You might imagine that a school-organized field trip to an art museum would hold some benefits for children. A new study set out to prove it.
At a time when what the researchers call "culturally enriching" school field trips are on the decline, the experimental study took a deep dive into the effects for students who recently visited a prominent new art museum in Arkansas. It identifies multiple benefits, with especially strong effects for students from low-income families.
Those outcomes include improvements in students' knowledge of and ability to think critically about art, a stronger display of "historical empathy," greater tolerance for differing views, and interest in repeating the experience of attending such a cultural institution, according to the study by researchers at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. An overview of the research was published online today in the journal Education Next.
"If schools cut field trips or switch to 'reward' trips that visit less-enriching destinations, then these important educational opportunities are lost," write the three researchers, professor of education reform Jay Greene, senior research associate Brian Kisida, and doctoral student Daniel Bowen. "It is particularly important that schools serving disadvantaged students provide culturally enriching field-trip experiences."
The researchers note that museums across the country have reported a "steep drop" in school tours. For instance, the Field Museum in Chicago at one time had more than 300,000 student groups every year, but that figure is now down to 200,000.
(Speaking of field trips, Education Week recently published an online map of teachers' favorite field-trip destinations. You can add your suggestions, too.)
The University of Arkansas researchers bill their study as the "first-ever, large-scale, random-assignment" experiment to gauge the effects of school tours of an art museum. The facility in question is the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Northwest Arkansas, which was founded by Alice Walton, the daughter of WalMart founder Sam Walton.
The museum, with more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space, has an endowment in excess of $800 million, the researchers say. In fact, portions of the endowment are devoted to cover all expenses associated with school tours. Crystal Bridges reimburses schools for the cost of buses, provides free admission and lunch to visiting students, and pays for the costs of substitute teachers who cover for the educators who accompany children. The museum did not, however, pay for the study, which was supported by the university, according to Greene.
Because of high demand for the tours, the researchers were able to create matched pairs of applicant school groups in grades K-12, including grade level and other demographic factors.
Here are a few key findings for students who participated in the field trips:
• They were able to recall details about the paintings they saw (and spent time discussing) at "very high rates."
• The students later displayed "demonstrably stronger ability" to think critically about art than the control group.
• They displayed stronger "historical empathy," the ability to understand and appreciate what life was like for people who lived in a different time and place.
• By several measures, they showed a greater interest in going again to an art museum than the students who did not visit the museum.
To give an example on student interest, 73 percent of rural students who received a tour of Crystal Bridges said they would encourage their friends to visit an art museum, compared with 63 percent in a control group of similar rural students. In high-poverty schools, the figure was 74 percent for the "treatment group" compared with 68 percent of the control group.
Of course, it's one thing to express such a sentiment. It's another to take the time to actually visit the museum again. Well, the researchers distributed free coupons to students involved in the study that allowed them and their families to visit a special exhibit at the museum at no charge. About half of students who received the coupons were in the experimental group, but they represented 58 percent of those admitted to the special exhibit with those coupons. Put another way, the families of students who had previously taken the school field trip were 18 percent more likely to come again.
The researchers say: "The direct effects of a single visit are necessarily modest and may not persist, but if tours help students become regular museum visitors, they may enjoy a lifetime of enhanced critical thinking, tolerance, and historical empathy."
For research about the impact of visits to cultural institutions with a scientific focus, like science centers, zoos, and aquariums, check out the website for the Center for the Advancement of Informal Science Education, or CAISE. In fact, in 2011 Education Week published a special section devoted to the field of informal science education, including this story by my colleague Sarah D. Sparks examining emerging research.
Photo of the entrance to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art by April L. Brown/AP-File.