Preparation Is Key in Making the Most of Field Trips

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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 school, race from exhibit to exhibit. "Can we stop at the gift shop? When are we going to eat lunch?"

Do children really learn anything on these outings?

The answer, from researchers who have studied field trips, is yes.

In 1992, John H. Falk, the founder and director of the Institute for Learning Innovation in Annapolis, Md., conducted a study of field trip learning based on more than 900 4th graders who went on to see aquatic animals at the National Zoo in Washington.

The experiences of different groups of children varied. On some trips, for example, the students weren't able to see the polar bears or the otters because their cages were being cleaned. Instead, museum educators simply gave their spiels in front of empty cages.

Still, regardless of whether they had seen the animals, all of the children who went to the zoo learned more than comparison groups of children who had been taught the same material in the classroom.

The researchers made that determination by testing the children a month beforehand and then retesting them several days after their visit.

Context Is Crucial

The results, Mr. Falk says, suggest the importance of context to learning. "What is important about places like zoos and aquaria and natural history museums is that they are appropriate contexts for those topics," he says. "Merely placing children in those contexts increases the probability that they are learning."

Unfortunately, museums and teachers sometimes undermine the natural learning advantages that nonschool settings offer. "You hear teachers say, 'Oh, we don't have time for that,' when kids ask to see something that interests them," says Stephen C. Bitgood, a psychology professor at Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, Ala.

Some museum educators also make the mistake of re-creating traditional classrooms in their buildings and lecturing to school groups. What youngsters need instead, Mr. Bitgood, Mr. Falk, and other experts have found, is the freedom to move in small groups and to follow their own interests. While children may seem to flit about, they typically return to something that captures their interest and spend long periods of time there.

'Kids' Agendas'

Advance preparation is also important. In his zoo study, for example, Mr. Falk divided some of the children into three groups, each one receiving a different orientation. One group was told what sorts of things they might learn about aquatic animals on their visit.

Museum educators taught another group useful skills for looking at animals. The orientation for the third group focused on the practical aspects of the trip: how the students would get to the zoo, where they would park, what they would see, what they could buy at the gift shop, and where 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 one that had received the practical orientation.

"Our explanation for it really was that the kids have an agenda and the zoo has an agenda. The kids wanted to maybe see their favorite animals and to be able to buy souvenirs in the gift shop," Mr. Falk says. "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.'"

Mr. Bitgood also 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; and
  • Plan in advance to minimize the kinds of 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 from them. "How the field trip is designed," Mr. Bitgood says, "is very critical to what kids get out of it."


Vol. 18, Issue 2, Page 28

Published in Print: September 16, 1998, as Preparation Is Key in Making the Most of Field Trips
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