Culture Trip

by EmmaEarnst
November 26th, 2013

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.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock)

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.


  1. Here is some initial research on field trips to museums:

    Comment by Jeremy Greene — November 26, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

  2. Sorry, had not read the link – which looked to me like a study, not a short opinion article in the NYT…

    Comment by Jeremy Greene — November 26, 2013 @ 12:22 pm

  3. Thanks, Jeremy. Your linked article does cite the study by Bowen, Greene, and Kisida ( as well as a deeper analysis than that in the NYT article (

    Comment by EmmaEarnst — November 26, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

  4. The Core knowledge Foundation should offer DVDs so the students can see the places that are discussed in the curriculum.

    Comment by David J. Krupp — November 26, 2013 @ 2:14 pm

  5. Great idea, David! We do offer flip books with images of many places in our CKLA program, which covers most of the topics in the Core Knowledge Sequence for preschool–grade 3. You can download those flip books for free here:

    Comment by EmmaEarnst — November 26, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

  6. I know how much field trips have meant to students I have taken in the past, and to my own children. The problem is that it gets harder and harder to take kids on field trips. Cost, medical requirements, and logistics make field trip planning very difficult. I will be reading the research as a way of reminding myself that all the work is worth it!

    Comment by Suezette — November 26, 2013 @ 3:30 pm

  7. Another great source of actual video footage of various sites is Mike Petrilli’s Netflix Academy: Mike has been working through the science, literature, and history topics in the Core Knowledge Sequence and has found fantastic videos available for relatively low-cost streaming through Netflix and Amazon.

    And an option for virtual field-tripping I recently encountered: Some historical and cultural sites are using Google Street View technology to give anyone an opportunity to view their sites. For example, Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest can be explored through this link: Other worldwide explorations can be undertaken using this site:

    Comment by EmmaEarnst — November 26, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

  8. There is also Google Lit Trips: (but sometimes this requires computer resources that might not be available)

    Comment by Suezette — November 26, 2013 @ 10:52 pm

  9. I think that the inability to count on appropriate behavior hurts field trips in some cases. Also, I’ve been to a number of museums, aquariums etc. just recently and most of the kids are just running around pushing buttons etc (at children’s museums or areas) without any understanding of what they’re doing. The teachers seemed to be almost completely uninvolved and there didn’t seem to be any clear objectives involved. That’s useless, as opposed to the example above. There’s also the efficiency concept (rather foreign to the ed world); they take lots of time and kids – particularly the younger and more disadvantaged ones – can hit the wall where they can’t take in any more info pretty quickly. I think that good use of the kind of resources mentioned above might actually be a better use of time in many cases.

    There are also very good travel/cultural programs on TV, which I expect can be bought for school use. I recently saw a program on southern France which included the famous cave paintings and many other sites of cultural/historical interest and one on the Eastern Orthodox church which included a visit (by hot air balloon, it’s so remove) to early Christian sites in eastern Turkey.

    Comment by momof4 — November 30, 2013 @ 5:15 pm

  10. While I understand some of the downfalls of field trips, I come from the standpoint that my ELLs need them in order to experience the culture of America. Even though some students can go to an amusement park or a movie any day they want, my students are not afforded these opportunities as much and should have the option of participating in these activities.
    For example, I chaperone a field trip to a local amusement park every year, and it is amazing to see the ELLs faces light up when they ride a roller coaster for the first time or see the diversity of cultures emerge in one place at the same time. If only there was a way to get those students who are privileged to look at these experiences in the same light as my students do!

    Comment by Lauren — January 20, 2014 @ 9:15 pm

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