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Teaching Opinion

Response: Leveraging Field Trips to ‘Deepen Learning’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 12, 2016 19 min read
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(This post is Part Two in a three-part series. You can see Part One 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.

Today, Ron Berger, Camille A. Farrington, Gail Desler, Abby Schneiderjohn, and Mike Janatovich contribute their thoughts.

Response From Ron Berger

Ron Berger, a teacher for more than 25 years, is chief academic officer for EL Education and an author of several books including Learning That Lasts and Leaders of Their Own Learning:

When I was a kid I loved field trips. The promise of a day of adventure in the “real world"—not another day sitting at our deskswas as close as I was going to get to Disneyland. It hardly mattered where we were going and what we were doing: the possibility was exciting. The fact that these field trips were not leveraged to deepen our learning (in fact, they were often disconnected entirely from our studies) was not something that even occurred to me.

In second grade we visited a dairy farm. A real farm! We were not studying farms or cows, but there had been a story in our reading textbook about a dairy farm, and evidently this trip was a yearly tradition. We weren’t complaining. When our school bus arrived in front of a real red barn, we clambered down and boarded a miniature train with tiny, kid-sized seats and no roof, and we cheered as the train chugged its way past smelly pigpens and pastures of cows. It was only as an adult that I looked back and questioned this: a train on a dairy farm? (I guess hosting tours supplemented the small farm’s income). What we remembered most was the chocolate milk we got to drink at the end of the tour--from glass bottles!

Fieldwork instead of Field Trips

At EL Education we use the term fieldwork, rather than field trips. This is not just a semantic difference. Fieldwork is not sitting on a miniature train looking at sites, and it’s not just taking a tour of an historic home or walking through an aquarium. Fieldwork is what adult professionals do: research in the world. It may happen to take place in an historic home or an aquarium, but the students are not there as passive listeners. They are there to conduct research for their studies: taking notes, taking photos, interviewing experts.

An EL Education middle school in Cooperstown, New York, did their fieldwork on local dairy farms. It was very different from my second-grade field trip. As part of a year-long science/humanities learning expedition on agriculture, students studied the fundamental change in their community as the local economy shifted away from centuries of farming toward the tourist industry. They met and interviewed the local dairy farmers and worked in teams to visit their farms and learn in detail about their history and their current areas of success and challenge, from a farming perspective and business perspective.

The students created a book to share with the community to honor the farms and families that were the historical foundation of the local economy. They did scientific research on the farms to create a guide to the vertebrates and invertebrates that shared the farm ecosystems with the domestic animals. (The teacher leader of this expedition, Amy Parr, was chosen as New York State’s Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher of the Year for 2013). For students, this was a transformational educational experience.

What makes this type of fieldwork different from traditional field trips?

  • Students travel to places that are integral to what they are studying. The travel is not seen as a break or a reward but an opportunity for important learning.

  • Students have an important purposea missionfor every trip. They are collecting information to create something of quality and value to share with others.

  • Students are deeply prepared ahead of time with expertise in what they will be seeing and whom they will be meeting. They arrive excited to see in real life the things and people that they have learned about.

  • Students are actively engaged on site in interviewing experts and collecting information: taking notes, photos, videos, sample measurements. They are scientists and historians, not passive visitors. They are trained and prepared to collect information politely, effectively and wisely.

  • Students return to the classroom with a charge to use their data and the learning to create something meaningful. The fieldwork experience does not end when the bus returns to school: the class reflects on what they learned, how they behaved and worked together, and how they will make good use of the fieldwork in their work.

Going Deeper

A memorable example for me of the power of fieldwork was when it transformed a class of first graders at the Mary O. Pottenger Elementary School in Springfield, Massachusetts. The teacher, Chris Scibelli, was a talented veteran teacher who had a tradition of bringing her students on a field trip to Sturbridge Village as a part of a study of Colonial America. Sturbridge Village is a restored colonial village where craftspeople of all types demonstrate colonial trades as characters in period costume. Chris’s students always loved seeing blacksmiths, weavers and coopers in their workshops.

