Ok, so if you watch the Simpsons, you would’ve already kinda realised what were about to talk about. If not, why haven’t you been watching the Simpsons?
We face all sorts challenges in life. Some big, some small. Most people are ok with the small stuff. You miss the bus, you can’t find where you left your glasses (they’re actually sitting on your head), you forget to pick up your children from school…, you leave them in the car at the Casino… It’s annoying but manageable and everyone gets over it, eventually.
However, what happens when that small challenge turns into a real crisis? How well equipped are we and those around us to deal with these sorts of situations? For most people, it’s impossible. If something doesn’t go to plan, everything falls apart. However, for those who can keep a calm demeanour, whatever the situation might be, they’re able to see a way through the crisis.
When everything was falling apart for Homer in one episode of the Simpsons, he’s saying how hopeless everything is. However, Lisa jumps in to say that the Chinese word for crisis and opportunity is the same. To which Homer replies, ‘Crisitunity!’
Whilst crises are never a good time, they are what often sparks innovation and prompt us to rethinking what we’ve been doing and make changes to improve the situation. Essentially, we want the crisis to stop and we want to return to normal operations and daily life again. This however, could mean that daily life is not quite the same, but has changed for the better. The only failure in a crisis is to do nothing and learn nothing from it. If that’s the case, you’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again until you’re ultimately rewarded for your efforts with a Darwin Award.
To be able to see the opportunity in a crisis, you do need some lateral thinking skills and have an openness and willingness to adapt. Too many people are so comfortable in the way they’ve always done something, they’re unable to cope with the rapid and fluid thinking needed to bring a crisis back from the brink and turn it into a wonderful opportunity.
Recently, I was running a residential program and we had two crises in two days. Firstly, we ran out of water. I discovered this fact late at night when I went to have a shower and the shower head angrily spat air at me, so I tried the tap, which did the same. “Hmmm, that can’t be good,” I thought at the time, but not much I could do at that hour. The bore from which we’d been getting our water for years ran dry. This was not surprising, given how little rain and residual ground water there had been for the past few years. Luckily, we had a 100,000 litre water tank, so that was an easy fix. Call the water people and get them to deliver lots of water. Done! Crisis averted, back to normal operations. It’s amazing how little appreciation we have for essential services until they’re gone.
The second one however, was a bit more of a challenge. When you’re running a residential program with 60-80 teenagers and adults living on site, you generate a lot of washing. For years we had sent all of our piles of dirty laundry off site and a couple of days later it magically reappeared clean, ironed and folded neatly. However, this year was slightly different. We were all ready and prepared for doing exactly the same thing, but with one problem. The first weekend of the program, the town laundry burnt to the ground. Now we suddenly had a mountain of dirty clothes and no magical fairies to come and take it away. With a nine weeks’ program ahead of us and being in a rural town with no other laundry, this was a major problem…
The first thing was to let everyone know. This is the easy part. The next step, was to think about how we could do something about it. We had 65 people, a commercial kitchen and 4 washing machines and 3 dryers. Whilst this might be ok with adults, with teenagers who have never washed a single item of clothing before in their lives, this becomes a problem. The first step was to get us over the first hurdle. We needed some clean clothes and we needed them quickly. One machine and dryer was out for kitchen use only, leaving us with 3 and 2 respectively to take down Mount Washmore!
Rather than think it was all too hard and try to find another laundry, the clear way forward was to create a laundry roster, show the students how to wash their clothes and let them learn from the experience. We worked with the students on the first day to make sure they had clean essentials (underwear and other inner layers). The outer layers such as jackets, could just weather the storm of daily use for a bit longer. With a few people predicting disastrous visions of 50 disheveled children walking around looking as if they’d been on an epic journey with a band of hobbits, it didn’t turn out that way at all. It wasn’t exactly clean, neatly pressed clothes either, but a happy medium in between.
