and provided a rundown of everything that was happening over the weekend and most importantly what was for dinner!
At the conclusion of his presentation, there was hurried activity as teams scrambled to their breakout rooms to start hacking, or grab a can of drink from the fridge, both good options! For our team, the first challenge was to get to know everybody's names and work out what everybody's strengths were. We quickly went around the table and introduced ourselves with a quick background as to what we do and why we were competing at GovHack.
Most teams had been organised beforehand and many of them had already devised some idea of the sort of projects they were going to work on. However, when you’ve just created a brand-new team with people you’ve never even met before, suddenly the challenge of this exercise escalates. Not only do you have to get to know people and work out their strengths really quickly, you have to come up with a cohesive and innovative idea using government data and produce at least a semi-working prototype within forty six hours.
For many, this might be an overwhelming task. However, I believe the key to success in this is effective communication. Even though we weren't able to go straight to a room and start working on our project, we were able to communicate effectively with each other and through our discussions and brainstorming, ideas started to flow and slowly come together.
As I've said many times before, for me being innovative is really hard sitting around a table. Yet this time, I found as ideas were being thrown up as to what datasets could be used, I was able to start bouncing ideas back that over the next hour and a half started to form into something quite interesting. The only thing which stumped all of us was the team name, which in the end pretty much ended up being based upon the solution that we created.
So what did we come up with?
After harassing countless government mentors and asking them what their biggest problem was, we came up with a mashup idea which evolved from using the cat restricted area data to chase down rogue cats, to a mobile app which allows drivers to quickly and accurately report injured wildlife to ACT Wildlife services. With the ultimate aim of faster rescue services and better data-capture on injured wildlife, our team got to work to research the impact of this in more depth and then built a business case and prototype from this.
The day seemed to evaporate as we brainstormed, planned and developed the idea. The sun had set and the rich tantalising smell of Indian food wafted through the air. With the organisers catering for 170 people, I've never seen so many massive buckets of curry in my life. It was a much needed and appreciated meal after a long day of hacking!
I headed off around 8:30 that evening after what had been a very productive day of team work. We’d all been working on our individual tasks, which were all contributing to the big picture of our overall project.
The next day started slowly, but the pace picked up to frantic levels as the deadline approached. We’d completed the project and the video just in time. However, after the first attempt to export the video from iMovie to YouTube failed, I had to do it manually and when I did, the computer was telling me it would take 26mins to upload the video and there were 13mins to go!!! Not able to rely on a timely server crash, I quickly re-exported the video at a much lower res and nervously cancelled the upload, removed the file and started again! The smaller video file uploaded quicker than I expected and thankfully with 4 mins to go, it was in!
Honey I Hit a Roo! - https://youtu.be/Gpi8EZiYi2Q
As the upload was confirmed, a great feeling of relief and achievement flooded in. It felt great to have successfully completed a project that two days ago, we had no idea about. Whilst at this point, it’s easy to reflect and say there was nothing to worry about, which in the end was true, if I hadn’t challenged myself and pushed myself outside my own comfort zone, I’d never have met such a great team who included Yogesh, Anthony, Ian and Mahathir and been able to create a really cool solution to a massive problem in Australia.
For the remainder of the year, I encourage everyone to do something that’s way outside their comfort zone. Don’t just teach it! Actually do it! Through this, you can become far more confident and effective in your own work and your own life. For me, this was such a great weekend, meeting new people and reconnecting with others I hadn’t seen in a long time. If you’ve never been to something like GovHack, then you must save the date for next year! A huge thankyou to Canberra Grammar, Matt Purcell and all the other GovHack volunteers who made it such an amazing weekend! Great work for me! It was a wonderful experience and the atmosphere of the whole event spoke volumes about how well it was done!