If you’ve ever worked with someone who lacks or has lost their passion for what they’re doing, it’s often an unpleasant experience to say the least. Now I’m not here to say that long relentless hours equate to passion. In fact, it can be quite the opposite having worked with some people who equated hours at work to the measure of their work. Sadly, no matter how long some of them spent at work, it was never going to add up to anything more than a wasted car space in the car park.
As I’m a strong believer in delivering good, effective programs for students, hours spent don’t always come into this mix. Instead, it’s the ability of staff to engage with students, inspire and be effective that are the most important components of this.
Anyone can sit at a desk or in a classroom and use up lots of hours. It literally takes no talent at all to do this. A former colleague of mine was just amazed at this. He could be at work for 12-16 hours and do nothing. In fact, it was worse than that. Many days, it was less than nothing and that created more problems for everyone else to fix. However, thankfully people like this usually get moved on quickly, or should be.
Tired, exhausted teachers no matter how passionate they might be, can never be truly effective. Therefore, there needs to be that mystical balance that everyone seems to talk about, but like Eldorado and Saadam’s WMDs, nobody can find.
Most people go into careers because they’re passionate about it. However, many work places manage to smash that enthusiasm right out of them, which at the end of the day is a wasted opportunity. I’d rather have passionate staff who keep throwing ideas at me for how we can do things better or how we can build things up, rather than staff who like the status quo and you have to drag them kicking and screaming through any modicum of change.
Consequently, the real challenge is often not the development of passion in staff, but creating an environment in which passion is valued. Too often, I’ve seen passion and enthusiasm destroyed by hopeless organisations that think that doing the same thing over and over again is the only way to do it. The world changes, people change and if you don’t like change, then perhaps education is not the right place for you.
This doesn’t mean you have to take on every crazy new idea that staff come up with, but what it does mean is that developing a culture in which new ideas are welcomed and valued, is a vital basis to build and retain staff who have a great passion for what they do and are motivated by what will produce the best educational outcomes for students. If this means trying something new, then try something new! It’s better to listen to twenty crazy ideas, three of which could be brilliant and the other seventeen pointless, but those three ideas could have a massive and lasting impact on the lives of countless staff and students and flow on to the community and generations to come. However, stamping out ideas has the opposite effect and an organisation can become so stale and ineffective that it loses staff, it loses new fresh ideas and just becomes as standardised factor for processing students.
You don’t want a scenario like this, because trying to deal with unmotivated staff is hard work!! It’s much harder, in my experience, than encouraging new ideas to be shared, trialed and implemented in a process of continuous improvement. In this scenario, it’s the lazy and dispassionate staff that self-select their way out of the organisation to go and do something less challenging or to find another school that’s going nowhere fast.
The only way we can face the rapidly changing world is through embracing new ideas and encouraging those around us to share their passion. Through this, we can build cultures that value how fluid and dynamic education can and should be to ensure we’re producing the best results for everyone.
With the world flooded with toxic, attention-grabbing software that is specifically designed to divert your attention and emotions, it’s easy to become very cynical about the place mobile devices and software play in people’s lives. However, as with everything, there are good sides and bad sides to things such as technology and software.
The challenge is not just to ignore what’s going on around us or decide that we should smash it all. That didn’t end well for the luddites and nor will it end well for a rejection of technology. This is just disconnected from the reality of the digital world, and whilst it might be a lot of fun to smash a few servers with a sledgehammer every now and then, it doesn’t really help much over the long-term.
Instead, the challenge is to build a more human element into technology. ‘What the hell are you talking about?’ I hear your cry! ‘We don’t want human robots!’ No, actually I agree with you on that too. We definitely don’t want human looking robots. That just opens up so many questionable moral issues that falsely suggests human-like characteristics. Whilst it can be fun to imagine a sentient being created out of digital circuit boards, this is still just a computer with as many real human qualities as Kermit the Frog has and every other talking animal on TV.
What do we need and want? As a software developer, I believe we have a moral obligation to develop software that improves our ability to be human and build relationships, not disconnect and filter them, which seems to be the fashion of the tech world right now. Therefore, it’s important than any new platform or feature should consider the human impact. What will the end result be for the users? Is it going to help, hinder, or completely manipulate them?
We should be looking for cool ways in which we can leverage technology to benefit others and not to just benefit marketing companies or venture capitalists. At the end of the day, digital technologies allow us to create massive advantages for humanity as a whole. They bring people out of poverty, eliminate pointless repetitive tasks and enable a whole new level of attention to detail and personalised service. Why not focus our energies on looking for ways to improve experiences through software? Time, which is everyone’s most expensive and limited resource, can be better spent with friends, family and being part of a real community with real people, which has kept our societies going for thousands of years.
One of the things we built into our software platform was reminders to check on students who have been sick or injured. Sure, it’s another notification on your phone, of which there are many. However, what’s the impact of this? On a busy day, you get a reminder to check up on a student. You go and check up on the student, see how he or she is feeling and if there’s anything else you can do to help that student. What impact have you just had on the student’s day? What positive feelings are left about your care and concern for the student?
