Assessment Opinion

Against Field Day: Experiential Education Shouldn’t be a One Day Event

By John T. McCrann — June 21, 2016 4 min read
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I hate field day, but not for the reasons you might think.

I have no special animosity for three-legged racing or egg tossing. I do not believe that every school day should include reading, writing, and arithmetic &emdash; I think it can be very

helpful for everyone to take a few days off from this type of learning. I love being outside with students in all kinds of weather and especially cherish it on pretty days toward the end of the year.

I have been an experiential educator longer than I have been a math teacher, so the notion of spending school time in a “field” to do learning is one with which I am very comfortable. In fact, I think a field is a better place to learn most lessons than a classroom.

Yet, I hate field day.

It seems to me that what we call “field day” is a day that was created for students to “have fun” by going out to an outdoor space at the end of the year. Activities must include a) games of their choice or b) silly structured games or c) do some combination of a and b.

Adults, many of whom have the best intentions, justify this as a valuable use of school time (and taxpayer dollars) by claiming that this time can be used for “team building” or “experiential learning.”

I dislike field day because the traditional structure seems incompatible with real learning. I hate it because it segregates important “field” learning goals into a special day which makes it feel as if this kind of learning is less important than the other kinds of learning students do at school.

To be meaningful and worthwhile, “field experiences” should be coherent within students learning, thoughtfully planned, and provide opportunities for reflection and feedback.

Coherent. One need not be an expert on Wiggins and McTighe to figure out that dropping in a set of new skills for a day or two will not likely lead to a change in habits or orientations. Working as a team, discovering how to use one’s physical abilities to accomplish something meaningful, developing strategies...these are all complex tasks. If we are serious about teaching them in school (and I think we should be) we need to establish relevant and meaningful goals in these areas and backwards design a set of learning experiences that will lead students to real learning.

Thoughtful planning. Designing field experiences takes me at least twice as long to plan as classroom teaching. Coordinating travel, food, and other logistics (where are the bathrooms!) always requires a chunk of time. Additionally the kind of teaching that one must do in the field requires a facility and flexibility that is not necessary in a more structured place. As a classroom teacher, I can anticipate most of what will happen in a problem solving experience; whereas, in the field, the possibilities are almost limitless. Leaders need to have a plan A, plan B, plan C, and still be comfortable enough within each of those plans to respond to the environmental surprises such as a rain storm or a bee sting. Surely it is possible to build this depth of planning into “field day,” but the size of the group and the busy time of year in which it usually takes place limit teachers’ ability to effectively develop this kind of plan.

Reflection, assessment, and feedback. Regular readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of assessment (if not of testing). Field learning provides an incredible opportunity for authentic assessment, but the structure of most “field day” activities denies students the opportunity to give and receive such feedback. There’s a feedback loop built into the kinds of competition at field day. You run the three-legged relay and you win or lose. That’s a data point. Unfortunately, without some sort of debrief activity that prompts reflection and highlights effective and ineffective moves, students will likely not experience this as useful feedback. In fact, the great danger (which inevitably plays out in many field days) is that the experience will alienate some students from the outdoor environment and their own physicality (“we lost because I’m bad, I won’t do this again”).

Organizing a group to accomplish accomplish a goal. Working through conflict within a team or between two different teams. Figuring out how to use one’s own physical and mental strength to solve a problem. These are the beautiful, meaningful, and relevant learning goals that teachers and students can work towards “in the field.” Students can all get better at these things. Yet like anything we teach, students won’t progress toward mastery in these areas without coherence, planning, and feedback.

The problem with field day is that it is indicative of a school system that spends far too little time developing students’s capacities in these areas.

Photo 1: by vait_mcright https://pixabay.com/en/team-motivation-teamwork-together-386673/
Photo 2: by timmossholder https://pixabay.com/en/trees-field-nature-green-summer-1279452/

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