Opinion Blog

Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Field Trips Are Powerful Learning Experiences’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 10, 2016 14 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This post is Part One in a three-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can teachers maximize the learning potential of field trips?

Field trips are often the highlights of the year for students. At the same time, these field trips can be some of the most stressful days for teachers—not to mention all the paperwork hassles involved in planning them. Given that students love them and that teachers have to spend so much time into making them happen, how can we maximize their learning benefits?

Today, Jennifer Orr, Herb Broda, Anne Jenks, Russel Tarr, and Andrew Miller share their answers to this question. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Jennifer, Herb and Anne on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

I’ve compiled some of the pieces I and others have written about using “real” and virtual field trips at The Best Resources For Organizing & Maximizing Field Trips - Both “Real” & “Virtual.”

Response From Jennifer Orr

Jennifer Orr teaches kindergartners at a public, Title I school in the suburbs of Washington. She is an ASCD Emerging Leader, blogs at jenorr.com, and is @jenorr on twitter. She feels lucky to have a job she loves:

Field trips are powerful learning experiences but it is easy for them to pass quickly. Maximizing the learning requires thoughtful work done before and after the trip. Prior to the field trip, time must be allotted to get students interested and excited and to build some schema for the location and content to be explored. This can be done through watching videos, looking at maps and photographs and reading about the location. Collecting students’ questions about the trip, location, and content will also help increase interest in the trip.

During the field trip a variety of strategies will help students hold on to their excitement, curiosity, and learning. The list of questions collected before the trip is one tool. Carry the list with you, in a smaller format most likely, and reference it as possible answers or connections to the questions come up. Depending on the age of students, each one could be in charge of some of the questions throughout the trip. Another tool that can greatly enhance the field trip experience is a camera. Having students take photographs or video during the trip gives them a focus and offers resources to use after the trip. If students do not have their own cameras or phones for this purpose, small digital cameras can be attached to lanyards and shared throughout the trip. Again, students can be assigned specific tasks for capturing or can be free to see what interests them.

After the trip is the most crucial time to ensure learning is maximized. It’s easy to feel rushed to move on to other content or focus after a trip, but slowing down and spending time on the learning from the trip will ensure it was a worthwhile experience. If there are photos or video from the trip students can use them to create artifacts about their learning (videos, scrapbooks, nonfiction writing). Students can write thank you notes to people at the field trip location, to individuals in the school or district that may have helped with funding, or to chaperones who supported the trip. These thank you notes should include specific details from the trip. Throughout the year connections to the field trip should be made when possible as the concrete experience will support future learning.

Field trips can be expensive, complicated, and time-consuming, but with thoughtfulness and time they can be some of the most powerful learning experiences available for students.

Response From Herb Broda

Herb Broda is an emeritus professor of education at Ashland University. His books, Schoolyard-Enhanced Learning and Moving the Classroom Outdoors (Stenhouse Publishers), reflect Herb’s passion for helping teachers see ways to use the schoolyard as a teaching tool:

Field trips are still one of the best ways to provide concrete examples of abstract concepts. They are effective at all grade levels and in every content area. Since shrinking budgets have reduced field trip opportunities, it’s critical to maximize the experience. Here are a few thoughts to consider:

Pre-trip considerations...

  • The curriculum should drive the field trip location. Maximum learning occurs when a field trip reinforces prior instruction or introduces content that will be expanded soon after the visit.
  • Most historic sites, nature centers and museums have pre-visit materials adapted to different grade ranges. Check these out as you plan a visit. Some sites have beautifully crafted, grade-specific sessions, while others may have more generic “school group” presentations that need to be adapted for maximum learning.
  • If you are going to hike at a public park or other outdoor location that is not staffed, be sure to visit the site within a week of your visit. It’s possible that your favorite trail may be closed, littered with undesirable items, or storm damaged.
  • Show your class pictures of the field trip site. Pictures clarify the purpose of the visit and create a comfort level for students. Many sites offer virtual tours to build interest.
  • Prepare your chaperones! The reality is that chaperones can cause problems as well as provide help. Simple tips like don’t use phones, be enthusiastic about the topic and engage with the group may sound unnecessary, but parents appreciate clear direction when placed in a somewhat unfamiliar role.