When Pottenger first joined the EL Education network, Chris was understandably skeptical about changing her practices. She was already a very successful teacher, and her routines and practices worked fine. She kept her skeptical eye but was willing to give this new approach a shot. With EL support, she redesigned her colonial study into a more full learning expedition which would culminate in her first graders creating a picture book for kindergartners: a “Then and Now Book of Colonial Life.” The book would have writing and student drawings to teach younger students about how daily life was different during colonial times.

That year her students took the usual trip to Sturbridge Village, and students were excited as always to meet the actors/craftspeople. This year, however, they had a different mission: they each had to choose a colonial craft or trade about which they would become an expert. One week later, the class returned to Sturbridge Village for a second trip, and this trip was entirely different: small groups of students, with a parent or teacher helper, spent the entire visit in one workshop, learning from one craftsperson, interviewing, taking notes (adults helped with note-taking), photographs, and samples as that craftsperson worked with visitors.

I visited the classroom when students were working intently on their book and was amazed by their knowledge. Every first grader knew more about a colonial trade or craft than I did. They were bursting with knowledge to explain, stories to tell, photos to share. They were truly little experts. While the unit on Colonial America had been successful in the past, this year it was a wholly different level of success. This was the power of fieldwork.

You can see what fieldwork looks like in a diverse urban school, King Middle School in Portland, Maine, in this video.

Fieldwork and Experts: The Branching Out Expedition at King Middle School from EL Education on Vimeo.

Response From Camille A. Farrington

Camille A. Farrington is a Senior Research Associate and Managing Director at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, where she studies how schools contribute to human development. Before earning her Ph.D. and becoming a member of the Mindset Scholars Network, she was a high school teacher for 15 years. She still loves going on field trips!

You became a teacher because you want to make a positive difference in your students’ lives, right? Well, field trips are wonderful opportunities to provide students with critical developmental experiences that have lasting impact, so design them for that purpose!

Last year, my colleagues and I at the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research scoured the literature and interviewed experts in neuroscience, education, and psychology to understand how young people develop the factors that matter most for life and work success. In Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework, we describe five ACTION experiences and five REFLECTION experiences that are as important for kindergarteners as they are for high school students. All are important to keep in mind as you design out-of-school adventures for your class.

The next time you take your students on a field trip, make sure you build in rich opportunities to: encounter new places, concepts, people, roles, and perspectives; tinker with things or ideas in a low-stress environment; practice behaviors or skills to build expertise and confidence; choose among options for how to engage or what to learn; and contribute to something they value.

These five ACTION experiences provide awesome opportunities for growth and development, but by themselves they aren’t enough. Students might run around a science museum pushing buttons or crowd around an incubator watching baby chicks hatch, but then leave without having really learned anything. That’s because, as John Dewey reminded us, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.”

To maximize the potential of field trips, intersperse action experiences with REFLECTION experiences. As much as they need to engage in doing, students also need opportunities to: describe their observations; evaluate strategies, behaviors, or solutions; connect their experience to other things they know or care about; envision how their experiences or discoveries might be helpful in the future or might apply in another context; and integrate what they’ve learned or done into the kind of person they might want to be.

Last spring I accompanied a group of high school students on a two-hour field trip, organized by Embarc Chicago, to a small business that sells fresh salads through vending machines. The students were greeted by employees who told them the salad company was debating whether to locate vending machines in Garfield Park, a low-income Chicago neighborhood. They asked students to help them conduct some research—and then distributed colored pencils, maps of Garfield Park, and lists of all the grocery stores, liquor stores, restaurants, and fast food places in the neighborhood. Students worked in small groups, marking the location of each business on their maps, then comparing Garfield Park to a map of the affluent Lincoln Park neighborhood with food places already colored in. Students then debated whether or not Garfield Park could be considered a “food desert,” using a definition provided by their teacher.

