Our students benefit greatly from traveling domestically and abroad, which allows them to see how people in other parts of our country or the world live. Although many commonalities exist across borders and cultures, rarely do our students find that everything is the same. A common theme when traveling with students: How can we help our students observe and experience differences more objectively, especially when they readily associate “different” with “worse”? Based on numerous trips with students (local, domestic and international; service-learning; outdoor/wilderness pursuits; historical/cultural/curricular), I have arrived at six steps for helping students wrestle with these issues, and this post will focus on the sixth:

1. Help our students “know their home before knowing the world.”
2. Preview some of the things that students will experience.
3. Challenge students to examine their beliefs and conclusions.
4. Work with students to identify the source of their beliefs and conclusions.
5. Create opportunities for cross-cultural exchange and conversations.
6. Be patient. And ask students to be patient as well.

Anyone who has spent time with adolescents knows that students in this age group struggle to see things from different perspectives. As their brains, the prefrontal cortices in particular, mature, teens are better able to reason abstractly and arrive at better judgments. What does this mean in the context of travel? When we ask students to practice cultural relativism or to think critically about different experiences, we are asking them to do something that is very difficult for them to do! This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask students to do these things, but we have to understand that certain students’ developmental timeline may limit their ability to think and act as thoughtfully and as empathetically as we may want.

As with most educational practices, exercising patience, scaffolding the learning experience, providing structure, and offering ample opportunities for reflection are key ingredients to helping students succeed when traveling.

1. Exercise Patience. Be prepared to put your frustration aside in order to repeat questions and reminders. Understand that students may take longer to arrive at thoughtful conclusions and insights. Recognize that a successful outcome in one moment may not signify that students will experience a successful outcome the next time.

2. Scaffold Processes. Break down abstract tasks into more manageable chunks. For example, when helping students understand the religious practices in a different culture, ask students about their own religious practices and have them consider the significance of those practices. Help them research the history of the region and help them identify important questions to ask as they conduct their research. Our students’ success requires that we continue to guide them in this broader classroom, much in the same way we do when at home.

3. Provide Structure. Be consistent. Be intentional. Use familiar language or key words, and point them out to students. Use the same language or sequence of questions in similar situations so that students can internalize the process and begin to think and act more independently.

4. Offer ample opportunities for reflection. Some of the most important learning happens when some time has passed and students have the chance to think about and examine their experiences. Although students cannot go back in time and change anything that may have transpired, they can ask questions, think about their own roles, and plan for future experiences. Some examples of reflection exercises include group conversation and sharing, journaling, blogging, and one-on-one debriefs with adult trip leaders.

Our students take huge risks when they choose to travel, and they do so with the desire to see and learn more about the world around them. Knowing that there may exist some developmental limitations to what our students will do independently or instinctively, we can take the steps of exercising patience, scaffolding experiences, providing structure, and offering opportunities for reflection in order to help our students emerge from challenging situations with greater success. And don’t forget — a little bit of positive reinforcement can go a long way. So, be on the look out for things that your students do well and praise, praise, praise!

Happy travels!