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Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘Great Field Trips Expand the Mind’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 14, 2016 16 min read
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(This is the last post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can teachers maximize the learning potential of field trips?

In Part One, Jennifer Orr, Herb Broda, Anne Jenks, Russel Tarr and Andrew Miller shared their answers to this question. You can listen to a ten-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.

In Part Two, Ron Berger, Camille A. Farrington, Gail Desler, Abby Schneiderjohn, and Mike Janatovich contributed their thoughts.

Today, Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica M. Tsang, Kristen P. Blair, Otis Kriegel, Stephanie Smith Budhai, Faye Brenner, and Effuah Sam offer their suggestions. I also include comments from readers.

Response From Daniel L. Schwartz, Jessica M. Tsang & Kristen P. Blair

Daniel L. Schwartz, PhD, is the Dean of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education and holds the Nomellini-Olivier Chair in Educational Technology. He is an award-winning learning scientist, who also spent eight years teaching secondary school in Los Angeles and Kaltag, Alaska. Jessica M. Tsang, PhD, is a researcher and instructor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education who studies how to design instruction that naturally recruits students’ native capacities for learning and understanding. Kristen P. Blair, PhD, is a Senior Research Scholar and Instructor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education.

Schwartz, Tsang, and Blair are co-authors of The ABCs of How We Learn: 26 Scientifically-Proven Approaches, How They Work, and When to Use Them:

Great field trips expand the mind. We still remember a first-grade trip to an industrial bakery, then a bottling plant and our awe at the scale of these enterprises remains. It seems unnecessary to maximize further learning from field trips like these. Let them be what they are--compelling experiences that contribute to life’s enjoyments and accumulated memories.

On the other hand, field trips are expensive undertakings, and it makes sense to use the investment to promote academic learning. The trick is to let the field trip trade on what it does best--provide compelling experiences. Let school do what it does best--provide explanations. Trying to introduce explanations in the middle of a field trip is perilous business, because it can ruin the experience. Of course, if students ask questions, answer them. But don’t give answers to questions they haven’t asked. Save that for later.

A good goal is to use a field trip to prepare students for future learning when back at school. The explanation of how cosmic rays can pass through solid matter is pretty abstract, but not if you have been to the exhibit at the New York Hall of Science that cleverly demonstrates cosmic rays passing through your own hands.

In practice, there are two key things to remember. First, the explanation needs to match the experience. Imagine students hear an orchestra perform Beethoven’s Fifth. A subsequent lesson on Beethoven’s life would be a mismatch, because that is not what students’ experienced. A better match would be an explanation of how the music moved the students’ feelings during the concert.

Second, students need to have the relevant experience during the field trip. In the San Francisco Exploratorium, there are hundreds of exhibits and kids run from one to another. In one exhibit, there is a huge telescope mirror resting on a stand. People’s reflection in the mirror is crisper than looking at the person directly. You have to see it to believe it. The same is true for students. If they don’t have the experience, then the explanation of how it works won’t be very interesting. One simple solution is to start or end a field trip with a shared experience (a visit to the telescope mirror). That way, you know you can count on the experience later in class.

Response From Otis Kriegel

Otis Kriegel is the author of Starting School Right: How do I plan for a successful first week in my classroom? (ASCD). Kriegel has taught elementary and middle school students for 15 years. He has taught in dual language (Spanish/English and German/English), monolingual, and integrated coteaching classrooms. Connect with him on Twitter @mynameisotis:

How many checklists can I make? It seems that there are a million details to cover before leaving the classroom on a field trip. From checking with the venue to be sure they know we are coming to checking the weather or knowing where bathrooms are en route in case an emergency pit stop is needed (yes, it happens), the list is long.

Whether the field trip is meant to introduce something new, inspire further interest in the current unit of study or review what has just been completed, I like to do a few things before we leave for the excursion to maximize the potential of the field trip.

Review what they will see

Discuss in class why you are going on the field trip. If you are taking your class to the Natural History Museum to see the Earthquake and Plate Tectonics exhibition, tell them that. They might think they are going there to look at the dinosaur skeletons. Then explain why, i.e., “We are going to visit the Earthquake and Plate Tectonics exhibition to complete our science unit about earthquakes and our study of the Earth.” Or better yet, ask the why they think they are going on the field trip.

Develop Questions

Create a list of questions, focused upon what they don’t know and would like to learn on the trip, as a group before you leave. Students can write questions they find important in their notebook or, if you are interviewing someone, such as a judge, politician, or firefighter,, write all of the questions on a piece of chart paper and bring it along. Kids can look at it during the interview and use each other’s questions.

