How An Experiential Learning Trek In The Himalayas Can Change Your School Students
Adi was a troublemaker at school. Teachers were at their wits’ ends trying to deal with his anger outbursts and untidiness. When not daydreaming, he was constantly distracting others. He usually got excited with anything new – but could seldom see with a task to completion. He did not have any friends and was teased by the other students. Needless to say, his grades suffered. His school signed up for Experiential Learning treks with us.
Before the trek started, Adi’s teacher took me aside and said he needs to be watched closely. They did not want him to misbehave or push anyone on the trekking trail.
This was not something we were unfamiliar with, having had 7,085 students trek with us over the last 4 years. We did what we usually do when we have high energy students like Adi, we assigned him a responsibility.
We asked him if he would be our Green Trails leader. Everyone was given an Eco Bag to pick litter on the trail. He was in charge of ensuring that when Eco Bags were full, students would empty them into a larger sack and was so excited about his responsibility!
He was everywhere. Picking garbage, pointing it out to others, going out of his way many times to pick plastic that was strewn off-trail.
We began to see something change. Not everyone was agile and nimble-footed as he. Some were finding the terrain and slope difficult. We saw Adi helping anyone who was struggling. He held their hands in slippery sections and offered his water to those who did not have enough. He even offered to carry the bags of those who were struggling.
This was a side of Adi that no one had seen before. He was enthusiastic, kind-hearted, helpful, and took his responsibility very seriously.
We later heard from the school that Adi was a changed person in class and on campus. He had a certain confidence about him and he took charge of cleanliness even in school, chiding anyone who littered. He was getting recognized for this – and it began to reflect in his grades as well.
What happened here?
Adi discovered the joy of shouldering responsibility. His talents and strengths were given a chance to shine. Others got to see who he really is inside – and began to treat him differently. The experience and confidence it brought got transferred to other areas of his life.
He will still have challenges. But this gift he received on the trek – could very well be the turning point in his life.
This is a true story and we have seen many Adis on our treks. From the Experiential Learning Programs, we have so many stories of others who overcame limitations, fears, and lack of confidence. They took this experience back with them to their lives.
| The Problem
There is a growing awareness in educational circles that the mental, emotional and spiritual well being of students are as important as academic excellence. Whether in school or pursuing a professional course, the need for a different set of life skills is becoming increasingly evident.
While academic excellence has its place, we are seeing an alarming rise in students who lack self-confidence, who crumble under the slightest emotional disturbance and whose sense of entitlement has tied the hands of parents and teachers alike.
It’s time to think out of the box, look out of the box, and take students out of the box.
| What We See As The Present Need Amongst Students
We see a strong need for students to be able to learn new skills, attitudes, and qualities to grow and make a positive difference to the world we live in.
1. They need to see the natural consequences of their actions and not consequences imposed upon them by adults.
2. They need to experience and get accustomed to hardship.
3. They need to build resilience by facing challenges, struggling, and moving forward.
4. They need to experience the fruit of persistent effort and see that small consistent steps in the right direction – can lead to a huge victory!
5. They need to experience confidence of the spirit that comes from breaking through the limitations of the mind and body.
6. They need to experience what it is to be in awe and wonderment and to feel the joy and peace of discovering who they are in relation to the universe.
7. They need to be in situations that evoke empathy and compassion and offer the opportunity to express it.
8. Finally, they need to experience the outcome of daily reflections as a process of striving for excellence.
In the Experiential Learning Programs we design, we consciously build in the above mentioned experiences. Though the trek may just last 6 days we have found that the impact of this experience creates a shift in their approach to learning and growth for many years to come. It triggers the change in them.
| How Does A Trek Fulfill These Needs?
We at Indiahikes see trekking and camping as a unique tool that has the potential to bring about change in students. It is not easy for such changes to come about through classroom learning or other simulated experiences.
The beauty and majesty of nature and the mountains create the perfect setting for a powerful experience. Strong emotions of joy and wonderment, that trekking invariably gives rise to, cements that experience into the conscious and subconscious mind.
1. The opportunity of getting accustomed to hardship
A bane of our present society is the absence of natural ways to get students accustomed to hardship. Doing it artificially often meets with rebellion.
