Travel’s Impact on Teaching

Liz Hoelzle | March 15, 2012

Social Studies doctoral student Tim Patterson’s research aims to investigate the extent to which traveling influences how teachers view the content they are teaching. By studying a group of Social Studies educators as they learn about Chinese history and culture in China, Patterson hopes to discover how traveling constitutes a form of education in itself, and how the lens through which content is imparted can be shaped.

Traditionally, the Social Studies curricula reflects Orientalist understandings of the world in divisions like East/West, first world/third world, and “us”/“other.” The program Patterson is focusing on effectively aims to deconstruct imperialist tropes by providing Social Studies and language teachers opportunities to learn about Asian history in Asia. Patterson hopes to find out if meeting the “other” can help deconstruct those divisions that define the current Social Studies curriculum.

As part of the National Consortium for Teaching About Asia (headquartered in the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University), the study abroad program will bring 18 in-service Social Studies teachers from New York, New Jersey, and other states first to Beijing, and then west along the Silk Road and eventually Shanghai. Patterson will interview participants prior to the trip to gather background information and life history, as well as an understanding of what they think they will experience on the journey.

Upon completion of the program, Patterson will then dig in deeper, asking teachers to reconstruct the event and learn how they have been impacted by the trip. He believes that, by infusing ethnographic research methods into a narrative analysis, he can gain a better understanding of what participants have experienced and how they make sense of it.

“The study aims to get at what makes traveling educative. The creators of these programs would argue that there’s more to learning than just reading about it; you have to experience something hands on. I’m hoping to investigate exactly why that is. Previous studies have assumed that the quality of traveling overseas is some combination of alchemy that happens when you cross a border, but there’s no in depth investigation of what it is that makes it educational.” Patterson hopes his investigation will answer some of those yet to be answered questions.

Ultimately, Patterson seeks to find out how learning overseas can impact teachers’ thinking about the curriculum they’re using in the classroom. “Teachers tend to get imbedded in the way they do things over time. So the question is, can traveling impact these imbedded structures? If you’ve taught about China the same way for five or six years, does going there make you question that? We want professional development to do that, to question what teachers are doing. So this might be another way to think about professional development and how it can be crafted to critically transform teachers’ thinking about whatever it is they’re teaching.”

By examining the impact of experiencing the “other” firsthand, Patterson hopes his study will be part of the conversation about how we view the world and how we educate children about it.