When we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re expected to have answers or manage risk, this is a massive problem. How can we be expected to put systems in place and plan for contingencies if we don’t understand the situation or context of what we’re expected to be doing.
Many teachers find themselves in this exact situation and are expected to plan for something about which they know nothing. At this point, the major activity and operational risk comes from the person not knowing what they’re doing, rather than the potential inherent risks of the activity itself. Do we let inexperienced drivers get behind the wheel without any training or supervision? Thankfully not. Yet why are so many teachers allowed to run sports, excursions and activities with no idea, training nor experience in what they’re doing?
It literally makes no sense at all to allow someone to take on a role which requires them to plan for and mitigate risks, if they have no idea themselves. The increased risk here comes from the person not knowing what they’re doing at all and they’re simply making things up as they go, which is never good in terms of risk management.
A number of years ago we came across one such group on an expedition. We were in Kangaroo Valley and just starting out on an expedition when we came across a group just finishing an expedition. In talking with them, we quickly realised they had absolutely no idea what they were doing. Their whole risk management plan was apparently based upon the fact that one of the teachers went for a walk and saw a snake, therefore they went canoeing instead because the risk of the snake was too great. I really want to laugh at this point as on that exact same river, I saw a 3 metre Eastern Brown Snake in the water and then it slithered up onto the place we had just had lunch, so seeing a snake in the wild and basing your decision on risk management around a single sighting of a snake seems quite idiotic to be perfectly honest.
Essentially these guys had been out on a multi day canoe expedition with no canoe instructors, no maps, no communications devices and no backup plans. Everything has to run perfectly for them to be ok, which relying on luck for your management of risk, is never a good thing.
One wonders how this group was even allowed to go out on this trip with such a poor basis for the management of the inherent risks, let alone the operational risks which were so obvious to this trip. Unfortunately, trips like this go out every day with no idea what their real risks are and the consequences of this can be horrendous if something goes wrong.
The only way that this sort of situation can be avoided is through training and experience. If any organisation is sending staff out untrained and unprepared in terms of risk management, then they deserve everything they get if something goes wrong. Schools don’t allow untrained teachers in the classroom, so why do they allow untrained teachers in the field.
Whether the teacher is running the trip or not, they need to understand what they’re doing to ensure they’re capable and effective in managing the risks involved outside of the classroom. Therefore, they need to be trained and experienced in general risk management, as well as activity or program specific risk management, so they can minimise the risks involved. The risk of not knowing what you’re doing is far too great and negligent when there’s so many opportunities to get trained and get up to speed with factors of which you should be aware and doing the right things to ensure you’re running awesome, experiential educational programs.
If you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and don’t understand the risks involved or just need a refresher, then get some training today so that you can confidently manage risk no matter what the situation or context. Thus, always run awesome, educational programs for all your students.
OK! Before you fall asleep with the thought of two days of risk management training, hear me out!
What are the most exciting things you do in education? It probably has nothing to do with sitting in a classroom and completing worksheets. Each year, that puts countless people to sleep.
Education needs to be dynamic, exciting and engaging to equip students with the skills they need for life. However, to run really cool programs like this, we usually have to step outside the school gates and engage with the real world.
Only problem is that when we do this, there’s a whole stack of inherent risks with which we’re suddenly confronted. Everything from your usual stack of peanut allergies, to your bus strangely catching on fire, which to be clear was not actually my fault.
The randomness and richness of the world outside the school gates is the most amazing place in which to learn, but if we’re not trained and equipped to plan for and manage risks in this environment, then we’re putting ourselves and our students at risk.
At this point we have three options:
Don’t go! It’s all too hard! School’s not about the real world anyway. If you take this option, you probably should have become an accountant or a public servant, perhaps both. Complete risk aversion is pointless and damaging and should be avoided.
Just do it! Grab your bags, kids and let’s go! If you take this option, which unfortunately, I’ve seen many teachers do, then you’re setting yourself up for some major problems. Anything can and does go wrong in these situations where well-intentioned teachers don’t take the time to plan, prepare for and run their programs carefully.
