Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

09.17.13On Field Trips (and a fascinating study in Educationnext)–Updated

STL-ZooA great article and analysis of field trips in the outstanding education journal EducatinNext this morning.  It describes a study in which authors Greene, Kisida and Bowen set out to assess whether field trips had a measurable effect on student learning.  First of all, I love the idea of trying to measure the learning value of field trips–what a challenging thing to measure, but smart people it turns out can build compelling measures of complex and nuanced things, a fact that makes headway against the “you can never measure what we do” trope that infects education circles. We may not be able to measure it perfectly but we sure can measure enough of it to gain some useful understanding of it and in so doing build a culture of self-assessment and self-awareness.  Fields that have that sort of culture grow quickly in the value they create in their work and in their prestige; they get better quickly and earn respect for the work by being serious about their study of it.  Those fields are also really hard to measure, by the way, but they are not as convinced of their own immeasurable exceptionalism as are sectors of the education world.

In many ways the process the authors undertook here is typical of the endeavor of measurement.  Of COURSE the measurement is imperfect; of course there are benefits you can never measure to field trips; of course there are things the data does not reveal or reveals in a way that only raises more questions, but trying to define what it is that we think kids get out of the event and thinking about what sorts of effects we might see if it were true that those benefits were accruing and not being afraid to submit a thing we love to assessment out of fear the data won’t instantly show us what we want is a worthy intellectual exercise. As is designing assessments to capture some of the proposed value–designing effective assessments being among the important skills that educators must develop to be highly effective, even if we rarely talk about it.

But beyond my loving the study as a measurement endeavor I was happy to see evidence–imperfect, true, but useful still–that field trips boost learning (I love taking kids on quality field trips). Even more importantly, I was happy to be compelled by the discussion and analysis of what was measured–the power of students’ memories and analysis of the paintings.

That said after reading the study I had some additional thoughts about how to take the initial research a little farther.

Here are some important questions we could be asking now that our hunch that field trips can be highly valuable has been supported by some research:

  • What kinds of field trips are most valuable?
  • What actions taken during or before the field trips make them valuable?
  • What can we learn from the value of field trips that we can apply to the classroom and other settings?

“Field trip” can mean a lot of things.  This was a field trip to an art museum, a place that exposed students to 1) content that improved their background knowledge and 2) was important and valuable in the larger national discourse.   Seeing a painting by Romare Bearden and a painting of Rosie the Riviter (by Normal Rockwell) exposes students to powerful and memorable images that tell the story of our country and its people in a text (I think of paintings as texts) that thousands of others have seen and have reflected on.  The assessed field trip was not “content light” but “content rich.”  The high academic expectations are implicit.  So often we assume that students will be bored by great art or history and that we need to entertain them on field trips.  Even our museums often assume this–the “children’s” sections offer hands-on activities of reduced rigor and expectations. They pander when in fact students are often ready to think about the reasons why things are in museums in the first place.  At the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam my own kids quickly returned the “kid’s” audio tour headsets and asked for the adult version–they were much more interested in the real story with details and history and mature analysis.

If we approach field trips by making them content rich and infusing them with high expectations, they are even stronger as learning experiences.  You might prepare by teaching a bit about what kids will see in advance and having students plan questions to ask. My colleague Stacey Shells is the master of this.  A student of hers once asked the sculptor Albert Paley on a field trip to his studio, “How do you think your presentation of animals here is different from what you did in the gates to the St. Louis Zoo?” (Stacey had shown students picture of the artist’s work before the field trip to prepare them and made them practice writing questions to ask him if they got the chance).  Yes, I believe the artist was blown away. But think also of the power of that experience for the student–to be rewarded, respected and admired by adult society for his learning and knowledge.  By the way, Stacey’s choice of field trip destination–an artists studio; the place where creation happens–was also inspired.  (PS She only took a small group; intimate small group field trips often stress depth, specialness and accountability.)

Thinking about the lesson plan for a field trip is another way to make the experience more valuable.  “Going” is great; maximizing the benefit of what we’ll do when we are there is greater.  Will we just look? If so at what and why? Will we have questions to answer? If so how?  Will we write? Will we track the answers to mystery questions? Look for a list of important and hard to find items within paintings?

I take my own kids to museums as often as I can and was struck by how well my mom did this at a family field trip over the weekend.  My parents came to visit and we took my kids to an art museum–the Arkell, by the way, a small but superb museum in the tiny town of Canajoharie, NY that I highly recommend.  My mom brought a pad of paper and set my littlest (who’s 5) to work looking for things–in one room it was all the animals she could find.  Then they started talking about what the animals were doing and soon my five year old was thinking about why the artists had included animals in their paintings.  With my older kids we spent time in one room looking at “ways of painting”–comparing the million-dots theory of painting distant landscapes to tiny smooth brush-strokes to great thick swaths of paint used to create the illusion of deep and slushy snow.  In another room we played “guess what year it was painted.” My kids had a ball trying to find things that gave away the time period–my son observing in one painting of the Brooklyn Bridge that distant boats in the river had masts for sails but were not using them–there must be some alternative source of power.  In another room, featuring Whistler’s etchings, we used a phrase in the display that said he “changed the perception of etching” by comparing what he chose as his topic to what he might have chosen–my daughter and I talked about why there was laundry hanging off a bridge in his etching of Venice and how was that different from what a typical artist would do (i.e. idealize Venice and remove the messy peasantry). As I hope is obvious, all of these ideas were stolen from watching teachers take kids on field trips of rigor that communicated both excitement and high expectations, and I happily used them with my kids.

In other words, all field trips are not created equal. The ones measured here had many of the elements of success: rich rigorous content and probably careful presentation, but there are of course more ways to add value to field trips and we should be thinking of our field trips as lessons, worthy of careful planning and execution and follow-up.  And hopefully that can remind us of the power of content and content knowledge when we’re back at school.

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