With a little more time and seeing a few holes in our original plan, we updated and amended our systems and instructions and before too long, the weekly washing became just another normal part of everyone’s week. Students somehow worked out that you can’t put dripping wet clothes in a dryer and others worked out that you don’t put new red and blue clothes in with your whites. However, without the laundry burning down, which forced our hand to adapt quickly, we wouldn’t have changed what we’d been doing for the past 20 years and turn it into a learning opportunity.
If I were to have proposed that we stop sending our laundry to the magic fairies to do and instead said that we should get the students to do it themselves, I’m quietly confident that this would have been rejected and I would have been told that it wouldn’t work. Yet being forced into a situation where we had no other option than to make it work, meant that from this crisis, emerged a great learning opportunity not only for now, but for the whole program into the future.
When you’re next faced with a crisis, what are you going to do? Will you put your head in your hands and cry, “I’m Done! This is not my job!” or are you going to look at the problem laterally and find a way to make the most of the crisitunity at hand?
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.
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.
Everyone seems to be anxious these days and it’s often difficult to understand why this is. The problem is that this is presenting itself in a significant way in education. The number of students who are labelled as ‘suffering from anxiety,’ is increasingly noticeable. Is the world becoming a more dangerous place? Are gangs of kidnappers roaming the streets of our nation, just waiting to find a child out playing on a bike? Or art thou just fatal vision… Drawing parents into a paranoia about child safety and pushing their own failings onto their children?
The problem with anxiety is that it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. Much like the way in which Macbeth was goaded into murdering a stack of people by three witches, due to a bunch a false prophesies, parents are making their children anxious shut-ins for no reason at all. Now this isn’t to say there aren’t bad people in the world, but there’s more chance that a child will be abused by a family member or close friend of the family, rather than marauding gangs of pedos in trench coats and white vans. Yet this is the way in which many parents are now behaving.
“Don’t do this, don’t do that. You can’t go out and play…” Whilst kids need to build some awareness and defences around stranger danger, shutting them inside with a video game for supervision is certainly not a good alternative to going out, riding a bike, running around building forts and playing with real friends. Sure, they’ll get scratches, bumps and bruises, but at the same time, they develop social skills and the resilience to laugh off those scratches, bumps and bruises and go and find more suitable trouble into which to get themselves. This has been a healthy way to develop for hundreds of millions of children over centuries. The bonus in Western countries now is that most children over 10 don’t have to leave school and go and work in factories fifty hours a week.
Unfortunately, there’s an increased tendency for children to be kept shut in at home or within their parents’ line of sight every moment of the day. How frustratingly boring this must be for everyone involved. It’s not only the fact that this is just weird. It’s also the fact that whenever there’s an opportunity for time to be spent away from the family, it can end up in a situation of separation anxiety. There’s really no winning in this situation as we’re back to the self-fulfilling prophecy in that parents are making their children unnecessarily anxious.
I recently read an article about a pilot program in Queensland, Australia that’s encouraging children to go out exploring and hanging out with friends… Unsupervised!!! The ‘pilot’ was a success, but the organisation is asking for more money so they can expand their program. Wait… what does that mean? The government is spending money to try and get parents to do what they should be doing anyway, which will help develop social skills and reduce obesity… What’s the government even doing funding this in the first place? It should be parents driving this to help ensure their children grow up active, healthy and resilient.
The unfortunate reality is however, that parents are not doing this. They’re disempowering their children and making them feel fearful of anything new, anything different and anything without a clear end result! I would like to blame terrible parenting books and rubbish advice from idiots, who don’t know anything about the reality of life. However, you can only blame stupid authors so much and at the end of the day, parents need to take responsibility for the anxiety they cause their own children.
