Whilst I know it’s ironic that I don’t have a great love of university, considering I’ve managed to collect several degrees over the years, that’s not the point and this is not about me!
The other day I was having a discussion with a graduating teacher and what were the most important things which had or hadn’t been part of the course. The one thing which emerged was the fact that nothing was ever taught, workshopped or even covered about effectively building rapport with students. Thinking back to my days at uni, my course was the same. There was plenty of time wasted on pointless nonsense, but nothing on the most important thing a teacher needs to be able to do.
It seems for universities, that building effective relationships in the classroom is just an afterthought. One of the problems is however, the fact that uni lecturers don’t spend any real time in real school classrooms. Therefore, all of their educational knowledge is heavily theoretical. The lack of practical application becomes obvious throughout teachers’ careers and it’s often something teachers can really struggle with, especially as they become increasingly a facilitator and not someone who has an expert body of knowledge. Consequently, if developing positive rapport in the classroom wasn’t important enough before, it’s now absolutely critical to the success of students’ education, as we learn best from those people to whom we relate.
Previously, a lot of teachers could get away with a strong content knowledge and poor ability to relate to anyone. You would often find these people hiding in boarding schools behind canes. They knew the one textbook back to front and were great at mindlessly reciting it. There’s also the unskilled “yelly type” whose only way of interacting with students is through a raised voice. These types of teachers are great at building fear and contempt, two worthless qualities in education and only lead to further student disengagement.
Why, when it’s abundantly clear that students learn best when they have a positive rapport with their teachers, is this skill not taught at uni? Is it because it’s too hard? Is it because uni lecturers don’t know what rapport is or is it because it can’t easily be tested?
Working in outdoor ed, it’s often hard to assess outcomes for students, as the effects of outdoor education might not be immediately apparent. Sometimes, it takes years for an experience or series of experiences to really solidify into a life changing one for a student. Does this mean we just don’t bother doing it? Does it mean we accept that things such as building rapport and relationships, is often difficult to gauge, but so important that we must do it anyway.
I’ve seen many new and experienced teachers with no ability to relate to students. They could just be hopeless teachers, but let’s give them the benefit of the doubt and acknowledge that it probably wasn’t part of their training.
However, to improve classroom practice, we need teachers who can build a positive and effective rapport with students. It’s no longer the case of ‘Us and Them!’ the teachers versus the students, those with knowledge and those without. If you still look at education in those terms, it’s time to retire or become a dog trainer, as you’re quickly becoming a dinosaur as we speak.
Most of the work we do in outdoor ed revolves around rapport and relationships. Why? Because life’s all about relationships and working with others. If you want someone to be open to learning from you and your experiences, then you need to develop trust and respect. How do you do this? By listening to students, understanding what their lives are like and what challenges they face. What goals do they have? What makes them happy? What really engages them in something? This takes time, but it’s worth every minute of yours to ensure a positive learning environment.
This is something that can and should be worked on at uni, not just expected of a teacher ‘down the track’. The sooner training can be adapted to focus on what’s important, the faster our schools can become far more engaging and effective places in which to learn.
One of the biggest problems in any outdoor program is the blindness of experts. They’re generally people who are experts in their specific field or activity and become over-confident and blind to situations in which risk can be quite dangerous to themselves and others. However, I’m not going to be covering that right now. Instead I’d like to coin the term, ‘The Idiot Blindspot!’ What happens when inexperienced and incompetent people think they know what they’re doing when they truly don’t?
The idiot blindspot is a dangerous place in which to be operating, as there’s actually no consideration of risk at all. It’s merely given lip service and no real implementation of any considerations about risk are thought about nor are there any systems in place to manage risks. These are the people you want to avoid like they plague. They are your classic copy and paste crew who think that a risk management document is what risk management is about and once you have that document (copied and pasted from someone else), that whatever you do after that is ok.
