Chopped budgets and an increased focus on testing have made field trips, once a popular way to get students out of the classroom, increasingly rare.
"Local school districts don't have the funds anymore," says Stephanie Norby, director of the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies in Washington, D.C. The Smithsonian museums are some of the most popular field trip destinations in the country. Although there is little hard data to definitively prove that schools are taking fewer field trips, Norby says it seems as though fewer schools have visited the Smithsonian in recent years. "For local schools, I think it's become more difficult for them to take trips."
Money once spent on field trips is being spent to help students prepare for standardized tests that might make or break a teacher's evaluation, according to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union that represents more than 1 million educators nationwide.
"In school these days, if people have a marginal dollar, they spend it on test prep because they get regulated there, as opposed to field trips," she told a group of corporate heads at a manufacturing conference in Washington, D.C. last week.
[Learn why standardized tests use multiple choice questions.]
Field trips provide students with a window to the real world that they don't get in the classroom, and they can help students understand real-world applications of seemingly abstract topics in math and science, she says. For example, engineers may often use formulas taught in Algebra II, calculus, and chemistry classes.
Susan Singer, CEO of Field Trip Factory, an organization that has spent the last 18 years designing free field trip outlines for schools nationwide (which include background lesson plans, field trip itineraries, and wrap-up activities after the trip), says she thinks schools are merely scheduling around testing.
"During testing periods, we don't see a lot of field trips," she says. "Either right before or right after [a standardized test], we get slammed."
Either way, spending time outside the classroom doesn't mean students aren't learning knowledge that could show up on standardized tests. Several studies have shown that students retain more knowledge through the type of experience-based learning that field trips provide when compared to in-class learning.
[Learn more about an experiential learning program.]
A field trip should be relevant to topics students are studying in school. That way, the Smithsonian's Norby says, it will have a lasting impact.
"There's an event, but we want to stay connected with the students both before and after the trip," she says. Here are ways teachers can make the most out of field trips.
• Prepare: Don't go into a field trip cold. One of Field Trip Factory's most popular trips connects students with professional chefs to explore the science of gastronomy. Singer says teachers should spend the days before the trip discussing food labels, basic chemistry, and measurements. Likewise, after the trip, teachers should ask students to discuss what the trip meant to them and write about what they learned.
• Use social media: The Smithsonian hosts online conferences for students to pose questions to museum curators, says Norby. Most field trip destinations now have Facebook or Twitter accounts, so use them to connect students with staff before, after, and during the trip. Norby encourages students to Tweet about their experience, take pictures, and share what they learned with friends.
• Make the classroom connection: Field trips are about finding real-world applications for classroom-learned knowledge, says Singer. "The difficulty kids and teachers have is correlating classroom learning to real-life experience," she says. "[Field trips] are about finding how that class becomes relevant to your life." During the field trip, point out how techniques taught in the classroom may be used at the trip destination.
• Highlight work opportunities: Field trips can give students ideas for finding internships and volunteer work, so help them connect with staff members. "You're reconnecting kids to their community in a way that matters," Singer says. Often, interested students go on to volunteer or work at trip destinations. "They get the fact that some day they could work there," she says.
• Take a virtual trip: Your school might not have the money to pay for transportation to a museum, but many, including the Smithsonian Institute, now offer virtual tours, online videos, and podcasts, allowing you to simulate a trip.