I was recently lucky enough to spend the weekend in the bush with a a few fellow Search & Rescue members and a highly trained Special Forces member.
While I can’t go into details on this individual due to confidentiality of his role, I can say he has the experience and skill set to make Bear Grylls look like an amateur.
While many of us were very keen to receive this sort of training, we were also somewhat apprehensive as there is a big gap between army training and SAR training. For one, the SAR team are all volunteers and often have full time jobs that they need to attend. Also, the mandate for SAR is different from the army. While the SAR members I know are all incredibly fit and can easily hike through the bushes non stop, day and night, at speed, they are not generally keen to do boot camp exercises.
The weekend consisted of Friday night meet and greet with some classroom theory and then early Saturday we set off into the bush to do shelter building, fire starting, travel, vision, detection, cooking and other bushcraft skills.
From the moment we met the Special Forces member I knew this was not going to be any sort of army boot camp I had seen on TV. This guy was incredibly knowledgeable, friendly, approachable and helpful. There was no yelling or barking orders. There was no jumping through tires. There was no breaking us down to build us back up. Instead, it was a collaborative session where he told us how he typically operated and showed us tricks that made life easier for him in the bush while watching how we managed ourselves. He coached us and layered the knowledge after watching us for a while. There was no redoing but instead improving.
I was quite surprised by his approach and I guess he realized this and explained to the group. “It doesn’t make any sense for me to stress you guys out. People learn when they are relaxed. If you are stressed you will go on automatic and focus on finishing and not on improving. This is the time we want to make mistakes. This is when we do it wrong so we can learn from this and then get it right when it counts.”
I have always had great respect for the Special Forces of every country but this guy brought it to a whole new level. This guy knew thousands of times more than me about living in the bush and he was so patient with everyone. Never did I hear him sigh or seem frustrated. He was likely the best teacher I have ever had. The lessons he taught us are still bouncing around in my head.
Having spent over 40k on post secondary university which I hardly remember makes me wonder about a few things. University wasn’t that stressful (except for the student loans) but it wasn’t very engaging either. It didn’t make me want to learn more. This special forces member didn’t have a degree in teaching but he did have many years experience and an extensive travel history. He seemed to have a depth of knowledge from world politics to weather patterns. He knew more about any particular subject than any of the other twelve people in the group.
My experience that weekend was amazing. I gained a lot of good skills and improved others. But more than anything, I learnt what makes a good teacher and a good learning environment. Here are the key points I took away:
- Get to know your students. Make contact. Collaborate. Don’t just talk to them but instead talk with them. If you are doing it right, you will learn as much as they learn from you. In the words of the special forces member: “We have collective knowledge now with this group of people. You will teach me your area of expertise and I will teach you mine. As a group we will learn and be successful.”
- Don’t start from a blank slate. Adults are active learners and already come with many skills and knowledge. Assuming you can start from the beginning is often a mistake. Many of the students with high degrees of knowledge can assist in the teaching process.
- Use examples and tell stories. No one likes 100% theory but everyone likes a good story.
- Mix it up. Doing something too long can become boring. Have operational periods that suite your audience. Adults can generally go longer than kids but everyone needs a pee or coffee break on a regular basis. Depending on time of day this may change the frequency. Do the harder stuff right away as people focus better in the morning.
- Save time to debrief. Talking about what worked and what didn’t work is a great way to learn.
- Relax. Make mistakes. We learn from making mistakes. It is never perfect and there is always room for improvement. Focus on the improvement.