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Why field trips matter…and why they should matter more

On this bright sunny day, in the middle of August, summer time in the northern hemisphere, my mind turns to the outdoors.  While I could go into a twenty-page diatribe about why I believe schooling should be year round and how beneficial the summer is to learning, let me instead…draw attention to something else that often connects weather and schooling: field trips.   

                My earliest and most vivid memories, even today, of my schooling are most closely associated with field trips.  Indoor and outdoor adventures that took my mind and body outside of the traditional classroom and instead to a place of discovery, experiential surroundings, and a free roaming environment.  Whether it was to the local pumpkin patch, zoo, theatrical play or even an adventure into the woods behind my elementary school, field trips, as I look back on them, were more than simply an escape or anomaly from the day to day routine of public schooling, but rather an exploration of self. 

                At least in elementary school, these field trips were a part of the curriculum, not an integral part, mind you, but at least a glimpse into what was possible in experiential and self-learning.  As middle and high school began to divvy up and compartmentalize my daily schedule, field trips simply became abolished as essential parts of learning.  Sure, the occasional choir performance or play was still thrown into the mix, but it was a far cry from being implemented to interconnect each subject.   

                How can math be expected to be understood, without visiting where it is used in sectors of the capitalist society?  How can I be expected to be a responsible, social member of society, when my last trip to a historical site was the previous summer on a family vacation?  How can art or music be appreciated without seeing where they are performed or how they impact a community?  How can I absorb a foreign language, without meeting anyone who has ever spoken the language or the culture in which it is used?  How am I supposed to learn science, without interacting with the earth? 

Here is the point:  It is not enough, only to bring back the occasional field trips into the middle and high schools, but rather, make experiential learning, so important that the notion of field trips are not recognized as a specialized or segmented part of the curriculum.  The notion of the field trip matters, because it gets the students outside of the box that we have forced them into.  Suddenly, the scientific notion of climate change becomes an understood component, when I can see where the ice has melted off the river, in the middle of February.  Or a trip to the local National Park, helps me recognize the amazing achievement of setting aside places for all people to join, enacting, one of the most important elements of democracy.  Or a trip to the NYSE, teaches me the economic components of stock holders, dividends and selling the stock high and buying it low. 

My argument is not to fill in all the specifics, the cost, the responsibility of the teachers, the time frame, but instead, to remind individuals of the importance of this element of learning.  If I can remember more of my history from my summer family vacations, then I can for an entire year in the classroom, then shouldn’t we re-asses what we value as important notions of learning?  When do we get so consumed with tests, the newest textbooks, and the latest documentary on a subject, that we forgot to wander in the woods?  That we forgot to challenge who we are, by visiting and experiencing what we were told in the books, or copied onto a sheet of paper? 

The idea of community education speaks to this very notion.  It is through the community that we learn best and that the intellectual investigation happens as a component to the overall experience of life.  It is an arguable notion, that the center of education should be based on “field trips,” while the rest of our cognitive learning is slowly implemented through this lens. 

Lets shift the conversation, away from the negative, because of the challenge of implementation and instead, embrace the positivity, the imagination and the limitless possibilities of a world of education based on… field trips.


About caseykcaronna

A 27 year old Master of Arts in Education Degree holder from the progressive, liberal arts school, Goddard College. I am interested in Holistic, Community, Progressive, Democratic and Student-Centered Education. I am currently a part-time employee with the Boy Scouts of America. I am writing my first book on holistic education and looking for full time employment in education, throughout the United States and Canada. I am interested in all things education and hope to make trans-formative changes to the educational system(s) in America and in the process help to improve the lives of the individuals in whom it serves.


12 thoughts on “Why field trips matter…and why they should matter more

  1. Thanks for an interesting post on a topic that I have wanted to raise myself. It reminds me of the strategies that John Taylor Gatto developed as a teacher (see my post here). But Gatto was a high-school teacher (before he resigned), and I am wondering how individual (or small-group) field trips can be organized by a primary-school teacher.

    My proposed solution would be to involve parents. This would have to be part of an overall strategy of involvement that would begin at the start of the school year, where I would explain my teaching philosophy and methodology to all parents. It would require a cooperative spirit and open communication (perhaps via direct emails and class wikis), so that parents would understand that their children are getting an education tailored to their particular interests, aptitudes or needs. When it came to organizing a ‘field trip’, I would simply invite any parents who are available to volunteer to take an individual or small group to the required destination. It may need tweaking, and this itself could be a part of the process of discussion with parents at the start of the year. In this way, excursions from the classroom could be maximized, without compromizing on the individually tailored (and real-world) aspects of the children’s education.

    What do others think? Has anyone tried this? What problems have been encountered? What problems could be anticipated?

    Posted by Simon Kidd | August 11, 2010, 12:20 am
  2. it’s like think global school – only one we can all afford. it’s like asking the mayor to dole out the topics for kids to work on in class… the town’s problems.

    nice post. we should go there.