This is something I believe is critically important to the design of all systems. What is the end result going to be? What positive human impact have we helped to facilitate? I also noticed this on a flight recently. It was a long-haul flight from Sydney to the UK. One of the stewards came up to me to chat. He knew my name, but called me Mr Gregory, which was nice, but completely unnecessary. He asked how the flight was going and if he could get anything else for me before we landed. Again, this is clever use of software to help facilitate the positive experience for someone on a 23 hour flight. This makes flying from A to B a slightly less stressful and far better experience as the human touch of relationship-building and individual care and management was leveraged through smart and appropriate use of technology.
The more we can build systems like these to assist us in being better humans and remind us to take the time to talk with others and help them out, the better the situation. I should also highlight at this point that it’s not just about ticking a box. The person using the technology must also have the skills and demeanour to genuinely care and about those being helped. Technology is just a useful means through which what people do is able to be improved and enhanced.
Before we take the sledgehammer to the server room to try and recapture life as we knew it, it’s worth considering the benefit of responsible and ethical software development. The digital world is here to stay. At least it is until someone blows everything up and the planet gets over-run by apes who somehow learn how to speak English and enslave humanity. Anyway, until that happens, how can we develop better use technology that enables us to leverage all the positive traits of humanity to support us in being part of a real community and allow us to spend less time ‘online’ and more time thoughtfully engaged in real human activities with real people? What is it in your job, your workplace or industry that could leverage such an approach and embrace the use of technology to help improve the human connections? This is the challenge and the responsibility of software developers. Build something that’s useful and helps people in their lives to better connect with others. Spend time saved by technology with others and not just drowning in a bottomless sea of shallow likes.
Let’s build something useful and real. If nothing else, at least it’ll keep the apes at bay for a few more years.
Schools love to market themselves these days as being not only a place to gain an academic education, but also a place in which they can get every other bit of education possible.
From breakfast club to late afternoon care, you could off load your child somewhere for at least twelve hours a day!! But wait there’s more! You could then fill that twelve hours with so much stuff that your child is always exhausted from the relentless schedule of non-stop ‘compulsory fun’ activities that can even extend into the weekend! This will give you the time away from your children, so you don’t have to listen to them endlessly talk about making the world a better place and also a great chance to get to the gym or that great bar you used to frequent before ‘they’ came along.
This might be a bit over the top, but there really is an increasing danger that more and more schools are enabling in their parent and student body and that’s too much involvement at school through way too many offerings and the over scheduling of children’s lives.
Don’t get me wrong! I love co-curricular programs and I learnt more about life and the world from them than I ever did in the classroom. I think that a good co-curricular program is, in fact, vitally important to provide real experiential education opportunities to build relationships, work together, show leadership and give back to the community. The problem is that we have increasingly seen the value in activities other than the regular classroom, but instead of building them into a school curriculum and the standard school day, we’re stuffing them on top as ‘added extras.’
However, the ‘added extras’ approach doesn’t give anytime for kids to be kids. In the pursuit of value adding, we’re risking becoming detrimental to the health and welfare of students by expecting too much of them all the time. I’ve seen this over the years in outdoor education. As soon as you take a group away, where days have been so over scheduled they haven’t had the time to think, when you give them the time to think, they struggle with it.
Rather than cut back on these programs at school, we instead need a curriculum which enables them to be part of the regular day. This way, we can continue to provide the great value of experiential education, but also give our students the time to reflect upon and learn from these experiences. Thus students can get more value out of less time spent on something and as a result, can find themselves growing faster than ever before.
I do enjoy a good dystopian fiction, from 1984 to The Hunger Games and Fahrenheit 451. They all describe a future in which society has ‘embraced’ some form of totalitarian government for their own ‘protection.’ As a result, the few in power, control everything and in the case of Fahrenheit 451, technology is one of the key tools which is employed to track and monitor citizens and help restrict the amount of information to which people have access.
Whilst the idea of ‘big brother’ watching is nothing new, I can imagine George Orwell being horrified by the ease with which people have given up so much of their privacy and freedom in the name of ‘safety.’
Why am I talking about dystopian futures in an experiential education blog? Mainly because from what I’m seeing with technology, corporations and governments today, it worries me. I don’t want to sound paranoid, but let’s not forget that it’s not even been a century since the world was brought to the brink by the Second World War and Russia is still feeling the hangover from that horrendous experience.
We now have a generation growing up addicted and reliant on devices, through which information can potentially be controlled. With studies showing that social media has been designed to manipulate behaviour, this isn’t a huge leap to the next step of further controls to ‘help’ teens stay ‘safe.’
What happens if our whole experience and existence gets taken online and then filtered back to us with only what marketing, corporations and governments want us to hear? It’s potential for disaster. Whilst I hope this sort of thing will never happen, the risk is however, that it is now far easier to listen to, track calls, monitor online behaviour and develop a profile of someone with predictive behaviour analysis than ever before. If our next generation becomes too reliant on technology for everything, their exposure to potential despotism by stealth, is not so much paranoia, but a scary possible future reality.