At the site/during the trip...

  • Try to keep travel time short. The park fifty miles away may offer a few more amenities than the one twenty miles down the road, but is it really worth the extra travel time? That time could be spent doing a few more activities.
  • If the ride was lengthy, plan a movement activity soon after you get off the bus. A few brief stretching exercises will release a little energy and make it it easier to focus on a tour or presentation.
  • Have small groups pre-arranged. You know best what personality mixes should be avoided!
  • Review behavior expectations before the activities begin. Site staff will also go over their rules, but duplication is reinforcing. It also is a comfort to the program leaders!
  • Before you leave, have two or three student representatives thank site leaders on behalf of the class. A personalized gesture like that means so much to frenzied staff who see a blur of young faces every day.

After the trip...

Often the default post trip activity is simply a discussion of “who liked what”. It’s important to find out what made the biggest impression, but stopping there misses the rich curricular connections and concrete examples that make the trip educational.

Effective post trip activities provide the opportunity to reinforce content, expand content, or use the content to explore in new directions. Based on the nature of your trip, consider:

  • Writing activities that capture key learning
  • Webquests relating to the topic of the trip (student or teacher designed)
  • Follow-up experiments for science related trips
  • Concept mapping
  • Project-based learning
  • Independent research

Field trips provide rich exposure to environments and vibrant locations that reinforce what students learn in classrooms. The abstract comes alive through concrete experience!

Response From Anne Jenks

Anne Jenks is the principal of the McKinna Elementary School in Oxnard, Calif. She is a Leading Edge Certified Teacher and the 2015 CUE Site Leader of the Year:

Field trips are a wonderful way to provide enrichment, frontload content and expose students to learning opportunities that they might not otherwise experience. They offer students a chance to connect to real life examples of concepts they are studying and concretize ideas that may be abstract. In order to optimize the learning that field trips provide, it’s important to plan carefully and include activities that make students interactive learners.

When you are planning a field trip, be sure to find out if exhibits or other information currently being presented connect directly to subject matter that you are studying. Do some work ahead of time and prepare a scavenger hunt for things that you want to insure students will see during the trip. If students have access to a camera or device with a camera, have them take pictures of these things to be shared later during class, with parents and on your website or blog. Also, be sure to include a journal writing exercise where students can answer specific questions that you provide and also reflect on their thoughts as they go through the museum. These can be used to form the basis for a presentation that they will do in class.

Don’t have the money to take a field trip? Virtual field trips can be very powerful learning tools and many are free. They provide opportunities to travel to places and experience things that would have been impossible before the Internet. Many museums, libraries, state park systems, and other places of interest are available if you have a computer or iPad. A great way to find out about these opportunities is through Skype in the Classroom. The Skype field trips connect students with experts all over the world. PORTS (Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students) is a great resource from the California State Parks system that allows students to visit state parks and interact with park rangers who collaborate with teachers to create lessons. Just searching for “Virtual Field Trips” in Google will reveal a host of possibilities from museum trips to a self-guided tour of the White House. The ability to search for trips outside of their geographic area, allows teachers to provide exciting experiences that target specific curricular needs.

Whether you choose traditional or virtual field trips, planning ahead will make the experience more meaningful and increase the learning potential for all students.

Response From Russel Tarr

Russel Tarr is head of history at the International School of Toulouse in France. He is also the author of ActiveHistory and ClassTools.net and organizes thePractical Pedagogies Conference:

Educational field trips are some of the most memorable and enriching educational events that students will experience in their school careers, and do not have to cost an immense amount in terms of time and money. One of my favorite field trips in this respect is the local knowledge “Scavenger Hunt” which I help to organise right at the start of the academic year for students starting the IB programme here at the International School of Toulouse. This is a superb ‘team building’ exercise, especially important when new students might be joining the school, and it additionally provides a healthy dose of local knowledge that students are unlikely to be familiar with. Such field trips also have tremendous potential for cross-curricular links, regardless of the area in which you live, and are also remarkably easy to set up.

