Tactile Experiential Education Helps Students Change The World Via Immersive Travel

In the U.S., history is taught in a wide range of pedagogical approaches, from centering learning around textbooks that skim — or even evade — the more sinister aspects of this nation’s past to documentary-style narratives of the lived experience of oppressed people. It’s fair to say that children in grades K-12 get a haphazard and inconsistent, at best, version of U.S. history.

Gina Higgins and Dezmond Goff, who met when Goff was a student in Higgins’ classroom, founded Tactile Experiential Education as a force for change. With a shared conviction that “education can be a transformative force that breaks down barriers and empowers individuals from all walks of life,” they set about bridging the gap in classroom instruction, taking Higgins’ curriculum centered around critical thinking, empathy and agency, and placed it in the heart of real-world experiences that support students’ as future changemakers.

I was able to experience Tactile’s approach as a parent chaperone on an 8th-grade trip to the Deep South, where we spent eight days exploring Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana in the context of an experiential, immersive itinerary that included content around the domestic slave trade, mass incarceration, lynching, and segregation. But the trip was not limited to exposure to these critically important subjects. We also had opportunities for cultural enrichment, including visiting traditional restaurants, interviewing chefs and other locals, kayaking through a swamp and learning about water and wildlife, and also viewing art, learning the history of jazz on a bike tour, and studying World War II through the lenses of both artifacts and narratives of lived experience.

My son’s San Francisco Bay Area middle school, East Bay School For Boys, is a project-based learning environment whose community’s mission is “to empower middle school boys to cultivate their intellectual, physical, and emotional selves to become engaged, thoughtful, courageous, and justice-minded adults of tomorrow.” The kind of immersive educational travel offered by the Tactile team was a good fit for the school’s social-justice framework.

Higgins and Goff want to empower students to become the next generation of adults who have the skills and the motivation to create real, lasting change. Higgins, a teaching veteran with a DEI certificate from Cornell University and a teaching certification from Lesley College, and Goff, an environmental biologist and activist whose work has included recording police activity to discourage misconduct through transparency and organizing to disrupt mass incarceration and criminal (in)justice systems.

Tactile’s immersive trip experiences happen in the context of a supportive, inclusive and transformative model that allows students to explore their own specific interests. There are daily short-assignment projects to encourage reflection and synthesis, as well as opportunities for students to share personal-narrative videos and ask questions of experts in the fields of law, environmental science, housing, art, music, culinary history, all of which encompass complex variables regarding race, gender, class, sexuality, and (in)equity.

Higgins says, “In a world filled with ever-increasing social inequality, discriminatory prison systems, and severe environmental challenges, we founded Tactile Education with a shared vision of driving social and environmental justice through education.” And an 8th-grader on our trip remarked, “I had no idea about the true legacy of racism in this country until I saw a plantation where slaves were imprisoned and read the names of those lynched. I had read some of this history, but it was all very abstract to me until this capstone trip. And sadly, this violent legacy continues on in the 21st century in the form of economic oppression.”

Goff adds, “I am overwhelmingly excited for the future, where connection and reciprocity are valued over wealth and exploitation and where people and the planet are valued over property.”

It’s heartening, in a country where education is a battlefield and often seems — to teachers, students and parents — like an essential culture in need of repair, that organizations like Tactile make transformative education possible in the form of immersive travel.

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