Let’s face it! Getting covered head to toe in mud never really hurt anyone. Cuts, bruises and bumps are just a part of life and failure is not a four letter word! (It’s actually a seven letter word, but you get the point). The desire to try and create a ‘perfect’ world for their children, has in fact resulted in the exact opposite. For many children who are the ‘world’s most amazing child,’ they face so many additional challenges from this rubbish parenting and they struggle with some of the most basic of tasks when faced with a challenge. The fact that they can’t achieve even the most basic of things without the help and supervision of their parents, then suddenly… they become anxious and once you have an anxiety about something, the prophesy inevitably comes true. Not quite Macbeth true with all those murders, but all the same, true. The child becomes disempowered and crippled by the parents’ neediness and reluctance to let them face the realities of an often challenging and harsh world.
So how do we help students deal with anxiety? By enabling them to try and fail with a sense of a way forward. If something doesn’t work, then try something different. For camps, that seems to create massive anxiety for so many students now, tell them to deal with it. Don’t sugar coat an experience or help them escape it. Help them to face the reality that it could be a challenge, but, they’re capable of fulfilling that challenge. The only way to help address anxiety in anyone is to expose them to the thing they’re anxious about. Now I should put in here that some anxieties are quite real and beyond the remit of schools and outdoor ed programs to help solve. However, for all the other imaginary, self-fulfilling ones, reassure students and help them get involved in the activities. At the end of the day, what’s the worst that will happen?
With so many over the top parents who shut their kids in and try to stop them from ‘failing’ in anyway they can, this poses a massive problem for education, yet at the same time a massive opportunity. So long as the school or organisation is clear in what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, then that’s a good start to help save these children from their anxious, paranoid parents. I recently heard that a counsellor is increasingly dealing with the breakdown of parent/child relationships due to this style of over-parenting. This is not something anyone really wants or needs for their lives, so why not prevent it before it happens. It’s good that parents are involved in their children’s lives, but it’s time they also faced the harsh reality that over-involvement can damage and destroy their children’s lives.
There’s no reason why children should be increasingly anxious today. The world is safer, despite what the media may tell you, people are healthier and living longer and a few bumps and scratches running around playing with friends never really hurt anyone. Sadly, it all comes down to poor parenting and the false belief that parents can save their children from the reality of the world. As educators, we need to set a stand, send clear messages about how and why we do things and cut parents off when their involvement is detrimental to the welfare of their children. It may seem harsh, but the alternative of the Scottish Play, is far worse for everyone involved.
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 was reading a book recently called ‘Robot Proof’ by Joseph Aoun which explores the way in which automation and AIs are reshaping the world as we know it and creating a new dynamic in which any sort of repeatable job will ultimately be taken over by robots. Why shouldn’t it? What’s the point of doing something over and over again in an extraordinarily inefficient way? This is not progress. This is just time wasting. Surely humans are better equipped and more suited to more complex things than this!
I strongly believe that society is yet to come to terms with this phenomenal transformation of the workplace. Despite people being aware and understanding that jobs have been replaced by computers or automated processes, this trend is only getting faster and more wide-spread and whilst many new jobs were created in the 80s, 90s and 2000s, the number of new jobs being created is diminishing versus the number that were previously being created.
Therefore, how do we protect ourselves and the next generation from the robots? No, I’m not talking about fighting Skynet, in an apocalyptic battle for survival. I’m talking about the real threat of mass automation and the implementation of artificial intelligences that will be able to replace large numbers of both manual and professional jobs.
The answer, of course, is experiential education. Whilst all the theories and knowledge in the world can be digitised and regurgitated, this doesn’t have the same impact that a real world experience has. There’s a defining factor in humans and the world which AIs and robots are not good with and that’s randomness.
Whilst a computer may be able to generate random numbers, it can’t understand emotion and the randomness of human thought and action. You only need to look at recent events in politics to see how extraordinarily stupid people can be. Decisions made on the run, irrational national emergencies and a whole host of decisions made on emotion and without any of the constraints that a computer using logic may have to deal with. Whilst this is not always good, it’s human and this total randomness that is a feature of human behaviour is one defining trait. If people are experienced in dealing with this, it can protect them from the threat of being replaced by a machine.