When I took my 5th grade class to interview a former US Senator as a part of our study of US Government, my students were understandably intimidated. We watched videos about the senator, learned that he had run for president, fought in wars and had been a very effective politician for a number of years. All of these accomplishments made him a threatening figure to my 10 and 11 year-olds. By bringing the chart paper filled with their questions, they felt more comfortable. The senator even took a peek at the questions beforehand and said, “Wow. Impressive. I’m happy I prepared!”

Give them something to do

Whether going to a museum or the zoo, give your students something to do other than look. A worksheet or treasure hunt to inspire them to think and explore is always worth your time. Sometimes the venue will provide reflective activities after a tour and other times you must create them on your own. Extra projects enhance the transfer of information and help students to reflect upon what was learned when you get back to class.


Which leads to my last tip. Take time in class for students to express what they learned, what inspired them, and what they did or did not like. You are taking a field trip to enhance what you are doing in class. Take the time to transfer that information from the outside of school experience back to the classroom. And don’t forget to ask what they learned/saw/experienced that was a complete surprise and perhaps had nothing to do with the course of study.

Response From Stephanie Smith Budhai

Stephanie Smith Budhai is co-author of Teaching the 4Cs with Technology: How do I use 21st century tools to teach 21st century skills?(ASCD), along with Laura Taddei. She is an assistant professor and director of graduate education at Neumann University, holding a PhD in Learning Technologies and certification as a K-12 Instructional Technology Specialist from the Pennsylvania Department of Education:

Field trips can be overwhelming for teachers who must organize and constantly count heads to ensure that no one is lost. There is much planning and logical preparation that must be considered before embarking on a field trip.

The safety of students being off-campus and the maintenance of an acceptable adult to student ratio will have to be met and will be different depending on the age of students, their general behaviors, and field trip environment. Cost is also an area that must be considered as well as transportation.

Even with all of this, field trips provide authentic, hands-on, experiential learning opportunities where students can connect what they are learning in classroom, in a real-world context. Field trips should be used to extend learning beyond the classroom walls and provide practice. The best way to maximize the potential learning field trips is to embed the trip into the lesson or unit plan from the very beginning. A field trip cannot be an afterthought or something that needs to happen to meet the field trip requirement for the school. Field trips must be woven into the fabric of the lesson and academic content.

To truly maximize the learning potential of field trips, teachers should include several pre-field trip learning activities in class that lead up to the actual field trip experience. While on the field trip, teachers should take advantage of connecting course content with students and reinforcing previously learned concepts. Learning is enhanced when teachers create opportunities for students to reflect on the experience and draw meaning that is relevant to the learning objectives of the unit that are engaging with.

Remember, field trips should be “fun” experiences for students, but they should also be meaningful and used as a pedagogical tool to help students develop their understanding of content and concepts related to in-class academic work. Keeping these things in mind will lead to learning that is maximized, used purposefully, and provide rich contextual learning experiences for students and teachers through field trips.

Response From Faye Brenner

Faye Brenner is the author of Transforming Student Travel: A Resource Guide for Educators. As a student tour director, her work is greatly informed by her experience as a teacher and IB coordinator as well as several summers in residential camping. Her website offers free site guides for teachers and student tour guides: www.transformingstudenttravel.com:

A field trip, like the classroom experience, must be student-centered and inquiry-based. We can maximize the educational value of field trips by slowing down the experience and, in doing so, helping the students see with new eyes. Educational research supports the fact that students learn by doing and that not all students learn in the same way; therefore, the field trip experience should reflect the various ways of learning. It must be interactive, and not didactic.

The field trip experience should give students the opportunity to reflect and react; they can:

* sketch what they see

* write poetry based on their experience

* keep a guided journal

* role-play history

* recreate a scene from a piece of art.

Imagine students on a school trip to Washington, D.C., experiencing its iconic memorials. When they get back to the classroom the students work in groups to create their own memorial, share its purpose and design with the rest of the class, and together they vote on a “new” memorial to add to the landscape. Students are engaged in a cross-curricular activity, writing a proposal and description, creating a piece of art, and discussing social issues.

The use of social media on field trips can be controversial, but, when used with purpose, it can enhance the educational experience, allowing students to reflect on their experience. For example, teachers can create an Instagram account for their field trip, and students can add photos and captions. On a visit to a history museum students can choose one artifact that they believe played an essential role in history and upload it with a caption explaining its significance. Back on the bus, students can share their post with their seat partners. Ask the students to share what they learned from their partners.

