Saturday, October 18, 2014

Reformers Say Field Trips Are Good for Kids: Who Knew?

A recent article on the reformy blog, Education Next, reports on a study out of the Walton Foundation funded Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, which found many positive learning outcomes from having students attend live professional theater productions. This report follows last year's groundbreaker from the same group that found positive learning outcomes associated with taking kids on field trips to museums. Both these studies fall into a school of educational research that I like to call a "Duh" Study; that is, a study that purports to discover something that veteran teachers have known, like, forever.

The stated goal of these studies according to the authors is "to  broaden the types of measures that education researchers, and in turn policymakers and practitioners, consider when judging the educational success or failure of schools." That sounds like a worthy goal. Of course, it has been the reformers who narrowed our view of what a successful school is in the first place, so I take their new found insight with a large pinch of salt. These researchers also worry that "as schools narrow their focus on improving performance on math and reading standardized tests, they have greater difficulty justifying taking students out of the classroom for experiences that are not related to improving those test scores." Gee, really? Is it possible that these reformy types are saying a  focus on standardized tests narrows the currriculum? Maybe they have been reading Diane Ravitch.

But perhaps I protest too much. Any study that will help justify putting money back in the budget for culturally enriching field trips is okey dokey with me. In the recent financial crisis field trips took a real hit. These trips were made vulnerable by the obsession with testing coming out of NCLB and the recession was a death knell for many schools when it came to the expense of a field trip. 

For the record the latest study took middle school children to see a live professional production of either The Christmas Carol or Hamlet. The researchers found that seeing a live production enhanced students understanding of character, plot and other factors related to knowledge of the play. Students who saw the live production also showed higher scores for tolerance of diverse points of view and in reading others' emotions. None of this is surprisising, of course. I can trace my lifelong love of the theater and particularly of Shakespeare to a 9th grade field trip to see a production of The Merchant of Venice. It was the first live professional performance I had ever seen and I will never forget it. I can still conjure the three caskets scene in my minds eye 50+ years later.

The earlier study took children on a field trip to an art museum. That study found that the experience improved student knowledge of and ability to think critically about art. Students also displayed stronger historical empathy, developed higher tolerance, and were more likely to visit such cultural institutions as art museums in the future. Again not surprising, but good news. Maybe Bill Gates can divert some millions from his pursuit of the perfect teacher evaluation design to fund kids going on field trips.

The rich educational and cultural possibilities of field trips were readily apparent to me as a very new, very young social studies teacher back in the 70s. I taught in a working class town in southeastern Pennsylvania where my students parents worked very hard every day to make ends meet. There was little time for cultural activities in these families' busy lives and these 12 and 13 year old children, an eclectic mix of white, Hispanic, African-American and newly-arrived Vietnamese, had limited cultural experiences. 

Every year for several years I took three bus loads of these kids to New York for a visit to the Natural History Museum, a tour of the city landmarks, and lunch in Chinatown. I have many stories from those trips, but my favorite involves a young man named Carlos who had his nose pressed to the window pane of the bus from the moment we left the school's driveway all the way up the New Jersey Turnpike. As the bus was making its way downtown to show the kids the Empire State Building, Carlos peered up at a large clock on a bank building and noticed that the clock said 11:05. ""Mr. Walsh, Carlos asked, "It's 11:05 here in New York, but my watch says 11:00. Are we in a different time zone?" I smiled, pleased that Carlos was at least remembering something from my geography lesson of a few weeks before and explained to him that the clock he saw must just be a little fast.

So yes, field trips matter and they matter a great deal. They create memorable moments of great impact on the lives of young people. They also create joy. Joy is in too short supply in schools these days and the reformy focus on standardized tests and accountability must take responsibility for killing much of that joy. It seems that some reformers at least are beginning to realize it. I suggest teachers use these studies in their requests for funds for educationally and culturally enriching field trips in the future.

What else can reforemrs learn that teachers have always known? The sky is the limit.

Next year I suggest the gang at the University of Arkanas investigate whether or not participation in the band at school enhances a student's appreciation of music, ability to work as a team member and self-esteem. I wonder what they would find. And I wonder if what they discover would lead to a reformy call to ensure that every school child had the opportunity to attend a school with a rich music program.

I can dream, can't I.