Therefore, what can we do? For one, keep pushing real experiences in the real world. Help students think critically so they can understand the difference between the fake nonsense of the internet and the reality of the world and teach them how to leverage technology and not be leveraged by technology. If they have a sense of curiosity and are always willing to ask questions and demand reasons why, we can help them to be protected from the dangers of a future in which AIs monitor everything everyone does.
With rapid digital change, we have a great responsibility to this next generation to help them build a world that is not controlled by soulless corporations, despotic politicians and softly spoken AIs that want to kill you. Let’s help build a world that’s more Star Trek, than 1984, because at this point in time, both are possible in the not too distant future.
Being a teenager has always been hard. You’re no longer a kid, but not yet an adult. Suddenly, you’re thrust into a confusing world full of miss-matched messages and expectations. In the past, this wasn’t as big a deal as it is today, as the outside world crept in at a much slower pace.
Yet one of the enormous challenges for teenagers today is the fact that the world doesn’t creep in slowly. It’s an unmitigated, relentless attack. Children and teenagers are constantly smacked around the head with marketing, social media and masses of uninformed noise around body image, relationships and how to live life in general. Added to this, they don’t even need to leave home to be exposed to this.
As a society, our children are spending more time indoors than ever before. Whilst I won’t go into too much detail about this, the reality is that in previous generations, teenagers went out to discover and experience the world for themselves. Some would find suitable amounts of trouble to get into and learn from these experiences. However, now teenagers have the world, or a distorted version of it at least, come to them.
Teenagers spend a lot of time in their bedrooms. This has probably always been the case as part of developing a bit of independence from the family. This is nothing new nor unusual, but in the past, the most access to the outside world teenagers used to have in their bedrooms was either the window, or maybe, if they were fortunate, a TV. Apart from SBS movies and crappy late night ads, at the end of the day, most TV content remained quite filtered and so the risk of harm to a teenagers sitting in their room was pretty minimal. However, due to the seismic shift in technology, the difference now, is the fact that a teenager can sit in their room and be directly exposed to all the horrors of the world. The family home is no longer a safe haven from violence, language, sex, abuse, hatred and bullying, all of which, like Jack Nicholson in The Shining are smashing down the door.
It’s an interesting phenomenon with this generation and it’s a significant risk for this generation that goes almost unnoticed until it’s far too late. Mental health problems are sky rocketing and teenage suicide in Australia remains at ridiculous levels. In my working in outdoor education, I’ve found an increasing lack of resilience of both boys and girls. As soon as something doesn’t have a quick answer or an easy solution, they go to pieces and either give up or start trying to blame others for their failures. This is a massive problem, because if they can’t do simple tasks, if they can’t complete simple challenges, what happens when they’re faced with a massive challenge with a massive problem? They’ll be unable to cope and totally and utterly fall apart.
This lack of resilience and mental strength all starts at home and is manifesting itself in the kid’s bedroom. To help avoid this, ask yourself a few simple questions. How are your kid’s bedroom setup? Do they have a smart device? Do they have a laptop, or desktop computer in their room? Are you running a content filter? Do you know how your content filter works? Do your kids know how a content filter works and how to bypass it? What supervision do you provide around devices? Do you set limits to time spent on devices and social media? Do you even allow them to be on social media? Can you have open and honest discussions about these issues?
The problem is, with too much screen time and no filters or supervision, children and teenagers can be exposed to a brutal soulless adult world that can cause long-lasting harm. Software on mobile devices is intentionally designed to be addictive and manipulate behaviour. Would you let one of these 20-something internet CEOs into your house to hang out with your kids? No! That would be creepy, but that’s basically what is being allowed when kids are able to spend endless time on addictive devices. This messes with the natural chemical balance in the brain and can ultimately result in long-term behaviour and emotional problems.
In the past, for a teenager to be exposed to the outside adult world, they’d have to physically leave home, go downtown, possibly to a shady less than reputable place to be exposed to all sorts of things to which you don’t want your teenagers exposed. Now, they can be exposed to all of this from the comfort of their own room and you might have no idea that anything is wrong.
There’s been this massive shift in the last fifteen years where you have gone from a society in which it was very hard to connect with people, but easy to speak with those you met, to now where it’s really easy to connect with people, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to connect with real people. That’s a massive cultural shift within a really short space of time. The result of which is that it’s exposed the next generation to a whole host of problems that weren’t there before. With any significant seismic shift, it takes a long time for people to catch up. If you look at education for example, many schools are still trying to come to terms with the fact that what you could do and call education in the 18th century, just doesn’t work these days.
However, despite this, with all the massive problems, there are massive opportunities. Once you’re aware of the concerns, it’s easy to start to do something about them. Unfortunately, the massive opportunities to deal with these problems aren’t being addressed and so a lot of educational institutions, a lot of parents are still struggling to catch up after they’ve finally realised the world has suddenly changed.