The ‘whatever you do after that is ok’ approach can be a strange and nerve wracking experience for someone who is able to read situations. Sadly, if unaddressed, the idiots involved tend to end up in front of coroners having caused life-shattering damage to those they should have been protecting. They will then make excuses for their behaviour and lack of judgment.
I’ve experienced a few idiots over the years and despite going to great lengths to explain the reasons why we should or should not do something, they would invariably not see reason. In fact, they would get quite defensive and hostile at the suggestion that what they were considering was perhaps not that well thought out.
Unfortunately, I can think of a number of occasions that this has happened. One was a rafting exercise where the activity was being conducted in a tidal creek, which had a sucky mud base and was murky to the point that you couldn’t see 10cm below the surface. What better way to run a raft building exercise than to have students testing their make-shift crafts in this environment with no life jackets on. But wait, there’s more! Not only were there no personal flotation devices being used, the activity spontaneously changed into students wrestling with each other on the makeshift rafts attempting to throw each other off into the murky water. For someone with at least half a brain, you could reasonably foresee problems with this activity. Sadly, the idiots running it could not.
“Why didn’t you stop the activity?” I hear you shouting in disbelief!!! Well, I wasn’t actually there. The idiots had filmed all of this and could be heard encouraging the wrestling on the dodgy rafts. I already had my doubts about these members of staff, and now here we were seeing their stupidity in full-flight. Operating your risk management based upon pure luck is not something that should ever be done. Nor is letting an idiot run an activity such as this, with no regard for even the most basic notions of student safety. The difficulty in this situation was that the person running the activity was my boss, which only added to the dangerous nature of the organisation’s idiot blindspot.
On a number of different occasions, I’ve found myself in a bizarre arguments over weather warnings, equipment usage and group dynamics, all of which materially impact on safety. However, there’s a difference between a robust discussion with experienced and knowledgable colleagues versus complete idiots, especially when the complete idiots think they’re amazing and know what they’re doing. No advice is better than any advice from someone who knows nothing about risk management. A very dangerous mix, which if left unaddressed has the potential to put you in front of the coroner. Sadly, it’s usually the death of an innocent child that the coroner is investigating and not the idiot whose lack of judgment and understanding led to the accident.
If your organisation has people like this in it, get rid of them as fast as possible. They’re not going to benefit from any sort of professional development or training, as they completely lack the understanding and ability to understand risk and how to be situationally aware. It’s often not until an activity or expedition is in motion that risks (which were copied and pasted on that dusty document) become apparent. Being able to read situations is critical to good risk management and ensuring that all your activities and programs run well and are beneficial to everyone involved.
Before you let any staff loose on programs with any level of risk, then they’re well trained and are mentored along the way. It does take time and experience to develop situational awareness. However, once you’ve detected the idiots, you know they have to go. You don’t need the idiots. They contribute nothing other than red flags and an immense danger to you and everyone around you and the faster you can understand their blindness to risk and take them out of the mix, the better off your organisation will be.
Recently, I listened to a really rubbish attempt at a debrief that tried to explain FOMO (fear of missing out) to a group of high school students. As I listened to what was being said, it made me think. To be honest, it was approaching the issue from the wrong angle.
The world is a noisy place, filled with pointless distractions and mindless nonsense that really shouldn’t be given the time of day, yet most people focus on the nonsense and miss what’s important in life. The digital world has provided great opportunities for us, but at the same time has provided us with a toxic waste dump of thoughtless opinions from people who have experienced nothing of life.
The teen ‘influencer’ is a classic example of this idiotic gravitation of countless people towards someone whose only talent is taking selfies and vocalising how distressed they are about growing up and how this piece of clothing makes them feel. It’s a sad and pathetic time that will no doubt be looked back upon in years to come with great distain. Revolting youth is no longer about a punk rock movement wanting to change the world. Instead it’s become about marketing companies manipulating our youth in the most revolting ways.