Next, the class broke into groups and rotated through opportunities to: interview company owners about their backgrounds and business plans; compete in pairs to see who could use a diagram to stock the vending machines most quickly, and then evaluate the strategies each team used; and to create and name their own salads, choosing from some 40 different ingredients. To close the visit, students ate their salads and reflected on what they learned—how it connected to other trips they had taken or other things they were studying. I was impressed that Embarc organizers included all 10 developmental experiences in two short hours!

Powerful field trips provide young people with opportunities to engage in meaningful activities and to make sense of those experiences—to actively build their story of how the world works and how they fit into it. Next time you bring your students into the field, use the developmental experiences framework as your planning guide!

Response From Gail Desler

Gail Desler is a technology integration specialist for the Elk Grove Unified School District in Elk Grove, Calif. She also serves on the advisory committee for the California K12 High Speed Network (K12HSN), a state program funded by the California Department of Education for the purpose of providing educators, students and staff across the state with access to the high speed network needed to videoconference. Beyond the school day, she co-curates the Digital ID Project, a global microphone for students to speak out on digital citizenship issues:

Whether it’s in preparation for, or as a follow-up to, or instead of a real-time field trip, videoconferencing is an amazing digital tool for maximizing the learning potential of field trips. I’ve been tapping into the power of videoconferencing for over 10 years, connecting students with authors, poets, soils engineers, astronauts, park rangers, other classrooms, and more. Yet for as unlimited as the possibilities for videoconferencing are, it is surprising how few educators are taking advantage of this technology.

Eleven years ago, I rented a district van and drove a group of students from a continuation high school over to California State University, Sacramento, so they could virtually meet with students from a continuation high near Santa Barbara. These two groups had already been blogging on the topic of a banned book: Luis Rodriguez‘ “Always Running, Gang Days in East L.A.” Minutes into the videoconference, Luis Rodriguez joined us from somewhere in Los Angeles. Weeks later, the students were still discussing and blogging about—when they didn’t have to—the virtual field trip, an experience that, given the distances, would not have been possible in real time.

Soon after the CSU Sacramento/UC Santa Barbara event, renting a bus or van was no longer necessary. By purchasing a Tandberg videoconferencing camera, I was able to bring videoconferencing directly into the classroom. Taking students on virtual field trips to California’s State Parks via the Parks Online Resources for Teachers and Students (PORTS), for instance, has increasingly become an integral part of the school day. As you can see from this videoconference on the life cycle of monarch butterflies or this videoconference to a California Gold Rush town, it’s a two-way flow of information, with students learning from the park rangers, but also becoming active researchers and investigators as they share their understandings and growing expertise on the topic.

Today, a (pricey) videoconferencing camera is a thing of the past. Using any device with a webcam, teachers and students can take virtual field trips with free programs such as Skype or Google Hangouts. A visit to NASA, PORTS, National Parks, Skype, or CILC will provide you with a glimpse into the many ways to prepare for, create, or extend field trip teaching and learning options.

Recently, a tech support person from my department shared that he had started out one very rainy morning at an elementary school site, helping the teacher set up a webcam for a videoconference with NASA. He noticed the level of student engagement and participation, and would have enjoyed staying for the full 40-minute session, but he had to get to another elementary site. He arrived at the next school in time to find four classes waiting in the rain for buses that were apparently delayed. He, of course, felt the need to suggest to the teachers, “You might want to look into taking virtual field trips. No buses, no permission slips, no hassles.”

It is wonderful to have the budget for real-time field trips. However, if we structure virtual field trips in ways that allow students to connect and collaborate with each other, as well as with the experts, then virtual field trips can certainly be the next best option—or sometimes even the better learning option.

