Just a few days before our last school trip, a friend of ours, an anthropology scholar, visited us at school. We requested him to speak to our students about what they could learn from a school trip in rural India. The initial questions he posed revealed that few students had visited villages other than on trips from school. They knew very little about how the majority of our population lives— what they do for a living, the kind of houses they live in, the food they eat, and the culture in a village. It is as though, living in an urban setting, learning about an Indian village or about the lives of the rural poor is not relevant to their own lives. But would not such exposure help students in seeing their own lives within a larger context? As it is, our students have very little exposure to the wider issues of our society.

One can’t blame the students for this. We rarely provide occasions for students to reflect upon the way our society functions. While they learn about how political systems are structured through civics, and about the lives of past generations through history, there isn’t much context in the classroom for talking about the dynamics of society as it functions today. Issues like global warming and poverty get mentioned in some subjects, but the lives of the majority of common people with their everyday issues find little mention. It is then left to the teacher, who may or may not bring this up in class. The other major source of information today is the media, and mainstream media never really covers rural India except when there is a disaster—either natural or manmade.

Despite talk of the world becoming a global village, one finds ironically that our society is actually turning into a self-absorbed, insulated, and increasingly intolerant society.

Thus there is certainly a need for a new dimension to education—a dimension that will open our eyes to the workings of the human mind and the ways in which human beings interact with each other and with the earth. We have evolved an approach to school trips that responds to this need. School trips, when carefully planned and executed, are very good tools to foster such learning.

Learning Possibilities of School Trips

Trips offer an opportunity to break through the self-contained world of our students and help them reach out to others. We often find that everything we do on our trips is a new experience for our students, starting from the train or bus journey, to where and what we eat, where we stay and who we meet. All students travel only by public transport while they are on school trips, and eat and stay in simple places.

However, we need to add a cautionary note. If we are not clear about our intentions, a school trip may not communicate much learning of value. Often what creates ambiguity in learning, is insufficient clarity among teachers about what they might feel is the purpose of the field trip. Confusion here could leave students uninvolved and cynical. On the other hand, learning outcomes are sometimes over-planned, and lack room for spontaneity. Further, it may be possible that some trips have the potential for throwing up questions that may not have ready answers. Challenging established perceptions without concrete alternatives may throw up things that teachers may feel they cannot ‘handle’. We have found that what is most vital is raising questions which can be experienced so that the complexity of any situation is revealed. There is no room then for spoonfeeding or directing answers.

With all this in view, a lot of brainstorming and planning is required before, during and after every field trip to identify questions and consolidate learning.

Another aspect one must take into account is that of expectations of comfort and notions of fun that students bring with them. We are not saying that education trips should not be fun. It is just that fun has been defined by the media and by lifestyles in a certain manner, and we could challenge that notion. School trips can be educative, physically and mentally challenging, earth friendly and still be fun. One may need to drop received notions of fun and we have seen that students are more often than not open and willing to learn different ways of doing things.

So what potential does a school trip offer? Three broad areas present themselves.

  1. The trip exposes students to aspects of life they are unused to. It shows how other people in our country live as well as initiatives taken by people and organizations on various fronts, often in places of social and environmental struggle.
  2. The trip serves the purpose of an extended or real-life classroom. For instance, we have visits to historical sites, cultural heritage spots, forests for study of biology and ecology, visits to tribal areas to study a different culture and lifestyle and visits to farms to learn about agriculture.
  3. A trip generates the opportunity to learn about oneself. There is plenty of scope for challenge and reflection for every individual. This, however, does not happen on its own. While there is great value to leaving certain learning experiences unarticulated and a great variety of questions may arise in individual minds, it is yet necessary to structure the opportunities for various dimensions of personal learning. Finding time for reflection on an ongoing basis during a busy trip is as much a matter of personal commitment on the part of the teacher, as it is a logistic challenge in the schedule.

Every field trip can and must have all three aspects woven into it.

To illustrate these possibilities of a school trip a few examples are described below.

