Having recently been to a risk management conference, this got me thinking! Are some schools becoming so risk adverse to the point of harming kids?
When I was at school, I'd never heard of something called an incursion. In fact, I've only heard it in recent times. To me it just sounds like the school is getting raided by teams of crazed militia. I'm not sure whether it's just a stupid term for having a guest speaker, or an attempt by schools to avoid taking kids off site, by bringing the excursion to them.
If it's the latter, then there’s several problems with this, as so much learning occurs by actually getting out there and doing stuff, not by hanging around in the classroom. This is not to devalue the benefits of a guest speaker, but seriously, call them a guest speaker. The next time I go to a school to do a presentation, if they call it an incursion, I may feel like I need to bring a large collection of stray cats and let them loose to cause an expected level of disruption!
There is a serious point to this though. I’ve noticed an increasing number of schools opting for this type of experience for their students (maybe not involving cats), but having ‘incursions.’ The idea of a virtual ‘excursion’ falls into this same area of total risk avoidance and borders on stupidity, because we're creating a generation of people who can't cope with any sort of adversity. They're too used to having everything done for them or being able to do everything at arms’ length through technology. When things get real, they go to pieces.
A recent example of this was on a long-stay camping program. The students aren't allowed to bring phones, because part the aim is for them to have a break from the distraction of technology. One student was caught with his phone, and when confronted with this and the phone was confiscated, he had a complete meltdown.
This same concern ties back into the idiotic notions of incursions. Let's keep everything safe and risk free because we’re worried too much about consequences. I’m sorry to say, the world is full of real consequences and if you don't educate kids and expose them to at least some of this, then you're setting them up for failure. There are many excuses why people want to avoid real experiential education, but if you want kids to learn and grow, you need them to face real challenges, feel discomfort and be able to build up some resilience in anticipation of what will hit them once they leave school. The danger of failing to do this, means that you're just setting kids up for failure. Therefore, by totally avoiding risk, you're actually causing real harm to the students.
So the next time you're thinking of either going to the art gallery, or bringing the director of the art gallery to you, stop being stupid, book a bus and go and see real works of art, rather than have someone just come and talk to you about it. Real experience produces real learning outcomes and there is no substitute for this in life.
Bungonia Caves - Barely Room To Crawl!
What better way to freak out a bunch of teenagers than to take them into a cramped cave in which your chest is flat to the ground and the roof grazes your back. Then turn out the lights!
If this sounds like something you'd love to do, then Bungonia caves is the place to do it! Deep in the Southern Highlands and on the edge of the Shoalhaven Gorge, lies Bungonia National Park. It's an easily accessible area not too far from the Hume Highway. Here there's a stunning cluster of caves with a variety of challenges for all skill levels. Now even though I really enjoyed this experience, caving isn't really my thing, so I'm not going to give you any technical details about the caves themselves. If you're going to do this, make sure you have an experienced guide to lead you, as every cave is different and this presents its own set of risks and challenge.
However, for a simple explanation, caves are cramped and dark and this provides an excellent opportunity for some great experiential learning. The cave I mentioned at the start is quite a short one, literally tens of metres long. However, it can take your group ages to get out in total darkness!
This activity is a fantastic one for developing communication skills and teamwork. The fear factor that's added in with the total disorientation that comes with being in complete darkness, is the perfect way to test even the most confident of students (and teachers). Now this exercise isn't about messing with people's heads. It's about building a team that can communicate, work together and develop a cohesive plan minus one of their most important senses. You really don't understand total and utter darkness until you've been in a cave like this. Some kids totally freak out, but if you're leading the group, resist the temptation to just turn the lights back on. That's a last resort and defeats the whole point of the exercise.
Once everyone has crawled down into the cave with their lights on, there’s an area in which you can gather everyone together and brief them on the task. Once you're done, it's lights off! Time to work together to get out! Now you get to see the group dynamics either gel or implode and it happens really quickly. Robbed of their ability to see, basically someone needs to take charge and use their other senses to start leading people out. But it can't be reliant on one person. Everyone must do his part! That's why I love this activity, because it forces people to quickly accept or reject the team and the team leaders.
