In Praise of the Field Trip
So there we were, in Scottsdale, Arizona on what amounts to a holy pilgrimage for me: visiting the Musical Instrument Museum. The MIM is an extraordinary place, filled to the brim with exquisite displays of artists, instruments, stories and--thanks to 21st century wireless technology--a smorgasbord of gorgeous music. I stood in front of the Steinway upright on which John Lennon wrote "Imagine." I drifted past a Stradivarius violin, listening to Vivaldi.
And--I watched a group of 6thgrade-ish girls (and one reluctant boy, unable to resist) cluster, wide-eyed and chattering, around a display of Taylor Swift's white grand piano and glittering concert dress. Were they learning important lessons that will ultimately make them college- and career-ready? Or simply taking a day off from the grind, participating in everyone's favorite School Event: the field trip?
Hard to say. The kids were wearing identical T-shirts and accompanied by a passel of parents, who seemed to be as enthralled as the kids by the fascinating exhibits. Low-key volunteer docents (many of whom had that "retired teacher" aura) hung around, casually telling stories about how most middle-class homes had pianos 100 years ago--and people made music themselves, rather than purchasing phonographs! It was more fun! The kids were certainly having fun whacking huge Chinese drums and cranking automatons, which one docent described as the "musical computer" of the early 20th century.
I wondered--what is this field trip's ultimate purpose? How will the students apply what they have learned? What are their takeaways?
And--because these are the questions we hear most often in national policy discussion--was this content standards-based? Could it be delivered (and measured) more efficiently and effectively? Say, in a video or interactive computer game?
I'm going to go ahead and answer that question: No.
There is no replacement for the field trip. I know buses are expensive, ticket costs are soaring, and taking 30 ,60 or 100 kids on the road--even for a half day--is a monumental, fraught undertaking. But sometimes, you have to get out of Dodge, into the wider world.
Because leaving the desks and playground behind is much more than a treat, or a reward. It is--when done well--exactly what we should be doing with all children: making it possible for them to explore their world, sample new sights and sounds, interact in different ways. It's even common for children to experience local landmarks and institutions for the first time on a field trip.
A field trip is much more than just fitting new objects, buildings or facts into a mental framework, however. It's understanding that someone's mom or dad has volunteered to watch over you for a day, and must be listened to, and respected. It's the anticipation of a new experience. It's managing lunch, directional signs, backpack and a new restroom. It's being on your own in a roomful of precious objects, listening to an expert who isn't your teacher, and isn't on a screen.
Puff pieces on virtual field trips appear frequently in edu-media. These can be great supplementary instructional materials--pre-packaged, targeted to specific learning goals, a virtual glimpse of the Smithsonian for kids who live in rural Montana. But the non-virtual field trip--probably because it's not easy to set up and accomplish, and always subject to the unpredictable-- lingers in students' memory.
I remember clearly going to Deer Park, the "first grade trip" at Orchard View Elementary, and feeding deer from a flat-bottomed ice cream cone. There were brightly painted plywood cottages and a playground, and we ate our sack lunches at picnic tables. Awesome sauce. (This was the 1950s, mind you, when my family got two black-and-white channels on our new TV set.)
Here are some indelible things I learned on that trip: Deer can be friendly, but are not tame. Their most critical sense is smell, and they have a difficult time seeing the color red. Also: some of the room mothers who chaperoned the trip were smokers, lighting up their Pall Malls outside the fence at lunch, while other moms tut-tutted back at the picnic tables. (You might call that social-cue learning...)
Most of the enthusiasm for virtual field trips is prefaced by the assertion that a computer-based experience is cheap--or even free (with the obvious assumption, of course, that you have "free" devices for every child--and those devices all operate perfectly). In a time when students spend so much time being entertained, drilled and emotionally jolted in front of screens, why wouldn't you opt for a first-hand experience, even if the content was more pedestrian--the fire house, the local library or the apple orchard?
The Michigan Historical Center, in Lansing, offers a five-day immersive experience for local classrooms, bringing students to the museum every day for a week. Students are not led past exhibits (or sent on competitive "treasure hunts")--but instead sit down for discussion, sketching items, journal-writing and share-outs around essential questions about how Michigan was settled and shaped. Margaret Holtschlag, who developed the Big History Lesson program, in 1999, understood the value of letting questions bubble up, allowing students time to wonder what an unfamiliar farm implement might do--or what the impact of a wave of immigrants might mean to an industry or region.
So why don't more museums, zoos, galleries and science centers offer week-long, in-depth programs? It's not the money--money can be raised or donated. It's fear about the time away from tested skills and content. Think about that.
I looked around for the obvious teacher(s) at the MIM, thinking to approach and compliment them on their students' behavior and enthusiasm, and to congratulate them on whatever preparation had made the kids so responsive and excited about the musical wonders they were immersed in. But I couldn't tell which of the adults was Teacher. That, in itself, is success.
Go see the MIM, if you're in Phoenix. It's incredible. I hope you get lucky and go on a day when the place is delightfully full of schoolkids.