On a trek, every aspect is a form of hardship. Students are out of their comfort zones right from the word go. From exerting their lungs, heaving themselves uphill and carrying their own backpacks, to sleeping on a hard surface in a sleeping bag.
From toilets dug in the soil and no running water to freezing temperatures and having to wash their own dishes, and from rising before the sun on the summit day and trekking 8-10 hours before they can rest.
Initially, there are a few complaints, but each day we see a change. Surprisingly, summit day, which is the toughest day, has the least complaints. In such a short time, they have become mentally accepting of hardship and after a point, see it as a natural part of the day.
Eventually, attempts to avoid it disappear and students take on challenges head-on! To us, even if nothing else, this change makes the whole experiential learning program worth it.
2. The opportunity to experience natural consequences
This is something we all want our students to learn — but most parents, and teachers do not allow it. We push them constantly and make sure they do not go through the pain of facing real consequences.
In the mountains, it is nature in its raw form. The consequences of what we do or don’t do is immediately seen. For example, those who do not heed our insistence on physical preparation, struggle while trekking. Those who have made the effort to prepare have a much better experience of enjoying the beauty on the trail.
Weather in the mountains is unpredictable and we have to get to the next camp before dark. We have to constantly manage the terrain. There are ups and downs. Rocks and boulders, streams to hop over.
On the other hand, weather is a challenge. It gets very cold, it rains, there could be snow storms too. So on the summit day of the trek, we have a strict turn around time. If for any reason some get delayed, then even if they are 200 feet from the summit they have to turn back. It is very difficult for us to enforce it – but we must.
So, very naturally, an understanding of consequences evolves. The connection between the actions and decisions made and their outcome becomes evident. This is again brought out during reflections. This is a strong life lesson.
3. Resilience as a natural outcome of getting accustomed to hardship
The ability to bounce back quickly after a crisis is another area that students struggle with. When we help young people view challenges as a critical part of success, we help them develop resilience.
We have seen that even four days in the mountains creates a shift in attitude towards challenges that come up constantly during a trek.
Every hour, every day students are faced with situations they have never dealt with before. They are completely out of their comfort zones. Pitching tents and sleeping in zipped up bags, washing dishes in freezing water, cooking simple meals.
We have seen that they end up relishing meals even if burnt or uncooked. They challenge their lungs and feet with long hours of trekking. They break mental frameworks to redefine needs vs wants, comfort vs necessities.
As the days go by, they see the changes in themselves as well. This observation and awareness is brought about during the reflection sessions with the Trek Leader. They see themselves in a new but realistic positive light. They discover areas that they need to work on and feel confident that they can.
Gradually, they begin to feel a sense of control over their minds and bodies. They know they can reach out to others for support when needed. Experiencing the support of the team and discovering inner reserves of empathy makes students discover new strengths within themselves. They readily take initiative to solve problems.
4. Baby steps and big victories
We have seen students very excited and full of energy at the start of every trek. An hour into the trek and we see many beginning to struggle. The questions start – How much further? When will we reach?
We then introduce them to a magic formula. We call it baby steps. Take small steps, don’t rush, breathe naturally and keep walking. Very soon we see students who were out of breath and struggling, beginning to look around, smile and enjoy the beauty around them.
The actual impact of this formula is felt at the summit. Students stand in awe – their eyes large with disbelief that they had climbed all this way. Looking down they see their achievement and marvel at it.
This seemingly simple lesson is something that even adult trekkers take back with them. The impact on students is huge. They learn a deep truth – that nothing is impossible and all it takes is small steps towards your goal. You will get there.
5. The opportunity to experience awe and wonderment of the natural world
Students these days are quite aware of the need to protect nature. But it is quite rare to come across students who have been deeply touched by nature, feel closely connected to it and allow this connection to influence how they interact with it.
We have seen how a trek creates this deep connection.
You can see their eyes bright with anticipation from the first sight of snow-capped peaks while travelling to the base camp.
Trekking through rich forests, alive with strange fragrances and bird sounds, triggers their excitement. Camping under the night skies and witnessing the grandeur of the Milky Way gives their imaginations a whole new dimension. Standing on the summit and seeing the amphitheater of mountains around them is an overwhelming moment for everyone.
