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Life Lessons from NAE Head of Expeditions

18 January 2018

David Wall, Nord Anglia Education’s Head of Expeditions, believes that sometimes the most valuable life lessons are learned outside of the classroom. If he’s not teaching students how to help local villages in Tanzania by installing solar panels, he’s guiding them through winding mountain roads in the Swiss Alps. 

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On the surface, these expeditions may only seem like fun excursions, but what most people don’t know is that great consideration has gone in to planning these experiences to best suit the personal and emotional development of students while putting their lives in a global context. We sat down with David to understand more about the value in experiential learning and how it fits in to a well-rounded curriculum in educating the whole child.

Why is experiential learning important for students?

Experiential learning allows students to interact with real world problems and issues that are difficult to simulate in many classrooms. Our expeditions promote and develop skills that are not taught by many curriculums but hold great value for our students in their future lives such as flexible thinking, resourcefulness, resilience and much more.

In this digital age, experiential learning has become more important than ever. Many people receive tailored information through their devices, never getting a chance to see the imperfect world that we live in. How we learn about the real world versus how we experience the real world can often be completely different. Our aim is to bridge this gap so that students have practical, hands-on knowledge that cannot always be taught in the classroom or online. 

Engagement in these real world situations also engages students in the learning experience and promotes a greater love for lifelong learning in areas that students are genuinely passionate about.

Does experiential learning always happen in an outdoor setting?

Experiential learning is not limited to an outdoor environment. It’s more of an immersive approach to learning which could equally be achieved in a science lab or on the sports field. The outdoor environment just tends to present more variables and uncertainty that continually foster a diverse range of skills.

How have you seen students grow from expeditionary experiences?

This can be measured in a multitude of ways, but most of the time it presents itself in the confidence, attitude, and outlook of students.

Quite often quiet students who would normally find social situations difficult, realise that they are a valuable member of the team and can contribute and interact with other students.

I remember sitting around a fire on the last night of an expedition with a group of students and a girl said to one of the boys ‘I didn’t realise you were this funny.’ His response was ‘neither did I.’ It really stuck with me not because we want to turn everyone into extroverts or comedians, but because he had gained the confidence to genuinely express himself in front of his peers which was most definitely not the case at the start of the process.

What does community service teach students?

It gives students perspective, teaches humility and promotes an understanding of the magnitude of the problems faced by some communities. These are generally global problems, which one day will need the perspective of global citizens.

One of the key outcomes of community service expeditions is empowering students to leave with a different outlook which often translates into future engagement with projects – whether it is local or further afield.

What does personal challenge teach students?

Physical and mental exertion triggers a huge range of emotional responses both positive and negative. This is often difficult for people to process especially if they have never experienced it before. Mastering emotional control can be the difference between success and failure; an easy experience or a hard experience. These personal challenges help develop coping mechanisms for stressful situations in the future.

Mainstream sports such as those taught in physical education do not suit everybody which can result in some students feeling negative or disengaged with sports and physical challenge. An alternative ‘sporting’ environment promotes greater involvement in activity, develops passion and engagement, promotes healthy living and conveys the understanding that it’s okay to be tired and it actually feels pretty good.

Personal challenge through expeditions allows a hands-on experience with the outdoor environment promoting an appreciation and understanding of the natural world. As a result of this increased awareness, students are more inclined to protect our environment for future generations. More and more reports also state the benefits of experiencing the outdoors on a student's mental well-being.

Why was it important for Nord Anglia to create an expeditions programme?

The expedition programmes give our students opportunities to be ambitious. Expeditions help our students to understand what we mean by ambition through engaging in collaborative experiences across our schools. The expeditions makes the Nord Anglia family more real for our students. They spend time with their international colleagues, they live together, they learn together and they make bonds that will last a lifetime. These bonds exemplify what it means to attend a Nord Anglia school through a strong network of alumni.

What is your favourite quote?

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” -Confucius

I think this quote says a lot about the aims outdoor education and expeditionary learning.

Why did you want to do this job and take students on expeditions?

I have worked in outdoor education in a range of capacities my whole working life. As my career developed I spent more and more time on expeditions and began appreciating the transformative experiences that expeditionary learning can offer.

Our students have the capacity to be world leaders and I hope that expeditionary learning will be a chapter in our students’ lives that leaves a lasting impact.

Through well-rounded activities, we will send students out into the world who function at a high level in all walks of life and make real change for the better.