Have a structured, well-planned approach for all of your programs which documents the steps you need to take to ensure your group is well managed and the focus is on great experiential education outcomes for students, with robust systems in place for contingencies to support this.
For me, the only option when running any excursion, camp, sport or activity is Option 3. However, most schools are operating somewhere in between Option 1, 2 and 3 with many teachers confused about their role and responsibilities when planning and running any programs. Even experienced staff can struggle with this.
You must put the time, energy and effort into building a well-formed plan no matter what the activity is. It could be just going down the road to visit the local court. It could be a year level camp, or an overseas trip. Whatever the case is, you need to ensure you’ve planned for normal operations and contingencies if something doesn’t go to plan, which invariably will be the case. One trip I was on, I received a phone call to say that one of the 5th Grade students had been taken to hospital with a fish hook in his arm! I was pretty surprised by this, since there was no fishing on the program, yet here we were with fish hook in the arm, right next to a vein.
Risk Management Training prepares you for weird random stuff like this and how to respond quickly and effectively no matter what the context.
With a non-delegable duty of care, you also can’t outsource your risk management to another organisation, even if they suggested you can. It just doesn’t work that way.
Instead, you and your school are ultimately responsible for the duty of care over your students for any trips you’re on.
“But they didn’t tell us that at uni!” I hear you say! True, unis don’t actually equip teachers with most of the skills they need with which to teach, but that’s another matter.
At the end of the day, if you’re running any sort of excursion, camp, sport, overseas trip or any other sort of school activity which requires you to produce a risk assessment, you need to be trained in risk management. It’s no good just to copy and paste what the last untrained person produced and put your name to it. That’s a dangerous precedence which will come back to bite you.
Risk management training isn’t about putting you to sleep for two days. It’s about giving you clarity and confidence through practical experienced-based training on how to run effective and safe programs. Get in touch with us today to see how you can build this training in to your professional development schedule to ensure you’re running the best programs possible for your students.
Where do you start with Risk Management? With any experiential education, you have a professional responsibility to pro-actively manage risk. This is an ever-evolving and dynamic skill-set that you develop over the years through training and experience. It’s something we can never take for granted. We take a look at some of the challenges we face in managing risk and what can happen, when things don’t go to plan.
In this episode, we talk with Paul Tame, who is a leading risk management trainer with Xcursion Risk Management Training, Lead corporate management trainer for Zen Training & Senior lecturer at Western State Uni Colorado. We take a dive into risk management for experiential education and touch on a few challenges we all face when planning and running programs.
Risk Management Podcast Episode - Paul Tame & David Gregory Talk Risk Management!
Often things look great on paper. However, how does that translate into the real world? With risk management for any sort of activity, it needs to be a living and breathing culture within your organisation and not just a bit of paperwork someone completed and then filed away.
For more information on Paul’s work and the organisations he’s worked with over the years, check out:
Zen For Business
Xcursion Risk Management
Western State Uni
And Crested Butte a fun ski resort we’ve skied together at:
For more information on Denali:
Most people overlook behaviour when preparing a risk assessment for any program. To be perfectly honest, in my experience, most people struggle to understand what they need to do to assess risk for an activity, which is fair enough as there’s no training for this at uni and most teachers don’t need to know, until they really do. Whilst I won’t go through what you need to do here, even if someone is experienced in doing this, one thing often missed is the increasing problem children and teens are facing around social anxiety and how this is impacting on parents’ understating of what real risk is and why doing something different isn’t going to kill their child, but sitting on their device for almost eight hours a day could.
Due to some rubbish parenting and everyone’s individualistic desire to be the same, children have been given a lot of addictive devices from which they can suffer withdrawals. Their brains are smashed with marketing, body image messages and a filtered view of the world. Whilst in the past, our brains were attuned to be anxious about large animals which may kill us and eat us. This moved on to having your village raided by Vikings and being forced into slavery and even in fewer than the past 100 years heading off to war to fight the real threat of Nazis taking over the world. To ensure our survival, our brains are wired to help us fight or flee from threats to our safety. However, what happens when the world becomes safer, wars less frequent and the change of being eaten by wild animals almost entirely a thing of the past? Are we a happy and progressive world where we look out for each other? No, we’re in an increasingly individualistic world that has little regard for others and are becoming increasingly worried about things that don’t exist.