A Trip to Kolli Hills

We visited Kolli Hills with Classes Nine and Ten on two different occasions. This is a small range of hills near Salem and Namakkal and are identified as a tribal region. There are many hundreds of tribal hamlets located over the hills. This region retains about thirty percent forest cover and is largely occupied by tribals. Kolli Hills entered our consciousness when we heard about a protest from the tribals against a series of mini-hydel projects that were being planned there. We had heard that mini-hydel projects were good alternatives to large hydel projects as they did not submerge large areas of land and did not displace people. So the protest intrigued us. Moreover, Kolli Hills are known as cultural and environmental heritage spots and the ancient koravas have sung about these hills and the variety of herbs contained in them. There seemed to be scope for much learning.

The planning of a trip like this involves liaising with a range of groups and several people. In this particular case we liaised with the Kolli Hills Action Committee which includes twelve different groups functioning under the common umbrella of tribal upliftment. The teachers going on the trip made time to discuss in detail the various possibilities the trip offered and carefully scheduled each day. While dividing responsibilities they also discussed interpersonal issues, individual strengths and limitations. We must have met at least five times and the meetings lasted forty- five minutes to an hour. At the same time, through discussions and readings, we sensitized the students to the issues that they were likely to encounter on the trip There are only two mini-buses to Kolli hills every day and when we reached the bus stand the morning bus was already full. We had a choice of waiting for several hours for the next bus or travel standing for three hours. We chose the latter. The first thing we saw when we reached was the temple of Arapaleeswarar, which is the main junction in Kolli Hills, an ancient Shiva temple with a river running by. Right next to the bus stand were a pair of scarlet minivets and pineapples being sold for one rupee each! We stayed in a dilapidated marriage hall, the only building available which would accommodate us. For a bath we had the river nearby. When we had to go to a hamlet we walked there. We travelled to about twelve villages on the whole, breaking up into smaller groups for easy interaction. On one occasion, we had to walk ten kilometres one way! We expected to find forests everywhere but only found green cover on the steepest of slopes and other inaccessible places, strengthening the notion that the only thing that could save nature from humans is inaccessibility. Putting it differently, the surest way to destroy a forest is to build a road through it.

We found that the tribals had, over just the last few years, switched from traditional to hybrid crops of the green revolution. Fertilisers had begun to make their entry, but pesticides, not yet. For them the green revolution had just begun—a fresh and not very auspicious beginning. Within five years of shifting from growing millets to tapioca, the price of tapioca had fallen from five hundred rupees per sack to seventy-five rupees per sack. Townspeople from the plains had come in with their own ways of operating. We met a couple of men from town who had come up to give the tribals loans. They openly told us that once a tribal took a loan from them, his land was as good as theirs!

There were so many new things to learn on this trip that, for the students and the adults, it felt as if we might as well have come from Mars! There were issues of personal discomfort, but they had to be faced, as there was no running away from the situation. Deeper than all that was the nagging sense of social responsibility. What was our role in what we were seeing around us? What threw up the greatest confusion was the poverty hand-in-hand with generous hospitality. We have clear memories of the koothu (dance-drama) that the tribals put up for our sake, the late night conversation with villagers after all of us had eaten in different houses of the hamlet. We also remember the late night walk back from a hamlet after speaking to a local activist there, and the joy and sense of abandon we felt, calling out to each other in pitch darkness, walking the ‘pathless path’; the full circle rainbow around us in the waterfall with all of us in the middle.

We learnt that even mini-hydel projects can cause submergence and displacement, if not properly planned—and we learnt about the ‘politics’ of planning. All the electricity generated was meant for the nearest city, not for them. The people whose land was being submerged were not offered compensation as they did not have pattas. Tribals seldom have pattas as they have a different sense of land ownership. We had the opportunity of attending the public hearing held about the dams where the tribals put up a good show of protest, and we learnt later that the project was abandoned. What the children ‘learnt’ about the world they live in, is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify.