Response From Abby Schneiderjohn

Abby Schneiderjohn (@aschneiderjohn) is an elementary school teacher in San Jose, CA. She is beginning her seventh year of teaching and implementing Project Based Learning this year. She is also a Buck Institute for Education National Faculty member:

When some hear the words “field trip,” they probably imagine uncomfortable bus rides, semi-organized chaos, frustrated chaperones, and logistical nightmares. When planned intentionally, a field trip becomes an authentic and rich learning experience for all students, and not just a reason to get out of the classroom for the day.

An engaging entry event is an integral part of planning a Project Based Learning unit. It hooks the learners, sparks curiosity, and launches inquiry. When using a field trip as an entry event, it provides the real life context needed for students to make connections from their work in the classroom to its implications in the real world.

Katherine Smith Elementary School second graders launched their “Kid Inventors” project with a trip to The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, Calif. They participated in a science lab, Physics of Roller Coasters, which had them test different laws of physics using an engineering design process. When students returned to the classroom, their Need to Know questions were rich with vocabulary that they learned during the field trip. The field trip gave them essential background knowledge and language that helped them access the PBL curriculum. Bringing the learning to life is especially important for our English Learners, as it gives students another opportunity to use academic vocabulary in context.

When planning an engaging field trip, there are some additions you can include to increase the rigor of the trip! One addition can be a note taking guide or scavenger hunt. This will help you as the teacher direct your students to look for certain things during the field trip. If possible, use technology such as iPads or tablets to have students take pictures and/or record their experience. You can even make it public by having students blog about the experience afterward!

When you hear the words “field trip” again, I hope you think of the rich, authentic learning experiences they can truly provide for our students!

Response From Mike Janatovich

Mike Janatovich is the assistant principal of Harmon Middle School in Aurora, Ohio, and an ASCD Emerging Leader:

The field trip is, in my opinion, one of the most important learning opportunities that students can experience in school. It is an opportunity for them to become immersed in something that will expand or solidify their learning. Within an educational setting, we must maximize the learning potential by allowing actual learning to take place. An “educational setting” is not just contained to the classroom. An educational setting should and must be all the areas of the world that students can access.

When I am on a field trip, I cringe when I see students carrying a clipboard with a worksheet that they have to complete on a field trip. To me, this is not learning. This can be done from home on a Google search. Wherever you are going, or whatever place you are visiting, we must let kids experience it. If we require every student to do the exact same thing on a field trip, are individual students really “experiencing” it? I fully understand having a focus on a field trip, but after that initial focus, we must let kids explore. Allow kids to think, discover, and experience wherever you might be visiting.

As educators we need to be prepared to recognize that all the intended “standards” might not be covered, but this is OK. If we allow student choice and are excited about something, I can guarantee you that students will learn. It will be up to us as educators to harness it. I once heard an educator say in the Smithsonian American History Museum, “Don’t go into that exhibit, that is a 9th grade standard”. How about let them experience that part of the museum that they find exciting and have them compare it to what they are learning in 8th grade? How about using social medial to allow students to document their experience? These are small things, but critical if we want kids to fully maximize their potential while exploring the world on a field trip.

Most field trips fall short when the field trip ends. Too often, field trips are seen a culmination or a reward at the end of a unit/year. When this happens, we cut the learning short. Upon returning from field trips there must be follow-up conversations. All students to share and discuss what they experience. To deeply cement learning, use the experience to create. Have students contact the designer of the monument, curator of the museum, naturalist at the park, or whoever plays a key role where you visited and have the students questions that were created after they visited. Even try to let this turn into a Skype call or a Google Hangout. Imagine your students experiencing something and then having the opportunity to discuss it on a deep level. Even if they do not respond, the act of formulating questions for a real audience will deeply motivate students.

Keep one question in mind in the entire field trip process (planning, visiting, follow up): Are my students experiencing the field trip? If you make your field trip an experience for students, learning will happen. Standards will be covered, and if they are not, the skills they learned will make students stronger critical thinkers that will allow them to dive deeper into all learning in the future.

Thanks to Ron, Camille, Gail, Abby, and Mike for their contributions!

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