Outdoor Experiences Q&A
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.
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