Lucky me! I just checked off an item on my bucket list—a trip to Altun-Ha, a Mayan city in Belize. For the past couple of years, I’ve been reading about early American history. Actually walking through the ruins—and learning yet more from an incredible tour guide with Mayan roots—gave me even greater perspective and insight. Most importantly, it left me eager to study even more.
Returning to work here at Core Knowledge, I’ve been considering how to give students similar experiences. Certainly, most students are not going to take a trip to a Mayan, Aztec, Incan, or other early American site because they happen to be learning about it in school. Most are not even going to see less exotic places like the Statue of Liberty, Angel Island, the White House, or the Alamo before they graduate. (I graduated long ago and have still only seen one of those four!)
It’s important to realize, though, that every location—whether the farmlands of Nebraska or the urban epicenter of New York City—has historic and cultural experiences we can offer our students. Through careful choice, planning, and collaboration, we can give our students a sampling of such opportunities. A recent (in fact, the first major) study on the effects of field trips on students has shown what many have long taken for granted: field trips offer measureable learning benefits to students, including an increased retention of factual knowledge pertaining to their visit, developing understandings based on that knowledge, historical empathy, tolerance, and a higher interest in returning to museums. These effects, moreover, are generally much larger for students from less-advantaged backgrounds.
The significance of offering our students such cultural experiences is obvious, and yet the field trip is becoming less and less common in our schools. As the study documents, the trips that are happening are often not learning-based, “enrichment” trips, but “reward” trips to movie theaters, sporting events, and amusement parks that offer little educational value. With what small budget a school may have for field trips, it can make the most of those dollars—instructionally speaking—through careful planning: teaching students (and getting them excited) about the place in advance, visiting it to contextualize and deepen that knowledge, and then learning yet more about it after the trip.
I once worked for a historical society in Charlottesville, VA, where I would occasionally lead groups of youngsters from local elementary and middle schools through a particular exhibit in our museum or a place in our town. Wanting to create a meaningful experience, I sent teachers pre-visit materials containing (among other things) background information on the place, ideas, and/or people we’d be learning more about during their visit. When students arrived, I would pre-assess (through a lively conversation) to determine what they’d retained so far and tailor my presentation and activities (as much as I could) to their knowledge level. I even created “Students will be able to…” goals for the day and designed my plans around them. At the end of our day, I would tie what the class had just learned with what they already knew, and—whenever I had an enthusiastic teacher committed to following up—what they were going to be learning in the future. Occasionally, I’d even hear from teachers about how they discussed their museum trip later in the year to tie in another concept or figure.
By setting such outings in the context of larger learning goals, field trips don’t even need to take students to new or extraordinary places. I once led a group of fifth-graders to the Downtown Mall here in Charlottesville—a commercial space that most, if not all, had visited before. But by learning about the history of the pedestrian street, and then looking for and talking about specific, historic parts of the mall that the students would never notice on a normal visit, they saw it in a completely new way. Likewise, kindergarten students at Brevard Academy CFA recently visited an orchard to support the Plants and Farms domains in the Core Knowledge Language Arts program. Visiting a place that may have seemed ordinary to adults offered these little ones the opportunity to witness and better understand farm animals, how a farm works, and the lifecycle of an apple tree.
By giving students the proper framework for a field trip—even to a not-so-unusual place, students will get the maximum benefit from their trip: retention, understanding, empathy, and a desire to visit and understand other cultural institutions in the future. Certainly, my experience at Altun-Ha is a testament to this—without the same, now automatic framework for learning and exploration, I’d never have been compelled to sojourn there or so enjoy doing so.