One of the big roadblocks is a parent’s fear of missing out! (FOMO) ‘My child has to have everything that everybody else has otherwise, they’ll miss out on the opportunity... Usually the idea of having everything is about material goods and nothing to do with experiences. The reality is that the more parents freely give stuff to their children, despite the short-term fix this may appear to have, the more likely their children are to really miss out in the future, because they’re socially and emotionally unable to cope with real life and the rapid change that is the reality of the world today.
This FOMO has led to droves of parents buying mobile phones for their children, allowing them to become hooked on a highly addictive device and potentially exposing their kids to this massive dangerous world that is totally and utterly unfiltered and soulless. It’s a world into which the teenage mind that doesn’t understand risk, can throw itself in the search of meaning and fulfillment, only to find emptiness and loneliness.
Teenagers will find themselves connected with hundreds if not thousands of ‘friends.’ Sadly, the reality is that most of these friends are as real as the tooth fairy, but the more friends or like you have, seems to equate to a higher status or feeling of fulfillment. However, anyone can get friends and likes. You can even buy tens of thousands of followers on Instagram from Russia. None of them are real, but I’m sure it would give you a nice ego boost for ten minutes to have that.
Our next generation is desperately searching for real meaning in their lives, yet the irony is that they’re doing it through one of the most shallow, hollow mechanisms possible. They’ve been programmed to need fast actions and fast reactions and, as a result, they want instant gratification. No wonder we’re facing a tidal wave of mental health issues when we have a generation growing up, getting given everything and sitting in their bedrooms exposed to a soulless digital world.
Parents who are using devices as pseudo babysitters, are only reinforcing the false expectation of a world where happiness and relationships are simply a swipe away. Whilst so many parents have been focusing on their FOMO for their kid’s materialistic possessions, they’ve totally missed out on the emotional needs of their kids.
Despite the amazing improvements technology has provided us, enabling everyone to have the answer to just about everything at their fingertips and watch endless movies of cats falling off tables, the downside is the fact that we’ve created an enormous social and emotional millstone for the next generation and unwittingly hung it around their necks.
It’s time we took stock of this, both at home and at school and look at exactly how these addictive devices are impacting on the health and well-being of a generation. The problem however, is not in the device or technology itself. The problem is the disconnect between appropriate parental supervision and real world experiences for children that can enable them to leverage technology as a tool and not let technology leverage them as a consumer.
Whilst some may think outdoor ed and technology don’t go hand in hand, I would beg to differ on this. I might be somewhat biased having developed my own app (Xcursion) for helping manage student medications, allergies, concussions, medical issues and reporting incidents. However, it’s proven to be an amazing support for when I have a group out in the field with me. It’s saved huge amounts of time, energy and effort, but has also helped me to focus on what’s needed and filter out a lot of what’s not! Consequently, for me, this is now just one of the pieces of technology I use as a force multiplier in setting up and running programs.
What exactly do I mean by force multiplier? This is a term I learnt at uni when I was studying defence. It’s basically a tool, communications equipment or anything that you can leverage to gain a much greater impact versus the size of your force.
Despite my many concerns about the use of technology today and the potential dangers it’s brought to people’s ability to adapt and problem solve, that’s by no means a reason not to use great technology. If you already possess skills which enable you to be adaptable when needed, then you’re in the ideal position to use all sorts of technology as force multipliers to help you do your job more effectively, safely and efficiently.
Apart from my own invention of the Xcursion app for permission notes, student medicals and pastoral needs, what else have I found useful for running outdoor ed programs?
For one, a solid project management system is needed. For most programs, you’re repeating expeditions and need to follow the same structured system each time to make it happen. I use Basecamp by 37 Signals for this. It’s easy to use, you don’t need a lot of project management expertise or experience to get it going. It’s great from an organisational point of view as you can run multiple projects with different people added to each project so you, as director, can see everything, but your group leaders or teachers only see what they need to see for each project to which they’re assigned. Best of all, you can create project templates, so once you’ve built a solid system, all you need to do next time is to create a new ‘camp’ or ‘expedition’ project from the template and all your tasks are loaded ready to be actioned.
Another system I like to use, which is more of a workflow platform, is Podio, by Citrix. You can set up all sorts of things from gear and vehicle registers, with automated reminders of when gear or vehicles needs to be checked, services or rotated. Document management systems for filing, tagging and tracking important documents as well as ordering systems, marketing and client relationship management are features. There are some pre-built systems that are available with this platform, but you can always customise this for your own needs.
This is again another way technology can be used to create better systems so you and your staff can focus on delivering the programs for the maximum educational benefit and not be focussed on a bunch of required, but essentially repetitive administrative tasks. Sadly, I’ve worked with many people who get needlessly bogged down in all the administrative tasks and have had no idea what’s really important.
The other advantage of using technology as a force multiplier, is the fact that it can draw out and highlight key information that can often get lost the mass of data that gets thrown at us. I don’t want to waste ten minutes trawling through files for a key piece of critical information when I can have a system in place so that important piece of data is always at my finger tips.
Things such as GPS tracking, Sat Phones and EPERBs are all part of an essential technology tool kit for running effective programs where you can respond quickly and effectively with limited resources.