Consequently, the more we’re exposed to the randomness of life and the uncertainty of what could happen next, the more we will be prepared for any situation. Therefore, experiential education opens the world to real experiences and forces everyone to face the randomness of life. Some of the most interesting trips I’ve ever been on have come from having to actively manage random events, emotions and changing conditions. If you were for example to have a virtual reality excursion (which technology will increasingly enable), you would have the immersive, yet sanitised experience that is dictated by computer programming and logic, rather than the complete randomness of the natural world.
On expeditions, encounters with wildlife, with other groups, with storms, with discomfort, with teachable moments, these could never be produced by an AI, all because of the randomness of the world around us. It’s important that we continue to prepare students for uncertainty and the best way to do it is to get out into the real world and live the experience. No matter what the work place is, no matter what the experience is, no matter what the challenge is, we will always need to be prepared for the random nature of life. Those who can react and adapt, will be successful. Those who can’t cope with this, will not.
The more the world digitises, and logic systems are put in place to run repeatable processes, the more important it is for educators to engage their students with real life experiences and allow them to face the randomness of the world and build a skill set so they can adapt and thrive in this new world that comes a step closer every single day.
Long gone are the days of going on camp for the sake of going on camp. Education is changing, and outdoor education is playing an increasingly important role in that change, helping to develop a vitally important skill-set of problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork, which is needed in a rapidly changing world.
Having worked on many different outdoor education programs, we’ve always needed to ensure we were setting the right level of challenge and hitting the right social and emotional developmental goals for our students. If we make things too soft and it’s just ‘a walk in the park,’ it results in complaints. If we make things too hard, and it’s like trekking to Mordor, it results in tears and complaints. Therefore, how do you find that happy medium?
Essentially, finding that balance is through understanding the needs of your students and clearly setting out what you want them to achieve from the experience. Are you developing teamwork? Are you developing resilience? Are you developing relationships? Are you developing personal responsibility? Are you developing leadership? An answer to each of these questions will help shape your approach to ensure your students are getting the most out of their outdoor experiences.
What you want is an authentic approach to address your students’ needs and not just a camp for the sake of it. To make your outdoor education programs as authentic as possible, it’s extremely important to understand the cultural and social context of your school. What are the biggest challenges your students are facing at school and at home? How does the culture of your school influence planning? What are the right teachable moments needed for your students? How much have they been pushed outside their comfort zone in the past? How much further can they be pushed in the future?
There truly is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to this and understanding the skill-set and level of maturity of your students, is critical in designing the right type of program. For example, one school I worked for, their Year 9 program was massively challenging with 5 days of a relentless expedition which saw students moving from sunrise to sunset every day. It pushed the limits in every way and was about personal challenge, teamwork and strength through adversity. However, they’d been building up to this from year 3 with a graduated, sequential program that pushed the limits a bit further every successive year.
Conversely, another group of year 9s I worked with, who had no other real outdoor education experience simply needed to be able to work together on a very basic level. Therefore, canoeing 20km in a day, followed by 19km of hiking the next day was out of the question. Instead, problem-solving and initiative games followed by a short canoe trip and a mountain bike ride was the most beneficial approach, because this was all new to them. It was a bit challenging, and far enough outside their comfort zone to create some teachable moments on which to reflect, but not enough that it was going to end in tears.
Some of the most powerful and memorable learning experiences come from outdoor education. However, as with every other aspect of education, this can be significantly improved through careful and authentic design to support and build upon any specific areas of need for your students. The more outdoor education is targeted at the specific social and emotional needs of your school and your students, the more effective it will be in producing great results for your students. Be it problem solving, teamwork, resilience, leadership or simply understanding the needs of others, focussing on these outcomes can have a profound effect on everyone that goes out on one of your school programs.