There’s no glimpse of light from anywhere. You can literally hold your hand in front of your face and you still won't see anything, no subtle movement, nothing! It feels weird!
After the initial excitement of being in total darkness is over, you can expect the stress level of the group to increase, and they suddenly realise you're not joking about getting out. This activity can bring a group together, in which case they're usually out in a fairly short amount of time. (Remember, it’s not that deep a cave). However, it can also tear a group apart with nobody wanting to take responsibility, poor communications and internal fears overwhelming students. This sort of experience is raw, challenging and can lead to some amazing learning outcomes.
No matter how long it takes your group to get out, the two most important elements of this activity for you are the pre-lights-out briefing and the post activity debrief. By carefully framing the activity and letting the students know this could be challenging, but they've got each other, then this can guide their purpose and focus their minds. In the debrief of the activity, let them run through how they felt and how they found the communication and team dynamics and let them know how you felt in there as well. Even though it's a safe activity, it can still be unnerving and make you feel uncomfortable too.
This activity is great for putting people right out of their comfort zones. However, we only ever grow in our lives when things are uncomfortable and by adapting to meet the challenge of that discomfort. By providing positive feedback for when the team pushes past their discomfort and grows, is ultimately the goal of this amazing experiential education activity. It’s well worth a trip to the Southern Highlands!
Surviving the challenges of jet lag and driving on the wrong side of the road, my time in Salt Lake City at the National Outdoor Leadership School's (NOLS) Wilderness Risk Management conference (WRMC) has been an amazing and engaging experience. From the moment the conference started on Wednesday night, there was an exciting buzz and vibrancy to it. People were so welcoming and it was fantastic to meet so many new people from the wider outdoor ed community and catch up with others whom I hadn’t seen for years!
View From The Capital Building In Salt Lake City
The informal gathering set the scene for what was an invaluable conference exploring some of the toughest issues and challenges for the industry, including fatalities in the field, near misses, expert blind spots and managing the traumatic fallout from a major incident.
Understanding and discussing the real experiences of others through presentations, case studies and group discussions, has been a highlight for me and an excellent learning experience. From this, I’ve reflected on our current practices, as well as a number of incidents throughout my own field work and considered,
‘Did we approach each incident in the most effective manner?’
‘What could we’ve done better?’
‘What do we need to have in place to ensure we can minimise the risk of incidents, as well as maximising the effectiveness of our response if they occur?’
Things To Document & Cover After An Incident
One of the most profound questions in a session for me was, “What’s so important about your program that it’s potentially worth someone dying for?” This really got me thinking, and I’m not going to analyse this question, or throw out an opinion on it, because it’s something for everyone to think about. I know what it means to me, but what does this mean to you? How does this shape your thinking? Do you throw your hands in the air and say it’s all too hard? Or do you take a more serious and systematic approach to balancing risk and educational outcomes?
A key theme of the conference was the fact that risk management has very little to do with a written document, that once completed, keeps your organisation’s lawyers happy. Other than checkbox compliance, there’s very little value in writing up your risk assessment, if you’re only going to file it away in a folder and forget about it until something goes wrong. Effective risk management has more to do with a transparent and progressive cultural attitude within your organisation than writing up detailed documents that often people don’t even read. Clarity of purpose, targeted education and openness to the discussion of incidents, are all contributing factors in developing this proactive culture.
The Prized Tent!
On a completely different note, I managed to collect a lot of free pens and got to explore Salt Lake City and hike around some of the beautiful surrounding hills. The only problem with the conference was that there were so many great sessions, I couldn’t get to them all. Hence, I’m going to have to come back next year for another WRMC and a whole new travel adventure to Portland, Maine! I’ve never been to the East Coast before, and being so close to Salem right around Halloween, it’s going to be another great adventure!
