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Beyond Walls and Outside Boxes: Experiencing the Power of Field Trips

By Amreen Bashir
Beyond Walls and Outside Boxes: Experiencing the Power of Field Trips

When a colleague asked me which subject I remember most from high school, my response was History. Specifically, I could recall with clarity a topic covered in my junior year regarding the Indochinese period in Vietnam’s history, and it was thanks to a field trip. In many ways, I attribute my choice to teach in that country years later to this formative experience. My teacher at the time was a proponent of experiential learning who had advocated hard for the chance to take us to Northern Vietnam on an international history field trip. We learned more about the Indochina years and the ensuing Vietnamese fight for freedom than from any other unit of study. That trip was fundamental in my development as a student but also in shaping my future teaching values, because it taught me the power of experiential learning. Experiential learning can occur through local, international, or virtual field trips. While the latter is the option more readily available to most schools, I still defend the power of actually going to a place to learn through first-hand, sensory-based experiences. While I was a teacher in Ho Chi Minh City, much to my satisfaction we spent a considerable amount of time exploring the potential of using field trips as teaching tools, then implemented them to enhance student learning. In my Grade 6 ancient history class, we learned from a potter how to make pottery and write on clay tablets while discussing their importance in river valley civilizations. In my Grade 9 religion course, I took students to many different places of worship to allow them to observe, interact with, and connect with the various faiths they had learned about in class. With one particular group, it became clear that many students had internalized, through current events and slanted media coverage, very negative stereotypes of Islam, in spite of what they’d learned about the faith in class. Realizing this was a serious issue that needed addressing, I designed a “Places of Worship” field trip. We first went to a church service and presentation, where students had the opportunity to interact with religious leaders and the congregation. We then visited a Hindu temple. Students were surprised to discover that one existed in the heart of the city, just as they were astonished to learn of the existence of Vietnamese hindus. We also went to a pagoda, where they learned a great deal about why most Buddhist Vietnamese perform the rituals they do; this prompted students to share stories of the practices common in their own families. Finally, we visited an Islamic mosque on a Friday—the Muslim holy day—just before the midday prayer came to a close. Students were beginning to get hungry and fidgety. The congregation gathered in the mosque saw this and invited the students to share their Friday meal with them. My crew was very surprised and humbled by this generosity, because it clashed with their existing notions about the attitudes of Muslims. A few days later, a student came and thanked me for taking them on that field trip. His family came from a part of Vietnam that was near a Cham village. The Cham people are an ethnic group in Vietnam, the majority of whom are Muslim. According to him, his family harbored many misconceptions about Muslims. After our field trip, he had engaged his family in a conversation on this topic, hoping to dispel their notions. He told me that he defended Islam when his aunt equated the religion to terrorism and was able to cite his recent first-hand experience. The following year, my school allowed me to implement its first “Week Without Walls” international trip to study religious diversity, and we have continued these excursions ever since. In an era in which positive interaction and communication are greatly needed among people of different cultures, we cannot underestimate the importance of field trips. The powerful effects of experiential learning cannot be replicated in a classroom setting. This approach involves authentic, first-hand, sensory-based knowledge acquisition. Students learn to broaden their horizons and to become active participants in reinforcing what they have learned in class. Field trips offer students motivation and allow them to connect classroom concepts to real-world situations, which increases their knowledge foundation and promotes both higher-level thinking strategies and further learning. Overnight field trips promote social growth for participating students by encouraging positive interactions among students, teachers, and chaperones. International trips allow students to learn about new cultures, ideas, and ways of life. I am grateful that my own high school experiential learning opportunities helped me to become a better student, as well as more responsible world citizen. They taught us to develop an open mind, to deepen our conceptual understanding, and to celebrate differences—traits that I endeavor to instill in my students as an educator.

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