Whilst the Salem witch trials might be an extreme example of this, it does have merit. What happened in that situation was that mass hysteria overtook people’s ability to think for themselves and countless people became worried about someone putting a curse on them, or turning them into a newt. This self-fulfilling prophecy not only in Salem, but throughout England during this period, resulted in tens of thousands of innocent people being hanged, drowned and burnt to death.
“But that was in the past,” I hear you say and people don’t believe in witches anymore! Well true, but that’s not the point. The point is that people’s irrational fears took over. In the absence of any real threat or danger, people make it up in their minds. The same is true of many students and parents today when it comes to understanding risk and the activities they’ll experience outside of school.
We create new ways of worrying, especially when there’s actually not that much about which to worry. The chance of being killed by a terror attack is extremely low. Wars across the globe are at the lowest point in history. Most people in developed countries have access to plenty of clean drinking water and food. People have plenty of opportunities for work and freedom of movement and association, yet people are often irrationally worried about going on camp, or abseiling. In terms of outdoor activities, abseiling is one of the safest activities you can do, yet this causes a huge amount of anxiety. The reality is that driving your kids to and from school each day is one of the most dangerous things you can do. More people die in road accidents every week than they do in a year or two or more in outdoor education.
With such a disconnect, how do we start having this conversation about risk with parents? Firstly, explain a bit about the current state of the world and back it with some stats. People are always quite surprised by this. Then explain a situation where you went up to a stranger and started chatting with them. What was the fear? How did that make you feel? What happened when they started chatting back to you and you discovered they were a really interesting person. If you haven’t done this, do this and then you’ll know what I mean and you’ll have a story to tell.
Talk about the growth associated with taking risks. Turn it over to the parents. What was something you did as a child that was fun but your parents didn’t know or what was the last time you took a risk with something new? How did it feel? What did you learn?
The reality is that most people’s fears are now grounded well and truly in the fantasy world with social media making it easier for parents and students to reinforce their own beliefs about a topic, no matter how stupid that topic may be. For example, a parent searching for bush walking fatalities, will end up down a rabbit hole which is solely focussed on how people have died in the bush. By doing this, they discount everything about the fact that bush walking is incredible for students to get out and about and learn about themselves and others. Social media and google searches will filter everything out and now the parents’ world is just a clouded mind of bush walking fatalities and just like witches, nothing else is right with the world until we ban it or get rid of it, which will then lead them to support groups for angry parents to want to ban bush walking and on it goes.
Unfortunately, it’s our job to bring them back to reality, because this is the exact same thing that’s dragging their kids down into other rabbit holes of pain, despair and other people who are always far happier, more successful and wealthier than they are. At the end of the day, most of this is total rubbish and yet it’s what children and parents are believing. Let’s bring them back to reality. Talk with them about social risks, social anxiety and maybe facing this fear is far harder than facing down a bear charging at you looking for a tasty meal (although this would have to be in North America, as our Koalas are way too stoned on gin leaves to care).
Often what I’ve seen is a huge amount of social anxiety prior to camps as both parents and students fear disconnecting from the world. The fact is that most of it’s a complete load of crap, but trying to get the socially anxious to understand this, is a much harder task than simply stating the obvious. At your next pre-camp briefing, call this out. Show them some stats and get them grounded in some level of reality.
I know it’s been a year longer than we had hoped, but now, despite the current global issues, which reminds me of the Billy Joel song, ‘We Didn’t Start The Fire’, we’re back for season 2 of the Xperiential Education podcast!
This season, we cover all sorts of great programs from art, to science, to risk management, to outdoor ed, to a really wonderful student-led medical program and a few things in between. The depth and breadth of the podcast and our guests, highlights how important it is for students today to learn to be adaptable problem solvers.
Season 2 is brought to you by Xcursion Risk Management, for all of your risk management training and software needs for running great experiential education programs.