Simply put, on the very first day of the new academic year, all of the Year 12 students take a coach trip to the center of the city. When they disembark, students are divided into groups of 3-5 people and each team is given a ‘mission sheet’ consisting of a series of questions and challenges that can be answered by visiting different places hinted at in various clues. For example, the first challenge is “Go to the gardens nearby which are named after a famous French Resistance leader from World War”. Once they arrive there, they answer a factual question relating to the place in question (‘Find a monument dedicated to a local mayor assassinated in 1914. Explain why he was killed’).

From this point, the ‘proceed to a place’ format can be repeated indefinitely: I used Google Maps to identify 10 key places around the city within walking distance, and then created a series of questions which guides them through clues from one place to another (“Proceed through the gardens till you reach a road named after the province regained by France at the end of World War One. Head West until you reach a square named after England’s patron saint” - and so on).

A final crucial ingredient is to provide a strict time limit. Teams must hand their completed sheets back to their quizmaster at the designated location before a specified time (so that we can all get on the coach on time, as much as anything else!). Failure to do so incurs a heavy penalty or even disqualification. In this way, an element of urgency is built into the event. There is always one teacher based at a central location in case students need to locate them urgently, and we also provide each group with the school mobile phone number.

One final tip for when you plan your own local scavenger hunt: it is not helpful to have all the teams following each other around in one large clump. Therefore, design the route in a broadly circular format consisting of several mystery locations (e.g. “Location A” through to “Location F”). Then, give each team a slip of paper which gives the actual name of a different particular place in the mission, and the question that it corresponds to in their activity pack. Each team then proceeds to its nominated location and works through the questions from that point forwards. In this way, all the students rotate through the locations independently and the chance of them following each other around is minimised. It also ensures that all of the key locations will be visited by at least one team, which is important for the class debrief when students return.

Response From Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller (@betamiller) is an instructional coach and educational consultant who focuses on project-based learning, assessment and student engagement. He is on the faculty for both ASCD and the Buck Institute for Education. He is the author Freedom to Fail and also writes regularly for Edutopia and ASCD:

Often, field trips occur near or at the end of a learning experience or unit. For example we might learn about salmon and the life cycle of the salmon, and then we go to the salmon hatchery to see the real life connection to the learning. While this can be a useful way to use field trips, we can use fields trips in more innovative ways. Since students are often excited about field trips, why not use it to launch the inquiry. Field trips can create wonder and excitement for learning, and so educators should leverage field trips as a tool to launch questions and research. Imagine, you go to the zoo and see all the amazing animals. You come back to the classroom and your teacher shares that you will be learning more in depth about animals. Immediately you have questions, and your teacher uses these questions to create student-centered inquiry.

Another great use of field trips is to use it to feed the inquiry. After students have asked questions and learned a bit, teachers can use the field trip to answer further questions and generate new ones. I experienced this myself as learner. In a project that explored immigration and the themes of barriers and opening doors, we looked at photos from Angel Island in California. We students had some many questions. After generating these questions, we were lucky enough to take a field trip to Angel Island and do on-site fieldwork to find answers to our questions. In addition, we came up of with new questions on the spot we wanted to explore once we returned to the classroom. These are just two innovative ways teachers can use field trips for learning. Ultimately field trips can be used to not only answer questions, but also create them.

Thanks to Jennifer, Herb, Anne, Russel and Andrew for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Anyone whose question is selected for this weekly column can choose one free book from a number of education publishers.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog—along with new material—in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder—you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And, if you missed any of the highlights from the first five years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. They don’t include ones from this current year, but you can find them by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q & A Posts!

Classroom Management Advice

Student Motivation & Social Emotional Learning

Implementing The Common Core

Race & Gender Challenges

Best Ways To Begin & End The School Year

Brain-Based Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Project-Based Learning

Using Tech In The Classroom

Parent Engagement In Schools

Teaching English Language Learners

Student Assessment

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues

Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Professional Development

Teacher Leadership

Administrator Leadership

Relationships In Schools

Instructional Strategies

Author Interviews

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributers to this column.

Look for Part Two in a few days...

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.