As teachers, it’s vitally important that the focus is always on the educational experiences that can be had. Sure, there’s lots to get done in the background to safely setup and run each of the educational experiences, but through leveraging technology, setting up and running some amazing and memorable experiences is now easier than ever before. If you don’t have systems in place to do this, then it’s time to make sure you get them up and running right now.
Some of you might have noticed that we’ve deleted our Facebook page and I’ve deleted my Facebook account. Whilst I don’t want to make a big deal about it, it was well and truly time for it to go.
Whilst for many younger people, it’s a toxic waste dump that’s messing with their emotions and proven to have been attempting to manipulate their behaviour, I just found it such a waste of time and morally questionable given the countless breaches of trust, privacy and the way in which extremists of all types have gotten away with spreading their hate on this global platform.
So instead of being one of those pointless user-metrics on Facebook, the business is no longer there and nor am I. The feeling of relief and the time I’ve got back is great and it’s made such a difference to the quality of my attention span and life.
Who will miss me online? Mainly advertiser and marketing professionals who will surely be crying themselves to sleep now due to this decision. I just hope they can get the help they need to be able to move on from this.
I also deleted my Twitter account, as it was mostly just a lot of people yelling at each other and nobody really listens to any of it. How can you? You need an AI bot to get through all the crap and I think the AI will self-destruct to avoid the boredom of it. Having said that, it’s a great place to make up and randomly change national policy directions and go on random international relations rants, therefore we’ll keep the business account open so we can continue to tell North Korea and the rest of the world what we think of them.
It’s great to be able to digitally detox and not just for a short time. You quickly realise that life is far more interesting in person than it is filtered through a device. So why not disconnect today, then you can reconnect with something a bit more real.
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of professional development. Most people will groan when they hear PD, as they’ve experienced the classic ‘first day(s) back’ professional development time, which could be just a complete waste of time and energy for all involved. From what I’ve experienced over the years, you may as well have another day of holidays and it would be far more beneficial. Whilst much of this is done to save money and meet the mandatory PD hours requirements for teachers, are teachers actually learning anything that will improve their teaching practice or professionalism, or is it just an exercise in futility?
Don’t get me wrong! PD is vitally important, but is self-initiated and directed learning a far better approach? What I’ve been doing recently for my own PD has been through two different forms. The first has been reconnoitering new areas of the countryside to further develop a program. This is always an exciting and challenging time as now you’re exploring new areas with which you’re unfamiliar and trying to find suitable tracks, trails, rivers and campsites which are suitable for the age and experience level of the group for which you’re planning. Sometimes, it’s easy and quickly falls into place. Other times, it’s like trying to get out of a darkened pit full of goblins whilst being stalked by a ring-obsessed weirdo.
On this occasion, it was closer to the latter, as we found out the new area was not a nice babbling brook surrounded by gentle countryside, but rather a vicious, shallow, rapid-flowing white water filled gorge. We were about 2km in when we realised how nasty it was getting and what was supposed to be a pleasant three hour paddle, took seven hours! Thankfully, we didn’t have to battle orcs along the way, but at some points I was hoping that eagles would come and rescue us. Sadly, it was not to be and we had to navigate and negotiate the gruelling gorge that went on for several kilometres.
During this time, we’d also looked at mountain biking, canoeing and hiking as options in and around Canberra as there are some amazing national park areas with great tracks and trails throughout. Despite the fact that a number of these options weren’t particularly suitable to take students on, this was an extremely successful trip. From a professional planning point of view, even if you’re not going to change your program in any measurable way, going on “reccies” is a useful exercise, as you’re reinforcing your own skill set for navigation, route assessment, logistics planning and risk management. It’s all these concerns that you suddenly find come back to the front of your mind when looking at new areas that can naturally feed-back into your existing program and help you re-think, re-assess and improve upon what you’re already doing.
The other PD I’ve been doing has been the more traditional kind, in terms of workshops and conferences. Sometimes these are hit and miss when it comes to helping you in your teaching role, but that mainly comes down to what sort of conference you’re going to and which sessions you attend. The first one I went to was a digital schools’ conference. It was basically exploring how technology can be better used in education. I sat in on a couple of sessions which were excellent as the presenters hit the nail on the head! It’s not really about the technology. It’s about the use of technology as part of a wider educational experience. When you boil it all down, the skills you’re learning in STEM and trying to innovate with are exactly the same as what’s being learnt through outdoor education.
The core principles of innovation are:
• Problem solving, risk taking, adaptability, teamwork and leadership.
The core principles of outdoor ed are:
• Problem solving, risk taking, adaptability, teamwork and leadership.
Simple right? Well sadly, it’s not always the case and often teachers can see the use of technology or coding as the end goal or the learning outcome. As in outdoor ed, often schools see the outcome as getting kids outdoor or learning how to ride a bike or canoe. These are all just the means through which these core cognitive and experiential skills are being developed.
