What World Challenge Expeditions have taught me: failure is the way forward by Cathy Williams

 

We all learn the most when we’re challenged. Those of you who listened to Will Ord’s key-note at the school conference a couple of years ago heard lots about putting students in the ‘pit’ in order to help them out, to encourage a growth mindset and demonstrate that learning begins with confusion or even failure. The beauty of a World Challenge expedition is that the ‘challengers’ have to help themselves out. They are well and truly outside of their comfort zones, dealing with language barriers and culture shock in developing countries where sometimes very little goes to plan. They lead the expedition, with two of them taking charge each day and organising team decisions. Two become accountants, take all of our money at the beginning of the trip and work out how to spend it. Each evening, they lead a reflection on that day’s progress, on things they’ve achieved and things they need to improve. While it is clear that employers and universities value the skills developed (one student was accepted on a university course she didn’t have the grades for as soon as she mentioned World Challenge), we have seen expeditions have perhaps a more profound impact too.

cw1Girls in Morocco washing clothes by hand for the first time ever!

cw2The next day’s team leaders planning late into the night…

Epic Fails:

There have been a number of times during the five expeditions we’ve ‘led’ when students have managed to ‘fail’ in sometimes spectacular ways. In every single case, the fact that we restrained ourselves from intervening meant that they were much more independent and careful for the rest of the expedition, and hopefully beyond.

  1. Waiting for a bus in Malaysia for nearly two hours, despite the fact that the buses weren’t running in ramadan (as it clearly said on the timetable).
  2. Poor map reading leading to going into Spain instead of onto Gibraltar and wondering why people only spoke Spanish in a country that was part of the UK.
  3. Turning a 6 hour trek into a 14 hour one, during which three students cried continually. (All later apologised to the team.)
  4. Writing the word ‘one’ under the number ‘two’ on the mural on Peace Perfect School in Ghana.
  5. Forgetting to book accommodation until they asked where we were staying.
  6. Leaving litter behind on a campsite the day after they had taught a lesson about littering to the rural community in the Himalayan foothills.
  7. Not waking anyone up on the night train to Delhi until we were already pulling into the most chaotic station in the world at 2am.
  8. Forgetting to book a bus until it didn’t show up.
  9. Losing the team leader pack, including the budget sheets, contacts and itinerary.
  10. Not picking up the money at Heathrow for our Malawi expedition.

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At times it has been a struggle for both Laura and I to take enough of a step back, but this struggle has definitely improved my practice in the classroom too. These examples of ‘failures’ are all things that the students continued to talk about long after the event, so the learning sticks in a very useful way. The Malaysia group read everything carefully from that point on and the Malawi accountants were so meticulous that they saved enough money to fund an extra safari activity for the whole team as well as provide more resources to the nursery school before we left. This has definitely changed the way I behave in a classroom too; while we need to make students experience in school positive, letting them fail, as long as we reflect on and make use of these failures, can only be a valuable thing. When I first started teaching I was definitely a little afraid of telling students that they’d made mistakes, but now I like to embrace and celebrate them as a first step to doing better. This is surely the best way to develop a growth mindset, especially in the high achieving sixth formers who we tend to take on expedition, since this group are often least familiar with failure and most fixed in their mindsets.

cw4Callum and Gyan proving they could be resourceful.

Last year, I looked at the impact of our expeditions for the PEG looking at learning communities. We surveyed students before and after expedition. One of the most interesting findings of these surveys was the difference between the things they said they were looking forward to before the expedition and the things that they said were the best part of it afterwards. Beforehand 78% said they were looking forward to “making a difference” or “helping people less fortunate”, whereas, after the expedition, they clearly demonstrated a much more realistic understanding of their experiences during a very short community project. 85% mentioned something about “learning from” or “getting to know” the people. They also mention working “with” rather than “for” in almost all responses. Most satisfying though, was that 78% also used the words “reflect”, “learning”, “pushing myself” or “difficult” to describe what was best about expedition, while none of them expected this to be the best thing about the experience before they went; the expedition had made them realise the value of learning through challenges.

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Working “with”- students learn skills from local workers.

Some musings from ‘challengers’:

“I don’t think I could ever have learned so much in two weeks at school, these lessons will last me a lifetime.”

“Being pushed out of your comfort zone, being uncomfortable, makes you realise what type of person you are.”

“It sounds cliche, but it is a once in a lifetime opportunity that teaches you valuable life lessons. You develop as a person and create unforgettable memories!”

“It was the hardest but most rewarding thing I have ever done.”

“I didn’t realise I haven’t ever really pushed myself before, so it was hard. There were times on expedition that I didn’t think I could go on, but I did, so now I know that I can.”

Cw6Overcoming the language barrier with smiles.

cw7“A real sense of satisfaction that we’d managed to do a good job in the end.”

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Time for reflection…

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“It just makes you realise how greedy humans are doesn’t it.”You might expect that the best thing about safari in Liwonde National Park at the end of the exhausting two week expedition would be the close encounters with beautiful herds of elephants and incomprehensibly graceful hippos in the wild. Perhaps it would be waking up in a tent to the sounds of bee-eaters and barbets. Or maybe taking a sunset boat journey. Yet the moment that stands out involved no wildlife at all. Sitting in the jeep as the guide explained why they had to make a rhino enclosure within the National Park to protect dwindling numbers of black rhino, Laura and I listened in to a conversation between two students who weren’t really friends before expedition. It was the kind of conversation we all love to hear in a classroom; they were linking things they’d learned in Science at school to new information that our guide Tom was so keen to provide, they were questioning each other and linking their experiences in the community to their lives in the UK. Without any prompting, they had taken this quiet time in a natural environment as a chance to reflect and review their own experiences.

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