The problem is however, that so many of our youth are captivated by this stupidity. The device addiction that is on the increase is fuelled by the idea that if you don’t get enough likes for a post, or you don’t like enough of other people’s posts, your world will come crashing down. If this is your world, it’s time to find another one in which to live because it’s all a load of rubbish!
I’ve heard a number of people talk about FOMO and each time, I get the sense that it’s the wrong approach, focussing on all the things that people are worried about missing out on, rather than being excited to miss out on things that are meaningless. We shouldn’t be talking about the fear of missing out. Instead, we should be talking about the Joy of Missing Out and why being able to get away from the pointless noise is the best thing we can do!
The first thing we need to do is acknowledge that the digital world is filled with rubbish. Unfortunately, we have a generation of kids who have been baby sat by smartphones. (Receive another look of distain from our future descendants). Despite some great technology that’s been invented and some amazing digital gems out there, most of what occupies the digital world is noisy rubbish, deliberately designed to capture and hold our attention for ridiculous amounts of time. The idea that ‘something is happening in the world and I’m not part of it,’ is a mantra that marketing people want you to believe. The more we think we’re missing out, the more we need to be online getting bombarded by marketing messages. Therefore, the first thing we need to do is take it out of the equation and realise that what we’re actually missing out on are real relationships and experiences with real people.
The problem is that if we focus our attention on the fear of missing out on something. We actually miss the opportunity to be excited about the fact we can happily miss out on something and the world will not collapse. It will not implode if we don’t go online for a month or miss seeing what some random stranger ate for breakfast. It’s a challenge for us to retrain a generation addicted to the noise. However, it can be exciting missing out on something because through doing so, you can have an experience that nobody else is having.
Consequently, we should be focusing on the great benefits of missing out. One program I worked on, we took everyone’s phones for 24 days. The impact this had was so positive. Time was spent with each other, not with a random digital stranger that could now even be a chat bot. Students started to appreciate the fact that it really didn’t matter that they weren’t connected for extended periods of time. Their experiences were real and far more fulfilling than before. It’s a wonderful experience being able to disconnect from the world. Forget the FOMO and start focusing on the JOMO! It’s great not to have to worry about the endless noise and once we’ve instilled in others that it really is just noise, then we can start to help and support them to enjoy the moments they miss out. Enjoy the quiet. Enjoy finding his or her own fun and not relying on what the rest of the world tells them is fun.
The noisier the world gets, the more important it is for us as outdoor educators to help our students cut through that noise and appreciate the fact that sometimes missing out on what ‘everyone else is doing’ is the most joyful experience you can imagine.
Today we find ourselves at an exciting time in history. The digital revolution has dramatically changed the world and continues to do so at a frantic pace. Unfortunately, many people haven’t yet realized the scope of what’s going on. We’re in the midst of the second greatest Renaissance in the history of the world! Never before have we seen such upheaval and rapid change than that of the digital age. However, before we explore how the digital age is swiftly destroying the effectiveness of our traditional education system, let’s look back at the last Renaissance which took roughly 300 years to run its course.
From the 14th Century onwards, a radical shift in thinking occurred in Europe. Rather than just mindlessly stabbing each other with swords, knowledge was emerging as power. This social and cultural ‘rebirth’ which started in Italy, was driven by powerful families such as the Medici who sought out ancient texts from Greece, Rome and the Middle East. From this came different ways of thinking and monumental shifts in Art and Culture that transformed the world. A form of education known as Humanism reintroduced philosophy, poetry and progressive thinking to a Europe that was still emerging from the dark ages. The result was that now, nation states had more intelligent and well-educated people who could crack a witty joke before stabbing you with their sword.
Unlike today, during the Renaissance, England was in the process of exiting Europe after the 100 Years War, Russia had a slightly aggressive foreign policy stance and there was conflict in the Middle East. It was a time when the world was flat, the sun revolved around the earth and the printing press had just been invented. The Chinese had already invented similar mass production printing approximately 600 years earlier, but we shouldn’t let the facts get in the way of a good European story!