Despite the distance from Australia to the US for this conference, this was a true industry-leading event and well worth attending. If you’re considering ways to improve your own program or feel that you’ve reached a point where you know everything, then you need to come to a WRMC. It doesn’t matter how new or experienced you are, this type of event provides so much insight into the industry and how it’s continuously improving and evolving to provide the best experiential educational outcomes possible.
See You Next Year in Portland!
This is a crossover post between my education blog and business blog, as it fits in both. However, since Experiential education is any education where you just go out to do something. It’s not about theories. It’s not about book work. It’s about getting in and actively problem solving or engaging in a real world activity that’s malleable, has real consequences and outcomes which are either positive or negative, depending on how somebody approaches the task.
So why is this so important? One of the big problems with mainstream education, is the fact that most of it is completely impractical. Most academics would yell savage rebukes and cast terse derision on me from their lofty ivory towers, which incidentally were all built by tradesmen and artisans. However, I’m not here to knock academics and the role in education, because they play an extremely important role, but it’s not one for everyone. Experiential education, on the other hand, is for everybody. It’s the way people have learnt for tens of thousands of years. One of my favourite lines from The Simpsons, is when Homer turns the hot water on, scolds himself and yells out in disbelief. “What?! H Means Hot!” This really sums up how experiential and education works. You do something and there is a real consequence.
Much of this has been lost by the drive of politicians to make sure that academic standards are high. Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate into practical jobs for students leaving school. A whopping 2/3 of school leavers will never go to uni, yet almost the entire educational framework is based around training to encourage everyone to go to uni. It just makes no sense! This is only scratching the surface of a much broader issue, so over the next while on this blog and my education one, I’m going to explore more practical ways of learning through experiential education. What lessons do people remember the most? It’s the ones where they see or experience a real outcome not just the theory of an outcome.
Next week I’m off to America for the annual National Outdoor Leadership School’s wilderness risk management conference in Salt Lake City, WRMC (everyone loves an acronym). I’ve been wanting to go to this for ages and finally, I have the opportunity to go. Whilst I’m looking forward to seeing Salt Lake City and collecting all the bags of free marketing stuff from the exhibitors, there’s more to the conference for me than just that (although… if there’s some really, really good free stuff...). Luckily, it’s not in the ski season, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to drag me away from Park City or Deer Valley, which might be on the cards for the start of next year, which would be totally awesome! Sorry, I digress back to the real topic. (We’ll keep talking skiing later.)
The conference is divided up into sessions on different industry topics which are:
Emergency Planning & Crisis Response
Staff Training & Decision Making
For anyone new to management in the industry, or even seasoned veterans, this is an awesome mix of extremely relevant topics for program design, preparation, managing risk and mitigating damage if something totally unforeseen occurs. One of the greatest risks we face as experiential education professionals is that of complacency. If we’ve had an exceptionally successful run of camps, activities and programs, which have been essentially injury and incident free, the risk is that focus fades away from the concern of active risk management. People forget that new instructors might not have the same mindset as you do. People forget that risk management is more than just filling in paperwork. It’s about actively managing risk for everything that you do.
I’ve seen complacency drift into organisations I’ve worked for. Since they’ve been doing the same thing for so long, it’s become an automatic process, which forgets about human error factors, different group dynamics and environmental conditions. Basically, these are things you need to be actively managing. Letting complacency sneak in, is when the risk of accidents can dramatically increase.
To prevent this within the organisation’s culture, something like the WRMC is an awesome way to invigorate staff and align them with industry best practices, as well as learn from past incidents and how they can be prevented in the future.
So I’m extremely excited about going to my first conference and not just for the free pens, although admittedly I’ll be taking my fair share to try and cover the cost of the flight from Sydney to Utah! I might tweet, or not from the conference, who knows. I’m most likely just to post random stuff on Instagram, so if you’re not already following me, follow @xcursionadventures
Looking forward to an amazing few days!