I just got back from a field-trip to Iceland with forty students and my team of staff. It was epic. We were straight back into teaching and the new term today after arriving back at school at 10pm the previous night, but it was totally worth it.
This is an extract of the article published in the May 2015 edition of UKEdMagazine. You can order the printed edition of the magazine by clicking here, or view the web edition freely by clicking here.
This year is the ‘Year of Fieldwork’ but I still hear / see so many conversations that include ‘why bother’, ‘it’s too much hassle’, ‘my school won’t let me out’, ‘why should I organise it?’, ‘it’s too risky’, and see conscientious teachers worrying about benefit vs cost and whether trips are worth the effort. Well, they are. End of. Because it’s not about the hassle, the paperwork, the emails to the British Council, the liaising with parents, the money collecting, the itinerary building, the bag packing, the passport checking. All of the minutiae isn’t worth focusing on. We say life is a journey; that destinations aren’t important, that learning is a process and that the end point isn’t always the actual achievement – well I think that fits to trips as well. Does it really matter whether every student has a better grasp of coastal processes or volcanism at the end, will the trip itself make them more successful at an exam? No, not in itself. Five days in Iceland doesn’t pass an exam, but it doesn’t half make a life changing difference to some students. Because what matters to the students themselves on a residential, and what they remember most, isn’t necessarily what we as teachers are focusing on. Are they bothered whether they stop for twenty or thirty minutes at a waterfall, or are they more concerned with whom they sit next to on the bus? I’ll be honest, I didn’t have forty students asking me deep and meaningful geographic questions every minute of the day – but I did have deep and meaningful conversations, and saw students having them for themselves.
So why bother with residentials? This was some of the feedback from the students last night that I overheard whilst they were updating our trip blog for the last time (geogdebens.wordpress.com if you’re interested):
“I really loved spending time with people I hadn’t known before, and finding out we had become good friends by the end”
“I was dead nervous before the flight as it was my first time flying. I was sitting next to a student I hadn’t met before and, Miss, they kept talking to me and reassuring me, and making me laugh. Before I knew it I was confident, and I had a new friend. Now I just want to travel everywhere!”
“I loved every minute of the trip. The teachers were fun and I learned so much by accident. But best was getting to know my friends in a whole new way, and learning to look after ourselves.”
“I liked that the teachers gave us freedom and trusted us. We could make mistakes but knew that they were there to look after us and help if we needed it. I felt safe to try something. I’ve never crossed a river by hopping stones before, never been on a glacier. I was scared but now I’m confident.”
“I’ve never walked that far before, and when I first started up the glacier and up the waterfall I didn’t think I could make it. But I wanted to have a go, and Sir kept me going and chatting and distracted me from worrying. I realised I could do more than I thought and that fear had been holding me back. My mum was proud when I told her I did it.”
“The trip was epic. We nicknamed the teachers and it was good getting to know them in a different way. They helped us when we had an argument with people in our room and I learned to ignore the little things and not get so stressed.”
As teachers we might focus on what we want students to get out of a trip, in an academic sense maybe. Students will have different priorities. There might be a disconnect between our disparate aims unless we are careful. Of course this is natural to some extent, but no reason why we can’t cross over more.
What do students worry about / ask about most on trips? Easy: food and friendships! The most often asked questions were to do with who they could sit next to, who they shared a room with, what free time they got, what food they will have. The only tears we had were on the last night when a room key was hidden as a prank and this caused hurt feelings of ‘they don’t like me’ before being resolved and forgotten. Right up there alongside glamorous glacier hiking and Blue Lagoon bathing in the ‘what we enjoyed most’ category was the time spent with friends, the ‘girly chats before bed’, the walking and talking together, the food. Simple things, but powerful. They make or break a trip.
As far as I’m concerned, a residential trip is multi-purpose. I took mixed year 9 and 10s, all GCSE Geography students but a wide range of abilities and personalities and circumstances. I had some with serious health concerns, some child protection children, some first-time travellers, some world jet-setters, all sorts. It wasn’t a ‘clipboard-tastic’ trip. If someone has paid £850 and gone in their Easter holiday then I want them to enjoy themselves. The kids called it ‘learning by accident’, which I love. We had snowball fights, laughed at ourselves, told stories, shared experiences but also learned about waterfalls by being inside one, learned about waves by listening to them and watching them smash the shore, learned about glaciers by climbing on them. But on top of this we watched students blossom from being shy to being outgoing, learning how to hold conversations, learning independence, sorting their own problems (if you lose your room key, you try to sort it out first), dealing with fear, building relationships, becoming more well-rounded young people.
Residentials also have a purpose for the staff involved. We bonded ourselves, having not all worked together before. The science NQT had some ‘in at the deep end’ learning experiences (and can check off some standards in his folder!) – you could see his confidence clearly rise throughout, and his presence with students changed both out there and now back in school. The non-teacher learned all sorts of subject knowledge and logistics planning. The member of SLT got to let their hair down and build relationships with teachers and students in a different way. The returning-to-work Geographer had some in depth hands-on CPD and came away buzzing.
I also think there is a benefit for the parents and carers in some ways. We had a twitter stream for the duration of the trip (@eggarsgeog #EggarsIce) updated by students and staff throughout the day, and the GCSE blog shared the day’s events and photos each evening. I had such positive feedback from parents and guardians for these. They felt involved in their child’s experiences from afar, and some commented that by asking students to update via Twitter they actually found out more from them about their day than they would normally at home at the dinner table! This was inclusive. Many parents sent thank you emails and cards saying how their children had returned more confident, and being more responsible for themselves, and that they as parents were realising they could let go of the reins a bit more. Independence being stretched.
Of course the difficulty is ensuring that access to opportunities is equal and available to all, regardless of social position and finances. This is a challenge. If a trip is not ‘compulsory’ or a specific part of the curriculum then we cannot always get bursaries for disadvantaged students to take part. But we can still seek funding from other sources, e.g. the Royal Geographical Society and Geographical Association have opportunities to apply for grants (as well as other grants available, e.g. grantsonline.org.uk / grants4schools.info ). Of course we will not be able to take every student away to every destination, it just isn’t feasible. So it is important to offer a wide variety of opportunities in the ‘fieldwork diet’ for students to pick from. This can be something as simple and cheap as camping on the school grounds overnight, walking in the nearest woods and geocaching, orienteering, finding a local river and wading through it, using tools like the John Muir Award and Mission Explore for inspiration. Fieldwork doesn’t always have to be far-flung to have high impact – doorstep geography can make a real difference. Seeing year 7 exploring the undergrowth of the school grounds looking for wildlife and minibeast habitats is still good, can still build independence and social skills. It is the responsibility of ..
To continue reading the remainder of this article, click here to view in the May 2015 edition of UKEdMagazine
Jo Debens is a Head of Geography and Numeracy Coordinator at a comprehensive school in Hampshire and has been teaching for seven years. She likes to dabble with anything creative and will try to get food, games or tech into learning when possible. Jo is a Microsoft Innovative Teacher and Google Certified Teacher who tweets from @GeoDebs and blogs on jodebens.com when inspired.