Learning by doing

Sue Freestone reflects on how school trips have changed over time

Education is so much wider than anyone can experience in the classroom alone, however creative and innovative the teacher.  When I look back on my own very good education, the days that stand with most vivid clarity in my memory are those rare school trips when we visited nearby Berkeley Castle or when we sallied forth onto the slopes of Obergurgl in the Tirol and sampled our first, and, in my case, never to be surpassed, experience of beef goulash in a piste-side Imbissstube.  

Now that I find myself running a largish independent school myself, the delights of those distant days seem like another lifetime. Times have changed, and for the better. Risk assessments and health and safety regulations now protect students, and thankfully some of the riskier elements my generation survived as teenagers are things of the past. Nonetheless, however much the rules have changed, school trips remain a rite of passage where memories are made and where the stimulation of new and exciting environments helps teach young people life skills and build their independence. Abandoning the security of school walls and family home offers powerful and positive teaching tools that can enhance students’ social, personal and emotional development, enabling them to ‘learn by doing’. Travelling in groups gives them shared experiences which can form the basis of lifelong friendships and enhance their sense of community. 

School trips bring learning to life. Dry, classroom history was not my strong point at school but I’ll never forget the end that befell Edward II, reputedly murdered in 1327 in the dungeons of Berkeley. I had seen the place and sensed the atmosphere; I felt I had touched history.  

Critics brand overseas trips as ‘jollies’ but this ignores the self-confidence, self-esteem and resilience they can engender; it misses the improvement in interpersonal skills; leadership, team work, trust and respect

In today’s world, so much can be experienced virtually. We can take our pupils to the remotest corners of our planet, to world class ballet and dramatic productions; they can experience events that would be impossible in reality. But it’s not the same as breathing the air of a concert hall and feeling the vibrations of the double basses or catching a whiff of the energy and passion of a Shakespeare production at the Globe.  

Adventure is high on the agenda in my own school. Just before Easter, students travelled to Poland as part of the Erasmus Online Learning Project and over the break we had a ski trip to Austria, a choir tour to Hungary and a rowing camp in Seville. Taking students out into a bigger more challenging ‘classroom’ helps feed their imaginations and enables them to learn more about themselves and the world around them. For older students, there are regular music tours and field trips locally in East Anglia and as far afield as China. For the past 40 years we have offered the Ely Scheme, an outdoor education programme for all members of year nine which culminates, for older students, in major expeditions which have included trips to the summits of the Pyrenees, the Himalayas, the highest mountain in South America and the remotest range in Siberia.  

A King’s Ely trip to Alpendorf, Austria

On their return from such challenging adventures the sense of achievement is palpable; the experiences sometimes changing the way pupils see the world, and themselves, forever. Critics brand overseas trips as ‘jollies’ but this ignores the self-confidence, self-esteem and resilience they can engender; it misses the improvement in interpersonal skills; leadership, team work, trust and respect. Some students find an inner strength they never knew they possessed which holds them in good stead in later life when the ability to ‘dig deep’ can become a necessity. 

We’re all in the business of finding the milieu in which each of our pupils can shine.  So often I hear how pupils, unengaged in the classroom excel on residential trips. They bring that experience home with them and learn a new inner confidence and sense of their own worth. That’s no mere jolly; that’s an essential building block in the advance to productive adulthood. 

Sue Freestone is Principal of King’s Ely.

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