Teachable moments

Take the risk and give responsibility

David Gregory describes how a school trip can become a deeper learning experience by giving students the responsibility for making difficult decisions. 

Spectacular

Recently, I was on an expedition along the spectacular south coast of New South Wales. Despite having a group of Year 9 boys with me, it was a spectacular trip! The expedition itself was a journey of around 30km from Dolphin Point in the North, to North Durras in the South. Rather ironic that the most southerly point is called North, but of course everything is North of something, unless you’re at the South Pole.

Responsibility

Given the fact that the group of eighteen boys on the expedition had been trained in all the requisite skills beforehand, I framed my briefing so they were running the expedition, not me. Consequently, the boys got the opportunity to explore, take on challenges and make decisions. From a staffing point of view, the other teacher and I were there purely as the ‘safety blanket’ in case a poor decision was made in the dangerous risk category. We would only intervene if there was a serious safety risk. If they walk in the wrong direction for an hour, it’s unfortunate, but it’s not a dangerous risk.

If they’re thinking about crossing a flooded river, filled with snakes and piranhas, then this is my moment to facilitate a discussion on risk. At the end of the day, however, the students are running the trip and I encourage them to do everything possible themselves without the intervention of staff.

The Pied Piper approach to school trips

With high school students I do want to be working on the premise that I’m ‘taking’ them out on a trip. Anybody can take a group of students out, lead them around the bush and call it a hike. However, from an educational point of view, this doesn’t make any sense because learning opportunities are missed when you drag students around as if you’re the Pied Piper. Sure, you might wander around the wilderness for a couple of days, see some sights and ‘rough it’ a little. The students might feel a bit uncomfortable being out camping, but ultimately that’s about it. There’s not much actual learning involved in this scenario.

Letting go

As an experiential educator you must let them take you and lead you on the trip. This can be very hard and many don’t want to give up control.  I saw an embarrassing example of this in my favourite café. The guy in front of me ordered a coffee, but then instead of letting the barista make it, the man wanted to take over. The owner just stared at him and said, “Why did you come out for coffee if you want to make it yourself?” Sometimes you really just need to let go! 

Coastal expedition

Anyway, back to the coastal expedition. We’d had really high seas for the previous week and this raised a few red flags in terms of our risk management and location assessments. However, there wasn’t anything significant enough to mean we had to cancel or redesign the trip.

Day 1 – we hiked along 7 kilometres of beach before reaching a headland that jutted out into the sea. Approaching this point, I positioned myself towards the front of the group, knowing the headland was one of the potentially dangerous points on the expedition that was likely to require active supervision.

Since I’d already put the decision-making responsibilities onto the students, I didn’t move into this position to take over. Instead, I put myself there acting in my role as ‘safety manager,’ to facilitate a discussion about the location and the hazard. I wasn’t going to suddenly jump in and say, ‘Right, I’m in control now! Follow Me!’ Why? Because students quickly see through people who aren’t authentic and honest, so if you decide to jump in randomly here and there whenever it suits you, good luck building trust after that!

I need to be very clear at this point. I’m not going to put the students in any danger. If they make a poor decision. I’ll use this as an opportunity to further expand on actions and consequences until they make a sounder decision.

Discussion and decision

At this point of the headland, there are two ways around. There’s one path up to the right, which goes up and over the headland via a bush track. To the left is the ocean and directly in front of us, are the rocky platforms that step up and down to make up the headland.

I’d stopped at a vantage point a few metres above sea level. From here I could see around to the beach on the other side of the headland. The swell was powerful and as I watched, I could see multiple sets of waves lining up before crashing on the platform below.

The boys had been hiking for almost two hours. They’d been walking and talking and everything had been easy going. Walking along a beach isn’t particularly hard so it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security.

Gathering the boys together on the rocky platform I said, “Ok, this is one of the points at which you need to assess carefully and make a decision. We have a couple of options available to us.” One of the boys immediately said, “Let’s just go straight ahead!”

He was one of those ‘passenger students’, the ones who just want to be taken on a trip. They are used to being taken everywhere and having everything done for them. They’re the ones who tend to make dangerous, ill-informed decisions. If I hadn’t put myself in that specific location to facilitate a discussion about risk, such students would probably have kept walking down onto the next rock shelf, awash with the bright white foam of the waves, without noticing the approaching swell. They could have found themselves smashed down by the crashing waves before being swept into the sea. The faster you can identify this type of student the better, because they see the reward in a fast solution and do not perceive risk or danger.

I said to the boys, “Wait a minute. Before you make a decision on this, let’s run through the options that are available to us.” I outlined the bush track over the headland versus continuing around the headland. Whilst on the one hand, they were listening to me, more importantly, they were standing watching what the ocean swell was doing. It was only another few seconds before the swell surged up and a massive set of waves, one after the other pounded the rocks below and a fine ocean spray mist covered us from head to toe.

The boys’ attitude changed. “We don’t want to go down there!” one said.

“OK, explain to me why you don’t you want to go down there.”

“Well look at it!” he said, “the waves keep crashing onto the rocks and if you’re down there, there’s nowhere else to go!”

The ‘passenger’ protested, “We’ll be fine, let’s just time it and run across!”

The next wave smashed onto the platform, quickly followed by another, covering the entire rock shelf.

I knew what decision needed to be made, however, it was still extremely important to let the boys have a discussion and make the decision. They’d been given all the information they required and were standing looking directly at the dangerous environmental conditions. This was an important teachable moment.

After a few more minutes of discussion and observation, the boys finally made their decision. “We’re going to go around, Sir!” said one them.

“OK, good let’s make it happen,” I replied.

Without making a big deal about it, we backtracked a couple of hundred metres and went up and over the headland via the bush track. Before long, we were back on the beach continuing our journey. 

Learning opportunities

Whilst you can’t plan situations like this, if they arise, see them for what they are, extremely important learning opportunities. For the rest of the trip, each headland we came to prompted the boys to run through a similar decision making process and either deem it safe to continue or consider an alternative route. I didn’t have to prompt their thinking or intervene at all.

Contrasting the potentially dangerous risk the boys had to deal with that day with their own individual perceived risks, was a great way to conclude the day and reinforce the learning. So whenever you’re presented with a situation like this, embrace it, facilitate the discussion and use this to your advantage to help teach your students valuable lessons they might never otherwise learn.

To find out more about David’s work, follow the link below or click his picture!

David Gregory

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