"Approaching the unfamiliar…" Urban quests as a participatory method in historical-political education

The author is a trainer in youth and adult education as well as a tour guide in Berlin.

By Heike Fahrun

A successful urban quest uses and hones the ability to approach the unfamiliar (according to Gerhard Knecht: Rallyes. Eine Einführung, gruppe & spiel No. 3/08). Here’s how it works: Participants form groups, go out to discover an urban space, solve various assignments together and reach a predefined goal. They’re usually in an unfamiliar city, they use unaccustomed means of travel, they’re working with people they may not know – in other words, a lot of "unknowns." How do I use these methodological tools in my pedagogical work and how do I combine the urban quest format with elements of historical/ political education?

Three examples from my own work:

  • In a one-day workshop, participants in a Voluntary Year of Social Service plan a urban quest for the entire group. Following a brainstorming session on important urban quest principles, clarifying the organizational framework, the volunteers explore opportunities in the city, work out routes and assignments, design the materials required and in the end supervise the urban quest itself on their own.

  • Ten young people from Belarus and Germany who have worked on human rights issues in their exchange project gather in Berlin for a final meeting. On two different routes through the city, they discover sites linked to individual human rights or their violation. Not only do they expand their knowledge of history, but they also analyze and document the current state of human rights in in the city.

  • Participants of different ages explore their city in terms of young and old living together or in parallel. In a kind of "grass-roots biography" project, they exchange views about how they themselves use certain urban spaces or about their connection to concrete events ("Are you familiar with this neighborhood; do you like it? How has it changed you?"; "Where were you when the Berlin Wall came down?"; or "How and where did you learn something about the fall of the Berlin Wall?").

    What are the people looking at there?

"What are the people looking at there?" An urban quest in images, on the subject of memorials – The (underground) memorial to the 1933 book burning on Bebelplatz in Berlin.

A versatile method

For one thing, the three examples show the possible content range of urban quests. Basically, it can be adapted to any topic that is visible in the urban space. Historical events are visible in monuments, in certain styles of architecture or in the urban structure itself. Since a city works differently (or not at all) for different societal groups, urban space can also be examined in terms of participation and discrimination.

Then, the examples also employ different levels of participation in decision-making. In the first case, the youths themselves set up the urban quest; only the general idea came from the trainers. This divided responsibility is highly suitable for youth exchanges. In the two other examples, the route and assignments were determined in advance. However, participants designed their own documentation and many assignments were about the participants themselves and not only about collecting facts. In general, the groups are always equipped with a city map so that they can find their way around. 

The numerous possibilities of the urban quest method, briefly sketched out here, also support important pedagogical goals of non-formal education; the participants:

  • grapple interactively with the urban space, analyze their surroundings, test and possibly revise their own habits, ideas and stereotypes;

  • exchange views about their observations, in the process learning about the realities of the other participants’ lives ("There are fewer police on the streets here", or "Where I live, there are a lot more free Wi-Fi hotspots …");

  • work as a team, have to organize themselves and make decisions jointly (even if only about the speed at which they walk …);

  • work creatively, use various media and multiple learning channels.

  • learn to "read" the urban space, and so practice non-verbal communication as an important skill for intercultural understanding;

  • communicate also verbally in challenging situations (or have you ever tried to exchange an egg without comprehensive language skills?), and learn to deal with rejection and appreciation.

Frontal or self-determined learning?

The pedagogical benefit of the urban quest is obvious: It helps develop so-called soft skills or methodological competence. But as an educator, I want to impart content and knowledge – isn’t the method too open for that? Isn’t it true that I cannot sufficiently control whether and what my participants learn? And am I not expecting too much of some participants, who would prefer a clear framework (and not too much that’s totally new)?

First, some challenging questions: How much do people remember from a normal guided tour – after all, that’s the closest comparison to an urban quest, right? After all, isn’t it too much to expect of some participants that they pay attention for a whole hour amidst the hustle and bustle of the city? One way to counter these legitimate criticisms is to take them into account during the planning and follow-up phases: Prepare suitable materials and use combined formats for the program (half-tour, half urban quest). 

But above all, I would like to sing the praises of more participation – urban quests open up more opportunities overall than do classic city tours. They enable self-determined, open learning and can thus also make it easier to experience more directly the diversity of urban life. Assignments that take this into account can even help participants identify, analyze and discuss mechanisms of marginalization and (in)accessibility in urban spaces.

At the end of an urban quest, participants may not know when a palace was built or when a monument was erected. But they have jointly chosen a route or overcome inhibitions about approaching and talking to people they don’t know. They have examined traces of history in and current uses of urban space – and thus may have grown somewhat closer to the unfamiliar.

Checklist, urban quest

  • First, define your goal – in terms of method and planning, it makes a difference whether the participants get to know each other first, or tackle the topics at hand.

  • Begin to plan in the street – that is the only way to really adapt a urban quest to the group and topic. Many assignments and activities will be generated on the spot. 

  • Use different types of assignments, go beyond merely collecting information. Assignments based on experience, in which participants share their knowledge and opinions and exchange views in their groups, should balance assignments based on discovery (interviews and contact with people, collecting items, game-based elements, etc.).

  • Consider which materials and information your participants will need – whether these materials are to be prepared or encountered during the urban quest – in order for them to understand a given site or simply to feel safe.

  • Use various media to design or document urban quests. In the era of smartphones, photos, films, audio and text can be collected without much effort and are probably more comfortable for your participants to use than a sheet of paper.

  • Evaluate your urban quest – the experiences and insights of your participants can influence your further work, both in substance and method.


You can read Heike Fahrun's blog "Die Spaziergängerin" (in German).


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