Teaching in the field takes more staff time, funding, logistical support, and energy than teaching in the classroom, but field courses also have more educational power than classroom-based courses. Experienced educators know that novelty is one way to make learning fun and “sticky”, so leaving a traditional classroom, where students know what to expect, and heading into the field, where anything could happen, increases the chances of facilitating a transformative educational experience. In the simplest of terms, field-based education has more power than traditional education for three reasons:
1. Field-based learning allows for meaningful connections among humans.
There is something about a group of humans traveling for an extended period of time that evokes our primal social instincts. People in modern cultures live increasingly isolated lives, even though we are “connected” through online social networks and cell phones. Modern humans in developed countries spend nearly five hours per day on their cell phones. Much of that time is spent texting, selfie-ing, and interacting with other people but without the human contact, which can leave us feeling isolated.
When you take student into the field, they leave behind Starbucks and Chipotle, Verizon and AT&T, Snapchat and Facebook. They complain at first because they are terrified of being disconnected, but after the classic symptoms of withdrawal are gone they start to engage with one another. For young students who have grown addicted mobile technology and older professionals who have experienced the out-of-control feeling of runaway email, this technology break may be the first one they have had in years. In the presence of skilled facilitators who help cultivate a supportive learning environment, students can make some of the most meaningful friendships of their lives in just a few days in the field. Field-based programs can encourage these human connections by creating a safe learning space, facilitating discussion and reflection, and gently pushing students out of their comfort zones.
2. Field-based learning eases us out of our comfort zones.
Modern people have an unprecedented ability to hide behind an image. People have always hidden behind carefully coiffed hair, stylish dress, and expensive shoes, but now we can Photoshop our image and post a carefully curated version of ourselves – and our lives – on social media. When we take students in the field, especially into the wilderness, we ask them to leave part of their image behind by leaving their styling products, town clothes, and wifi access at home. Asking student to away from their images is the first step away from their comfort zones, asking them to live in community for several days is another step, and asking them to take intellectual, emotional, social, and physical risks is yet another.
I’ve seen teenage students have breakthrough moments on field-based courses during which they realize who they really are and what they really care about because they finally had a chance to look. What’s even more amazing than realizing who they really are realizing that they like themselves – and the other students like them for who they are. The experience is transformative. Field-based learning pushes students just outside their comfort zones so they can see the world with fresh, new eyes. They become curious. They start to wonder. They begin to learn – about the world and about themselves.
3. Field-based learning brings out our innate human curiosity.
When students step out of their comfort zones and into a supportive learning community, they are able to get in touch with their innate curiosity. Students can engage with the subject they are studying in the first person, rather than having their experience filtered through a textbook or PowerPoint presentation, which provides a richer learning experience. Especially on extended wilderness trips, students’ lives slow down. They start to see the stars. They wonder about the names of bugs and plants. They notice patterns and details, which can prompt questions they couldn’t conceive of in the classroom. They feel the presence of the other humans around them. They have meaningful conversations. They have transformative learning experiences, which is what we set out to do in the first place.
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