    Posted by monika hardy | August 11, 2010, 5:15 am
  3. Hey Casey,

    This is a great post! John Holt and John Dewey would agree with you! I agree with you! I found a few things all of you might be interested yesterday.

    here is an idea for a having cities look at themselves as networked of walled and unwalled schools-it is is being developed in Israel. They are calling them Education Cities…..

    There are two great school coalitions that have developed schools around the idea of the outside the classroom time, One started with the MET school in Rhode Island run by Big Picture Learning. Poke around on their site, they are doing pretty amazing stuff, I can get you some articles or suggest titles of books that focus on their work.

    The other school coalition is Expeditionary Learning Schools, they describe their work as such

    Expeditionary Learning schools inspire the motivation to learn, engage teachers and students in new levels of focus and effort, and transform schools into places where students and adults become leaders of their own learning. We provide a model that challenges students – even those starting with low skill levels – with high level tasks and active roles in the classroom. This model succeeds in urban, rural or suburban schools and at every grade level.

    Ron Berger has written a book about ELS schools that I would recommend for anyone interested in education, called An Ethics of Excellence.

    Both of these coalitions are favorites of mine, so if you want to chat about them let me know.

    Posted by dloitz | August 11, 2010, 11:42 am
  4. I meet with teachers to advance their work in project-based learning. I often kick off a new group by asking them to reflect on their own K-12 experience and recall one memorable learning experience. As you noted yourself, most memories are about either a field trip or a guest who shed light on a topic. Either way, these are cases of bringing students into the world or the world into the classroom. And we need to merge those all the time.
    I’m out of the classroom now but fantasize about one day returning with a new model called the field classroom. We’d spend up to 2 weeks on the road for every 2 weeks in the classroom. We’d have a tricked out bus with all the gadgets we need including satellite for Web, solar cell panel on the roof to power laptops, a bunch of cameras and video cameras, and everything we’d need to set up a mobile field station. Parents, senior citizens, college students and other community volunteers would join me and experts (archaeologist, tribal leader, whomever) to facilitate the learning experiences. Where we couldn’t travel by vehicle we’d find agents, say students in another country, to do our leg work while live skyping.
    Life is a field trip!

    Posted by Jane Krauss | August 11, 2010, 11:54 am
  5. Casey – great to read you here at the Coöp!

    One of my mentors, Jack King (@drjackking) and I have a long-neglected green-paper on file in which we discuss embedding the “school” in a mixed-use community center that houses a library, learning spaces, studios, businesses, and service organizations that provide multi-shift learning opportunities for kids in return for space and community good will. I suppose you could also situate a “school” in the community, as opposed to apart from it on a isolating campus, and schedule classes at surrounding sites.

    I hope to see public schools like this start-up. Regardless, I encourage all teachers to make sure that no piece of work or unit stops in the classroom. While policies and budgets remain largely unfriendly to this type of work, technology can mediate interpersonal learning opportunities between kids and outside experts and co-learners. We can help learning escape the classroom, especially if we let students bring more of their own technology into it under a social contract similar to the ones we operate under as adults carrying computers and phones in the workplace.

    How would you structure a class or school to teach towards students arranging their own field experiences according to the needs of their inquiries?

    Community-based education and field trips are tremendously important in building students’ background knowledge and notions of citizenship. Great post –

    All the best,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 11, 2010, 5:47 pm
  6. Thanks for all the comments everyone. I love Simon and Jane’s ideas, regarding the usage of field trips as a central focus of the learning.

    David, thanks so much for the school coalitions, those look excellent. Especially, the one in Rhode Island.

    Chad, there are several ways I view a classroom or school, working through the notion of field trips. It cannot be completely specific, for time and space, but I image setting up a classroom that brings all things, “field trip” into the classroom. This is the start…slowly implementing field trips in and around the school campus, speaking simultaneously on the importance of exploration, creativity, of questioning.

    All students would be encouraged to bring items in from field trips back to the classroom — bridging the gap from the “backyard to the classroom.” Recruiting parents each school year, at the beginning of the school year to be allies and volunteer for this type of learning and being specific of their role, as a facilitator and bringing in their personal experince to the field trip and making sure that each field trip brought in, would be compared and contrasted (this is all, from the inside, an existing public schooling structure). This would continue, until the lines began to blur between “classroom learning and field trip learning.” The field trips would expand, either through adminstrators seeing the success of this type of learning and funding it, or through the expense of students, myself and other willing teachers.

    Here is a great example, Chad. In college, I took a geography class, the point of the geography class was to get us away from the map and instead PLACE us in the geography that we were learning about. This took us to two place on the same day, a military base and a Native American reservation. On the reservation, we could HEAR the war games that were being displayed, right down the road at the military base. At the military base, we heard silence, in military noise or regarding the stolen land the military took from the Native Americans.