For more info, guest suggestions and other feedback visit:
In life, we can always come up with ten reasons for not doing something. The negative talk of most people determines why something shouldn’t be done more often than why it should be done. In general, people don’t like to take risks and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
However, taking risks is how we grow and develop. If we’re so risk averse that we’re not willing to try anything new, then this really doesn’t allow us to reach our potential on any level. Yet when most people encounter something new or different, they will run through in their minds all the reasons why it won’t work, rather than all the reasons why it will.
This is common at work and in people’s social lives. The comfort of knowing the outcome is a wonderful thing to be able to hold onto as it gives us certainty, which is always comfortable to have. However, this certainty can often hold us back from interesting and exciting experiences.
One really good example of this is abseiling. Over the years, despite this being a really safe activity to do, abseilling has been the most challenging activity I’ve seen for many students and teachers alike. You can see them talking themselves down, even before you get started. Some people won’t even put on a harness because they’re afraid of heights, rock falls, ropes breaking, slipping back, falling off the cliff, being dropped off the cliff, the rope being cut, the anchor giving way, the double anchor giving way, looking stupid or afraid whilst on the rope. Despite this huge bunch of negative talk, what’s the one reason you should forget all of this and just go for it?
Now I can’t answer this for anyone, but what’s important is that we encourage people we’re working with to find the one reason for doing something. This might not be easy, as the easiest thing to often do is nothing, but where does that get us? It disempowers people and means they will never be able to live up to their potential.
The irony of all this is that often by not doing anything, or taking any risks, people end up with a false sense of what real risks are and often the risk of doing nothing is far greater than the risk of giving something a go.
When you’re setting up an activity which might have a high-level of perceived risk and a high-level of resistance from participants, why not chat with them about the benefits of taking a risk on something. Use a tangible example of that as well, to ensure they can see how and why finding the one reason to do something, versus the ten reasons not to. This is massively beneficial to their own personal development and growth.
There will always be plenty of reasons not to do something in life, but if nobody took any sort of risk, then we’d still be living in caves. Even if something doesn’t work out the way we thought it would, taking that risk can mean we end up having a wonderful and unexpected experience and learn and grow from this. This is followed by other experiences we have as a result of finding that one reason why, versus the ten reasons why not.
Take a risk today! Try something new and different and surprise yourself as to how wonderful that new experience can be.
Over 50 years ago, the first year 9 residential outdoor ed programs started to emerge. It was a good idea! Nobody likes year 9s. (14-15 years old) They’re moody, annoying, think they know everything and don’t pay any attention in class. Consequently, sending them out to the bush somewhere where they were someone else’s problem was a genius idea. Why not send Year 8 as well? In fact, let’s send any students that regular classroom teachers struggle with! It would probably make their lives better.
Rather than address the fact that ‘main stream’ education is a complete waste of time, getting rid of students from the school is a much simpler solution to a far more complex problem. However, I’ll avoid going off on too much of a tangent for the moment in why our whole education system is broken and focus on the real issue. Sending year 9s away is now a huge waste of time.
Granted, everyone still loves to get rid of their year 9 students. I’ve never heard a single teacher say, “Oh I’m going to miss having my year 9s here.” No, the resounding sound of champagne corks popping throughout the school can still be heard every time a bus departs for a year 9 campus. Parents equally love the chance to make their dysfunctional year 9s someone else’s problem and spend time travelling or just enjoying going out for romantic dinners again. Which is all very nice, but to what real end?
If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a year 9 residential program, most of them are structured around a rural or remote setting in which both outdoor pursuits are undertaken, as well as an academic program. Many that I have come across are just boarding schools in the bush, so not really outdoor Ed programs as such, but a seemingly great way to hide and lock up your year 9s from the outside world.
Having worked on year 9 residential programs for many years, they’ve either been too long, too short or have lacked clarity and purpose. The students, in my experience, have only really benefited through osmosis and the true educational value of a residential program more often than not, was completely lost on them and the school. Sure, it was a good piece of marketing for the school and you could dump a whole year group somewhere else for a bit, but what was the point? Other than getting all students into a regular daily routine and doing a few jobs, very little else in terms of longer lasting growth was ever achieved.
