The Value of Field Trips (March 2018)

Students studying outside in quadIn this month’s excerpt from Education Week’s field trip series, three experts discuss the importance of timing and relevance when it comes to providing explanations for what students are experiencing on a field trip.

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.


From Education Week, “Great Field Trips Expand the Mind,” by Larry Ferlazzo on December 14, 2016.

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