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Inspiring a generation

  • Written by  Philip Avery
  • Published in Opinions
Even Antractica is open for exploration Even Antractica is open for exploration Gary Yim
06 Nov
What should expeditions be for? How can we make them better, and more accessible?

Expeditions are ... [please complete, 1 mark]

[  ] incredible
[  ] expensive
[  ] hard work 
[  ] for the experienced 
[  ] rigorous 
[  ] adventurous 

Which answer would you go for? Would you come up with something else? Or is your view that ‘it depends’ – that all expeditions are not the same? What even is the definition of an expedition?

I want to stay away from discussing the last question for now, let’s leave it with the online dictionary: ‘a journey undertaken by a group of people with a particular purpose, especially that of exploration, research or war’. However, as Director of Learning for the Bohunt Education Trust, which runs four secondary schools, I want to argue for possibly the least exciting answer: ‘rigorous’. Although my area of interest is mainly expeditions for students aged 14 to 16, I think that the same applies to adult expeditions. Participants, society and geography can get far more from an expedition if they are rigorous. That is why the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’s Explore Conference is so important; it allows expedition participants to bring in-depth planning, purpose and challenge to their expeditions.

Expeditions are education in miniature, but through their intensity that doesn’t mean their educational impact is in miniature. Therefore a whole lot of deep and meaningful educational philosophy should be focused on them. Here is not the place for an in-depth discussion, so, in summary, expeditions should be:

  • Enjoyable, but enjoyable in the sense of engaging rather than enjoying something with your mates
  • About far more than just adventure (which Shackleton neatly defined as ‘just bad planning’), but about the development of skills, attitudes, ambition and, most crucial of all, self-confidence
  • A chance to do things for real and for the wider community, not just as an exercise or journey to be slowly forgotten by the participants and their families
  • Project based and student/participant led, not leader led
  • Built around respect. Respect is the bridge between the enjoyment and the success of the fieldwork/expedition. Respect for self, for the environment, for the outcomes of the fieldwork and for the team

greenlandExplorers hiking glaciers in Iceland (Image: Tsuguliev)

Expeditions, and in particular expeditions focused on fieldwork, can develop a literacy in people that furthers the academic discipline of geography, develops attitudes and ambition and creates layers of meaning and understanding of the place that you are within. If done badly though, they can simply be a group (rather than a team) of people who miss opportunities and are left the same as they were on departure day.

This past summer I was privileged enough to work with a fantastic group of students who spent three weeks in Greenland doing research for CERN, and over my career I’ve been part of expeditions to various parts of the world including Antarctica with the Fuchs Foundation, Iceland and Belarus with Earthwatch, and student expeditions to India and Borneo. I’m constantly looking to improve what we offer by way of student expeditions in two areas:

  • The quality of the experience, so that students and the wider society get as much out of the expedition and/or fieldwork as possible
  • Opening the door of fieldwork and expeditions to as many people as possible

In certain areas of the country there are whole groups of students, and adults, who don’t feel that expeditions are something accessible to them. They are therefore missing out on their opportunity to develop the attitudes and ambitions. Groups such as the RGS–IBG and its advice and grant programmes, and people like Alistair Humphreys and his micro-adventures are making huge strides in helping with this, but we can do more. I’m hoping that the people at Explore will help with energising, motivating and convincing the next generation of expedition participants, particularly in hard to reach communities.

Philip Avery is Director of Learning & Strategy for the Bohunt Education Trust, and will be giving the inaugural Peter Smith memorial lecture on 13 November 2015 – the Friday evening before RGS Explore – entitled Inspiring a Generation: Why expeditions for the young, and the young at heart, matter.

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