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U.S. author and filmmaker, Carew Paprtiz once said, “I travel because it makes me realize how much I haven’t seen, how much I’m not going to see, and how much I still need to see.” One could say that a person’s teenage years have the same effect – during this formative time in life, as young people move further from childhood, they begin to gain a sense of the magnitude of our world and the knowledge that lies within it. They start to grasp that the world is so much wider than their hometowns and that deepened understanding is something we gain during every situation of every day of our lives.
Incorporating travel, which helps bring about these same revelations, into this determinate period in a person’s life is an ideal way to help young people acquire content knowledge on specific subjects which will last with them a lifetime. This is because they are learning it at the same time that they are discovering integral parts of who they are and are going to become.
For me, these moments when the realization of my small place in this giant world full of history and culture indeed happened while participating in two different school trips. And it is no accident that the exact moments that U.S. history and Spanish pronunciation took on real meaning in my life also happened on these trips. Like all young people, I learned best while in an immersive experience and while having fun. Learning can happen in any setting, but travel is unique in that it immediately sparks students’ interest in a topic in an organic way that is hard to recreate in a classroom setting.
Several factors combine to create a positive, unforgettable learning experience for students while traveling, supported by the transformative development of their sense of self in relation to the world at large. A trip offers the opportunity for ignited curiosity, hands-on-learning, and new and strong emotions, all of which contribute to an excellent learning opportunity.
I remember standing in front of the Jefferson Memorial on a class trip to Washington D.C. in eighth grade and wondering, in awe, what the man sculpted in marble in front of me had done to deserve such a stunning structure be made in his honor. Luckily, I quickly found answers in nearby plaques and displays illustrating the third president’s achievements and my thirst for knowledge was temporarily quenched.
Although this trip was the culmination of an entire year of U.S. History classes, I hadn’t absorbed much about our country’s origins until seeing war veteran memorials, visiting the Holocaust Museum, and exploring colonial Williamsburg inspired questions within me that I simply had to find answers to. For the first time, I sought knowledge for my own personal gratification and not simply to have the right answer to a test question. Travel brought me burning, relevant questions, and I was excited to find answers.
This kind of self-motivated learning is the kind that leaves the deepest effects. Students, just as I did, realize they need to understand what they’re seeing because they need to know if this majestic or tragic monument have anything to do with who they are now or a situation with which they could become involved in the future. I remember walking away from the Holocaust museum, deeply inspired by the exhibits I saw and the quote inside reading, “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing,” to be an activist for good.
Genuine curiosity urges students to connect the dots. When students on a trip see something new or challenging or exciting, their immediate reaction will be to figure out how it fits into what they already know, drawing on knowledge learned in class, making them try out theories in their mind, and generally strengthening their neural connections and their expertise on a topic.
I would wager that even as grown adults, most teachers would still shrink from a discussion about penultimate versus antepenultimate syllables, and up until a school trip to Chile, I was in the same boat. Learning about how to emphasize syllables in Spanish, which had never meant more to me before than losing a half-point on a quiz, suddenly became of the utmost importance to me. On this trip, proper pronunciation meant that I could make a Chilean friend or haggle for a street snack with confidence and authority. I adored being able to take each and every lesson from my classes and immediately apply them to the speaking, listening, and reading that I did in the streets and shops of this new place. I saw the value of these new skills as they opened new doors and possibilities for me every day.
To learn even more about “Immersive Learning”, read this article, but suffice to say, when students realize that knowledge is the key to new experiences and greater insight into the mysterious world that is constantly unfolding around them, they will become eager learners. Travel provides these immediate, hands-on experiences throughout every moment of a student trip. Whether it’s visiting a world-class museum full of hands-on science exhibits, seeing a live music performance, or wandering among the remains of a historical ruin where decisions were made that changed the world, students on a trip will be engaged as you’ve never seen them before.
When you think of your students on a field trip or remember your own student travels, you will inevitably connect these out-of-the-classroom excursions with visions of an almost-euphoria. Travel shakes up the usual routine and introduces students to a myriad of emotions which many studies credit as a significant help in the learning process. First, they’ll be having fun – spending time with friends, experiencing new things, being able to move around. There will be laughter and joy, and these positive emotions release serotonin, which helps with learning and memory. Remember the exultation I felt on my trips, savoring a bit of freedom and adventure just as much as I remember my scholastic takeaways – mostly because I was too excited about everything to take the time to categorize some activities as “boring” or “academic” and disregard them.
Then they’ll feel just a bit of fear and excitement at being outside of their routine, which sharpens senses and imprints all the learning done by connecting it with deep memories. In fact, one study even suggests that some confusion leads to more effective learning.
And finally, there will be a sense of satisfaction and awareness that they have tried new things and have changed, if even just the littlest bit. Becoming aware of being part of a larger, global community can be a sobering and yet, exhilarating experience. As French novelist, Gustav Flaubert said, “Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” When students are having revelations such as these, they are sure to remember the experience surrounding it in its entirety – how they felt and also all the fascinating things they learned during the same experience.
When travel introduces students to heightened curiosity, hands-on-learning experiences, and new and strong emotions that help them discover more about themselves as people, the learning that inevitably corresponds in these situations is of the deepest kind. I learned about the tragedies of war in Washington D.C. and learned the subjunctive tense in Chile, and both those things have remained entrenched in my memory for years. Learning those topics affected how I interacted with the world from that point forward and helped me become the solution-seeking, communicative person that I am today.
I wish for every student to have the opportunity to travel during their adolescence as I did, both to have the opportunity to learn something new in a way that they’ll never forget, as well as to awaken to the prospects of their future in this big, amazing world.
By Brianna Austin