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Summer 2007 | Volume 64
Engaging the Whole Child (online only)
Done right, field trips can be a powerful component of a well-rounded instructional program.
If I were asked to quickly list some instructional tools for teachers, I'd rattle off questioning strategies, concept mapping, and computers—but I doubt that field trips would pop into my mind. Many educators don't take field trips seriously because we associate them with fun. They also have their drawbacks: They're costly, logistically involved, extravagant with time, and contain an element of uncertainty. No wonder kids like them so much.
Most teachers still take at least one field trip each year. I've been on more than 50 of them in three different states, in the role of either teacher or chaperone. My experience with such off-site visits, coupled with research on the topic, suggests that field trips can be powerful education tools.
Field trips without obvious academic content can be hard to sell to administrators focused on test scores. To obtain approval, most teachers try to justify field trips by citing standards and curriculum goals. Nevertheless, the trips often get tacked onto the back end of the school year, the assumption being that they are unlikely to directly support the reading and math skills that show up on yearly standardized achievement tests.
Field trips offer, however, a crucial advantage: They can bring balance to the curriculum. The most popular destinations—museums, zoos, outdoor venues, and performances—have a natural fit with science, history, and the arts, subjects that have been marginalized by our current focus on basic skills.
Moreover, musical and theatrical performances provide opportunities that many students would not otherwise have to watch talented people demonstrate their arts. When I taught 2nd grade, we attended the free concerts that the local symphony orchestra performed during the day for schoolchildren. Most of our schools regularly take field trips to the community college, where students attend free plays. Performance field trips not only have the potential to develop aesthetic appreciation in students, but they can also develop background knowledge and oral vocabulary, which improve reading comprehension (Torgeson, 1998).
When it comes to resource allocation, field trips are not a priority for districts. Few field trips are included in school budgets, so most funds often come from parents (Anderson, Kisiel, & Storksdieck, 2006). The biggest contributors, besides individual families, are site-based parent organizations that often pay for the entire field trip, transportation, or scholarships for students whose families cannot afford the fees.
Many local grant programs fund field trips, so an Internet search and a simple grant proposal can be worthwhile. For example, one of our local quarries paid to bus a group of earth science students out for a site visit because the management saw it as a way to create goodwill in the community. A few organizations, such as Target, have grant programs specifically designed to fund field trips (Target, n.d.).
Numerous Internet sites offer “virtual field trips.” Some of these offerings are worthy of consideration, especially as an alternative to spending another hour on a bus listening to “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Pop on the Wall” screamed out of key. After perusing some of these sites, I think “picture galleries,” “video tours,” “interactive games,” and “sound clips” would be more accurate labels.
Most people would probably agree that watching the grainy black-and-white footage of the San Diego Zoo's live Webcam is not equivalent to an actual visit. On the other hand, a virtual trip to Mars is most likely the closest we're ever going to get to that planet. Virtual field trips have a place in a teacher's repertoire, but they don't replace actual field trips.
Successful field trips depend on several factors: scheduling the trip at an appropriate time, preparing students for the trip, engaging them in meaningful activities during the trip, and conducting relevant follow-up activities.
Half of teachers state that they can't choose the timing of their field trips (Anderson, Kisiel, & Storksdieck, 2006). Many elementary schools schedule the bulk of their field trips after standardized testing is conducted in the spring, irrespective of whether the teacher is teaching the related curriculum unit at the time. In addition, curriculum pressures often don't leave teachers with enough time for pre-trip preparation or follow-up activities.
Some of the most frustrating field trips I've experienced have been the result of scheduling trips to hands-on science or children's museums when they were overrun by school groups in the spring. On a good day, interactive museums can be the perfect combination of student activity and information presentation. On a busy day, the climate inside is nothing short of chaotic, as poorly supervised kids run wild from exhibit to exhibit and younger students, five minutes into the visit, relentlessly ask about lunch.
The often neglected pre-trip preparation is necessary to maximize the benefits of a field trip (Anderson, Kisiel, & Storksdieck, 2006). Teachers should take time to prepare students by familiarizing them with the venue, focusing learning, and developing prior knowledge (Orion & Hofstein, 1994). That way, students won't spend all their energy finding their way around the site when they should be paying attention to the learning activities.
For example, I used to take my 2nd graders to the Milwaukee Public Museum to visit the European Village exhibit (www.mpm.edu/exhibitions/permanent/eurovillage.php). The curriculum goal was for the students to notice the similarities and differences between life in the 19th century and modern times. As concept preparation for the trip, I read aloud certain excerpts from Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder, students wrote letters to grandparents asking for anecdotes about life during their childhoods, and we studied the founding of the city. The students understood that they would be expected to fill out a Venn diagram the day after their trip, comparing contemporary and 19th-century clothing, buildings, occupations, transportation, and communication.
