The Himalayan Mountain Challenge is a specifically designed experiential learning program. In this program students have to plan and execute their own trekking expedition. The trekking expedition, spread over 4 days, requires them to reach a high point, usually a summit, and return down to the base camp safely. They do this in teams composed of 8 to 10 members, usually of diverse skills and abilities.
│ What Makes A Trek An Ideal Environment For Experiential Learning
In a trekking expedition, students are completely out of their comfort zones. They are forced to confront situations and overcome challenges that they have never encountered before.
They face adverse weather conditions, like snow or rain. They cook their own food, set up and unwind their campsites, and find their way through mountain trails. Each day is designed to be a little more challenging in terms of terrain, altitude and specific team activities.
│ How The Dynamics Within A Team Changes
Though enthusiasm is high, none of the above is easy to do — even for those who may have trekked before. Overcoming these challenges, day in and day out, as a team, tests and develops their skills of cooperation and collaboration. Conflicts arise. Morale gets threatened. Some teams almost reach break point.
But these internal struggles don’t last long. Specially designed activities and reflections actually leverage this struggle to create deeper bonds within the team. They get to know each other and their relationship is strengthened. This builds trust. Once the trust is built, students begin dealing with conflicts constructively.
Power struggles give way to sharing of responsibility. As a result, we see team members getting completely engaged in all aspects of teamwork.
As the program progresses there is a strong ‘buy-in’ as all team members become active participants. The goal of the team supersedes all personal goals and motivations.
A shift is seen once teams learn to function seamlessly within the team. They feel ready to lend support to and seek support from other teams and stakeholders as well. They begin to understand and leverage the benefits of collaboration between teams.
All of this does not come about by chance. It comes about by the design of the program. Students are actively engaged in the experiential learning process of planning, executing, and reflecting. The three major elements of the design are:
1. The trek: Designing the trek experience to force students out of their comfort zones creates the environment for learning. Each day of the trek has a progressive change in terrain, altitude, temperature, and trekking hours. This keeps students constantly on the learning edge.
2. The activities: The entire expedition is also broken down into carefully designed activities. Every activity has a specific takeaway. It requires every team member to work collaboratively every single hour of the program.
An example of an activity is teams having to find their own way to the next campsite each day. They are given GPX files or a rudimentary map to do so. They have to figure out the way to the next camp themselves.
This requires collaboration as well as creativity. It also requires the ability to decode a map, and negotiate the terrain. All the while they need to trek as a team, and support each other till they reach the next campsite as a unit — because straying members are not allowed under the rules of the program.
3. Reflection sessions: They are a crucial element that enables teams to introspect on their learning each day. Guided by the facilitator they talk about all the activities of the day and discuss what worked and what did not. They openly share the challenges they faced whether personal, interpersonal, environmental, or skill related.
During reflections, they also address conflicts in a way that resolves them. They strategise and plan for the next day, taking into account the learning so far.
They consult on what can be done differently. They become more aware of their strengths and areas they need to work on.
Doing this over and over again during the 4 days of the program, creates a strong pattern of planning, acting, and reflecting. This process becomes a powerful tool for addressing issues and creating a synergy that results in the team coming together as a cohesive unit.
When all these different elements come together, it results in teams making the necessary adjustments in their plans and way of functioning to achieve the team’s goal. It also enables them to collaborate with other teams to achieve common objectives, offer support, as well as accept support in areas they require it.
They recognise and work on the skills, attitudes, and values required to succeed as a team and to collaborate with other teams. Their capacity to demonstrate collaborative leadership skills and behaviours grows exponentially. This has a tremendous impact on them as they transfer this learning and real-life experience back to their lives, and their future work.