Trips into Situations of Human Struggle

In terms of challenging established notions, the Class Eleven trips to the Narmada valley, to witness the effect of modern development, have been the most profound. It would not be wrong to say that this is a ‘coming of age’ experience for most students. What three years of teaching/learning of Environmental Studies does not manage to achieve, that one trip does in twelve to fifteen days. The issues that get thrown up are immense and wide-ranging: our role in development processes particularly as beneficiaries of lopsided, unsustainable development programs; our lifestyles and values; our commitment or lack of it to nature, to people, to life itself; and the students’ plans for the future.

Class Eleven students have gone to the Narmada valley, to Alwar in Rajasthan to witness the activities of the Tarun Bharat Sangh, to Kerala to understand the issues of minority communities such as fishermen and tribals and the Vypeen islanders arranged with the help of the National Fishworkers Forum, and to villages in Tamilnadu to witness Dalit struggles. On these trips students are not only challenged on the above issues but also have to sometimes walk long distances, eat very simple fare which can get delayed, sleep very late at night because one is meeting with someone who has something to share. Students are confronted with an aspect of reality from which they have been shielded so well by the media and our society. They meet people like Medha Patkar, Rajendra Singh, Fr. Thomas Kocherry and many others who have selflessly chosen to act for others and against injustice. This brings about a reflection, sometimes a reassessment of their lives.

A recent Class Eleven trip to various villages in south Tamilnadu had as its context the Dalit struggle in Tamilnadu. The trip helped the students understand the dynamics of politics and society through interaction with local Panchayats, human and child rights groups, political parties and NGOs working in that region.

Students met inspiring people in ordinary and extraordinary circumstances. One such person was Krishnamma who is spearheading a movement for the tiller land along with her husband Jagannathan, a veteran freedom fighter. They witnessed the daily drama of her life today which also involved opposing the intensive shrimp aquaculture that is laying waste thousands of acres of fertile land along coastal Nagapattinam. Village after village, they interacted with starving subsistence farmers who could yet smile, chat, joke and live life. One attempts to experience and understand the complex sociopolitical reality that surrounds and infiltrates the life of each and every Dalit whom one meets; one finds a capacity within oneself to perceive, to feel beyond the limited dynamic of one’s own self-interest.

In being witness to both the Narmada and the Dalit struggle, coming across common people who were surviving against extraordinary odds, we are challenged to question our daily lifestyles and the presumptions we act from. There takes place tremendous learning coming from two sources—one, the intensity of the struggle itself, which has historical depth, and two, the human saga as enacted by the individual people with its raw power and elemental focus. The value of such learning seems to lie in the sociohistoric scope of a people’s struggle—its capacity to encompass history in the making. At the very least, such a trip can give one a sense of one’s place in a long continuum of ‘objective’ time.

While the trip could affirm social responsibility, it does not encourage activism of any kind, it does not encourage political stances. What it does encourage, however, is the capacity to think for oneself. In a space and a society where it is becoming all too easy to take the road much travelled by, it is our perception that it is necessary to facilitate a possible change of perspective which is very different from encouraging or inciting activism. To choose one’s path in a pathless land means also to traverse that land—not only in the dimension of asking oneself who one is, but also in the dimension of locating for oneself, where one is. A trip like this educates students for responsibility, indicates the scope of initiative possible, while clearly recognizing the locus of change within the self. This to us exemplifies Krishnamurti’s statement, ‘You are the world and the world is you.’

After the Trip

Ultimately a trip will work only if the learning remains real after returning from the trip. For this it needs to be held alive within the school itself. For instance a number of questions get thrown up while on a trip, and these questions need to be carried back and addressed by the teachers in various school contexts. This implies that these trips are as much a learning opportunity for adults as they are for students.

Reflecting on experiences we bring back from school trips makes us aware of a range of uncomfortable questions, both about oneself and about the world one lives in. While some of the questions seem easier to touch and work with, many of them need to be acknowledged and held. The questions are, in fact, around us and in us right where we live. But the daily welter of our lives desensitizes us to our own emotional and psychological responses to what we see. Field trips come a full circle when we recognize ourselves as living, feeling parts of our own living spaces, communities and society.