Some burst into tears. Most don’t understand why. This precious experience has touched their core. It brings to the surface, feelings of gratitude and deep connection to the universe.
6. The opportunity to express and practice empathy and compassion
We noticed that when expectations are set and the means to fulfill them are in place, students arise to fulfill them. We do this to enhance the expression of human values while on a trek.
Students are divided into smaller teams during the trek and each team takes on a specific role each day. The teams are mixed and usually, students who are close friends are put in separate teams. The Trek Leader explains the roles and responsibilities of each team.
The specific responsibility of one of the teams each day is to see to the well-being of everyone, to offer help to those who are struggling, and to encourage them.
We have seen students initially uncertain about how to show empathy and compassion. Some are naturally empathetic but many are not very tuned to others’ needs. With the right nudges and accompaniment by the trek leader and other staff, students learn to put the needs of others before their own.
Needless to say, for many, it could be the first strong experience of joy that one gets from service to others.
7. Daily reflections as a process of striving for excellence
Reflection is the key that is required in order to learn from experience. Without reflections after activities, the experiential learning cycle is incomplete and learning is left completely to chance.
Reflections require taking time-out from “doing” and stepping back and reviewing what has been done and experienced.
They are done individually as well as all together. Students are encouraged to verbalize their learnings and observations.
Team reflections, through simple conversations, help in talking about what went well and what did not. They help in learning from mistakes.
This daily practice helps students learn the Kolb process of learning from experience. They are facilitated to apply that learning to other areas of life and study.
| Why The Process We Follow Works
We use the principles of Experiential Learning, which is the process of “learning by doing”.
Learning by doing has a retention of 75% as compared to the 20% of classroom learning. (The Learning Pyramid)
During the trek students are consciously taken through the phases of experiential learning as outlined by David A.Kolb.
The doing – On our programme, students are involved in all aspects of planning and executing the trek – especially if it is a multi day trek in the Himalayas. This is something they have never done before and is quite challenging. It is specially designed to push them out of their comfort zones as they engage with all aspects of trekking and camping.
The learning – They are then taken through the process of reflecting on their experience and learnings. Their understanding of certain concepts is enhanced through the reflections. Finally, these learnings are used to improve their experience the following day. They are also enabled to see the application of their learning to different aspects of their lives.
Students go through the concrete experience of trekking and related activities. They are then taken through the process of reflecting on their learnings. Their understanding of certain concepts is enhanced through the reflections.
Finally, these learnings are used to improve their experience the following day. They are also enabled to see the application of their learning to different aspects of their lives.
| Why Do You Need Expert Facilitators
In Experiential Learning, the role of the facilitator is of utmost importance. The mountains and the trek, the conditions that create the perfect environment for learning provide the perfect nature classroom. Without the teacher/ facilitator, the learning is completely left to chance.
The facilitators have to balance several roles — from trek leader, to coach, to teacher and counselor. Their skills of communicating, encouraging, motivating, inspiring and leading are the fuel that take the students through the experiences of the trek with a positive attitude of learning. This is not an easy task.
Training of the facilitators is therefore a vital part of the Indiahikes training program, which happens behind the scenes. We have Continuous Professional Development programmes for our Trek Leaders as well as other supporting staff.
The training has several levels and refresher courses through the year. The focus is on enhancing the skills, knowledge, attitudes and qualities required for experiential education. This has resulted in a pool of highly motivated facilitators of outdoor learning at Indiahikes.
For the training as well as mentoring of our Trek Leaders, we have left no stone unturned. We collaborate with experts in the field from around the world, who have had decades of experience of working with students in the outdoors, to ensure that what we offer is of the highest quality and up to date.
| In Conclusion
Over the last 4 years, we have observed 7085 students from various schools across India on Experiential Learning Treks with us .. We see students face challenges with joy even though they are completely out of their comfort zones.
The field is level in the mountains though the terrain is not! Differences that define a person in the city, no longer define a person in the mountains. On a trek, it does not matter if you are a girl or boy, privileged or not, smart or weak.
This is an arena where students get accustomed to hardship and emerge more resilient and with a heightened sense of confidence.