Recently, a Victorian primary school placed a ban on students bringing balls to play with in the playground, citing an increase of injuries as the reason. Whilst I’m sure this isn't the first to ban balls, it's an idiotic and irrational decision to say the least. In terms of managing risk, unfortunately, it’s a sad reflection on a complete lack of understanding of the complexity of education, the need for students to understand risk and take reasonable risks to help them to understand how to actually assess and manage risk.
To put a blanket ban on something such as balls, robs students of some great social play activities. So instead of playing handball, cricket, basketball, soccer or dodge ball, instead bored students look for other less sociable pursuits. Having worked in a number of boarding schools, I’ve seen first hand what can happen when bored students start trying to find their own things to do to entertain themselves. It tends to result in far less social behaviour and can result in bullying to develop purely out of boredom.
Consequently, you can stop everyone from doing everything for their ‘own safety’, but you’re likely to create bigger problems than that of balls and a few minor injuries which are just part of life’s knocks and scrapes and are extremely healthy for children to have. Having said that, too many blows to the head with a football might need checking out.
The reality is that life’s not free of risks and trying to ‘eliminate’ any form of risk possible within the school environment is ludicrous and only setting students up for more significant failure in the future. Whatever the mistaken belief is for something such as a ball ban at school, it’s counter to any basic educational principles and is failing the students it’s supposedly designed to be ‘protecting.’
The world can sometimes go crazy when it comes to supposedly ‘managing’ risks. Often it’s a knee jerk reaction to an incident that doesn’t take into consideration other longer-term factors or specific incident circumstances. If you end up with a pattern of injures for whatever the activity is, then review it, but look for other options outside of blanket bans. What level of supervision was being provided? What level of first aid training and experience do staff have? Is it one ball activity in particular or everything? Did a teacher get hit with a ball by accident and has now had an hysterical meltdown? Yes things like this do happen. One place I worked had a ban on playing on the grass, because they wanted the place to ‘look nice’, which was never going to happen cause it was built on a misquote infested swamp, but anyway, the ban led to it becoming impossible to adequately supervise students with the staff we had and led to more problems and injuries because the boys spent the whole time spread out over a campus rumbling with each other. This was pure idiocy in my opinion!
Before someone throws a blanket ban out there on something fun, sociable and educational with the mistaken belief that they’re ‘saving’ everyone from themselves, then they should consider the wider implications and the potentially far greater negative impact that their decision will have on students. Managing risk is not about banning things. It’s about weighing up a series of competing factors which include the educational value of the activity, the risk of allowing the activity to occur and how it is to be supervised, as well as the risk of taking the experience away from students. Often people mistake the management of risk with their idea that they must stop everything from possibly ever happening to anyone. That’s just pure idiocy and something which fails to take into consideration how children learn from their playtime experiences and how keeping children actively engaged in an activity they love doing, will help build confidence, skills and social skills.
Before the fun police get away with banning the next cool activity at school, remember, ‘If you can dodge a spanner, you can dodge a dodge ball!’
On a visit to the US I took some time out to go skiing in Park City. It's a fantastic resort and an awesome historic township. It now even has an Australian run café, which meant I could have a decent coffee (all the important things being from Australia). I’d prepared myself to go a month without decent coffee, reliant on bitter or burnt espressos as a backup plan. I was however, pleasantly surprised to find myself standing in front of a recognisable Australian business and safely drinking a good cup of coffee.
Despite this extremely important tangent, what follows has nothing to do with coffee. It was early in the morning on a crisp crystal clear day over on the Canyons side of the resort. I was skiing past the ski school when a sign caught my attention, “Please, No Parents In The Learning Area!”
I laughed, as I knew exactly why there was a need for something like this the moment I saw it. Whilst it's very important for parents to be involved in their child’s education, there's a right way to go about it and a wrong way to go about it. More often than not, parents, generally through a lack of understanding go about things the wrong way and many of them constantly insert themselves into situations where they should just stand back and allow others to teach.
