An education in travel

Travel truly is one of life's best forms of education — so says everyone from the ancient Greeks to Dolly, aged eight.

By Clover Stroud
Published 17 Feb 2012, 11:19 GMT, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 17:30 BST

"Experience, travel… these are as education in themselves," said Euripides sometime in the 4th century BC. My 11-year-old seems to go on school trips with greater regularity than he sits SATS exams, but Euripides' words prove the link between travel and education isn't something dreamed up by teachers of the National Curriculum in the 21st century. Travel, as we know, broadens the mind and can be used as a way of enhancing education, whatever the age of the student, to spectacular effect.

Most of us have the memory of a school trip somewhere in our consciousness, and my earliest took place in Dorset. In between sneaking into amusement arcades when we should have been examining rock pools, we spent several afternoons sitting on soggy grass trying to shield our disintegrating work from the rain as we drew sketches of the chalk formations at Durdle Door. I'm not sure it had a huge effect on my final grade for geography GCSE, but I am now a travel journalist, so perhaps it played some part in my overall education.

A mother to two children myself — Jimmy Joe, 11 and Dolly, eight — I've seen the way travel has opened their eyes to the world, whether on a walk along the canal near our home, or further afield, on foreign soil. Aged five, my son was fairly underwhelmed by the rhinos and giraffe we spotted on safari in South Africa, but still talks with enthusiasm about the puff adder our guide showed him. When she was seven, my daughter learned more about Roman soldiers whilst following an ancient track along the Wiltshire Downs than she's ever done from schoolbooks. And just last summer, a trip to the Dordogne has imprinted the haunting pictures of ancient cave-paintings in the children's memories and certainly fired their enthusiasm for their own art. These and numerous other travel experiences have given them both an innate curiosity about the world which I hope will enhance their lives on many levels.

The education travel has afforded them has taken many forms, and whilst going abroad is a huge privilege, I also believe travel is something that can be enjoyed anywhere, even if the experience takes you no further than a few miles from home. What is important is the way you approach it, because, as the poet T.S. Eliot recognised, the educational value of travel is to be found in the journey just as much as on arrival.

Walks of life

"Personal development is often overlooked at school, but it's actually one of the most powerful aspects of educational trips away, both abroad and in this country," says David Rogers, head of geography at The Priory School in Dorset, and a qualified mountain leader with experience leading students in different locations across the world, most latterly to Iceland with operator Discover the World.

"Showing students things linked to their school curriculum is important, but educational travel's also about opening the children's eyes to different cultures, alongside team building and personal development skills," David continues. He feels that a really inspiring trip will instil in students a hunger for learning they can transfer to all their work, whatever the subject.

Again and again, teachers with experience of leading educational trips with students return to the fact that travel broadens the mind beyond the often narrow and stratified parameters of the National Curriculum. Educational psychologists often cite the value of learning through practice, rather than theory. An educational trip allows a teacher to, if not throw away the rule-book, then certainly rewrite it.

"We ban clipboards on the trip. Travel encourages students to learn in a very different way than they do in the classroom. This hands-on experience of putting the theory of their lessons into practice is invaluable. For example, on the most recent trip to Iceland the students were doing live blogging and recording soundtracks of the natural world. It's a world away from filling in boxes on worksheets, and hopefully will give them skills they can take on into real life," agrees David, who has also found that travel has encouraged his students to develop skills which otherwise might have remained little more than a passing interest. "In Iceland we had a few students who enjoyed photography, so we ran a photo competition during the trip, which helped all the students develop their skills with a camera," he explains.

As well as a passion for Iceland, David makes the most of trips into his surrounding local area to encourage his students to have a greater appreciation and respect for their immediate world. "Local trips mean everyone can gain from this experience— not just those who get to go abroad — cementing what they are learning in the classroom to perform better, both academically and from the point of view of their attitude. We're fortunate to live in a stunning part of the world, and so organised a trip to Barton-on-Sea, where we studied the effects of environment on landscape. It really helped students understand climate, and has definitely helped with exam results," says David. This is an experience shared by Ian Hardie, a geography teacher who has been leading trips abroad for students with Rayburn Tours since 2004. "Learning about geography — and the world — away from the classroom is so valuable. Experiencing this extraordinary environment with their own eyes helps them understand the true scale and majesty of it," says Ian. "Travel helps turn education into a holistic experience for students, and brings the reality of learning alive."

Educational travel also teaches children and young people how to engage with communities very different from their own, as Gill Casson, head of North Berwick High School, found when she took a group of students to Malawi on a trip coordinated by Wilderness Journeys. Her pupils had worked within their wider community in Scotland to fundraise for the school they visited in Malawi. "It was a completely life-changing experience for everyone, both the teachers who came with us and our pupils," says Gill, who took several children from her school choir, so they could engage with the people they met from a musical point of view.

"Seeing our children engaging with the local children was extraordinary. We lived with them while we were there, sleeping in their school and experiencing their lives. Seeing my pupils playing Scottish jigs and reels, and singing songs with them was so beautiful. Since returning to Scotland, these pupils are actively engaged in speaking about the trip to raise awareness of the humanitarian issues there, as well as fundraising for them. This kind of life education is invaluable, and we feel privileged to be involved with the school in Malawi on so many levels."