I also had the wonderful opportunity to present on innovation and how the chaotic and imprecise science it is to develop an idea into something that solves a much wider real world problem. I also explored how this can be translated into the context of education and why this is now such an important part of the modernisation of education that might one day see us escape from the industrial revolution hangover upon which our curriculum’s based.
The second conference I went to was more closely related to outdoor education and covered some fascinating insights into concussion identification and management. This was a great up-skilling opportunity for me, as whilst I’d understood and had managed a number of concussions over the years, I was able to get a far greater understanding of what happens with the injury and how it manifests itself. This is something that a senior first aid course would never cover and even with the wilderness courses I’ve done, it was only ever touched on briefly. Yet attending a comprehensive keynote presentation by a leading medical specialist in the field, was an amazing learning opportunity.
PD can be both insanely frustrating if it’s done poorly, or immensely beneficial if it’s done well. Some people might perceive PD at conferences as junkets, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. From the Wilderness Risk Management Conference I attended last year to the various ones I’ve been to this year, it’s helped me attain a much greater understanding of my own professional practice and helped me to reflect and review what I do as an outdoor educator and how I go about doing it.
I have to admit I have great memories of the enforced PD days from school days past. At one school I was once part of an English/History faculty. We taught an integrated unit called Valley In Perspective, that combined English/History/Geography and Outdoor Education. It was in some ways a little heavy on the academics for my likings, but overall it worked quite well. We were always allocated a day at the start of term for ‘meetings,’ which was code for sitting in the office and wasting lots of time, something which I can’t stand doing. However, one of the teachers had a boat and so instead of sitting in the office, we went and spent the day on his boat. We would discuss work for about an hour, but then would relax for the rest of the day lazing about the deck or going sailing and usually having fish and chips for lunch. Whilst many a useless manager would say this was a waste of time, it was an excellent team building exercise and our team of four worked exceptionally well together, despite the school being a disastrous toxic mess in which to work.
Ultimately, PD is vitally important for renewing and up-skilling you in your professional life and can have great benefits when done well. Meetings can be of some value, so long as you limit their time and have clear goals and objectives from the outset. However, to get any real-residual benefit from professional development, you need to go out, test your existing skills and continually learn new ones which can help you to become a far more effective educator throughout your life.
I did a Q&A interview a while ago for an educational publication, so thought I’d put a bit of it up here as a summary of a few of my thoughts and experiences in Outdoor Ed and hopefully help shape a few ideas for the year ahead!
Q1. Why did you become an Outdoor Ed teacher?
Ironically, I became an outdoor ed teacher more by accident than anything else, but in the end it all made sense and was a perfect fit for me. I’d been involved in lots of camps when I was at school myself and really enjoyed the different experiences. However, when I finished my degree in History, I was working part time across three different jobs. A full-time position came up in Kangaroo Valley at Glengarry (Scots College’s outdoor campus). I was in the area at the time anyway and they needed someone who could teach history. The job combined both academic classes and outdoor education. Mentored by an excellent teacher, I learnt most of the outdoor skills on the job and subsequently completed by Cert IV in Outdoor Rec. Looking back on motivation though, I’ve always had that drive to learn new skills and learn by doing. That’s why it was such a natural fit. I found being in a classroom all the time teaching academic lessons didn’t feel right, whereas the experiential learning style of outdoor education suddenly opened up a world of opportunities to teach important problem solving, teamwork and leadership skills that could be beneficial to students throughout their life-time and not just help them get through an exam.
Q2. Why do you think Outdoor Ed is so important to students? What benefits have you seen?
Outdoor education is vital for the modernisation of our education system and provides massive social, emotional and academic benefits for students. It’s often just seen as this ‘fun’ part of education that’s disconnected from everything else. If done poorly, then it absolutely is! However, if outdoor ed programs are being run properly, they build strength, maturity and leadership within a school that’s not otherwise possible. In broad terms, the core principles of outdoor education are problem solving, risk taking, adaptability, teamwork and leadership. If you’re developing these key skills in students right across the year levels, this helps all other aspects of your students’ learning and sets them up with important life skills. This is becoming increasingly important as technology has negatively impacted on our children’s ability to problem solve and manage situations in which there’s no instant answer. We risk the situation now that technology will leverage and shape the next generation’s behaviours and emotional states to their detriment, rather than our next generation leveraging and shaping technology for their benefit. I believe if students have a strong and confident grounding in the ‘real-world,’ they can shape an increasingly digital world in a positive and pro-active way.
Whilst I’ve seen many students grow in confidence, face fears and develop friendships they would have otherwise not made, one powerful experience that’s stuck in my mind was when we were out in Bungonia Caves in the Southern Highlands of NSW. We had ventured through a number of caves that day. However, the most challenging one, was the shortest one. Taking the group down into the cave, we gathered in a small area at the bottom. Here I briefed the students on the challenge ahead of them. We had to work together to get out of the cave, however, we had to do it without our head torches!
You can imagine the gasps of horror from the students as they realised they had to make their way out in darkness, by which I mean total darkness! There were no luminescent glow worms to help them out. You couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face, which is hard to describe, but even when you’ve been in there before, the experience is unsettling. The only way out was to shuffle along a cramped passageway on your stomach, whilst holding onto the person in front of you.