From what I’ve seen over my years of involvement with education, Helicopter & Tiger parents, need to relax, find themselves a hobby that doesn’t involve them living vicariously through their children. Whilst the underlying belief these parents have is that they’re ‘helping’ and making sure they get the ‘best’ for the child, the reality is that they’re doing more harm than good and wasting their own life and opportunities at the same time.
It’s probably easier to remove the salt from the ocean than it is to remove the helicopter from the parent, but seriously, they need to back off and let their kids breathe and experience a few things in life for themselves. This doesn’t mean that everything should be done at arms’ length, but I can understand the need for the sign as over-involvement of parents can be just as bad, or even worse than under-parenting.
I realise it is a challenging balance, but if you look at it from a work point of view, how would everyone feel if someone went from department to department telling everyone how their job should be done. From marketing, to finance and the janitorial services how would everyone feel if your clients hung around giving instructions on how their work should be done? It wouldn’t be long before security was called and the person was ejected from the building.
I would have thought the whole point of taking your kids to ski school is so that you could ski somewhere awesome yourself. Hanging around offering suggestions or taking photos would be the last thing on my mind. I would have ditched the kids and headed up the closest double black only lift. Ski school and school in general is a great sort of child minding service, which hopefully employs talented instructors and teachers who will be able to care for your children and teach them something far more effectively than you can. This, of course, eventually pays off later on, as you’ll be able to ski with your kids, until they get way better than you and then leave you for dead, suggesting perhaps you should go and have some lessons.
However, from this the most important thing is that sometimes parents need to be able to step away from a situation and allow their children to be taught by others. If they’re not prepared to do that, then why not teach them everything they need to know themselves? This would seem to be preferable for many parents, until they realise the reality of how much time, energy, experience and effort goes into teaching others.
At some point, parents must let go and if they haven’t by high-school years, then the damage they’re going to do over the proceeding years is significant. Again this doesn’t mean parents should have no involvement, but appropriate experiences should be looked for where that increasing independence can be gained. Some effective programs I’ve worked on have been medium and long-stay residential programs, in which there was little choice for those helicopter parents but to stay away. If medium and long stay programs aren’t an option for your school, then perhaps erecting a barrier near the entrance is the next best option. At the end of the day, it will enable students to have a far better educational experience than the endless hovering could ever provide.
For me, as I said, I’d just leave them at the ski school and allow them to try new things, slip, fall and get back up again all by themselves. It’s the learning through these experiences that make the best skiers and the snowboarders, not the manic parenting and suggestions from the side. Perhaps, as in Park City, a giant sign is just what’s needed for all of our programs to remind parents of the fact that it’s time to let go a bit and let their kids do something a bit ‘risky’ for themselves.
There’s a significant problem for kids today and that’s the fact that their generation is emotionally dislocated. There’s been a seismic shift in technology in the last fifteen years and, as a result, it’s caused significant changes to the way in which kids are growing up and the influences on their lives. Unfortunately, the pace of change has outpaced a lot of parents and schools’ ability to adapt. Often parents have used devices as makeshift babysitters and this has done immeasurable damage to their children’s abilities to think for themselves, problem-solve, develop real relationships, cope with real people and deal with complex situations. Whilst many would profess it’s all part of learning about technology, there’s a huge difference between learning about technology and being leveraged by it. Kids have now become disassociated from many important parts of society and the way in which those before us have grown up and matured into adulthood.
Now this could be a phenomenal advance in humankind, although I’m quite doubtful of that. The reality is that this dislocation is leading to long-term problems with mental health, with resilience, with the ability for a child to adapt to new circumstances and their ability to problem solve and relate to others. So many factors are involved in this social dislocation and much of it comes from overindulgence and the super reliance on technology. Therefore, how do we address this? How do we even get to the root cause of this, when so many parents are happy just to throw a device at their kids and consider it to be an acceptable method of babysitting. Job done! Parenting done!
