What a Trip

November 01, 1998 3 min read

To some educators, a field trip to the zoo or a local museum can seem more like an exercise in controlled chaos than a genuine learning opportunity. Frenetic, noisy students, overstimulated by the bus ride and the prospect of a day out of class, race from exhibit to exhibit. “Can we stop at the gift shop?” they shout. “When are we going to eat lunch?”

Do children really learn anything on these outings? The answer, according to researcher who have studied field trips, say yes.

John Falk, founder and director of the Institute for Learning Innovation in Annapolis, Maryland, once asked groups of college students and elementary school children to think back to a museum field trip they had taken years earlier. He found that 95 percent, regardless of age, could recall exactly what they saw, what they did, and whom they were with. And more than 70 percent of the details that the students remembered had to do with the content of the programs or the exhibits.

What makes such trips so memorable? In 1992, Falk studied the experiences of some 900 4th graders who had traveled at different times to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. On some of the trips, the students did not see the polar bears and the otters, for example, because their cages were being cleaned. That didn’t deter the guides; they gave their spiels anyway, in front of empty cages.

Later, Falk tested both the zoo-goers and a control group of children who had been taught the same material in the classroom. He found that all of those who went to the zoo--including the kids who had not seen all the animals--learned more than the comparison groups. “What is important about places like zoos and aquaria and natural history museums is that they are appropriate contexts for those topics,” Falk says. “Merely placing children in those contexts increases the probability that they are learning.”

Unfortunately, museum guides and teachers sometimes undermine the natural learning advantages that nonschool settings offer by insisting that the kids follow the adults’ agendas. “You hear teachers say, ‘Oh, we don’t have time for that,’ when kids ask to see something that interests them,” says Stephen Bitgood, a psychology professor at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Alabama.

Some educators and guides also make the mistake of resorting to traditional classroom lecturing in museums, zoos, and the like. According to Bitgood, Falk, and other experts, youngsters should be free to move in small groups and to follow their own interests. Though children may seem to flit about, they typically return and spend lots of time with something that captures their interest.

Advance preparation for a trip is crucial. In his zoo study, Falk divided some of the children into three groups. Each received a different orientation. One group was told what sorts of things they might learn about aquatic animals on their visit. Another was taught useful skills for looking at animals. The orientation for the third group was entirely different, focusing on practical aspects of the trip, such as how the students would get to the zoo, where the buses would park, what they could buy at the gift shop, and when they could eat lunch.

All the students given advance preparation got more out of their visits than those who received none. But the students who learned the most, surprisingly, were those in the third group--the ones who had received the practical orientation. “Our explanation for it really was that the kids have an agenda and the zoo has an agenda,” Falk says. “The kids wanted to maybe see their favorite animals and to be able to buy souvenirs in the gift shop. Without acknowledging kids’ agendas, kids were spending the whole time wondering, ‘Gee, when is this going to end?’ or ‘I’ve got this dollar, and it’s burning a hole in my pocket.’ ”

Bitgood offers three other tips for enhancing the educational value of field trips:

* Provide follow-up experiences for students.

* Keep lectures to 15 minutes during the visit.

* Plan in advance to minimize behavior problems that disrupt learning. It helps, for example, to make sure that children are kept busy during their visit and are told beforehand what behavior is expected.

“How the field trip is designed,” Bitgood says, “is very critical to what kids get out of it.”

--Debra Viadero