In my 30 years of involvement in risk management, primarily around outdoor education, Steve Smith’s Beneficial Risks is the best book I have come across in the field. It was thought-provoking to read it through the lens of school administrators overseeing multiple off-campus travel programs including those overseas. Only rarely do our school travel programs include rock-climbing and kayaking, and this book definitely has an outdoor education focus. Nevertheless, quite often throughout the book, I found that I could replace “outdoor education” with “school travel program” and that the principles are the same.
Beneficial Risks is a comprehensive exploration of the multiple facets of risk management from the philosophy of risk to the assessment of incidents that occur during programming. For those administrators with limited time to read the full text or those looking to know more about the book’s content before purchasing it, below are a few of what Smith calls “key concepts.”
School travel “programs carry inherent risks that are not only inseparable from the activity, but are essential to their personal and educational value.” (3)
Risk is defined as “uncertainty, with potential for both gain and loss.” (4) Travel is, by this definition, inherently risky. All sorts of things can go wrong, whether it’s lost passports, culture shock, or general injury. That’s why we do risk management, to mitigate against such risks. We do hazard analysis, risk assessment, mitigation plans, all focused on something bad happening. Rarely to we accentuate the positive. Part of the curriculum for travel programs includes helping students become adept at identifying and assessing risk in a new context. “Through exposure to carefully managed risks, children can learn sound judgment in assessing risks themselves, hence building confidence and resilience – qualities that are important for their eventual independence.” This takes us beyond the obvious learning objectives of global education into the realm of personal development. We take “intentional risks for a specific purpose.” (11)
“…programs benefit from staying connected to each other, sharing their practices, and knowing what their peer programs are doing.” (27)
One way we do this is through benchmarking and standards. “Standards are embraced by those who seek excellence in their operations. The priority for such people is quality programming and good service…not the avoidance of litigation.” (27) Standards guide such aspects of program as medical training, staff-student rations, communication, transportation, sexual assault, and teaching and learning. While there are no established governmental standards for either the outdoor industry or global programs, GEBG has developed An Annotated Guide to Global Education: Standards and Practices from the GEBG Community that can guide the development and self-evaluation of a school’s off-campus programs. The GEBG community of educators also provides “sharing of practice” and “knowledge of what peer programs are doing” in real-time.
“Developing essential eligibility criteria (EEC) is an effective way to comply with laws (such as the American Disabilities Act) while fostering operational clarity and inclusivity with participants.” (93)
I am sure that all GEBG programs conduct some form of medical assessment of their students before travel. An EEC provides a rationale for the assessment. It begins with the goals, location, and activities of the program. What is going to be required of the students (and staff) to succeed? The assessment should include more than just what the school has on file, such as a general physical. Behavioral, psychological, physical ability, stability and type of medications, and motivational factors might be considered. The EEC for each trip is likely to be different due to location, nature of the activities, and climate among other factors. Smith suggests creating a Medical Assessment Team, not limiting the evaluation of just the school nurse, but including others such as the team leader. Both NOLS and Outward Bound have EECs posted on their websites. The EEC is not only necessary to create a cohort of participants, but can be used as part of the pre-trip staff training.
“Training staff (and participants) is a central element in [a school] program’s risk management strategy.” (107)
Based on my years of my experience in schools, if I were to identify the most important factor in running a high-quality program that successfully manages risks, I would say it’s staff training. Smith devotes a chapter to this topic, addressing several good practices:
>> Design staff training as you would any other lesson plan, begin with the basics and move toward the more complex.
>> Develop judgment skills in faculty by reviewing not just the program policies and procedures but their intent. This will support staff in making decisions in-the-moment in unexpected situations.
>> Design training around outcomes. (Smith does not refer to Grant Wiggins’ Understanding by Design, but that’s what he is advocating.)
>> “Train for failure.” I think this is a key element of training that is often overlooked. “A common cause of incidents…is the mis-assessment of one’s own abilities or the mis-assessment of the group’s abilities.” The training for failure concept is based on the idea of creating “training situations in which people can safely fail to better understand their own limits.” (111) Scenarios are one way to do this.
>> Incorporate self-assessment as a teaching tool, helping faculty to identify areas of strength/experience as well as growth opportunities.
>> Use scenario-based training to make the training more engaging, allow faculty to practice problem-solving and decision-making skills, and help program leaders develop as a team.
These strategies can be adapted for training at all levels of a school, from administrators to students.
“Soliciting external feedback on your program from qualified reviewers is one of the best ways to improve continuously and to document your commitment to improvement.” (163)
When looking to engage an external review, a global educator experienced in curriculum design, program management, and travel leadership is an ideal reviewer. The scope of the review should be stipulated in advance and can focus on a few aspects of the program, or it can take a broader, program-wide view. A more structured process can also be extremely helpful. In the field of outdoor adventure programs AEE’s Adventure Program Accreditation is the major provider of this service. In our field of global education in schools, GEBG’s Endorsement or Evaluation process provides quality external review.
“Incidents and near-misses present opportunities for learning and improving as individuals and as an organization.” (133)
Incidents happen; incidents almost happen, whether they be injuries, illness, or behavioral incidents. It’s a cliché that ‘we learn from our mistakes.’ But, unless we report and analyze them, learning is unlikely not to occur, and the incident may happen again in the future.
Smith gives seven strategies for creating an incident and near-miss reporting system. (133-138)
1. Define incidents and near-misses so that staff can be trained to recognize and report incidents and near misses.
2. Create an agile and simple reporting tool. Depending on the size of the program, this can be hard copy or digital.
3. Identify and remove barriers to reporting by creating a culture in which reporting is encouraged and facilitated.
4. Create an internal system for notification to engage key personnel in the process of review and recommendation.
5. Organize support, response, and management as required by circumstances. This included closing the loop on recommendations and follow-up.
6. Debrief appropriate personnel. Reflection after the experience is a critical part of experiential learning.
7. Organize data to facilitate ongoing monitoring for treads, and changes in policy and training.
Program quality and risk management are moving targets. It is important to go beyond what went wrong and understand what went right, and that some risk is inherent and necessary for many learning targets of our programs. A robust and thoughtful system of reporting and analysis is an effective means of fostering a strong culture of risk management within your school’s programs and leads to a constantly improving program. Beneficial Risks can be a helpful tool and is available from its publisher, Sagmore Ventures for $72. (If your school has an outdoor education program, you could share the cost.) Used copies can be found via an internet search.