From all the years of running programs and expeditions with year 9s, I was convinced that we were running them for the wrong year group entirely. The concepts of goal setting, leadership, teamwork and sacrifice are somewhat foreign to the self-centred, self-focussed year 9s. More often than not, you barely shifted the dial in their lives. They simply lack the maturity to truly benefit from a residential experience in which expectations are high and independence is the key theme. Sure, they still get something out of it, but let’s be honest. Take anyone away for an extended period of time and something will happen. Therefore, why not rethink this flawed concept and move to a year 10 program instead?
One year makes a huge difference in the level of maturity and adolescents’ ability to appreciate, engage with and learn from a residential experience. If you want to introduce concepts such as leadership, introduce it with students who are starting to have some idea of what that means and an understanding of its implementation and benefit. Too often I see teachers insert the word leadership and they have no idea and understanding themselves as to what this really means. For year 9s who struggle with the concept, it can be overwhelming and confusing, or else set them up with the idea of how great they are… when they’re really not.
However, Year 10s (15-16 year olds) are at a tipping point. If you want to have a far greater impact on a young person’s life, it’s going to be during this year. Much of the unruly, lame attitude and behaviour of year 9 has been dispensed with and now, they’re far more open to self-reflection and growth. You can realistically approach them and the residential program with a far greater focus on being independent, critical thinking risk takers and problem solvers than you can with year 9s. Working with year 10s gives you a far greater opportunity to help them build character, explore what’s important to them in life and focus on leadership and life skills in preparation for their senior years, thus setting them up for life.
The difference in maturity in these two year groups is stark and the results would be too. For year 9s, you spend 80% of the program battering them around the head with rules and program structures to help stop them from doing dumb things and making stupid decisions. When they finally get it, you’ve only got 20% of the program left to be able to do anything useful with them. However, with year 10s, you have the potential to reverse this and instead spend 20% on structure and 80% on the experiential learning and reflection.
To continue to run year 9 residential programs is a phenomenal waste of time and missed educational opportunity. As the world changes and we need to up-skill students with a far more diverse set of flexible, adaptable critical thinking and adaptable experiential skills, we need to look at ways of maximising the impact of this during their time at school. Why waste all that time, energy and effort on rule enforcement with a year group that will struggle to truly understand and embrace the opportunity before them? Instead, it’s time we ditched year 9 programs and move them to year 10. As a result, the long-term benefit to students and the community will be vastly different and truly set students up for success.
For me and many others in Australia, the transition from Christmas to the New Year has been incredibly stressful and disconnected from what we would usually think is a wonderful holiday period. We’ve finished 2019 and started 2020 having experienced some of the most horrendous bush fire conditions anyone has ever seen and at such a large scale.
Whilst some of the most catastrophic days have past, there remains a clear and present danger in terms of fires. However, with any risk, it’s in the assessment and active review of that risk that we’re able to effectively manage those risks.
In recent days, I’ve heard of a number of schools cancelling their entire outdoor education programs. I have absolutely no idea what idiotic thought process was involved in these decisions. In fact, it’s worse than that. If you have people running these programs who are willing to take them all out of the field on such a thin premise, then those people shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near an outdoor ed program, let alone a school, as it doesn’t demonstrate any level of reasonable thought nor leadership on what has been a devastating concern, yet at the same time, not an insurmountable risk.
Being able to understand the difference between perceived risk and real risk is important for those running an outdoor ed program, or any school excursion or activity for that matter. Certainly, parent perception is a risk, but it’s not a dangerous risk, it’s more of an unpleasant risk in the grand scheme of things. However, if you clearly explain decisions based upon real evidence and have professional, well-trained and experienced risk managers running your programs, then this is not a real risk at all.
On the surface, it would appear that schools have cancelled programs because of this perceived risk and perceived parental opinion, rather than any real risk. The real risk in all of this, is that it reinforces the fear that many students might have about the outdoors and it’s much easier just to give up than to actually manage the risks at hand. As camp is the only thing many students remember about their schooling, sorry to say kids, for some of you 2020 won’t be very memorable.