    Everything that we had learned up to that point, could not compare, to enteracting, experiencing, questioning and feeling, the power of the geographical region we currently were in. On both ends, we found information that surprised and outraged us, but the learning was all to real. Back in class, the next day, we spent 3 hours disecting and debriefing the experience we had just been apart of.

    If I was starting a school, or education center, that focuses on field trips — I would predict that 80 -90% of time would be place based learning, including the expansion of the outdoors, community resources, creating our own community projects (gardening, singing, civics work, outdoor theatre, art projects around the community, using the outdoors for science experiments, expanding work-study ideas to middle and high school — volunteer work options), and the important aspect would be CHOICE. Each student or group of students would choose what a field trip meant to them, how it effected their learning, and what results they wanted to accomplish. The learning would center on field trips, so much so, that books would be read during downtime or in assocation with the fields trips, that writing would be the same thing and that through life’s adventures, basic fundamentals will come naturally.

    I am a big believer that knowledge is within us, and that it can only be explored, not captured, not from an outside source, but rather, as a nexus that each of us carry and that needs discussion and experience in order for us to be enlightened to it.

    Posted by Casey Caronna | August 12, 2010, 12:02 am
  7. I love the idea of ‘teacher as travel agent”. A very messy notion that really appeals. My take on this is how it points to inflexibility of our learning institutions in practice. Field trips are barely tolerated in most schools as it is by both teachers and admins. It is sign of institutional sickness thorough and deep that field trips would break schools. If everyone did them, schools would break as they exist in most places. We need brand new ‘schools’ where we no longer call them schools and where ‘teachers’ are no longer teachers but travel agents and curators and learning concierges. If we wish to serve our learners schools must give way as they currently present themselves. Having said this, I draw back in fear because the systemic change needed is way larger. Our communities need to be ready for our children to live within them. I can’t grasp how that would work. Very evocative post. Thanks.

    Posted by Terry C Elliott | August 12, 2010, 7:47 am
  8. When I was teaching I took advantage of a deal our city and school district put together. The district wanted to reduce its bus fleet. They contracted with the city bus authority to give every kid a bus pass. In our town you can actually get out of town by bus, in fact 30 miles up the McKenzie River! We’d just tell the Authority when we’d be going so they could advise on times in case the routes ran passenger-heavy. (Nice heads up for the driver, too!) It was great to help kids get used to using public transportation too.
    You know the program They fund teacher projects, not sure if its hard goods only but worth a try. We need to get our kids out of the darned school! It’s just so… schooly!

    Posted by Jane Krauss | August 12, 2010, 6:26 pm
  9. So much for my html skills. That’s Donors Choose:

    Posted by Jane Krauss | August 12, 2010, 6:27 pm
  10. So what does school offer if field trips are so powerful? Why are we doing school?

    Posted by Kirsten | August 12, 2010, 9:57 pm
  11. Indeed. Field trips when done right, that is, not with 300 kids at at time, they are amazing real world experiential opportunities. Of course funds for trips are cut all the time in lieu of focusing on testing and “raising student achievement.” Research tells us that kids learn when they have experiences while socializing around content that matters to them – my classroom elem years back that up. Little trips big trips, any trips can be huge to learning with planning and thoughtful guiding by the teacher. We had the fortune of taking two BIG field trips to Taiwan (we are not a rich school) , an extension of a relationship formed via project based learning on an international basis. Etienne Wenger supports the idea of teacher as travel agent in his discussions of developing knowledgeability vs acquiring knowledge. He asks, where have your students traveled today? And as Jane wrote in this forum, life is a field trip.

    Posted by Terry Smith | August 13, 2010, 9:56 am
  12. I couldn’t agree more. At Northwest Passage High School, we allocated 100k-140k for field experiences every year. NWPHS is a public charter in MN, when I present I am always asked how do you afford this? Our school is a public charter school in MN. According to the MN Association of Charter Schools, charter in MN receive 14% less money per student than students attending the traditional district schools.

    We receive no tuition and pride ourselves in the fact that we can do all the great things we do solely on the amount the state allocates to us. In addition, students do not have to pay for participation on the expeditions.

    How do we do this? We sat down as a team and decided what we value: Expeditions, staff development and technology and funded them accordingly. I like talking to teachers and administrators and tell them that they too can do this within their existing budget, it just takes a lot of sacred cow killing. In some ways our commitment to our vision and mission brushes aside unnecessary bickering. We created a mission that all the stake holders hold passionately.

    We also pay competitive wages and have an excellent benefit package, and we don’t over work our staff. They have about 1000 student contact hour during the course of a year, with a portion of that time spent with kids on expedition in the summer time.

    We have a lot of professional freedom, are responsible for 30 kids a day, and can see the difference it makes. If want to see it in action, come out to the ProjectFoundry unconference this summer our school is hosting it. I don’t the exact dates but we will post it to our websites. This invitation goes out to anyone who wants to see real dynamic teaching in action.

    Here is our field studies blog site:

    Posted by Jamie Steckart | March 2, 2011, 9:34 pm

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