The announcement of a field trip was always met with great fanfare at my elementary school. Field trips brought an excitement unrivalled by any other day of the year (except, of course, for birthdays and holidays) and everyone looked forward to them. Teachers and parents would chat energetically over steaming cups of coffee as they ushered students onto the bus. The bus itself would be abuzz with anticipation, filled with the sound of gossip, laughter, songs and games.
It almost didn’t matter where we were heading. Just being out of the classroom was enough. Everything seemed more engaging beyond the boundaries of school. Unfettered by walls and desks, learning was less onerous.
The best field trip I can remember was to a waste and recycling facility two hours from school. It was for a geography topic that none of us found particularly riveting in the classroom. But standing on a walkway in the huge plant in fluorescent vests and hard hats, watching thousands of plastic bottles being devoured by heavy machinery, somehow it was fascinating.
Everything we’d learned in the classroom ceased to be abstract information. Suddenly it was all real, concrete and relevant (and did I mention we got to dress up in hard hats?). It was a win-win situation: the teachers’ lessons were getting through, the students were engaged, and everyone got to spend a day outside the classroom.
Field trips can be very effective educational tools. One recent study found that students visiting the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas displayed excellent recollection, stronger critical thinking and greater historical empathy and tolerance after their field trip. Students were also more likely to go on to visit other art museums. These benefits were especially pronounced in disadvantaged and rural school groups.
So it’s a little disappointing to learn that in the United States, field trips are on the decline. It’s not just a financial issue, although that does play a significant role: research shows that there’s also been a shift from “enrichment” trips (such as to museums and galleries) toward “reward” trips (movies, amusement parks) which are offered as prizes for good results.
While rewarding students for hard work is important, it’s also important to remember that education isn’t solely about study and exam results. As Jay P. Greene, one of the researchers on the study writes, “We don’t just want our children to acquire work skills from their education; we also want them to develop into civilized people who appreciate the breadth of human accomplishments. The school field trip is an important tool for meeting this goal.”
The final word on field trips usually lies with policymakers and administrators, beyond the hands of teachers. And organising a school trip often means navigating a labyrinth of paperwork and bureaucracy. But if the true goal of schooling is more than just hammering in history dates and times tables – if it’s about enabling a well-rounded person to engage with, inspire and be inspired by the world – then educational field trips are a tradition worth fighting for.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.