Opinion: Educators, think outside the classroom

Siri Fiske

It's back to school season, which means millions of children will soon be bored out of their minds. A majority of American students are either "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" from their classrooms, according to the most recent Gallup Student Poll of fifth through twelfth graders. 

To reach these kids, teachers and school administrators have tried nearly everything. They've varied up their teaching styles, added more classroom aides, and modified curriculums. But for the most part, they've neglected one of the most-effective solutions -- getting kids out into the real world.

By taking advantage of everything the surrounding community has to offer, schools can boost students' performance and make them eager to learn. Students retain more information when they learn about history by visiting local monuments and museums, or when they study ecology by traveling to local parks and preserves. That's because learning is always deeper and more meaningful if students understand how classroom concepts relate to their lives directly. 

Consider a personal example. At my school in the Maryland suburbs north of Washington, D.C., we don't use stale textbooks to teach students about the complex ecosystem of the nearby Chesapeake Bay. 

Instead, we take students on a series of trips. They follow a raindrop's path from our school lawn to the nearby Potomac River, down to the bay, and out to the ocean. Along the way, they visit sites such as an oyster restoration center to learn about oysters' role in filtering and cleaning the bay. And they meet with knowledgeable community members such as riverkeepers and land surveyors. They'd never be able to gain such a holistic understanding of the local ecosystem simply by filling out worksheets in the classroom. 

Real-world excursions tangibly improve students' academic performance. Consider an Arkansas University study that split 670 students into two groups. One saw live theater performances of either "Hamlet" or "A Christmas Carol;" the other group read the texts or watched film versions of the plays. Students who attended the live shows significantly outperformed their peers on comprehension tests.

Students who go on these excursions, which are commonly known as "place-based education," score higher on standardized math, reading, and writing tests, according to a research review of more than 250 PBE programs. These students have fewer disciplinary problems, are more motivated and engaged, and think more critically.

PBE helps students of all socio-economic backgrounds. The East Feliciana Parish school district in Louisiana implemented a PBE initiative called Project Connect across five elementary and middle schools. Eighty percent of students were African-American and 85 percent were poor enough to qualify for free lunch. 

Through the project, schools took their science classes out into the community to learn about local soil, topography, weather, water quality, and biodiversity. Schools formed partnerships with several community organizations and stakeholders including the local sheriff's office, local community historians, and the State Office of Forestry. A 7th-grade science teacher praised the effectiveness of place-based education, noting that kids "remember what they touch!"

Generic class room photo at Madison Elementary School.

Project Connect shrunk the performance gap between this low-income minority district and the rest of the state in English, math, science, and social studies state tests. 

PBE has a lasting, even life-altering influence on many students. The Northeast Michigan Great Lakes Stewardship Initiative, for example, partnered with schools to create PBE programs. Students explore the history of the Great Lakes region, interview local fisherman, and learn about marine science firsthand. 

One Alpena High School student in the program's "Shipwreck Alley Course" said the experience inspired her to enroll in California's Ocean for Life program to prepare for a career in marine biology. "It started all from this class," she said.

Unfortunately, due to funding constraints, many schools struggle to get kids out of the classroom. During the Great Recession, about 9 percent of school administrators were forced to eliminate student outings. As of 2016, only 12 percent said they could conduct as many field trips as they had before the recession hit. 

But even with funding constraints, just a little creative thinking can make PBE field trips possible. Many historical sites have free admission for students and many community organizations are ready and willing to share their resources. Simply reaching out to parents may make "behind-the-scenes" field trips at workplaces possible. 

Teachers have long advised their students to "show not tell" in their schoolwork. It's time for educators to follow their own advice. 

Siri Fiske is the founder of Mysa School in Bethesda, Maryland.