You all probably remember them, those iconic experiences of heading out on a school day with your classmates and teacher to a local museum or art gallery to extend and enhance what was going on the in classroom…a field trip! And in the best of times, those field trips are memorable, often motivating learning beyond the school curriculum. Maybe one of those experiences even fueled your passion for a particular field of study.
But often, field trips are fraught with conflict. Are you heading out of the classroom to “do school” somewhere else? Is it a free day of fun with friends where the learning is incidental and accidental…if it happens at all? What role do teachers and museum personnel play in the field trip experience? What about chaperones? And what about students and their interests and passions?
Through Intersections—a project funded by the National Science Foundation through the National Writing Project and the Association of Science and Technology Centers—the San Diego Area Writing Project, in partnership with the San Diego Natural History Museum and the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center,has been exploring the conflicts and tensions surrounding field trips.
In our second year of investigating how to support student learning in the context of a field trip, we have learned a lot. Most significantly, we’ve learned the power of the interaction and co-learning of formal educators (those who work in school settings) and informal educators (those who work in out-of-school spaces like museums). We discovered that our goals for student learning are mostly the same, and through our interactions, we have reconsidered how we might achieve those goals. But first we had to let go of all that we have no control over–including exhibit layout and signage, field trip costs and transportation, and the uneven qualifications of chaperones, especially when it comes to facilitating student learning.
We’ve decided this year to focus on ways to support students as agents of their own learning, depending less on the adults who accompany them and trusting that a rich museum experience will result in meaningful learning–even when students do not complete worksheets that ensure they have learned specific facts or answered a series of questions delineated by grade level standards.
So we have asked teachers to prepare students for their trip by asking them to explore the exhibit, noting what interests them, and taking back interesting tidbits and lingering questions for further investigation through the creation of some kind of project back in the classroom following the trip. And to better understand how this works in action–with a variety of grade levels and school contexts–we are observing students in action through a series of field trip pilots.
Today we observed sixth graders in action. They came with a charge–to notice adaptations of plants and animals evident in the Coast to Cactus exhibit so they could create a project displaying their learning back at school next week.
We watched students looking closely, in conversation with each other as they observed live animals in the exhibit.
Students working alone, taking notes from the exhibit signage. And others in pairs and triads, some taking photos, others sketching, and some simply flipping buttons and spinning dials.
This student seems to be under surveillance by both the researcher and the stuffed deer as he takes notes from the informational placard.
Some students found cozy nooks to meet and write–like inside this Bambi airstream that is a part of the exhibit. While others took a bit of time away to see how many boys would fit inside the hollow tree trunk while a classmate looked on and snapped their photo!
And the questions linger. How much like school should a field trip be? Do students need to “on task” by completing forms, taking notes, answering questions… Or can they be talking to each other, turning dials, inventing their own competitions and games related to the exhibits, crawling through tunnels and squeezing into tree trunks…and still be learning? Do they need to “do” the museum, reading each sign, looking at each artifact from start to finish? Or is it okay to focus their time and attention on the areas that most pique their interests?
I’m interested in what these students will create when they head back to school. How will the visit to the museum influence their project? What will they remember most about this trip? Will they come back on their own, with their families? How would they use the museum if left to their own devices?
We are paying attention to the intersections of formal and informal learning, of writing and science…and of student interest driven inquiry and teacher/adult directed learning. And with each pilot field trip, I have more questions about supporting student learning as we work to help students initiate and shape their own learning using field trips as a tool.
How do you view the iconic field trip? How do you prepare your students/your own children for out-of-school learning experiences? What outcomes do you hope for when you think field trip? We’d love to hear about your thoughts and experiences!