Teaching Opinion

The Disappearing Field Trip

By David Polochanin — March 25, 2008 5 min read
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Remember the adrenaline surge you had when you were told you’d be going on a field trip? That feeling seems to be happening less often for students these days.

In my home state of Connecticut, some school administrators report that field trips are virtually fading away. Among the reasons cited in a recent Hartford Courant article are a lack of funds for such extracurricular experiences, the high cost of fuel for transportation, and a hesitation to take groups of students into large cities and other public places.

But the reason that captured my attention and gave me pause was this: because the administrators feel pressured to have students perform better on standardized tests, and therefore can’t justify the time away from the classroom and the prescribed “curriculum.”

As someone who has taught for 10 years in two Connecticut suburbs, I’ve led students on many field trips. The purposes of these excursions have changed a bit, I’ve found, since I was in school in Connecticut. I remember, for example, going to Hartford’s Bushnell Park, the first publicly financed municipal park in the nation, for lunch. At Yale University’s Peabody Museum, my class got to look at dinosaur bones. And we watched seals do tricks at Boston’s New England Aquarium. In general, I think, we went to these places for no apparent reason other than to experience a new cultural opportunity. My memory about them is hazy, but I doubt that there was a significant school tie-in.

Mainly for reasons of accountability, school administrators demand that field trips have a curricular connection. ... But this can be taken too far.

Now, mainly for reasons of accountability, school administrators demand that field trips have a curricular connection, which, I submit, makes sense. But this can be taken too far, which seems to be what is happening in some school districts, particularly those in urban areas where field trips are falling under serious scrutiny. Classroom instructional time is deemed so critical in these places that spending a few hours at a meaningful theatrical performance, for instance, might be considered a waste of time.

Threats to field trips are not limited to Connecticut. Recent media reports indicate that districts in Charleston, S.C.; Hesperia, Calif.; Framingham, Mass.; and Corning, N.Y., among others, have either cut funding for field trips or are considering cuts.

“The biggest reason,” the interim superintendent of New York’s Corning-Painted Post Area School District told a television interviewer, “is probably the expectations relative to testing. We just can’t allow students to be out of the classroom for long periods of time anymore.”

Fewer field-trip opportunities are an awful thing for all students, but particularly for those children who could benefit most from a day at a museum or a playhouse. Before field-trip cuts become more widespread, it might be helpful for key education figures to stop and evaluate the learning styles of students. Here, as an aid, is my own simplified classification of students:

• Student A learns well sitting at a desk. He actually likes the confines of a classroom, reading books, writing essays, taking notes. He stays in for recess and enjoys a classroom’s cinder-block walls, fluorescent lights, and old, tile floors. He absorbs every word his teachers say.

• Student B tolerates the classroom, but she gets fidgety at a desk. She conforms, essentially, to the expectations of a public school—behaviorally and academically. But she needs varied instructional approaches. Experiences like field trips are highlights.

• Student C does not learn well in a classroom. For whatever reasons—learning disabilities, problems focusing, having other weaknesses and strengths—he is totally hands-on. He would get a lot more out of his education if, starting in 8th grade, he attended a traditional school for half a day, then spent the afternoon as an apprentice in various fields of work. He might shadow a carpenter, work on a farm, or intern at a hospital or a small business, like a restaurant or a bank.

The lack of field trips affects any of these groups, but particularly the latter two. They need more than a classroom can provide.

A school career devoid of cultural experiences such as field trips can have broad implications. In a 2006 interview, the Harvard University economist Ronald Ferguson pointed to “differences in life experience” as a key determining factor for learning gaps. “Achievement gaps are not facts of nature,” he said in the Harvard Education Letter. “We’ve got to figure out how to get all kids the kinds of experiences that really maximize access to middle-class skills. That’s the challenge.”

In my experience, magical things happen on field trips. As part of a storytelling unit I created using Norman Rockwell illustrations, my students have gone to the Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. Arriving on the museum’s bucolic grounds, I can sense the students’ excitement at the chance to see in person the iconic illustrator’s work. Once inside, docents escort them around in small groups, stopping at specific paintings to explain the ideas behind them.

Fewer field-trip opportunities are an awful thing for all students, but particularly for those children who could benefit most from a day at a museum or a playhouse.

On one trip, a group of my students gathered in front of “The Runaway,” a classic Rockwell scene in which a Massachusetts state trooper—in full uniform—is sitting beside a young boy, the so-called runaway, at the counter of a diner. We had discussed this print in class before the visit, so the children were familiar with it. One student was sitting cross-legged on the wood floor in front of the painting, locked into every word the docent said. This student did not always pay attention in class, and usually handed in work that was not exceptional. Yet when the docent asked questions, this student answered just about every time. If the answer wasn’t right, it was a good guess. I remember thinking, “How is this kid doing it?”

Later that day, we visited the summer home of Daniel Chester French, the famous artist who sculpted the Lincoln Memorial, also located in Stockbridge. After a tour of the artist’s studio, home, and the beautiful grounds, students boarded the bus. When I asked them to reflect on what they had learned, the most insightful comment came from someone who was usually a behavior problem back at school. On this day, though, and in this alternate setting, the student seemed almost compelled to learn, recalling fine details of information that the tour guide perhaps mentioned only once.

I feel fortunate to work in a district where such trips are valued. To the administrators, teachers, and parents in districts where standardized testing reigns, I would urge that they support a few meaningful trips outside the classroom each year. If paying for them is the problem, perhaps they could secure funding from outside sources, by forging relationships and applying for grants from local businesses, for example.

Field trips broaden students’ lives, provide them with valuable cultural experiences, and—who knows—perhaps give them a store of background knowledge for their next bubble-in test.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2008 edition of Education Week as The Disappearing Field Trip


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