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A Summer of Global Learning

Today, Dr. Lawrence Paska, Executive Director of the National Council for the Social Studies, shares the benefits of study tours abroad as professional learning experiences.

By guest blogger Lawrence M. Paska

Challenges in PD

A recent Brookings Institution post, The State of the Nation's Social Studies Educators, was news in the social studies world. Based on 2011-12 data from the Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), it stated that, "social studies teachers are among the least likely (at 72 percent), along with teachers in the natural sciences (71 percent) and foreign languages (70 percent), to stay engaged in ongoing professional development in their specialty area." It suggests that one cause may be that social studies educators spend more time on other professional responsibilities compared to their peers. 

What it does not delve into are other known challenges that social studies educators have overwhelmingly experienced in recent years, such as limitations on funding and approved time for professional development. In fact, 2016-2017 Annual Research Findings by My College Options and National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) of over 800 social studies educators revealed the greatest challenges to be the shift in focus to standardized testing/high stakes testing (16.4 percent), larger class sizes (16.3 percent), limited funding/decreasing budgets (15.7 percent), the marginalization of social studies (13.8 percent), and a lack of scheduled time for collaboration with colleagues (11.5 percent).

If it's true that close to three quarters of our social studies teachers are not engaged in sustained professional learning, and if we also accept that support for sustained professional learning has been difficult to come by, then the implications for global learning are deep and serious. If our nation's educators are not easily able to nurture their own learning, then how easily are they able to explore the world? For social studies educators, global learning is at the core of the very disciplines they share with students every day.

Fortunately, there is a great solution right among us.

Travel as Professional Learning

Every summer—and often during school breaks—thousands of our nation's social studies educators participate in study tours abroad. These tours are sponsored by organizations both in the United States and around the world, with missions to teach educators about diverse cultures, languages, and even whole education systems. The itineraries are engaging: educators often travel around a specific country, exploring significant historic and cultural sites; sometimes they stay with host families in town; often they visit local schools to meet teachers and students, learning about how they study history and the social sciences; they may even meet government leaders and hear from guest speakers.

travel_narrative.pngI participated in two study tours (one through the East-West Center's AsiaPacificEd program at the University of Hawai'i and another through the Goethe-Institut's Transatlantic Outreach Program), and both were life-changing experiences. In addition to direct immersion in a new place for an extended period of time, I developed curricular materials to enrich classroom practice, examined issues and stories from multiple perspectives, and met new friends who I stayed connected with and shared instructional practices with long after our tour ended. In both tours, I brought back resources to present and share with other educators - extending my experience by giving to other educators for their own classroom adaptation and application.

Many organizations providing these experiences subsidize travel or participation costs and many trips can fulfill a school's professional development requirements. Although travel and study tours are invaluable for all educators, regardless of subject or area of expertise, when your curriculum is focused on teaching world history or modern world cultures as in social studies, there is no substitute for direct experience to bring home and share with your students. It's exciting to see so many friends (some of whom I met on previous study tours) spend this summer traveling abroad again to keep learning. (I'm just not sure why I didn't go with them!)

Positive Growth

Study tours are outstanding professional development opportunities, and they directly support a positive growth in global education. This fall, NCSS will celebrate global education with our annual conference theme of "Expanding Visions/Bridging Traditions." In the spirit of that theme, I encourage all educators to embrace their wanderlust, listen to their inner travel agent, and find an organization, foundation, school—any place that welcomes teachers—to take a professional journey and experience the world.

Bringing that experience back to your students is a profound and engaging form of professional development. Just imagine what social studies instruction will look like nationwide when the next survey data shows how many educators participate in study tours abroad, where they traveled to, and what they taught when they returned to school. We have the ability the change the narrative just by signing up for a trip.  

By being global educators, we will model 21st century social studies learning for our students. 

Connect with Larry and NCSS on Twitter.

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