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Active learning creates the conditions for much more interesting stories to emerge that travelers are likely to share with other people once they return home. | Ashwini Chaudhary(Monty) on Unsplash

How to Use Active Learning to Engage Travelers


Published on April 25, 2022


Perhaps “seeing is believing,” but far more powerful — and memorable — is becoming fully immersed in an activity: Getting dirt beneath your fingernails from planting trees. Tasting sauce while it’s simmering to make sure it has enough salt. Learning the dance steps to a new-to-you form of music … even if you have two left feet!

Travel might be associated with leisure, but it’s also a great way for people to learn. And, with the right kinds of activities integrated into travel experiences, people are primed to learn even if they don’t realize it. 

Taking this one step further, these kinds of travel-focused educational opportunities have a multitude of benefits that have positive ripple effects in travelers’ lives long after a trip is over. Plus, they create the conditions for much more interesting stories to emerge that travelers are likely to share with other people — and that kind of word-of-mouth marketing is priceless.

Taking a Page From the Education Textbook

Education professionals have focused attention on “active learning” for many years. This kind of learning moves beyond call-and-response and rote memorization, and actively involves students in their own learning process by doing. In other words, instead of passively reading about or hearing someone talk about something, they participate in the activity themselves.

Benefits of active learning in the classroom include:

  • Increased content knowledge.
  • Improved critical thinking and problem-solving.
  • The ability to create personal connections with the content, which increases motivation to learn more.
  • Increased enthusiasm and interest in the subject.
  • Greater comprehension and memory.
  • Development of creative thinking, adaptability, communication, and interpersonal skills.

Imagine giving people these gifts when they travel. Not only is it possible, but active learning creates better experiences without explicitly being educational.

Rip a page from the educator playbook with these ideas for engaging travelers in active learning.

Citizen Science

Citizen science is when average people help collect data or perform simple analyses or tasks, usually recorded online, to advance scientific research on real-world issues. Tourism, which encompasses a wide range of activities and touches nearly all corners of the world, is in an ideal position to assist with projects while offering travelers interesting, research-based, hands-on experiences.

Some tour companies (including Crees Manu and Taxon Expeditions) specifically integrate citizen science within their offerings while others, such as Polar Latitudes, make it available to travelers as an extension of existing activities. 

Regardless of how or how deeply travelers get involved, their participation matters. When I interviewed Dr. Annette Bombosch, a citizen-science coordinator on the expedition staff at Polar Latitudes, for an article about the intersection of tourism and citizen science, she noted: “It makes a real difference to the scientists. It makes a real difference to the travelers. And it definitely makes a real difference to those places because, without the knowledge of how they’re changing, we can’t protect them.”

Active Reflection

Active learning can be especially impactful if travelers are encouraged to reflect upon hands-on activities during and after the experience. Too often people simply accept what is, but making space to think more deeply about experiences can sometimes be more meaningful than the experience itself. Intentionally building this reflection time into a travel experience may surface hard conversations, new ways of approaching previously accepted narratives, and more questions — but that’s a good thing!

VAWAA (Vacation With an Artist) gives travelers an opportunity to spend many concentrated hours over several days learning a particular artistic skill. Since 2015, it has encouraged travelers of all artistic levels to create in all corners of the globe, and testimonials of deeply immersive VAWAA experiences speak to their potency: “It made me appreciate the effort that goes into the art and ceramics that I encounter in my life, and notice details about the finished products that I wouldn't otherwise have known without having gone through this process,” noted a traveler who spent a week learning ceramics in Slovenia.

Though hands-on activities like the ones at VAWAA are often at the heart of active learning, sometimes static sites offer engagement opportunities as well. Deep into the pandemic, I learned about Monument Lab, a “hands-on activity guide to help you take a closer look at the monuments in your city or town” that can just as easily be tweaked to fit a tourism context — and provide a different way to consider those age-old statues we often walk by but don’t notice. 

The Monument Lab framework encourages participants to investigate historical monuments in a particular area, ask critical questions about art and justice in public spaces, and propose new ideas for monuments, all of which require active reflection. Monument Lab is also a good reminder that the framework for trip-based active learning activities can be applied beyond a travel experience and doesn’t have to take place far from home

Cultural Immersion

What better way to find out if that sauce needs salt than to cook it yourself? That is, of course, the idea behind many cultural activities built into travel excursions. But this brings up an important point worth reinforcing about active learning: There is a difference between passively doing, and actually learning from, talking about, and deeply immersing in an experience.

“Sitting in the home of a local family for dinner can be a humbling experience,” said Ruth Franklin of Secret Paradise. As part of the company’s Taste of Local Life experience, Secret Paradise guests shop for ingredients in a local market then spend time with a local family learning how to grate a coconut, making flatbread known as roshi, and preparing a home-cooked meal. “Conversations are not only about the ingredients, how to (cook the dish), and the different types of food. They are often about exchanging information on the destination of the guest and the food they will prepare at home,” Franklin said.

Unsurprisingly, the longer duration of hands-on activities offered through VAWAA also solicits deep appreciation of a culture through immersion. “We learned so much about natural dyeing, weaving, and their role in the culture and way of life in Teotitlan del Valle,” according to Jessica and Jaclyne, who participated in fiber arts in Mexico. “We also gained a greater appreciation for the time and care taken to produce textiles by hand.”

Supporting Community Initiatives

It’s become increasingly clear that mixing volunteer work with tourism can be a messy business with unintended negative consequences. However, giving travelers an opportunity to participate in community initiatives led by local people on their terms can support sustainability efforts while giving travelers a chance to actively participate in and learn about environmental and socio-cultural challenges.

At Adventure Tours UK, for example, guests can participate in a beach cleanup led by a local guide. Participation with the guide is important, since this offers context for the activity. “As the group finds examples of different types of litter, the guide will explain things such as where it’s likely to have come from (such as marine litter or beach users), what wildlife it’s most likely to affect, and how it impacts them. Also, as they spot wildlife, the guide will explain more about it, what it is, whether it’s native or migratory, and how its welfare can be impacted by litter and waste,” said Claire Copeman, co-founder of Adventure Tours UK.

“The aim is to engage guests with the local area and how they can play an effective role in preventing this kind of litter in the first place by making the right choices themselves,” Copeman said, “and by sharing this message with friends and family to help them make kinder decisions in the future.”

JoAnna Haugen

JoAnna Haugen is an award-winning writer, speaker, consultant, and solutions advocate. She is also the founder of Rooted, a solutions platform at the intersection of sustainability, storytelling, and social impact.

Hire her as a consultant or to speak at your next event.


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