This week I’m in New Mexico for the NOLS WRMC (Wilderness Risk Management Conference).
Whilst it’s been a few years since I went to the last one, which was in Salt Lake City, I’m excited to get back for what I know will be an interesting, thought-provoking and challenging time exploring risk, incidents and activities which make up some of the most amazing educational experiences possible.
After my last trip, I went to debrief the conference with the school I worked for then. One of the new staff commented, why would you go there? Americans don’t know anything about risk. I just shook my head at this comment and walked off. The same person also thought it was a good idea to run a game of ‘capture the flag’ in a snake invested paddock that was filled with barbed wire and rusted metal posts. Kids running around could have easily impaled themselves on this metal. If you want more fascinating insight into the organisation for which I used to work, a good starting point for this would be my article titled, ‘The Idiot Blind Spot!’
Needless to say I don’t work there anymore and haven’t for some time. However, it was an interesting experience all the same, which highlighted how important it is for ongoing training, networking and collaboration in terms of good risk management principles and being able to build effective teams who understand and implement good practices as a part of the culture of the organisation.
I believe the WRMC is a meeting of the best minds in educational risk management in the world. The practices which are presented here are based upon experience and reflection of so many years of outdoor education experience. Some are good, some bad, some tragic. Whilst it’s never easy talking about the bad and the tragic, if we stick our heads in the sand and pretend nothing will ever happen to us, then we set ourselves up for failure and give ourselves a sense of invulnerability, which is always a false sense, as no matter how well we plan, something can always go wrong, especially if it’s out of our control.
Once again at the conference, there’s a number of different streams and this is the only conference I’ve ever been to where I really have FOMO for the competing sessions. There are so many great topics, valuable workshops and insights, it’s sometimes hard to know which ones to attend. Very rarely do I find this problem at a conference, however, with a mix of sessions based upon, Emergency Planning & Crisis Response, Field Practices, Legal Issues, Program Admin and Social & Emotional Health, there are so many really good options.
Regardless of which sessions I end up going to, what’s important is the fact that there is such a strong community of great educational professionals who are focussed on developing awesome life-changing experiences for their students within an effective risk management framework. Being able to build that cultural framework within your organisation is critical to the long-term success of any program you’re running and the safety of your students.
On another note, I’m excited to get back to the US and visit another state to which I’ve never been! Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll have time to get to Roswell and catchup with the aliens down there, but you never know… Anything can and does happen when you’re out in the field exploring new things. See you in Albuquerque!
There’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in a foreign culture and living the experience, to gain an understanding and appreciation for it.
So, what better way to teach students about language, culture and history, than to go to where it all happens. I’m a strong believer in learning through experience and the only way to truly understand another culture is to experience it first-hand. In fact, one of the key skills which I believe is a requirement for students to be successful in the future, is cultural understanding.
This is not just knowing about a culture from reading about it or sitting in class and hearing about it. It’s about truly understanding other cultures and gaining an appreciation for a different kind of world view and life experience. Living this sort of experience, can put into perspective the history, the geography and the global perspective of another culture which in turn can help develop and shape students into truly global citizens. Immersing students in a different country and culture in this way, can create a life changing experience which they can’t get any other way.
However, before we all grab our passports and rush for the airport, there’s a few additional considerations to make when planning an overseas trip, versus one closer to home.
Is this a holiday? Is this an educational experience? What educational value is this trip providing? By clearly defining what you’re aiming to achieve from an educational point of view, this will help in the approval process and the core value of the trip. Wanting to go overseas because it sounds interesting and could be fun, versus going to Japan to visit a range of historic temples and immerse students in the religious culture of the country for studies in comparative religion is dramatically different. Having a clear educational outcome is the basis for a really good experience.
Local guides or DIY?
Do you know enough about the local area to take the group yourself? Should you employ a guide to do this? There are a few considerations around this, which form a mix of risk management considerations and immersive experiential education considerations. What you can do on your own holiday, isn’t quite the same as what you’re able to do with a group of students in tow. It’s usually best to have a local guide who has clear support systems in place if something doesn’t go to plan. Where are the nearest shops, medical facilities, suitable accommodation? Which sites and locations should you go to? Which areas should you avoid? What communications, systems and backups are in place? Without this local knowledge, the risk posed by a DIY approach is considerably higher and depending on the country, the risk can be quite extreme. However, with a good, experienced and reputable guide, this will help you focus on the educational value of the experience and helps ensure you have good systems in place to support your students for a well-planned and effective trip.
Another major consideration is security. We’re blessed in Australia to have a safe and stable society, but unfortunately, this is not the case for many other countries. Always check and monitor the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Smart Traveller website for the latest updates for the country you’re visiting and ensure you register your group with the Department before you go.
Briefing students on what is and isn’t acceptable in different cultures is critical prior to the trip, otherwise a selfie in front of a government building in some countries, could end up with someone being arrested. Chewing gum and graffiti can get you caned in one SE Asian country and this has happened to a teenager in the past. Whilst these are things which in Australia, nobody would care too much about, it could be illegal to do in many other countries. Therefore, staff and students should be aware that this isn’t just another trip away. They need to be aware of cultural and local differences which could significantly impact on their experience.
However, despite the additional considerations and preparations which go into an international trip, these can be some of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences you and your students will ever have.
One of the most amazing international trips I’ve organised was a trip to Japan. Japan is such a dramatically different cultural experience from Australia. With such a warm, friendly culture, it was a great experience for everyone involved. The educational aim was to provide an immersive experience in the history and culture of Japan with a focus on the medieval Shogunate. You can never really appreciate the history of somewhere until you stand before an enormous castle that dominates the landscape and then step inside to see the magnificent design and complex layering of a fortified medieval fortress such as Himeji Castle.