Legendary artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci and Michelangelo were busy sculpting and painting naked frescoes all over the Vatican. However, the Council of Trent in 1564, decided that nudity was shockingly unnatural and consequently employed another artist, Daniele da Volterra to take his paint brush to the shocking nudes and paint underpants on them, thus ending the constantly whispered sniggers of blushing visiting nuns.
Let’s now race ahead to the 18th and 19th centuries to the next period of massive upheaval, known as the Industrial Revolution. This was a time when Britannia ruled the waves, the Prussian government had just limited the working week for children to 51 hours and everyone was smart enough to realise that ‘clean coal’ was complete nonsense. Jobs were being lost to automation and children were far better at using new steam powered technology than their Luddite parents. From steam trains to ships and cotton mills, everything in England was being exponentially scaled up, including the mass production of education.
In 1833, the British Government passed the Factory Act, making it compulsory for children in factories to receive two hours of education a day. By 1880, it was compulsory for children up to the age of 10 to go to school and in 1902 a system of secondary schools was established. Thus the ‘modern’ education system was born most of which still remains in place today.
Born from the dark satanic mills of Industrial England, the world of 1902 is a far cry from the world of 2018! However, what’s both exciting and worrying at the same time is the fact that the world of 2030 can, and most likely will, be vastly different from today.
The first Renaissance took around 300 years to run its course. However, in the next 10 - 15 years, we face an enormous challenge as the digital tsunami of change bears down upon us! To be honest, teenagers being able to use snapchat to communicate has not been a huge leap for mankind. Despite the average teen’s ability to play with technological devices that have more processing power in them than the first moon landing, this has done little to prepare them for the change that’s upon us. According to a recent Four Corners report, over 5 million jobs will either disappear or be significantly restructured over the next 10 - 15 years, which is around 40% of the entire Australian workforce. We’re not talking 100 years. We’re not talking generational change over 50 years. We’re talking 10 Christmas’ dinners away and almost half the jobs in Australia will have permanently changed!
Where does that leave us as educators? To put it into a school context, for those of you who lead a K-12 school, the students who are now in Kindergarten will be graduating into a vastly different social and economic world. Businesses are automating every single process they can to reduce the need for and cost of human labour, as well as leveraging emerging technologies such as AI (Artificial Intelligence) and robots that can learn. Consequently, many ‘white collar’ jobs are now disappearing.
How do we address the new reality that’s bearing down upon us faster than a handshaking, baby-kissing politician on election day? Do we A). stick some more computers and a robot in a classroom and hope a bit more eLearning ‘fixes’ it? Or B) radically shift our thinking and approach, to prepare staff and students for a rapidly changing world?
For me, the only answer is B). However, the radical shift, is basically not so radical after all and something which was originally suggested over 100 years ago by Kurt Hahn and John Dewey that learning through experience and reflection is the best educational approach to help prepare students for the challenges and complexities of life.
After watching the Four Corners episode, I decided to start my research project and learn how other experiential educators are addressing the tsunami of change. Since podcasts are trendy right now, what better way than to create a podcast about experiential education? Turns out, it’s a great way to meet interesting people and learn from their experiences.
Added to this, I love to try new things and it’s something I’ve always encouraged staff and students, to do! If we’re not living somewhat outside our comfort zones, we’re not living much at all. When I recently jumped in the deep end and created Xperiential Education (the podcast), it was not only a new experience, but a challenging one into which I had to put a lot of thought, time and energy to make it work. From this, a really valuable picture emerged of shifts in education, preparing students for an unknown future.