This is a confronting exercise, yet one that can produce some powerful learning outcomes. It’s got nothing to do with the cave itself. That just provides the situation and framework for the activity. It’s about how the group works together to solve the problem of being robbed of one of their most important senses. It’s vitally important though that an activity like this is debriefed afterward, by which I mean each person in the group has the opportunity to share their feelings with the group and reflect on the experience. It’s through an effective debrief process such as this that the majority of the learning in outdoor education occurs.
When we finally emerged from the cave and debriefed the challenge, one student, who was afraid of the dark and had been extremely anxious to begin with said, “I could feel my friend holding my hand and he didn’t let go. He kept talking to me the whole time and I knew I'd be ok.” This then led into a wider discussion about the importance of looking after each other and how simple actions can make a huge difference to the life and experience of someone else.
You never know what to expect when reflecting on an activity, but the bottom line is that it’s a must for each and every program you’re running. It’s through this sort of reflection, that students, as well as teachers, are able to learn the most. This learning can have long-term ramifications for students facing all sorts of other fears. It helps them build confidence, strengthen friendships, and ultimately develop the critically important resilience everyone’s talking about in education today.
Q3. Do you think building resilience through outdoor education helps students who are affected by bullying?
Outdoor education also helps students deal with issues of bullying. On the one hand, students who have experienced bullying have a great opportunity to face their own fears, push the boundaries of their comfort zones and develop confidence in a supportive learning environment that’s totally focussed on building positive relationships. I’ve seen some wonderful turn-arounds over the years where students have been disengaged and fearful of group experiences, but, through the right peer support and mentoring, have re-gained their confidence despite previous experiences.
The flip side of this is that if you have an effective outdoor education program designed to foster positive supportive relationships, this ultimately filters back into the culture of your school to create a safe supportive environment in which bullying becomes totally unacceptable. Having experienced a terrible culture of bullying at the school I went to myself, this has always been one of my key drivers in education. If we as teachers, are creating safe, supportive places for all students, this translates into far better academic, sporting and cultural outcomes for each and every student.
Q4. What kind of training would you recommend to teachers wanting to teach outdoor ed?
From a hard skills point of view, you need the minimum of a Cert IV
in Outdoor Recreation to be an instructor. This covers your technical skills in roping, paddling, riding, skiing etc and helps you in operational group management. I’d also recommend you train and practice Wilderness First Aid and get yourself a bus licence. If possible, do a NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) course in risk management. This is an American organisation. However, they’re standout leaders in outdoor education training and this would be hugely beneficial for you as an outdoor professional.
In addition to these activity-based skills, if you’re going to be a truly effective outdoor ed teacher, then you need get a job somewhere other than a school, do some travelling and gain some real life experiences. The work outside a school doesn’t mean working with an outdoor ed company either. It means a job as a waiter, in retail, in a workshop or some sort of job in a completely different industry.
Even though this might sound odd on the surface, no matter what activity you’re doing, (hiking, kayaking, canoeing, etc) your main role as an outdoor ed teacher is going to be reflective learning to develop life skills, adaptability, teamwork and leadership with your students. Since you’re working on such an emotional level, you need to be authentic in everything you’re saying and doing. You can’t be teaching students to be adaptable and resilient in the real world, unless you’ve experienced some of that world yourself. Being genuine and authentic with students is critical to your success as a teacher in this field. There have been a number of times where I’ve taken a break from teaching and worked in business, retail and hospitality. As a result, I’ve found myself looking at the world in very different ways and these non-teaching experiences have helped me to become far more reflective on my own teaching practices and helped me to continuously improve on them.
Q5. Do you have any advice for prospective and current Outdoor Ed teachers?
One of the biggest challenges for outdoor education teachers is to relinquish control and let students take ownership over their outdoor experiences. I will qualify this though, as you still need to consider the age and maturity level of the group. However, to be an effective outdoor ed teacher, your ideal role, especially in an extended journey- based program is to sit back and be the safety backup, only stepping to do something if you foresee elevated levels of risk or safety issues that need to be actively managed. Otherwise, let your students take the lead. Let them take ownership of their experience.
What's the point of spending time and energy setting up an outdoor ed program aimed at building leadership, teamwork and initiative, then subsequently provide no opportunities for students to actually take responsibility for any of this themselves?
So often, I see teachers ‘run’ programs, in that they take the students out, plan for them, navigate for them, constantly give instructions on how to do everything and determine the whole schedule for each and every day. For teachers, to give up the reigns and allow students to be challenged, experience new things and grow from this, might feel awkward and difficult at first. However, if you don’t allow this to happen, then you’re wasting some fantastic educational opportunities.
You need to stand back and let your students to take on the risks of leadership, decision making and self-management and allow them to have the chance to shine and the chance to fail! They're going to learn far more from this than they ever will if you were to jump in and stop them before they fail. All you need to do is frame an effective debrief if they aren’t successful, to create a great learning opportunity from this. Conversely, when they show initiative and leadership, use this to extend and challenge your students. You will be amazed the difference this makes.
