We Are In Good Hands

By Sally Northcroft, St Leonard’s College Director of Cocurriculum

Having recently returned from New South Wales with an intrepid group of Year 9 students on their ‘Big Experience’, it is reassuring to know that the future of this country (and globe) is in good hands.

I realise that this is a big call to make about a group of 14 and 15-year-old students, and I typically apply caution to such a sweeping statement. Realistically, this group is not ready right now to solve the problems currently facing the world today, but this experience has changed them, and they will be ready – if we let them.

In my previous articles published this year, I have written about the Experiential Learning Cycle and the importance that each stage has on the education of our students. Stage one presents experiences that take students out of their comfort zones; challenging them in a space that takes them outside the classroom. The challenges are incorporated into three components of Experiential Education; adventure (hiking, rock climbing or canyoning), service (such as wilderness protection activities or helping the local community through Lennie’s Van) and environment (physical, historical and cultural engagement with the land and people).

Stage two of the Experiential Learning Cycle includes a meaningful and authentic opportunity to provide students with co-agency in the presence of their teachers. As the experience ends, there are several ways in which we can invite students to reflect and debrief on their time of challenge and how they overcame or made peace with their fears or insecurities. They may be able to identify the many ways in which they gained insights into their own character, behaviour or attitudes that could be improved or adjusted in order for them to be their best selves. This self-awareness is a good start to understanding how to make a difference in the world – to start first with themselves.

Stage three involves a dedicated time of hypothesising – it is the ‘what happens next?’ part of learning. This stage requires students to consider what they have found out about themselves, others, and the world. It gives them an opportunity to think about how they could approach things differently, or what skills they can apply to future challenges that will help them to be more prepared, more willing, or more accepting to taking on a challenge, opportunity, or adventure in the future. The concept can extend to other experiences such as sporting and academic challenges as well.

The essence of the process of hypothesising is mixed into the curated experience of an adventurous challenge with the messy and distracting real world of a daily routine.

For example, students on the Big Experience have no access to their mobile phones. There are no distractions from social media or other services provided with the use of a smart phone. They must use other methods of communication, planning and organisation to get through the day. And they survive! They talk to each other, they are resourceful and they are creative. When the mobile phone is back in their hands, however, the challenge is to now apply these newly acquired skills to everyday life and yet still be resourceful, creative, and good communicators. Can they focus on their academic endeavours and not rely heavily on Google or Siri as their ‘go to’ for information? Can they have the difficult conversation with their coach or their teacher to receive feedback that will help them to see where they need to improve? For our students on the Big Experience, I witnessed an embracing of the world around them that will give them confidence to use their skills in new and different environments because they have done it before.

The final stage (Stage four) of the Experiential Learning Cycle is the planning of the next challenge. One expected outcome from participating in the Big Experience is that students gain a greater perspective, increased self-confidence, and improved planning skills to deal with the challenges of entering Year 10 and Senior School of the College. These are critical skills that contribute to being able to work with increased agency and ownership of the day to day demands of school life and even beyond school, with discussions about future study at university, or career paths after school.

It is dangerous to take it for granted that our students will make the connection between their time on Big ‘E’ and their Senior School challenges. Therefore, the final stage of planning is critical to the Experiential Learning Cycle for our students. Following the time on the Big Experience, our students return after a few days and reflect, hypothesise, and plan in an intentional and authentic manner. We ask our students to articulate their learning by reviewing their journals that were completed whilst away, to discuss and reflect on what they have discovered about themselves and the world; and to hypothesise about how and where they can apply this learning.

We use different modes to complete this reflection and share with students that their learning is spiral in nature. We ask our students to compile a video capturing their time away as a means to reflect on their experiences and how they were impacted by being in different environments, overcoming or facing challenges with new-found perspective and appreciation for themselves and those around them. Importantly, we do not dwell on these memories, but carry them forward to help make decisions and plan for what is next in life, and how we can add to the richness of our experiences moving forward.

You may still be wondering why I think our future is in good hands.

Well, after the de-brief with our group and the way in which our students have grown in the 12 days of experiential education, I am convinced they are ready. They are ready to be vulnerable, to take ownership of mistakes and accept the challenges that come their way. This may even mean that they try something without a successful outcome, but then have the capacity and mindset to learn from that experience and apply that learning to the next (or same) experience.

In our discussions, I was impressed by the way in which our students could see the good in others and were open to thinking about things differently. This was often seen through our group discussions and in their journal entries. At first, students were apprehensive and guarded with their feelings. Their focus was on having fun and feeling nervous about what was to come. These, of course, are very normal responses at the start of something unknown. As the journey and experience continued, the students grew and deepened their appreciation for themselves, their peers and the environments/challenges they were in. On the final night, students shared how they had a greater perspective on life in general, but also a greater connection to their peers and to the land they were on. They had embraced the idea that ‘fun’ was not the main ingredient, but a by-product. Their ability to take on challenges was now based on knowing they can try something and not be certain of the outcome, but know they will learn something in the process.

This experience and demonstrated observations is what makes me say we are in good hands! Whilst they may not know how to drive a car or balance their budget, our students are filled with a connection to their world and those in it as well as a sense of their own selves in which they believe they can make a positive difference.

The experiential education of the Big Experience gives me great hope and a determined resolve to believe in our students. Being careful not to design every experience to be a ‘win’ or to make the journey too smooth, we can be confident that our students will learn to have the desire and the capacity to walk alongside their teachers, family and the wider community becoming the caring, positive, and loving leaders of our future.