What Traveling Really Teaches Teens
Traveling is that moment when the textbook comes alive, when everyday objects look completely different and when common greetings sound exotic. For teens, traveling abroad is exhilarating, stimulating, frustrating and—whether they like it or not—extremely educational. Of course, for parents, the educational aspect of travel is most likely the biggest reason why they send their kids on an overseas educational program with their school. Just don’t let the teenagers hear you say that.
Experts say that the educational benefit for teens goes far beyond learning historical facts, architectural styles, conversational phrases and even a working knowledge of a European subway system. Travel is an excellent way for students to develop the vital skills like critical thinking and problem solving that will enable them to compete in an increasingly globally interdependent economy.
“I think the biggest thing travel does for teens is to help them to see beyond their own somewhat limited world and to see how other people live,” says Christine Schelhas-Miller, who taught adolescent development at Cornell University for many years and is the co-author of Don't Tell Me What to Do, Just Send Money: The Essential Parenting Guide to the College Years. “Travel is particularly good for developing critical thinking as it forces teens to examine their own values and beliefs from the perspective of a different culture. They become aware of aspects of their lives that they have taken for granted and never examined.”
Improvement in critical thinking skills can translate into big gains in the classroom. Travel can help students develop all of what educators call the 4 Cs (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, and creativity and innovation), says Dr. Jessie Voigts, who has a PhD in international education and runs wanderingeducators.com, a global community of educators sharing travel experiences.
“Travel encourages critical thinking (especially when comparing intercultural differences), problem solving (in so many ways—money, transportation, food, events, cultures, languages, etc.) and communication (both verbal and non-verbal, which is key to any communication event, globally),” says Voigts, author of Bringing the World Home: A Resource Guide to Raising Intercultural Kids. “It also encourages collaboration (working together with your travel partners or locals to fulfill your basic needs), creativity (finding a creative solution to a travel problem) and innovation (whether it’s a way to hold your luggage together with whatever is on hand or finding a new route in an unfamiliar town past a parade to get where you need to go).”
The best part, of course, is that teens aren’t stuck in a classroom or doing workbooks to hone these skills that may one day help them on the SATs. Instead, they’re hiking the Great Wall, craning their necks to see the Sistine Chapel or exploring Macchu Picchu. They’re meeting new people, listening to new music and tasting new spices. And they’re becoming more flexible and adaptable along the way, two more skills that are essential in the 21st Century’s virtual workplace.
“The youth of today face an entirely different world than that of their parents and grandparents,” says Voigts. “Teens need more than school and college to get a job. They need to learn flexibility, adaptability, and other skills to succeed in today’s global economy. Our neighbors and coworkers are no longer next door, but around the world. Traveling—not just being a tourist, but smart travel—helps teens learn flexibility and adaptability, and creates an open-minded worldview that allows teens to work well with others anywhere in the world.”
It may take teens—and their parents—some time to realize that they have gained all of these skills from their travels abroad. But it probably won’t take anyone long to figure out that these teens have learned a lot about something very close to home: themselves.
“Every student who has gone abroad with whom I have spoken has said that they expected to learn so much about the other country, but they never expected to learn so much about themselves,” says Schelhas-Miller. “Unexpected events always happen to travelers and I think teens develop problem-solving skills and confidence in their abilities to manage their lives.”
Written by Liz Borod Wright, freelance writer and founder of www.travelogged.com
Teachers, interested in helping your students develop and hone 21st century skills all while learning and seeing what the world has to offer? Download our guide to planning an educational tour for tips and advice from the experts that know student travel best.