For many ‘busy’ parents, it seems to make sense. The children aren’t making a noise and the justifications fly thick and fast. I’m busy with life. I’m busy answering emails, I’m busy with work or whatever other nonsense excuse they want to make to justify a lack of effort in being involved with their child’s life. However, for many parents in the early stages of their child’s life, it’s almost genius! I’ve thrown a device at them whether it be a laptop, a phone, a tablet or whatever and it’s keeping them occupied. Well, from one point of view, this is really handy because you can throw a device at the child and suddenly the problem is solved! No more screaming, no more ‘I’m bored!’ You can get back to sipping your latte with friends as they play with the device for hours and hours and hours and access all sorts of things that you don’t want them accessing, but because you’re too busy, sipping said latte, to provide any level or supervision, a firewall, content filters, content barriers or even a passcode on the device, they’re now interacting with an unfiltered adult world, full of marketing, phishing and bright flashing pop-ups to click on.
However, when we look at bit deeper than the general dangers of an unfiltered internet, what’s the real cost of this handy babysitting by device? One of the most obvious ones which we’re now seeing in education is that whenever kids are challenged with real world issues, this is where it all starts to fall apart. Whenever a child doesn’t get what they want, this reinforces the problem, because many kids have been indulged to the point where they have been told: ‘They’re perfect,’ or ‘they’re wonderful,’ or ‘they’re amazing!’ They can do anything they possibly want to. The world is theirs for them. Anyone who is half-intelligent and has experienced something of the world for themselves, realises this isn’t the case. Sadly, nobody’s told the students that, for fear of breaking the ‘everyone’s a winner rule’. The reality is when kids stumble, what happens? They look for somebody to blame. They look for excuses. They look for the magical, ‘Yeah, but solution’ which everyone knows does not contain a solution at all. I’ve seen this progressively building over the last ten years. The ‘Yeah, but’ approach has increased to a phenomenal level.
Previously, you still were given the ‘Yeah, but’ for many students however, the reality was it wasn’t that often and there wasn’t much behind it. Now, everything is questioned. Everything is ‘Yeah, but’ and there’s no real reason for this. It presumes that the child knows more about the world than those teaching them. In some subjects, that might be true, for example in coding. Whenever I’ve taught computer studies, I’ve always been blown away by the ability of some students who have taught themselves to code and do a stack of things on computers for which I don’t have the skills. However, how does this translate into an understanding of real world applications? They might have the skills to code. They might have the skills to develop something from a tech point of view but what happens when they have to socialise and communicate with others? The life experience of educators therefore becomes even more important when teaching, as the content might be easy to replicate, but the unpredictability of real world means only through our experiences can we truly learn and understand why we do something.
The ‘Yeah, but’ is just the tip of the iceberg for the lack of communication skills and this is where parents and schools and technology are failing kids. This is where all of these three factors are combining to create a significant long term problem that’s going to re-shape the work force. It’s going to cause issues with the next generation in terms of relationships, parenting and work. If we fail to address it as educators, we risk letting the dislocated generation waste years of their lives trying to find meaning and be able to build some muscle when they realise they’re not perfect and the world isn’t just there to serve them. Despite huge leaps and bounds in technology, we’re letting children develop into more emotionally vulnerable young adults because they can’t understand how to fail and bounce back and they can’t understand how to communicate with real people in real time.
However, this is something that can be addressed by parents. It’s something that can be addressed by schools and it’s something that needs to be addressed urgently before the horse that’s bolted rides too far off into the sunset. We can’t leave this for another ten years until suddenly everybody realises, ‘Wait a minute, it’s out of control!’ It’s already out of control. It’s already ridden away from us but being able to realise that now, means we’re ten years ahead of not doing anything about it at all.
