The city train crept up to the station at South Brisbane. Shifting eagerly on the platform was a large group of about 60 early primary school aged children linked by hands to their alert teachers and adult supervisors. I estimated a ratio of one big person to 3 little people and was amused by their resemblance to a field of bright red wildflowers owing to each child wearing an identical red wide-brimmed hat, red polo-shirt and red shorts. Eventually the sliding doors separated and the excited children were calmly and swiftly arranged throughout the carriage by their supervisors. Soon, the carriage was brimming with bubbly chatter interspersed with the authoritative instruction of an adult for where to sit and what not to touch.
The scale of this school outing; the logistics, the exertion, the utter hard work involved in taking 60 young children out for the day staggered me. However, not everyone in that chaotic carriage was as amazed as I was. I heard a low gruff voice rumble close to my right ear, “Bloody kids, why aren’t they in school? Kids spend more time out of the classroom than in it these days. That’s half the problem.” I responded to the comment with a slight smile and a sideways nod of acknowledgement. I thought to mention to the disgruntled man that I too was a teacher on an excursion with the group of teens in plain clothes hanging off the hand-grips nearby. The thought was short-lived. It was too difficult to explore the pros and cons of school trips while in charge of the safety and wellbeing of a bunch of lively and easily distracted Year 10 Geography students.
This is what I would have said to the frustrated commuter had I not been preoccupied with headcounts and the inevitable shenanigans of 15 year olds at the time:
Generally, school excursions are a nightmare to organise. It can take weeks, or months, to plan a class trip. There are dates to be coordinated, bookings to be made, risk assessments to complete, transport modes and travel times to confirm, itineraries to create, money to collect, permission forms and medical forms to send home, signed permission forms and medical forms to collect, constant reminders to students about the forthcoming excursion, daily checking of weather forecasts and planning for what to do should there be an unforeseen delay or cancellation. Wrap all of these factors up in an increasingly risk-averse and litigious society, and teachers’ anxiety levels can go through the roof.
Conducting the excursion can be stressful and irritating. Students forget to bring the essential items on the list, they feel sick, hungry and tired, they fool around and have increased lapses in common sense, they find it amusing to annoy each other and people around them, they are allergic to nuts, pollen and cats, they forget their manners, how to listen and how to tell the time. Against all good advice they bring iphones, ipods and ipads, which forces crisis situations when said devices go missing throughout the day. They walk slower, talk louder and there’s every chance someone will break-dance or Dougie in public.
Then, just when the man on the train would be feeling that his negative view of school excursions was justified, I would say this:
Giving in to inconvenience and risk aversion would be to deny our students life-changing, positive experiences and opportunities to learn in authentic settings. Students come from a variety of backgrounds and exposures to social/cultural experiences and educational enlightenment. Excursions give individual students something unique to take away with them and do so much more than meet learning outcomes. Excursions are marvelous tools for taking students, particularly older ones, out of their comfort zones and in to unfamiliar territory where there is space for fresh thoughts and new outlooks, and where personal growth is accelerated. Outside of the classroom context relationships develop and change, conversations flow more freely and go in different directions, ideas are bounced, dynamics shift, talents are revealed and leaders are born. Students become brave by speaking up, standing out and stepping up. Concepts fall in to place, curiosities are awoken and possibilities are introduced. Subjects are brought to life as students absorb their world with purpose and greater understanding. As if by magic, I see diverse groups of students gel and enjoy each other’s company with a proud sense of camaraderie and shared experience.
I guess a successful excursion is a little bit like a magic trick – a lot of detailed planning and preparation goes in to getting it right and more often that not, the performance on the day goes fairly smoothly. Transformations in students take place right in front of my eyes that always leaves me asking, “Wow, how did that happen?”
So, to the man on the train and those who agree with him, I say to you firstly that kids can’t possibly spend more time out of the classroom than in it because the intense work involved in precision-planning excursions might actually kill teachers. Secondly, excursions are the solution, not the problem. In our rapidly changing world, school trips are no longer viewed as an add-on to education but an integral part of it. On an educational level, excursions excite young minds and deepen their understanding of what, where, why and how things work in reality. From the perspective of personal development, excursions provide opportunities for a variety of social, emotional and life skills to flourish. To meet the scrupulous expectations of current and future workplaces and educational institutions, teachers must make learning meaningful and provide young global citizens with practical experiences that contribute to their holistic development. What better classroom to do it in from time to time than the world itself?