Our Day Out: are we getting the most from extra-curricular excursions?

Why school trips demand to be planned with more intentionality.

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Our Day Out is a classic British play written in 1976 by Willy Russell. The action surrounds a group of under achieving inner-city school children who embark on a school excursion from Liverpool to rural Wales. During the trip, the barely literate students of the ‘Progress Class’ break the rules, fight, steal and discover a wonderful world away from the urban cityscape they call home. They are accompanied on the trip by their kindly class teacher, two inexperienced young teachers and the authoritarian Deputy Head. Russell’s work can be seen as a clear critique of the educational opportunities available for England’s urban poor in the 1970s and at the same time a celebration of experiential learning opportunities and the institution that is the school trip. Returning to Liverpool at the end of an emotional day it is possible to say that nothing and yet everything has changed. The students still return to the same dispiriting and under-resourced learning environment but with new friendships, self-knowledge and perspectives on what else the world has to offer. The teachers who accompany them have been able to see the impact that the real world has had on their students and thus go through that invaluable process of evaluating how ready they are for life beyond the classroom. Stronger teacher – pupil relationships are perhaps the clearest winner in Russell’s play although, amidst the chaos and enthusiasm of the events described ,further benefits are hard to discern.

A state-school comprehensive in Liverpool in the 1970s could not be further removed from the privileged forum of twenty-first century international school education. And yet school trips, experiential learning opportunities or classrooms without walls continue to form a significant part of the holistic education that many schools now offer; the legacy of Our Day Out remains. My current school offers all students an annual Personal Development Week trip to destinations as far afield as Iceland, Nepal and Ghana. Throughout the year, students can also elect to join numerous sports tours and cultural excursions or to participate in events like the Model United Nations. This last event demands that a full week of school be spent representing the interests of a sovereign state in either Paris or the Hague. A colleague recently calculated that for those students participating in the average number of extra-curricular events, at least 14% of teaching time was lost. This raises the question, that if so much time is to be spent outside the classroom, to what extent do we need to approach these opportunities with more intentionality and adopt the view that everything is a teachable moment?

I recently reconnected with this John Hattie video on what really makes a positive impact on student achievement. In the second part of his presentation, Hattie highlights the strategies that have the greatest ‘effect size’ on student progress.

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What’s the connection to school trips? During the middle of his presentation, Hattie devotes significant coverage to the benefits he sees in outdoor ed or experiential learning programs. Using his experience of teaching students how to abseil, Hattie celebrates the value of the kind of instruction that students see as clear, relevant and engaging, whilst also offering immediate opportunities for feedback – you either get down the cliff or you don’t. Looking again at the table above, whilst Hattie doesn’t explicitly make these connections in his presentation, it’s clear to see that experiential learning opportunities facilitate the development of many other positive factors. Teacher-student relationships and real world problem solving teaching are obvious stand outs.

The IB’s Approaches to Learning (ATL) skills are the important connection here. An increase in focus on transferable, ‘real world’ or future ready skills can help teachers to look at activities outside the classroom through a more intentional lens. In doing so, we can also add another value dimension to these experiences by focusing more on simply the content or direct activity that the students are involved in. It’s not rocket science but there is huge value in asking learners to plan their route to the museum rather than just making notes on what’s inside. My own PDW experience next year involves taking 100 Grade 10 students sailing on the Waddenzee in Holland. Although the trip won’t take place until next September, the staff involved have already met several times to begin breaking the trip down into authentic, teachable moments. Bringing in a core of key ATL skills is going to further enable us to increase the value for students of this time spent away from the classroom. I’m hoping that in making much of the planning, organisation and leadership of the trip more transparent, students will themselves take ownership of a range of authentic learning opportunities. Having a short list of either group or ideally personalised skills to focus on should also help to facilitate the meaningful post-trip reflection that is so important to experiential learning.

The success criteria for the trip to Wales in Our Day Out seems to be to ensure that the bus arrives back at school with the same number of students on it that left in the morning. Trips today have far more specific and far reaching objectives than this but we could do even more to raise the intentionality of our planning. Encouraging students to know, master and adapt ATL skills could empower them to plan, organise and lead activities away from school on a more regular basis. Surely these trip would find themselves ranked higher on Hattie’s scale.

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