There’s nothing quite like immersing yourself in a foreign culture and living the experience, to gain an understanding and appreciation for it.
So, what better way to teach students about language, culture and history, than to go to where it all happens. I’m a strong believer in learning through experience and the only way to truly understand another culture is to experience it first-hand. In fact, one of the key skills which I believe is a requirement for students to be successful in the future, is cultural understanding.
This is not just knowing about a culture from reading about it or sitting in class and hearing about it. It’s about truly understanding other cultures and gaining an appreciation for a different kind of world view and life experience. Living this sort of experience, can put into perspective the history, the geography and the global perspective of another culture which in turn can help develop and shape students into truly global citizens. Immersing students in a different country and culture in this way, can create a life changing experience which they can’t get any other way.
However, before we all grab our passports and rush for the airport, there’s a few additional considerations to make when planning an overseas trip, versus one closer to home.
Is this a holiday? Is this an educational experience? What educational value is this trip providing? By clearly defining what you’re aiming to achieve from an educational point of view, this will help in the approval process and the core value of the trip. Wanting to go overseas because it sounds interesting and could be fun, versus going to Japan to visit a range of historic temples and immerse students in the religious culture of the country for studies in comparative religion is dramatically different. Having a clear educational outcome is the basis for a really good experience.
Local guides or DIY?
Do you know enough about the local area to take the group yourself? Should you employ a guide to do this? There are a few considerations around this, which form a mix of risk management considerations and immersive experiential education considerations. What you can do on your own holiday, isn’t quite the same as what you’re able to do with a group of students in tow. It’s usually best to have a local guide who has clear support systems in place if something doesn’t go to plan. Where are the nearest shops, medical facilities, suitable accommodation? Which sites and locations should you go to? Which areas should you avoid? What communications, systems and backups are in place? Without this local knowledge, the risk posed by a DIY approach is considerably higher and depending on the country, the risk can be quite extreme. However, with a good, experienced and reputable guide, this will help you focus on the educational value of the experience and helps ensure you have good systems in place to support your students for a well-planned and effective trip.
Another major consideration is security. We’re blessed in Australia to have a safe and stable society, but unfortunately, this is not the case for many other countries. Always check and monitor the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) Smart Traveller website for the latest updates for the country you’re visiting and ensure you register your group with the Department before you go.
Briefing students on what is and isn’t acceptable in different cultures is critical prior to the trip, otherwise a selfie in front of a government building in some countries, could end up with someone being arrested. Chewing gum and graffiti can get you caned in one SE Asian country and this has happened to a teenager in the past. Whilst these are things which in Australia, nobody would care too much about, it could be illegal to do in many other countries. Therefore, staff and students should be aware that this isn’t just another trip away. They need to be aware of cultural and local differences which could significantly impact on their experience.
However, despite the additional considerations and preparations which go into an international trip, these can be some of the most enjoyable and rewarding experiences you and your students will ever have.
One of the most amazing international trips I’ve organised was a trip to Japan. Japan is such a dramatically different cultural experience from Australia. With such a warm, friendly culture, it was a great experience for everyone involved. The educational aim was to provide an immersive experience in the history and culture of Japan with a focus on the medieval Shogunate. You can never really appreciate the history of somewhere until you stand before an enormous castle that dominates the landscape and then step inside to see the magnificent design and complex layering of a fortified medieval fortress such as Himeji Castle.
Himeji Castle is distinctively white in design, which I can imagine on a moonlit night would have been a glowing beacon for the surrounding villages. One family held this castle continuously for 120 years and standing at the front entrance with a group of students who were staring up at it with their mouths wide open, you can see why. This is a grand, imposing structure that can be seen from anywhere in the modern-day city. In its day, it would have commanded an unbridled position in the Himeji skyline. Without standing there and experiencing it for ourselves, the students would never have been able to understand the sheer size, scale and defensive capabilities of this castle and the context in which it was built. Seeing how the town has developed around it, provides further depth to the students’ understanding of the wider medieval society, as well as how and why modern Japanese culture is the way it is today.
On top of some amazing castles, we also visited medieval Shinto shrines and one of the oldest and most famous Buddhist temples in Japan, Zenkō-ji Temple. Zenkō-ji was built in the 7th century AD. The temple has a massive statue of the Buddha concealed inside it. However, nobody has seen the statue since 654 AD, when the temple was built around it. Therefore, it actually might or might not be there, which led to a great philosophical discussion amongst the group. If a statue exists inside a concealed chamber where nobody can see it, does it really exist? Hmmmm… perplexing indeed!
These sorts of fascinating discussions are something which you just don’t get in the context of a regular classroom, or at least never in the same way as when you’re out and about on an experiential adventure such as this. Add Japanese signs, not many people who spoke English, a traditional tea ceremony, some unusual foods and sleeping on a futon on a bamboo matted floor each night, you have a wonderful immersive and unique experience which I know the students thoroughly enjoyed and will cherish for a lifetime.
Whilst there are many additional considerations and preparations for all overseas trips to ensure they’re well-planned and well-supported, the value of these experiences, is immense. They can be some of the most valuable and memorable educational experiences students will ever have. This year, why not plan something new? Grab that passport and get to the airport. It’s time for wheels up for the adventure of a lifetime!