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 couldn’t remain 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 push anyone in risky areas.
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 gave him 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 seeing that when bags were full they would be put into a 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 the 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.
We have seen many, 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 our students are as important as academic excellence. Whether in school or pursuing a professional course, the need for a different set of life and work skills is becoming increasingly evident.
Academic excellence has its place – but 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
We see a strong need for students to be able to learn new skills, attitudes, and qualities for the present 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 their resilience by facing challenges, struggling, and moving forward – because there is no other direction to move in!
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 sustained effort. A confidence 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. This triggers the change in them.
| How Does A Trek Fulfill These Needs?
The beauty and majesty of the mountains create the perfect setting for a powerful experience. Strong emotions of joy and wonderment, that trekking in such an environment 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 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 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 as well 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.
Weather is a challenge. It gets very cold, rain falls, 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 bad phase or 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 on hard ground, washing dishes in freezing water, cooking simple meals that they relish 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. Crises are not the end of the world. 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 and they learn to keep things in perspective.
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 far more? 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 aware of the need to protect nature and many make efforts to do something about it. 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 role 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 see that everyone is doing well, to offer help to those who are struggling, to encourage them, and to offer help where necessary.
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. This requires taking time-out from “doing” and stepping back and reviewing what has been done and experienced.
Reflections are done individually as well as all together. Students are encouraged to verbalize their learnings and observations.
Team reflections, through simple questions, help in talking about what went well and what did not. They help in learning from mistakes and planning for the next day.
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.
| The Process We Follow / What We Do At Experiential Learning Programs
We at Indiahikes see trekking and camping in the Himalayas as a unique tool that has the potential to bring about change in students.
We use the principles of Experiential Learning, which is the process of learning in action.
Learning by doing has a retention of 75% as compared to classroom learning’s 20%.
We take students through the phases of experiential learning as outlined by David A.Kolb.
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.
| The Role Of The Facilitator
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 leadership 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 at all.
Training of the facilitators is therefore a vital part of the program. We have Continuous Professional Development programmes for our trek leaders as well as other supporting staff.
The training has several levels and refresher courses happen through the year. The focus is on enhancing their skills, knowledge, attitudes and qualities required for experiential education. This has resulted in a pool of highly motivated facilitators of outdoor learning.
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.
| When Does Learning Happen?
On a trek, students are doing things they have never done before. They adapt to new conditions. There is no room for pretensions that are otherwise possible in a comfortable space. They learn to communicate more proactively and responsibly. And finally, they are accompanied by the trek leaders/facilitators to reflect on their experiences of the day.
None of this is easy for most young learners and there are times they appear to panic. This is not a bad thing. It creates the right amount of stress to trigger a movement towards entering the learning zone.
1. The Comfort Zone
The comfort zone is where many of us operate. It’s the location of the skills and abilities we’ve acquired. While the comfort zone is by definition the most ‘comfortable’, we can’t make progress or build skills in the comfort zone since it consists of the abilities we can already do easily.
2. The Panic Zone
If you’ve ever become so anxious you can no longer think, you’ve probably run into the panic zone. Activities in the panic zone are so tough that we don’t even know how to approach them. The overall feeling of the panic zone is that you are uncomfortable and possibly discouraged.
Like the comfort zone, we can’t make progress in the panic zone. You may be in the panic zone when attempting something dangerous, far beyond your reach or under high stress.
3. The Learning Zone
Between the panic zone and the comfort zone is the learning zone. One can only make progress by choosing activities in the learning zone. The skills and abilities that are just out of reach are in the learning zone; they’re neither so far away that we panic nor close enough where they’re too easy.
When students recognize this movement and understand the dynamics of it – there is no turning back! Every challenge then has the potential for learning and growth. A process to deal with problems is discovered. The significance of the right mental approach is understood.
For some, it is a eureka moment – for others, a slow blossoming of awareness.
Seeing this over and over again is a humbling but incredibly exciting experience for us!
Over the last 4 years, we have observed 7,085 students from various schools in their true element. The mountains have this strange effect of bringing who we truly are to the surface. Year after year we see students struggle as they were not ready for the hardship or the unfamiliarity of being out of their comfort zones.
We also see them blossom and literally transform through the experience – not just change.
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 there. 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 resilience, cooperation, a positive attitude, caring nature, and a keen sense of observation shine forth. This is an arena where these very attributes are cultivated.