The world as a classroom

Lakshmi Karunakaran

Walking ten thousand miles is better than reading ten thousand scrollsChinese Proverb

I cannot call myself a traveller, not in the way Instagram and Facebook feeds inform me. But I must confess that I find travelling to be one of the most enriching experiences. While I rarely see myself taking time out to travel, I try to make each of my trips whether, professional or personal, a journey that informs me not only about the world outside, but also one that helps me discover the world within.

As an educator, I remain conscious of how these experiences shape me and my practice. In the past few years, through work and other opportunities I have been able to travel to several countries in Europe. One of my most educative trips was a walk. Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James is a pilgrimage (now more a cultural walk) to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. While the walk in full length can take up to 35 days across 700 kilometres, I chose to walk for a week covering about 200 kilometres from the last town in Portugal, Tui, crossing the border on foot across the Mino river into Spain. Each day we would start at 6 am as the sun came up, we would set out to the next destination on the route, usually about 25 kms away, guided by just a yellow arrow sign showing us the direction at various places along the route. We would reach the destination by mid afternoon giving us the time to discover the village or town, talk to the locals and understand local culture. While the walk opened me to the conflicted history of Spain and Portugal, the separatist movement in Galicia and the nature and wildlife of the landscape, the time of solitude that I discovered along the walk brought me some of the most important life lessons. A significant one among those was about baggage – in the physical and metaphorical sense.

Travelling light was essential as each of us carried our own baggage. So the seven days became an important revelation on how little one really needs to live. When starting, my backpack weighed about five kilograms, and as the days went along I saw myself shedding many things that were not important. A lighter bag made me more agile, more focused. This of course led me to think about the baggage of emotions – of fears, anxiety, regret, relationships, etc., that I carried within me. Today, each time I feel overwhelmed by life, I travel back to that journey that I took and remember all that it taught me.

When I was approached to write this article, I was pleasantly surprised. Since my own experiences of teaching has largely remained around experiments within the classroom, and limited to a few local trips, the possibility of discovering how other educators use the outdoors as learning spaces was exciting.

Travel as education
Savita Uday is a researcher, educator, farmer and folklorist. She is based in Honnavar in the Uttara Kannada district, and is the founder of the project Buda Folklore. Buda has, over the years, been deeply engaged in documentation and reinvigoration of folk practices, especially those in the Gokarna-Ankola region focusing on the lives of Halakki, Siddi and Kare Okkalu tribal communities. Savita, after her PHD, taught in a few schools. However, she soon discovered the restrictions in the classroom experience. ‘I was teaching students about the low tide and high tide phenomenon. Having grown up in a coastal area I realized that I had experienced it in a way that I could not translate in the classroom setup. I decided that I needed to give children a way to experience it the way I had’. She slowly changed her entire life, moving back to Honnavar and setting up Buda. Today, she hosts children who spend weeks on educational trips. The Buda program has marked out three routes through the Uttara Kannada landscape – The Forest Route, the Sea Route and the River route. The children travel in groups along with volunteers and educators experiencing the rich ecological diversity in the landscape meeting members of tribal communities that inhabit these spaces and learning about how they live and experience life.

Installation by walkers on the way to Santiago
For Hema Gopinathan Sah, a homeschooler from Mumbai, travel or outdoor learning is an essential part of homeschooling. ‘We didn’t want to bring structured, institutionalized learning into our home, so keeping it outdoors and experiential was critical. Of course there are unstructured holidays, but because we follow the Waldorf/Rudolph Steiner curriculum, we travel with a specific purpose of understanding, experiencing. That is very much our homeschooling philosophy. Almost every topic, any subject will begin outdoors, preferably onsite, at the actual location of the subject we are studying or at the least at a museum. For example, when we were studying rivers we went to Triambakeshwar in Nashik to see where the river surfaces. And then we could bring it home with a craft project of a papier maché 3-D map of Maharashtra tracing the journey of the river. We may have been studying geography, but the takeaway was more because we learnt about Hindu mythology, mathematics to figure out the distance covered, volume of water discharged, the area irrigated and so on.’

Thejaswi Sivanand, educator from Bengaluru through his work at Center for Leaning (CFL) has taken several adolescent children on educational trips across the country. A traveller himself, he has had firsthand insights into how travel has informed his own growth as a person and as an educator. ‘I love literature. Books have helped me travel to spaces and times that I cannot physically access given my circumstances. However, I have also known the qualitative difference in the experience of understanding that travel brings vis-a-vis reading. For me, it is the human component that makes all the difference. For example, one can read several books about the lives of adivasis of central India, but visiting them, travelling with them, and building friendships that last decades, informs you in ways that no book can. I try to bring this understanding to the children that I travel with.’

Planning an educational trip
Sivanand shares that there are four critical aspect of planning an educational trip with children:
The first one is setting the goals for the trip. ‘I feel that any educational trip should consider two basic goals – help children look beyond their context and current lives, and encourage them to look within their own selves.

Students on the river route offered by the Buda programme
Choosing the place, modes and means of travel is another important aspect. ‘The place and plan arises from the group of children that I am working with. If I feel that the group needs to push themselves physically or psychologically, I plan a trip that calls for such a challenge. For example, a Himalayan trekking trip. If I feel that the group needs to be exposed to a layered experience of understanding the socio-cultural-economic-ecological diversity of a space, I plan a trip that pushes the group to understand multiple perspectives. I recall a two-week trip to Punjab that helped us look at history starting from the Harappan Mohenjadaro civilization, to medieval times, to partition, to the Khalistan movement and to the current state of Punjab. It helped us explore ecological diversity, and culture and food of the land through the people we met. These trips are not luxurious by any means. We travel sleeper class and stay modestly. On our Punjab trip, we only lived in Gurudwaras and ate at the langar that they provided. This is a critical part of the education on the trip, as it allows the students to understand the landscape from the grassroots, not as a tourist.’

The third and one of the most critical aspects is to create spaces of discussion and reflection. ‘The two weeks of travel is an intense experience for both the students and the educators. Each student is encouraged to maintain a personal journal through the trip. This helps them gather their observations, assimilate it and make sense of it. Apart from this, there are group discussions everyday that allow spaces for questions and dialogue. This helps children and the group further build understanding of what they are experiencing.’

The last, yet critical aspect to consider is the dynamics of the group. ‘Travelling can bring the best and worst in many of us. When we are out of our comfort zone, we tend to expose different sides of our personalities. So being alert to the movements of children, giving space, at the same time offering help when they need it becomes an important role of the educator.’

Ini Periodi, alumnus of CFL, corroborates Sivanand’s thoughts. She was part of several excursions from CFL. ‘Yes, it’s the understanding of group dynamics that has stayed with me the most. Even though the group was small and we spent a lot of time with each other at school, travel brought out a different side to all of us. This was important to witness and understand. I truly learnt how to work as a group and find my role within the group.’

Today Periodi is an educator and works with young students. She says that the lessons that she learnt through her travels have seeped in multidimensional ways. ‘Travelling on educational trips the way I did has taught me one of the most important lessons – to be open. Open to various experiences, people and learning. It has helped me be ‘present’ in a space, in a moment, not only when I travel but also in the classroom that I teach.’

The author is an educator based in Bengaluru. She can be reached at lakshmikarunakaran@gmail.com.