Here is a simple suggestion for any elementary school teachers who are planning a field trip during the next few weeks: Tell the kids that part of their assignment for the day will include writing one brief paragraph about something interesting they saw while riding on the bus.
This isn't some kind of test. It's just a way to promote the idea that we're all connected to the people and places around us. I wouldn't advise spending more than 10 minutes on the writing, and the results will probably be mixed. The very best outcome would be to have every student exclaim, "I'm going to fill up at least five pages!" But it's more likely that some of the papers will end up with only one sentence, or remain blank.
In spite of all the attention being focused on education funding, test scores, and curriculums, one huge factor that can't be measured is the personality of each young mind. You can teach the scientific method and show how to be a good observer, but none of that will be of much use to a person who has no curiosity about what's going on in society, how it got this way, or how it can be changed.
I'm the inquisitive type; I always enjoyed looking out the window on school field trips, and got a huge academic kudo during sixth grade when my class visited the US Geological Survey in Menlo Park, Calif. After we got back to school, Mr. Marion, my teacher, decided to ask a few questions about the trip, and one that was greeted by complete silence was, "What department of the federal government oversees the operation of the USGS?"
Suddenly, I remembered looking at a sign we had passed as the bus entered the Survey parking lot. Underneath the words "United States Geological Survey" were the words "US Department of the Interior." Up went my hand, my answer was correct, and to this day I still read signs and pick up little bits of information whenever I'm on the road.
I know many children aren't like me. I also know long drives can be boring, and lots of parents truly appreciate technology that allows kids to play hand-held video games or watch DVDs in the car. I'm not telling anyone to throw all those gadgets away, although I do think some TV car commercials are insidious when they portray automotive entertainment devices as essential features in maintaining family harmony.
I just hope there are still parents out there who don't get annoyed by questions from young passengers like, "Where are we?" and "Why does this town even exist?" Such queries need to be encouraged. Having quick access to a road atlas and tourist guidebook of the region is always helpful.
There's something else I recall about Mr. Marion's quiz: He only did it once. But even though I never got a chance to reprise my observational skills for the other sixth-graders, I can still clearly visualize that sign in front of the USGS. And whenever I'm a passenger in any conveyance of mass transit, I always look for a window seat.
• Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.