Himeji Castle is distinctively white in design, which I can imagine on a moonlit night would have been a glowing beacon for the surrounding villages. One family held this castle continuously for 120 years and standing at the front entrance with a group of students who were staring up at it with their mouths wide open, you can see why. This is a grand, imposing structure that can be seen from anywhere in the modern-day city. In its day, it would have commanded an unbridled position in the Himeji skyline. Without standing there and experiencing it for ourselves, the students would never have been able to understand the sheer size, scale and defensive capabilities of this castle and the context in which it was built. Seeing how the town has developed around it, provides further depth to the students’ understanding of the wider medieval society, as well as how and why modern Japanese culture is the way it is today.
On top of some amazing castles, we also visited medieval Shinto shrines and one of the oldest and most famous Buddhist temples in Japan, Zenkō-ji Temple. Zenkō-ji was built in the 7th century AD. The temple has a massive statue of the Buddha concealed inside it. However, nobody has seen the statue since 654 AD, when the temple was built around it. Therefore, it actually might or might not be there, which led to a great philosophical discussion amongst the group. If a statue exists inside a concealed chamber where nobody can see it, does it really exist? Hmmmm… perplexing indeed!
These sorts of fascinating discussions are something which you just don’t get in the context of a regular classroom, or at least never in the same way as when you’re out and about on an experiential adventure such as this. Add Japanese signs, not many people who spoke English, a traditional tea ceremony, some unusual foods and sleeping on a futon on a bamboo matted floor each night, you have a wonderful immersive and unique experience which I know the students thoroughly enjoyed and will cherish for a lifetime.
Whilst there are many additional considerations and preparations for all overseas trips to ensure they’re well-planned and well-supported, the value of these experiences, is immense. They can be some of the most valuable and memorable educational experiences students will ever have. This year, why not plan something new? Grab that passport and get to the airport. It’s time for wheels up for the adventure of a lifetime!
As the world becomes increasingly connected, yet disconnected at the same time, there’s been a phenomenal trend towards addiction and reliance on technology.
Whilst some technology is great and having built a tech company, I could hardly argue otherwise. Yet other parts of it are insanely destructive. I was running a program recently with a group of 7th Grade students, which is nothing new or unusual for me as I’ve run a number of these over the years. They tend to be the extremely fun, activity-filled programs which are so exhausting the kids and staff are so tired, they don’t have time to think about anything else other than what the next day of fun activities will hold for them.
However, what happens to an awesome fun camp, when the messaging from parents leading into camp (and often during) is all wrong? Suddenly, one of the most exciting and memorable experiences turns into a battle for survival! A short day hike becomes an epic hobbit filled journey through the badlands with constant threats of demons and sheer cliffs to fall off at every turn. A canoe on a lake becomes a hazardous sea crossing and don’t even mention archery...
So what’s the source of all of this? It’s often separation anxiety of the parents who have been connected with their child so much, having read lots of rubbish parenting books which have resulted in them paranoidly giving their kids a mobile phone, so that when they’re at school or not in their direct line of sight, then can have that constant re-assurance that they’re only a text message away. I often wonder, how did anyone survive without this?
The other problem is the language which parents use with their children as they say goodbye. I can’t take all the credit for this observation, as there’s a great book called “Feel The Fear, And Do It Anyway,” by Susan Jeffers, which goes through some unhelpful messaging that parents often use that doesn’t not actually keep them ‘safe’ on demon filled camps, but holds them back from so many opportunities the world provides.
I won’t ruin the book for you, as it is a great read, but basically telling children to be ‘safe’ all the time rather than give everything a red hot go! This holds back growth and development and undermines the potential to build any real resilience, when faced with real danger or real problems. So with the toxic mix of goodbye messages and constant communications through a mobile phone, the scene is set for a hard week ahead, caused by the lack of trust and understanding on the part of the parent and that’s a lack of trust in both staff and their own child.
How can we address something like this as it is a risk to smooth operation and functioning of the program? The first step is to inform and educate parents. If they know where their child is going and what they’re going to do on camp, then this will start to build trust as well as defuse some of the anxieties which parents are really good at transferring to their children.
Simply sending out a single page letter about camp isn’t quite enough now in our distracted world. Instead, a pre-camp briefing after the letter is a far better way to approach it. Having a clear and to the point presentation about the camp is a great way to engage and educate parents about outdoor and experiential education and where it fits into the wider context of education. Focusing on the skills and relationship benefits is often a good way to highlight the value of camp to a broad audience whose opinions many vary dramatically. It also give you an opportunity to disclose important information about risk and risk management. As part of your presentation, this is important to address, as any potential major issues or questions which go unanswered will either lead to wild speculation, a level of distrust or both.
In amongst this, you don’t want to tell parents how to do their job. Instead, suggest talking about the excitement of camp and what opportunities the students going to have for some fun, rather than instilling worry, fear and loathing. It all becomes this great self-fulfilling prophecy. If kids think that it’s scary, they’ll miss their parents and are worried they’ll have a bad time, it’ll be a scary bad time and they’ll be homesick. If kids think that it’s an exciting adventure where they’ll face challenges and be able to get away from mum and dad for a bit, then they’ll have an exciting adventurous time, enjoy their experience and have lasting fond memories of it.
A lot of this can’t be done at school, but must be done at home in the days, weeks and months before camp. This not only sets them up for success on a camp, but sets them up for success in school and in life.
It’s through setting the scene that can determine how students engage with and are able to enjoy the experience. Before any big new camp or escalated stage of your outdoor education program, take the time to provide a thorough and informative presentation to parents to help reassure them and get them onboard with why camps and outdoor education are so important in the overall growth and development of their child.