In the crisp November air, forty-eight fourth graders from Two Rivers eagerly set foot onto Jamestown soil, perhaps with as much excitement and trepidation as the first English settlers brought with them over four hundred years ago to the very same place. The thrill of adventure was palpable in the charter buses that carried our fourth graders to their first over night trip, comparable to (but probably much more comfortable than) the pioneering spirit that fueled the Godspeed, Susan Constant, and Discovery ships to Jamestown in 1607.
Driven By a Problem-Based Task
A month before their overnight experience at Jamestown, the fourth graders began their learning adventure with the following problem-based task:
Most books and movies don’t tell you the whole truth about Jamestown. How do we make sure we learn and retell the complete story of Jamestown?
In order to solve this problem, the fourth graders needed to build their background knowledge about the Powhatan Native Americans, English settlers, and Africans who converged in the Jamestown area. To further their study of the exchange between three cultures, the students needed to develop the critical research skills needed by historians to analyze primary and secondary sources. As they journeyed toward solving this problem, the students uncovered the role of bias in shaping how information is presented, learned to examine not just what they saw but also what was missing from a source, and developed a deeper understanding of how multiple perspectives shape the way history is told. This problem-based task pulled the students deep into a puzzle they had to solve. It provided a powerful force for not only learning content and developing research skills, but compelled students to use their knowledge and continue learning, uncovering, and discovering in increasingly critical ways. The field study at Jamestown served as an important experience to further their quest toward solving the problem at the heart of their expedition.
In Levy and Murnane’s A New Division of Labor, experts are described as thinkers who possess a strong fund of knowledge to draw upon, strong schema that helps them organize and connect facts, recognize patterns that novices do not, and are aware of how they think and know when to change course when solving a complex problem. Experts also utilize these components to help them understand not only what they know, but also what they do not know and still need to find out. In their expert roles as historians, the fourth graders were positioned well to dig into the unknown, investigating the complex stories and perspectives of Jamestown as they navigated the Powhatan Villages, re-creations of the English forts and ships, and exhibits which shared the often untold story of the African slaves.
At one point of the field study, fourth grader Jerra Holdip spontaneously made a comment while observing other schools in the museum galleries: “I notice the types of questions Two Rivers students ask here are very different from the questions other students are asking.” She had been standing next to a large group of students from another school whose questions and comments centered mostly around types of food and dress that characterized the Powhatan way of life. In contrast, her smaller, focused research group had been asking questions about how the different cultures of Jamestown both influenced each other and remained distinct throughout their interactions. Jerra’s comment reflected how our students approached their field experience. Because learning through the problem-based task already equipped them with a strong fund of knowledge, the students were able to ask questions that extended beyond facts to making sense of the facts, questioning relationships, and using the lens of a historian to deepen their understanding of multiple perspectives. As experts in a discipline, our students will also be able to apply the critical lens developed within this expedition to scenarios, contexts, and problems that extend beyond their present scope of study. Jerra’s astute observation captures the essential difference between taking a field trip as an activity to check off, versus a rich experience situated in the context of in-depth, transferable learning.
The Power of Shared Experience
For this particular cohort of fourth grade students, Jamestown was not their first field study experience. As expert Expeditionary Learners at Two Rivers, they had already visited the Anacostia wetlands as first graders to investigate whether Canadian geese were “guest or pest” in our evolving ecosystem, interviewed Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton at the Capitol as second and third graders studying laws and representation in D.C.’s history, and given a geology-of-the-monuments tour at the National Mall, explaining how rocks help tell the story of our Earth and our human stories. Instead of participating in a breadth of disconnected field trips, Two Rivers students delve deeper into focused, in-depth learning with every field study. Ask any fourth grader and they can tell you, based on the wealth of field experiences they’ve had, why we take field studies vs. field trips at Two Rivers!Our fourth graders have reached not only the milestone of their first overnight field study, but also a point in the expeditionary learning continuum in which their understanding of interdependence, change, perspective, and movement will continue to deepen into the upper grades. Every expedition-situated field study enriches, stretches, and shapes our learners as expert thinkers. Driven by a problem-based task and accessed through an expert role, field studies serve as powerful shared experiences, instrumental in every students’ on-going development as life-long learners and responsible and compassionate members of society.