Whilst we should never underestimate the dangers which come with bushfires, it’s important that as an industry and educators, we don’t waste an opportunity for students to learn. With all outdoor education in Australia, the level of real risk is quite low and when it’s managed and run by experienced professionals, the prevalence of injuries and significant events is also very, very low. Why then would a school ignore the industry’s high standards and simply cancel everything? Are their risk management systems and staff so inadequate that they’re incapable of managing an environmental risk? Or have they taken advice from idiots who have never worked in the field before?
Even though we can’t be blasé about safety nor the potential real risks involved with bushfires in the summer months, we also can’t afford to be so risk averse that it damages a student’s experience and builds fear into them about the outdoors and the natural environment. Throughout my career in outdoor education and risk management, we’ve had to pull the pin on a number of programs because of a change in conditions or circumstances and you could see the elevation of the level of risk heading to the point of an unacceptable risk. Therefore, it was time to adapt to the circumstances and change what we were doing. However, every time we did this, it was based upon real risk management and operational thresholds that have not changed the way in which we would, nor should view the current situation in Australia. Our risk management systems are progressive and leverage all of the available information, from public sourced services, news reports and real-time information on the ground. Basing decisions on good risk management practices is always critical to the success of your programs, no matter what. These fire events have not changed that in any way, shape or form and the core principles of good risk and program management remain the same.
The reason why we manage risk in a professional and systematic way is so that we can make well-informed decisions based upon current circumstances and conditions and despite the impact of major social and environmental events, we can continue to operate in a safe and professional manner. The reverse is also true, when people don’t understand how to effectively manage risk, they make ill-informed and rash decisions which either result in serious injuries or ridiculous decisions such as cancelling everything because those responsible for these programs don’t have the skills, knowledge or confidence to pro-actively understand and manage the risks involved.
Just last year several people were injured in a pre-Christmas shopping centre crush as an ill-conceived giveaway promotion went horribly wrong! Many people also die on our roads travelling at this time of the year. Do we cancel Christmas? No that would be stupid… and so is this.
One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you, don't do anything at all
Before you get too worried about my state of mind, if you haven’t worked out the reference already, you should go and play White Rabbit by Jefferson Aeroplane. One, it’s a cool song and two, it’s suitably trippy for this article! If you don’t get what it all means, that’s ok. It’s basically a drug trip song that’s used in just about every TV and movie drug montage ever with the connection to Alice In Wonderland.
Anyway, before I explain it to death, this week, we’re talking about drugs!!!! Today there’s no shortage of them. Students are on just about everything you can imagine to get them moving and motivated, to slow them down and focus them. To stop them sleeping, to make them sleep. To make them more productive, to make them less destructive. To fight bacteria, to promote bacteria. To balance them out, to unbalance them out! To get them regular, to stop them being too regular!
It’s a wonderful world of pharmaceutical profits in every schoolbag! Doctors seem to give out drugs more often than candy… which they’re no longer allowed to give out, because candy may contain traces of nuts.
Whilst drugging kids up to their eyeballs is entirely up to the parents and their doctors, the problem is that teachers then get lumped with this huge responsibility of administering medications when they take students away on camps. Most teachers in my experience are ill-equipped to do this and lack the confidence to do it properly.
In most cases, giving medications is fairly straight forward. You look at the packet and what it says on the box and you follow the instructions. Generally, it’s usually no more than giving a pill, a puff or a small dose of some sort of liquid. If staff are being asked to provide an injecting service, perhaps mum, dad or the doctor should come on camp instead.
Even though it’s a fairly simple process, it can be overwhelming with everything else that’s going on during camp. I found this to be the case on one camp program where we had a lot of students who required daily medications and a lot of other things happening at the same time. It wasn’t until one teacher forgot a student’s ADHD medications in the morning that the problem became really apparent. If you can imagine Bart Simpson on steroids, that’s pretty much what the student turned into without his meds. It didn’t make for a good day at work. Instead, it was just containment and damage control until bedtime thirteen hours later. It’s not something I ever want to go through again. The problem is that it’s so easy to forget medication in this way as one distraction on camp can lead to another and whilst every teacher is trying their best to manage, sometimes things like this can slip through the cracks.