While the term educational travel includes trips abroad and at home, visionary schools are aware that residential trips can also be hugely beneficial to students in their personal growth and development whilst at school. My son has recently returned from a five-day residential trip to Devon, where team-building exercises included sleeping in a yurt, surfing in very chilly conditions and bat watching. Similarly, keen to help his students make the tricky transition from junior to secondary school, visionary teacher Stuart Abbot at Aylesford School took his entire Year 7 intake — from a feeder of 33 schools — to Kingswood Centre near Ashford for a residential weekend of personal development. "We wanted to make it easier for the kids to develop new friendships out of the classroom environment, so when they came into school they were ready to work straight away," says Stuart. He chose to take his students on a weekend trip in order to keep costs down so everyone could benefit. Activities included high-ropes, a mini Olympics and water-sports, all of which combined an element of adventure, whilst helping the students focus on the importance of sharing a common goal.

Practical results

The results, says Stuart, speak for themselves. "There's been a 10-fold increase in academic achievement, and the students engagement with the lessons has really improved. It has made a massive impact in class — social skills develop, while confidence and motivation for learning have had a boost."

While travelling within a large group as part of a school or residential trip is hugely valuable, individual travel brings great rewards on many different levels. In an increasingly competitive employment market, the practical experience of venturing out into the world is vital for an all-round education. Having spent three years studying media and communication at the University of Leicester, Tace Bleasby was keen to combine her passion for travel with some practical experience of writing and editing. She contacted BUNAC who specialise in helping organise working holidays and internships abroad. Keen to travel to the US, with the help of BUNAC, Tace found a summer camp in Maine which was able to fulfil her requirements. She worked as a newspaper counsellor on a summer camp for children aged seven to 16. "As well as the personal satisfaction of entertaining and engaging with a group of young people, the experience gave me a chance to put into practice much of the theory I'd learned on my course," says Tace, who commissioned her students to write articles, and edited these articles herself, whilst also blogging on the camp website for the parents. "I can't think of any other context in which I could have had that experience and it was invaluable. Following the course, I spent a month travelling across the US, and the combination of travel and education was hugely worthwhile."

Family holidays can be of educational value too; even a few days of a summer break can spark an interest or enthusiasm in a child which will stay with them for ever. On a recent trip to Almeria, in Spain, we visited some extraordinary fortresses built to defend against pirate invasions in the 15th century, igniting in my son an interest in the Moorish occupation, which he has developed into a school project. As a parent, teaching him about history in this vivid and tangible context was exciting, and thanks to such highly accessible children's history books as the Horrible Histories, you don't need to be an expert yourself to give your child an understanding.

"Bringing history to life for a child through a dynamic travel experience is a wonderful thing to do," says Peter Sommer, who has been organising archaeological cruises and tours in Turkey since 1996, having studied archaeology and ancient history at university. Inspired by a fascination with Alexander the Great, Peter set out to develop tours that would create a really vivid, almost theatrical 'narrative', showing his clients how sites interlink, and the bigger picture of history and geography fit together. "I'll recce a site really thoroughly before hand, walking round it many times to get a strong sense of it, then lead people in via a funny or surprising route, to make them look at it in a totally new way." He's had enthusiastic responses from children, parents and even grandparents who've taken their grandchildren away on a trip with him. "The tours appeal to adults as much as children, and we certainly don't dumb down just because children are involved," he adds. "Particularly successful tours have included children getting so involved they put on a play in some ancient ruins, or read quotes from Homer."

Meanwhile, Michelle Laverick, a PR from Farnborough, travelled to Delhi and Rajasthan with Explore's 'Taj, Tigers and Palace' last Easter with her husband Martin and their daughters, six-year-old Lily and five-year-old Ruby. She says: "To be able to take the girls to a village where some children didn't even have enough clothes was humbling. It had a huge impact on my elder daughter in particular, as she chose to leave some of the clothes and toys she'd taken with her behind for the children. At her birthday, she asked me to give her a pound, and to donate any other money I might have spent on her to the village we visited. No amount of education in a classroom can teach her the sort of lessons she learned in India."

As part of an organised school tour to tie in with the curriculum, or simply as part of a family holiday, travel is an education in itself.

As Saint Augustine said, "the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page."


Educational tours

The lead-in price for the Taj, Tigers and Palaces tour with Explore starts at £1,388 per adult, and £1,318 per child. 

A one week expert-led cruise in Turkey with Peter Sommer typically costs from £1,995 for adults and £1,850 for children up to 12 years of age. 

Rayburn Tours is an educational tour operator providing a range of tours for secondary level students. 

Kingswood centres provide outdoor experiential activities allowing students to put classroom learning into action. 

i-to-i Volunteering has a choice of over 150 projects in 21 countries, including teaching, conservation and community development. 

Iceland specialist Discover the World offers educational visits to Iceland aimed at GCSE & A-Level geography and science students. 

BUNAC — The British Universities North America Club — is a work abroad organisation. 

Further Reading

Frugal Family Fun and Learning Away from Home, by Judith Waite Allee and Melissa L. Morgan. RRP: £9.57.

A Practical Guide to Meaningful Educational Travel, by Kenneth Cushner. RRP: £24.95.

The New Guide to Educational Travel, by Evelyn Kaye. RP: £4.99.

101 Educational Travel Tips for Families, by Mary Rodgers Bundren. RRP: £14.95.

Published in the Mar/Apr 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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