Q6. What achievement are you most proud of being a teacher?
For me, there’s really not a single achievement of which I'm most proud. Instead there are lots of small moments that turned out to be extremely important moments for the students I was teaching. I think this is what makes me really proud to be a teacher and love the work I do in outdoor education. When you see one of your students overcoming fears or succeeding in something they’ve constantly told themselves they can't do, it's an amazing feeling. I think of the boy who overcame his fear of the dark in the cave, or another student who was able to swim at the beach after overcoming his fear of the ocean. These are the things which make teaching amazing. It’s not the big headline results of a standardised test. It’s all the little moments that have a lasting impact on a student’s confidence and helps to build the strength in who they are and what they can do life.
Last year I bought a keep cup! Being a coffee addict, who must have a decent coffee each day, after watching the ABC’s ‘War On Waste’ documentary, I realised there’s so many ways we can reduce our impact and ultimately save time money and energy. The first step was for me to stop using disposable cups for coffee and instead keep using the one cup each day. Plus I got the right size that maximises the coffee flavour and reduces the wasted milk, a win for good coffee all around. The places that give a 20¢ or 30¢ discount when you bring your own cup are fantastic, as that’s an even better incentive to use your own cup. From a business point of view, it’s costing around 10¢ to 20¢ per take-away cup anyway and add to this the storage space needed and cost of ordering and carrying disposables, then you’ve more than balanced out the cost on this.
However, stepping away from the business case for a moment, what impact can this have in a year. If I’m having at least one coffee a day or more likely, two, this is anywhere from 365 to 500ish cups a year that won’t go into landfill. If you then extend this over a large population, it suddenly turns into millions of cups and tons of waste that can’t be recycled. Now the ABC’s documentary covered all of this in great detail, so I won’t repeat it all here. What’s been interesting with people’s rhetoric about environmental impact is that when people say the problem is too big and we can’t do anything about it, then we must challenge this assumption because it’s a load of rubbish, quite literally.
Students today are faced with cleaning up a massive dilemma that’s been caused by cheap products and the disposable nature of everything. Like many problems I’ve encountered through work over the years, they were never of my making, but I ended up being tasked with the clean up job, which is often quite unpleasant to say the least, but ultimately needed to be done by someone to ensure sustainability and growth of something over the long-term.
I was recently in Kyoto and this reminded me of the fact that back in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was signed, which set targets for lowering emissions and tackling climate change. However, twenty one years on, we’re still facing the growing impact on the waste we produce. The US and Australia have recently claimed it’s all too hard and we shouldn’t really do anything about it until somebody else does. This is a massive cop out and it’s like a situation where someone has a heart attack in a crowded place. They’re less likely to be helped by anyone, because everyone else is waiting for someone else to do something about it. However, if we’re trying to teach and show leadership in this space, then we can buck this trend and help out despite everyone else’s hesitation.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not about becoming a tree hugging greeny and abandoning the modern world to go and live in a commune. If you’re thinking of doing that, well that’s nice for you, but not what I’m getting at. Instead, it’s about seeing the problem for what it is and its negative impact on the world. Most climate change ‘deniers’ are purely looking at it from what they think is an ‘industry’ point of view, which means if we do something about it, it will hurt jobs growth and our industries. Given the fact that businesses are more likely to look for opportunities to reduce waste, reduce costs and develop new ways of doing things, the political point of view is often in stark contrast with the opportunity for new ventures. It’s these new ventures which our students of today will not only want to do, but if we don’t approach the issue now, they’ll be forced to do, but at a greater cost.
So how can we examine and reduce our impact over the next year? Either from a personal perspective or at school, why not create some measurable metrics that you, your family and/or the students create?
Firstly, identify areas in which you create a significant amount of waste and organise it into what can be reduced, reused or recycled. Put a big visual chart on the wall where you can record what was done, used, or not used each day, or week, making sure that the time periods and what you’re recording is measurable. The coffee cup is a great place to start, as Australians are overwhelmingly addicted to their daily coffee. What about getting your newspaper online? What about annoying checkout chicks by combining fruit and veg in a single bag? What about walking instead of driving? Look at all of the daily routines and consumption and see what could be reduced? How much money could this save you in a year?
When you’ve worked all of this out, why not also get a piggybank and for every time you make a saving, why not put that 5, 10, 20¢ or $1 or 2 in the piggybank and see how much you have reduced your costs by the end of the year. This is a great project to do at home with the family or at school with the students and a valuable environmental and business exercise.
The reality is that we do have an impact on our environment and we also have a responsibility to look after the environment, because the more damage we do now, the greater the mess will be for the next generation to clean up. Whilst I enjoy walking away from a cleaned up mess, the time, energy and effort that goes into the clean up, it is always far greater than preventing the mess in the first place. Next year, look at what you can do to help address a global issue that affects us all. Even if your neighbours aren’t doing their bit, forget them. Show some leadership and take the responsibility into your own hands, because the difference you make, can help shape a better future for everyone.