So, how did I solve this crack problem? Well I built an app to remind teachers when medications were due. It triggered alerts 5mins before the medication was due and then another 5mins afterwards if something was missed. Then it was a simple checkbox that showed the right medication, the right student and once it was administered, it was timestamped. This became a core feature of the Xcursion platform and now one of its most frequently used functions.
So now despite the tidal wave of speed coming your way to slow those manic kids down, you can be assured that you’ll be able to get every pill to every student that needs it, on time, every time. It will leave you comfortably numb and happy in the knowledge that you’ve supplied a stack of controlled drugs to small children and prevented them from go troppo all day.
But if you don’t have a way of tracking this with something like the Xcursion app and instead decide to go chasing rabbits, and you know you're going to fall. The best defence when things go completely wrong is to Tell 'em a hookah-smoking caterpillar has given you the call. Just ask Alice, when she's ten feet tall…
There are two major things with which humans aren’t great. Change and uncertainty. Unfortunately, for those who struggle with both of these things, modern life is becoming increasingly challenging, as they’re now a huge reality of the fast-paced digital world.
I don’t want to delve too much into the impact of change, as it’s a whole thing unto itself. However, what I’ve noticed is that avoidance of uncertainty in teenagers appears to becoming worse and worse and somewhat detrimental to their experience of life. However, I don’t want to blame teens for this. I want to blame their parents as they’re the ones predominantly responsible for bringing them up and providing a world view that either helps or hinders their ability to deal with uncertainty.
I’ve noticed this trend over the past few years on camps and expeditions. The desire for instant answers on everything caused by search engine education and a sense of every moment of the day being carefully scheduled without deviation, presents a massive problem when things don’t go to plan. The problem is that life isn’t always straight forward, nor is it predictable. In fact, quite the opposite is true and life can often be a chaotic mess of which at times, is hard to make sense. Yet, we find ourselves increasingly teaching students who are quite incapable of dealing with uncertainty.
This is a problem on many levels. Gone are the days in which someone could live their life with little to no change or variance in what they did. In times past, people could go to school, leave, get a job and stay in that job until they retired. For many people, leaving their own town or village would have been unheard of and travel wasn’t something that many people did to find work or simply move around. However, this has not only changed, but dramatically shifted to another extreme. Employment is becoming increasingly casualised in many parts of the world, with tech companies saying how wonderful the ‘gig’ economy is, which for the record it’s not! It’s forcing many people into serious underemployment and a constant need to change and re-invent what they’re doing.
Whilst the change of the workforce is a whole massive issue unto itself, it’s just part of the overall continuous change that is happening in our world. Change is constant and change can be taxing on the most dynamic and resilient of us.
What does this mean for students who want to avoid uncertainty? Unfortunately, it means they’re going to seriously struggle in life. Much of the resistance I’m seeing today for students to get involved in something, involves higher-order thinking. Problem solving and adaptability. Whenever they’re forced into taking a longer amount of time to work out an answer, they can’t do it, or more to the point, don’t even try. Instead, they give up because they can’t search for or quickly come to an answer.
It’s therefore important for us to help the avoider face uncertainty. The only way for them to develop the skills needed to cope in the modern world is for them to face uncertainty. In outdoor ed, we can do it by standing back and watching students figure things out for themselves and only step in if there’s a safety issue. This forces action and decision-making processes in students which aren’t being used on a day to day basis. No longer can they have the answer searched for them, nor will every minute of their day be scheduled so they know what’s happening next and at what time.
The spoon-feeding for exams approach that I’ve seen so many schools take, has only reinforced this practice of uncertainty avoidance and for us to adequately prepare students for an ever-changing world, then we need to do more to expose them to uncertainty and give them opportunities to work with that uncertainty, try something new and achieve an outcome that is not scripted in anyway. When we can be doing this for all education, then we might just be able to train the next generation to not only cope with change, but thrive in a very different environment that will continue to change and evolve in 5, 10, 20 and 50 years time. The ability to embrace and deal with uncertainty, is a far greater skill to have than simply knowing the answer to an exam, or where to find it. This is a huge challenge, but one that outdoor and experiential educators are well-equiped to not only meet, but exceed expectations for how well they can do this and ultimately equip students with the right skills for the new digital age.