The museum includes many other exhibits, so before the trip I outlined them for the class. Students familiar with the museum had a chance to describe their favorite exhibits. I told students that the one exhibit they had to visit was the European Village; each group and its chaperones were free to visit other exhibits as well. We reviewed general field trip rules and gift shop policy. On the day of the trip, students were put into their groups before boarding the buses, and each chaperone was given a clipboard for the students to take notes for their Venn diagrams during the visit. I explained that we would visit the European Village together before splitting up and provided a detailed schedule for lunch and loading the buses at the end of the trip.
It might seem like a great deal of effort for a trip to see some artifacts, but the payoff was worth it. The 2nd graders were focused during their viewing of the European Village. As a result of the concept development work we had done in preparation, students understood the context for such items as button hooks for shoes and wooden telephones, which had been described in various books and letters that we had shared. The students knew the information that I was going to hold them accountable for, so they focused their attention appropriately. They still had questions about lunch and the gift shop but far fewer because of these preparations. And the quality of the students' learning was consistently high, as evidenced in the Venn diagram follow-up activity.
Teachers also need to take advantage of the opportunities for cross-disciplinary learning during the field trip. Early in my career, I took my kindergarten students on the traditional October trip to a pumpkin farm. The kids learned how pumpkins grow, but the experience was isolated from the rest of the curriculum. Over time, I learned from other teachers who built math, science, and literacy activities around their field trips. On farm trips in later years, we brought our pumpkins back to the classroom and measured them, using the information to create graphs for circumference, weight, and volume. We took pictures on the trip and created books with captions for the students to take home and read with their families. We made art projects with the seeds and toasted some for snacks. I now try to maximize every opportunity that field trips offer to broaden learning.
Meaningful post-trip activities are crucial for students to make sense of what they have learned. Unfortunately, the most common follow-up activity is a cursory discussion about what students enjoyed, which requires little time and yields little benefit (Anderson, Kisiel, & Storksdieck, 2006). Well-planned follow-up activities help students extend their learning, make new connections, or go off in a new direction. For example, a middle school visit to a performance of the musical Ragtime, which is set in the early 1900s, sparked discussion about which elements and characters in the production were historically accurate and which were fictional. To tie field trips into the curriculum, students benefit from such instructional supports as concept mapping, projects, writing assignments, and KWL charts (what I
Know, what I Want to learn, what I Learned).
Recently our middle school students took a field trip to Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp used during World War II, which is located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada in Southern California. Just visiting the place would probably have resulted in the students learning some historical facts. The teacher in charge of this trip, however, had larger affective goals, so she planned a variety of activities to make the trip more powerful.
For pre-trip preparation, students read the book Farewell to Manzanar (Houston & Houston, 1983), which provided them with background about the people who had been interned there. On the day of the trip, students brought belongings packed in a plastic bag to represent everything they would need, had they been ordered to the camp with one day's notice. Students were warned that the site was bleak and the drive was long. Once there, they reflected on what it would have been like to have been sent to that camp in the middle of the desert for an undetermined amount of time. The students noted the camp's remoteness and desolation, and they voiced how unjust it was to send U.S. citizens to such a place.
A highlight of the trip was when one of the students found names of his family members listed on the memorial wall in the visitors center. As a follow-up, students used everything they had learned during the unit to draw or paint a scene of the camp from the perspective of someone who lived at Manzanar. The powerful combination of these activities brought literature alive and made history personal.
It's tempting to call a field trip successful if the entire group returns intact, without having tarnished the reputation of the school. But well-managed field trips can be so much more: They don't just increase the skills, knowledge, and positive attitudes of students—they have the same effect on teachers (Neathery, 1998). So maybe it's time we made more time for field trips.
Anderson, D., Kisiel, J., & Storksdieck, M. (2006). Understanding teachers' perspectives on field trips: Discovering common ground in three countries. Curator, 4(3), 365–386.
Houston, J., & Houston, J. D. (1983). Farewell to Manzanar: A true story of Japanese American experience during and after the World War II internment. New York: Laurel Leaf Books.
Neathery, M. F. (1998). Informal learning in experimental settings. Journal of Elementary Science Education, 10, 36–49.
Orion, N., & Hofstein, A. (1994). Factors that influence learning during a scientific trip in a natural environment. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 29, 1097–1119.
Target. (n.d.). Target field trip grants. Retrieved November 21, 2006, from
Torgeson, J. K. (1998, Spring/Summer). Catch them before they fail: Identification and assessment to prevent reading failure in young children. American Educator/American Federation of Teachers. Available: www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/spring_sum98/torgesen.pdf
Linda Mayger is a teacher at St. Timothy's Episcopal School in Apple Valley, California;
Copyright © 2007 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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