Enriching experiences

Group school trips abroad are fine, but you can’t beat a good old-fashioned student exchange, says Ted Underwood

I am writing this from Costa Coffee in terminal three at Heathrow airport and so far things are looking rather bleak. My laptop has melted, destroying this already overdue article, it’s late at night and I have a sneaking suspicion that the Black Forest Gateau latte that is wobbling gently next to me as I frenetically retype this piece from memory onto my BlackBerry is going to be disgusting in the way that only a raspberry slush puppy in a head-on collision with a steaming vat of Mellow Birds could be.

In the space of the next seven days I shall visit Oman and India, suffer horrendous jet lag and no doubt get more up close and personal than I would desire with one stomach bug or another.

And yet I am happy, relaxed and optimistic. Why? Because I am going somewhere new.

As I have said already in these pages, I am that sad, strange type of individual who actually likes airline food and the general anonymity of long-haul transit but, that aside, most of us get excited when we are about to visit somewhere we have never been before.

Even more exhilarating still is when you get to do it alone.

Now think back to when you first experienced that feeling of visiting a new place without any real support. When you arrived in a new place without your regular safety net of family to catch you. You might have your gap year in mind, but go back a little further. Chances are for many of you, as it was for me, it was the school exchange visit.

Mostly my articles focus on students spending lengthy periods of time immersed in other cultures. It goes without saying that I believe we can all benefit from living and learning in another culture for a year or more, that’s what I do for a living, but some of our most profound immersive learning experiences can take place in a matter of days rather than months. That’s why today I want to fly the flag for the common-or-garden school exchange.

As a boy growing up in a small rural town, the 12-hour coach trip to France was simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying and in the 10 days which passed before I returned I learned far more than a few more words of French.

In fact, I learned hardly any French at all. What I really learned was that communication is as much about how you speak as what you’re saying, that I could cope on my own in a house full of people who didn’t understand a word I was saying and that, unfortunately, I wasn’t quite as funny and interesting as I had previously thought. I loved it.

In terms of learning a language I don’t know if it could be built into a scheme of work, but it was a powerful educational experience all the same.

If education is all about preparing students for the real world and how to deal with it, then I would put forward the exchange trip as a way of giving students as many life lessons as possible in the shortest possible time.

Today the humble exchange visit is in decline and it’s easy to see why. Teachers are under pressure to provide the maximum number of enrichment opportunities over a year which provide a tangible ROI for the parents paying for them. On paper, the school exchange lacks that killer punch of the single identifiable benefit. What is more, it obliges time-poor parents to spend a fortnight catering to the whims of an additional child.

Let’s be honest, a whole-year group trip to Paris with the obligatory stop off at Euro Disney sounds a lot easier, has less planning and is far more of a vote winner for the students.

When we want to talk to students from other countries and cultures then we can Skype them, so why do we need to visit them? The British Council’s Connecting Classrooms project has also done superb work in enabling whole classes to link with their counterparts abroad to collaborate on a project of mutual interest so you can have a foreign classroom experience beamed straight to your own. But it all feels a little, well, safe.

Fortunately, there are organisations dedicated to providing a richer foreign travel experience for schools. I work in partnership with a German not-for-profit, The Braun Foundation, looking at ways to enhance young people’s foreign travel experiences.

What we’ve put together and are piloting this summer in partnership with STA Travel is work experience opportunities. A number of German teenagers will be descending on small businesses in the Midlands in June and will make mistakes, get lost and be utterly confused by conversations over a four-week period.

They will stay with a host family to further intensify their English experience and be expected to go to work every day, contribute and learn. While I hope that they enjoy themselves, it’s going to be hard work and they will be expected to behave like adults.

I hope that at least some of them will look back in years to come and consider it the making of them.

There is a place for the organised school trip, of course there is: I’ve run many myself and seen the benefits first hand. But I do feel that it needs to be supplemented with something a little more rigorous as students get older.

If we really can’t stomach the paper work (yes, I do understand the myriad of safe-guarding issues surrounding a trip abroad) and commitment that it takes to get an exchange programme off the ground, then surely we need to look at alternatives. After all, the opportunities for students to learn from the uncertain environment of a trip abroad are almost too good to miss. 

Ted Underwood has over 13 years’ experience in international education as a teacher, manager and marketer. He is now schools’ director at Oak Tree International, a student recruitment and consultancy company for independent schools W: www.oaktree-international.com/ E: underwood@oaktree-international.com

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