What difference can you make to your own child’s life? What difference can you make to the life of the friends of your children? Are they going to be developing healthy, happy relationships? Are they going to be developing in a positive manner and become resilient and be able to face all of life’s challenges no matter how hard they might be? Or are they going to be in this fantasy world where suddenly, as soon as they’re challenged with something that’s difficult, they go to pieces. What if they don’t get in to the course they want? They go to pieces. What if they don’t get in to the sports team they want? They go to pieces. What if they don’t get the participation award that they want? They go to pieces. What if they don’t get the job they want? You get the picture?
This is a situation that is totally and utterly detrimental to society and one we must address. Again, the causes of it are the combination of poor parenting, overuse of technology and the failure of the education system to modernise. With all three areas failing at some point we may end up doing serious harm to our next generation.
Education has fallen behind so far it’s not funny. Teachers are still approaching education in the fantasy world that was 19th century education. We fill a classroom, you teach a lesson and they go to the next class. You do it over and over and over again and you basically teach the average and get the average result for the average students. That’s why they love their bell curves because you can be guaranteed that you will get a bell curve on every single assessment. Every single class will have the wonderful bell curve. It’s a total load of crap because why are we aiming for bell curves? Why are we not aiming for wins for everybody? Now that is a little bit of an overstatement because some people are just lazy and useless and will never move from their well defended position at the bottom. However, we’re not talking about them as, until they find their internal motivation, they will remain right at the bottom of everything they do. However, the more dislocated the group of students, the more chance they will be on the wrong end of the bell.
For educators one of the real challenges is helping students find that internal motivation. It can make average students brilliant and brilliant students actually find the job that they really want to be doing and not just become a doctor or a lawyer because they get good marks, bearing in mind lawyers will soon be automated to the point that we don’t need as many of them as we have today, a win in everyone’s books really.
When I do goal setting with students, I always pose this question to them: ‘Do you want a doctor who is passionate about helping people?’ Or ‘Do you want a doctor who is in it for the money?’ Every single time I get the answer: ‘Somebody who is passionate about helping patients.’ We all want that and this is a great opportunity because this generation has this belief that they can change the world. Many might claim this is a misguided belief, but I don’t believe that at all because I believe this next generation can change the world. We need to empower them with the confidence to try, to fail, to overcome massive obstacles and to endure. This can’t be done with social and emotional skills gained from having a digital device as a babysitter.
For parents and teachers, this creates a great opportunity. So in one sense, you have a group of young impressionable kids and young adults who want to make a difference and who believe they can, but what they really need is for somebody to show them how to make that difference. How to cope with challenges. How to cope with disappointment. How to cope with failure. How to face problems. How to solve problems. How to become resilient. How to contribute to the community to make that difference. This is where the teacher’s life experience now becomes so much more valuable than content knowledge and the ability to stand in front of a room and dictate the encyclopedia.
You can teach technical skills to almost anybody. That’s easy in comparison with the empathy, caring and the emotional resilience that’s needed for our next generation to thrive in the rapidly changing digital world. Whilst parents have had the mistaken belief that they can do this by telling their kids: ‘They’re perfect,’ ‘be safe’ and ‘don’t do this,’ ‘don’t do that,’ don’t take risks.’ However, this has caused immeasurable damage and needs to be addressed. It’s through a modern, proactive experiential educational framework that this can be achieved. We can create wonderful learning opportunities that last a lifetime. We can do it in schools. We can do it at home. We can do it to ensure that we have a wonderful and proactive generation of thoughtful, resilient young men and women leading our businesses, our communities and our governments into the next generation and those generations after that, but we cannot be idle in our approach and must do something about it now.
Technology has provided a vehicle to rapidly advance so many things in society and make them more efficient and more effective but without the core social and emotional skills to master technology and to master our own lives then we risk the technology mastering everyone who uses it instead. We risk the dislocated generation failing to make good on their vision to change the world and make it a better place, which is something none of us want to see.