Most museums and historic places offer teachers excellent resources that can be accessed before and after the field trip; teachers should take advantage of those educational resources. Many sites also offer virtual tours that educators can use with their students to preview the visit or as a follow-up to the experience; these virtual tours are also a great way that students who may not be able to participate to have their own virtual field trip.

As we do in the classroom, share the objectives and the expected outcomes with the students. Give the field trip a specific focus: rather than a tour of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, explore social change through art.

Finally, slow down. Proust suggests: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” We don’t need to see everything, and, as a result, see nothing. Explore two memorials in depth and compare their purpose and how they communicate that to us. Give students time to interact with one exhibit rather than attempting to see them all. Ask the students what they learned and how they know. Ask them to see with “new eyes.”

Response From Effuah Sam

Mrs. Effuah Sam has 15 plus years knowledge and experience in the education field at the university, high school and middle school levels. Sam currently serves as a Theatre Arts educator. In addition, she works on building strong teams and has formed several community partnerships centered on the performing arts and engaging youth for social change. With training in speech communication, theatre, and educational technology; she believes education is one of the greatest vehicles for change in our global times:

Here are a few suggestions for Maximizing the learning potential of artistic field trips:

a. What is Etiquette?: Have lengthy discussions about the expectations for the venue and/or educational journey. What are the rules and/or etiquette for the establishment? As you eat at the dinner table, what should you do and not do? When we go here, we will do ‘x,y,z.’ Be very clear and provide information in letters home and through communication pieces to parents/guardians. Talk about copyright, piracy and what is means to be an artist and who owns the artistic work; per item ‘c’ below, talk about photography/videography and policies of the venue.

b. The Educational Journey (Not Just a Trip- Learn Something): Explore and preview what is to be experienced through writing, reading, pictures, and reenactment/clips, but limit it. As one should consider what will be authentic and magical when you take out the “surprise.” If there is critical background to know for understanding, interpretation, and/or greater appreciation, by all means share! But, you want the critic (verbal, written) and evaluation process in follow-up to be authentic and not shaped by prior review materials.

c. Enjoying Art/Artistic Appreciation: Allow students to enjoy the experience fully. Where handouts, pamphlets, playbills, and other ancillaries can be obtained. try to acquire them as keepsakes, scrapbook art, and further instructional materials for a later date. Group shots boarding the bus, at the venue, prior to the artistic viewing, and following should be allowed to capture moments- but, be mindful of camera/videography policies and adhere to them.

d. Valuing Artistically: Following the educational journey, connect to your subject area and that of others. How does this experience relate and what are the “take a ways”? What did they learn about themselves, others, and the art form explored in the trip? What will they do differently based on this experience? Critique and evaluate the artistic work- what might they change, keep, or do differently? Recreate aspects of the experience in your room (i.e., rewrite the play, play pieces of the music-faster, slower, draw their interpretation of one of the works, act out a scene with a different ending/characters, etc.).

e. Thank You’s Continue Art Journeys: Show appreciation and gratitude to those who made the trip possible. Have students write or create tokens of appreciation. Explain the coordination process and/or all that went into the experience. Prior to the trip tell students to thank the transportation providers when boarding and/or exiting the vehicle(s). Follow-up personally in order that the venue knows what you did prior and/or after the experience and what the trip meant for your students; this may be the ticket for continued access to this venue/facility for similar experiences. Those who support the arts and those who provide such experiences often need the documentation for continued sponsorship and grant based funding and some may even ask or need a survey or two filled out.

Responses From Readers

John Norton, from the excellent Middleweb blog, offered these suggestions:

Middle Grades Kids Need Field Trips by Mike Janatovich

6 Tips To Boost Learning On Class Field Trips by Amanda Wall

4 Fun Virtual Field Trips To Try This Winter by Billy Krakower, Jerry Blumengarten, and Paula Naugle

Candace Lutzow-Felli:

One recommendation is to stop thinking about and referring to these out-of-the-classroom experiences as “field trips”. Refer to them and make them “field experiences” or “field investigations”. Field experiences/investigations are more valuable when they are designed to be extensions of what is being taught in the classroom.

Are you teaching about the importance of primary and secondary resources in social science class? Then, take students to an historic site and provide them with the resources to assess why a particular site is or should be historic.

Are you teaching about sound? Download an app that measures decibels and take students to a location that has various sound levels and record the decibels. Discuss how we can improve the design of our outdoor spaces to reduce noise pollution.

Observation, exploration, questioning, and seeking answers: this is the best way to increase the value of filed experiences.

Thanks to Daniel, Jessica, Kristen, Otis, Stehapnie, Faye and Effuah, and to readers, for their contributions!

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