As an outdoor education teacher, the first episode was all about outdoor education and I travelled to New Zealand to Tihoi Venture School near Lake Taupo where I spoke with the Director Cyn Smith about their long-stay residential program for Year 10 boys. It’s a back to basics program without technology that focusses on relationships and social and emotional growth through experience and reflection. Conversely, the final interview I did with Glenys Thompson, Deputy Principal of the Australian Science & Mathematics School (ASMS) in Adelaide with its STEM focus, is heavily tech-based. However, the educational methodology for this program is essentially the same as the Tihoi Venture School’s back to basics program. Ultimately, the ASMS program is not about the technology itself, which is often a trap into which STEM programs fall. It’s all about learning and growth through experience and reflection and has produced some amazing outcomes for students.
From outdoor ed, to science, to art, to drama and ultimately to the workplace, I’ve found the core principles needed for our students to be successful in a world of constant change regardless of the environment are: critical thinking, problem solving, risk taking, adaptability and teamwork. The only way to effectively build and develop these skills is from within the students themselves through practical experiential education. Real experiences, creating authentic teachable moments, lead to reflective practices and growth within students.
Teachers who are still spoon feeding all the answers to their students to ensure they do well in exams, are failing their classes dismally. Although schools that approach education this way may get some great ‘headline’ marks for their glossy brochures, their graduating students will find it increasinly difficult to cope in a world 10 - 15 years from now that requires a flexible and adaptable skill-set that cannot be rote learnt. It has to be through interactions with others and experiences that involve levels of risk and potential for failure that students learn best.
From this, a couple of key questions for school leaders come to mind, “What are we preparing our students for?” and “How can we prepare them?”
The ‘let’s keep doing what we’ve always done’ approach is bound to fail on every level, as it did during the first Renaissance and the Industrial Revolution. Let’s forget about those who don’t like change for the moment. They’re going to be left behind anyway. One of the most powerful drivers of our younger generation today is that of social justice. Millennials love a good cause, so why not leverage that in their education? The ASMS is doing exactly that, as they’ve structured their entire program around taking massive global social and economic issues that need addressing and empowering their students to develop practical solutions that leverage technology to create a better outcome for others in the world. Unless your students have that social and emotional context and skill set, this isn’t going to work well, but it’s exactly what’s needed to maximise the educational opportunities for students and prepare them for the challenges of the unknown future.
To help prepare your school, staff and students for those 10 short Christmases away and the seismic social and economic shift that’s happening around us, here’s a few suggestions:
1. If you don’t have an outdoor ed program, start one. The skills developed are the exact same critical thinking, adaptability and teamwork skills your students need to be successful in life. It also helps to build that elusive ‘resilience’ that everyone’s talking about these days.
2. Create some industry partnerships to allow students to work in businesses, social enterprises or community groups as part of an integrated, experiential education program. Many new jobs will be service-based and increasingly reliant on a person’s ability to socially interact with others. Create some authentic and mutually beneficial situations in which these interactions can occur.
3. Find ways to empower staff and students to adopt real causes and make a difference in the world. This sets the scene for a life of responsibility and consideration for others and will empower our students to shape this radically changing world with the values and moral compass they’ve been encouraged to build throughout their formative years at school.
However, the most important and the easiest thing to build into your school’s program is reflective practices.
“We do not learn from experience... we learn from reflecting on experience.” - John Dewy
The time spent on reviewing what worked, what didn’t and how to improve next time, is far more powerful than any other approach and is adaptable to any subject and situation. This allows students to take risks and fail, yet not be afraid of failure and that’s key to surviving and thriving in a world of constant change.
We’re now in the middle of the second renaissance or global rebirth, driven by the rapid changes in technology which are reshaping our world. Whilst our traditional education system still needs to be majorly overhauled to address this shift, we shouldn’t worry too much about the future. We have a generation of students who genuinely care about the world and we still have the ability to develop unique educational programs in our own schools which can develop the social and emotional skills needed for students to succeed in whatever they choose. We are living in the most exciting time in history and as educators, we can help shape a wonderful future for our students and the world no matter what happens in 5, 10, 20 or 100 years’ time!