Learning on the Go

The Amber Fort in Jaipur, India The Amber Fort in Jaipur, India

Real learning occurs not just in schools; even holidays and travel play an important part, argues Dr Amrita Vohra, Director Education – GEMS India and Executive Principal – GEMS International School, Gurgaon

“The kids were running amok with glee. Well, that’s what was apparent to fellow travellers staring at us, askance expressions on their faces. We teachers simply smiled back at them, knowing there was method to the madness – because we had created it. To us, the madness reflected the levels of engagement in our students, the depth of learning taking place.

We were at Jaipur’s Amber Fort. More than 100 primary and middle school students were working in explorer groups to unravel the secrets of history, geography, mathematics, architecture and politics ensconced in this epoch-defining building. They had been given half an hour to run around, find information, places, justifications, rationales and possibilities to answer a set of thinking questions assigned to each group. Each little discovery was a victory of teamwork. Within their teams, they distributed areas of work, defined timelines, planned circle-back discussions and brainstormed conclusions based on analyses of evidence collected. Can learning be achieved in a mere 30-minute lesson? Yes, absolutely!

And yet, all that is but a trickle in the stream of true learning that naturally gets integrated with travelling. The planning of a journey, backpacking for survival in an unknown territory, often with unfamiliar companions, dealing with an array of deep emotions, exploring, navigating, improvising to make it all work out better. It is a simulation of life, a simulation of growing up and becoming. Each journey is a chapter in the overall Bildungsroman.

Dr Amrita Vohra is Director of Education – GEMS India

Young globe trotters

To the educator, travelling with children is an opportunity to create a multi-level and thoroughly inclusive classroom. The classrooms depicted in the famous autobiographical memoir Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window were made out of converted railway coaches, metaphorically capturing the essence. The child’s eyes wistfully peering out of the classroom window stand for the innate desire to break free and learn from the world beyond. Birds frolicking to create their nest in the tree trunk outside are bound to be more interesting than black and white boards filled with semantic symbols. Charlotte Bronte’s eponymous heroin in Jane Eyre, too, looks longingly at the horizon from within the four walls of her orphanage school. Freedom calls – and yet even then we have our innate fears of freedom to tackle as well. Human existence is quite a paradox!

While on tour, our students add to their portfolios, participate in art competitions in some of the most inspiring art galleries, they explore relics of history and royalty in preserved palaces and design their own magazines with the help of photography and creative writing workshops as an integrated aspect of the journey. Indeed, some of my most memorable experiences as a student, teacher and school leader have been these journeys with children. From learning Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple in China, wearing veils with my Delhi girls at Abu Dhabi’s Grand Mosque, building castles on the beach with my primary school ‘happiness champions’, to excavating deserts and braving the heights of the Himalayas with teenagers, these journeys have been phenomenal learning expeditions. The learning outcomes have been exponential, multi-dimensional.

Observing my young globe trotters navigating their way through cultures, cuisines, arts, histories and languages of human civilisations in varied geographies, I have often admired the merging of dissimilarities, the acceptance of the ‘other’, an effortless sensitivity to global concerns emerging in the most natural manner. This is genuine global citizenship education, moving beyond the ‘here and now’ to larger paradigms.

Citizens of the world

While a travelogue school sounds quite utopian, at GEMS Education we have managed to create our own global citizenship explorations within the confines of our everyday lives. As Siddharth Krishnan, one of our students in Grade 7, noted; “While we explore different countries each month, it is amazing to note that there is so much to learn. Each country has such a rich culture, such an inspiring history and so much happening in the present. Physical, virtual and experiential travel exploration makes learning very powerful at our school. I feel like a citizen of the world, rather than just one nation.”

Tushar Garg of the senior section at GEMS International School, Gurgaon, notes; “While we travel to different places, the experience of collaborative work with our teams in an unknown setting is particularly special. I explored the world’s largest sundial and various astronomical instruments made before 1734 in my own country.

One has to see it to believe it! These instruments just make so much sense. Between our team and our teachers, we connected and noted real-life applications of countless scientific and mathematical concepts. Here, are our subjects in real-time action.”

Nothing motivates a teacher more perhaps than the joyous sense of achievement on a child’s face, the unadulterated hunger for knowledge, the drive to ask the right questions. It is our manna in the incessant journey of learning. The destination is for our students to reach, and we are proud of them when they do.”