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Staff Rides – How the US Military Uses Historic Landmarks as Outdoors Classrooms

As a lover of historic sites and national parks I have had some truly memorable experiences, but one of the most memorable was when I had the opportunity to visit Gettysburg Nat’l Military Park during the 150th anniversary celebration. My father and I made it part of a giant road trip, visiting places like Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Spotsylvania Courthouse before eventually ending at “ the high water mark of the Confederacy”

During that visit, I had noticed that in addition to the stone monuments and ornate memorials that dotted the landscape, many uniform tablets had been scattered along the tour route. Unlike the NPS interpretive panels which included eye-catching artwork and engaging audio elements, these were all-metal and painted black with simple white lettering. The information they had on them was also hard to engage with, being almost analytical in nature. When I asked a nearby battlefield guide about who had placed them I was surprised at the response.

It turns out that long before Gettysburg was a national military park it fell under the jurisdiction of the War Department. Battlefields like this one were kept as militaryresources and used in many different ways. They became training camps for new recruits from the Army and National Guard, they were used to inspire new soldiers by giving them gallant examples to follow, and some, like Gettysburg, were converted into “outdoor classrooms” where cadets from officer training schools would come to study military science. The metal plaques, along with most of the cannon that dot the landscape even today, were used as teaching tools to illustrate the movement of troops and the ebb and flow of the battle. This tradition of analyzing places through firsthand visits is known as “staff rides” because it was traditionally the general and his staff who would visit a battlefield to get the lay of the land and better plan for future conflicts by analyzing older ones.

Staff rides at Gettysburg and other Civil War battlefields remain an important part of contemporary military training for places like West Point, The Army War College, and the Command and General Staff College. Lately, staff rides have also been used by corporate and business leaders to help develop the next generation of board members. How much better at conquering the board room will you be if you understand how U.S. Grant conquered Lee in 1864?

During my research into the use of “staff rides” I was pleased to learn that the U.S. Military’s guidelines for experiential instruction have lots of parallels to how experiential excursions work in a PBL context. Here are some of the guidelines they use for planning that might sound familiar to the PBL teachers reading this;

- An on-site learning experience has three phases; a pre-visit study which gives learners the context they need to understand what they will see, a field study phase that takes place at the location, and an integration portion where individuals reflect on what they have learned in the previous two phases and how what they have learned can be drawn into a contemporary, real-world context.

- By the end of the pre-visit phase, learners must acquire basic knowledge and also understand the purpose of their visit. What are the learning objectives they should keep in mind? What are the big questions they should be building answers toward?

- Both the instructor and the learners must take responsibility for gathering basic knowledge. The instructor should employ a vast array of resources (media, recordings, visuals, artifacts) to support the individual efforts of the learner.

- It is the responsibility of the entire team, not just the leaders, to understand the context of the events that took place. This includes background, biographies, significant events and their chronological order, etc. This also makes the lesson more collaborative, allowing learners to support each other as they develop their understanding.

- All lessons are organized around a central theme. They might discuss the battle and its place in the larger context of history, significant evolutions of technology, relief efforts, or the development of central figures and personalities.

- The field study portion should try to link specific sources of information to specific places. Have a route in mind with the purpose being to connect the different stops into a single cohesive narrative.

- Field studies should be engaging and interactive. Maintain student engagement through interactive means such as questioning to stimulate discussion, the use of visual aids and resources mentioned in the pre-visit phase, or use of anecdotes/vignettes.

- Use dramatic devices such as tableaus whenever possible. Illustrate the movement of soldiers using your learners as living props. Have them take on the roles and perspectives of famous leaders at critical decision moments in the narrative and think critically about alternatives choices and their implications. Break the group into smaller “detachments” and allow them to analyze an interpretive marker or supplemental resource so they can report back to the group on what they learned.

- During the field study portion, formative assessment should take place to make sure that the learners are engaged and that the lesson is effective and relevant.

- The integration phase is essential for turning knowledge into understanding through reflection, and for connecting what was learned to a contemporary context. This phase can take place at the end of the field phase, on the road back to the classroom, or in the classroom over the next few days.

- Integration phases should strive to organize the information and observations of the learners. They should help them to figure out the “so what” about the place or field experience they participated in.

- Use of reflective questioning and discussion is especially impactful and should drive the reflection. How did the experience enhance your previous understanding? What insights did this experience offer you? Use open-ended questions to spark discussion among your learners.

Links – Staff Ride Overview Handbook by Army University Press


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