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The Educational Value of Field Trips

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Submitted By fatama
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The school field trip has a long history in American public education. For decades, students have piled into yellow buses to visit a variety of cultural institutions, including art, natural history, and science museums, as well as theaters, zoos, and historical sites. Schools gladly endured the expense and disruption of providing field trips because they saw these experiences as central to their educational mission: schools exist not only to provide economically useful skills in numeracy and literacy, but also to produce civilized young men and women who would appreciate the arts and culture. More-advantaged families may take their children to these cultural institutions outside of school hours, but less-advantaged students are less likely to have these experiences if schools do not provide them. With field trips, public schools viewed themselves as the great equalizer in terms of access to our cultural heritage.

Today, culturally enriching field trips are in decline. Museums across the country report a steep drop in school tours. For example, the Field Museum in Chicago at one time welcomed more than 300,000 students every year. Recently the number is below 200,000. Between 2002 and 2007, Cincinnati arts organizations saw a 30 percent decrease in student attendance. A survey by the American Association of School Administrators found that more than half of schools eliminated planned field trips in 2010–11.

The decision to reduce culturally enriching field trips reflects a variety of factors. Financial pressures force schools to make difficult decisions about how to allocate scarce resources, and field trips are increasingly seen as an unnecessary frill. Greater focus on raising student performance on math and reading standardized tests may also lead schools to cut field trips. Some schools believe that student time would be better spent in the classroom preparing for the exams. When schools do organize field trips, they are increasingly choosing to take students on trips to reward them for working hard to improve their test scores rather than to provide cultural enrichment. Schools take students to amusement parks, sporting events, and movie theaters instead of to museums and historical sites. This shift from “enrichment” to “reward” field trips is reflected in a generational change among teachers about the purposes of these outings. In a 2012‒13 survey we conducted of nearly 500 Arkansas teachers, those who had been teaching for at least 15 years were significantly more likely to believe that the primary purpose of a field trip is to provide a learning opportunity, while more junior teachers were more likely to see the primary purpose as “enjoyment.”

If schools are de-emphasizing culturally enriching field trips, has anything been lost as a result? Surprisingly, we have relatively little rigorous evidence about how field trips affect students. The research presented here is the first large-scale randomized-control trial designed to measure what students learn from school tours of an art museum.

We find that students learn quite a lot. In particular, enriching field trips contribute to the development of students into civilized young men and women who possess more knowledge about art, have stronger critical-thinking skills, exhibit increased historical empathy, display higher levels of tolerance, and have a greater taste for consuming art and culture.

Design of the Study and School Tours

The 2011 opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Northwest Arkansas created the opportunity for this study. Crystal Bridges is the first major art museum to be built in the United States in the last four decades, with more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space and an endowment in excess of $800 million. Portions of the museum’s endowment are devoted to covering all of the expenses associated with school tours. Crystal Bridges reimburses schools for the cost of buses, provides free admission and lunch, and even pays for the cost of substitute teachers to cover for teachers who accompany students on the tour.

Because the tour is completely free to schools, and because Crystal Bridges was built in an area that never previously had an art museum, there was high demand for school tours. Not all school groups could be accommodated right away. So our research team worked with the staff at Crystal Bridges to assign spots for school tours by lottery. During the first two semesters of the school tour program, the museum received 525 applications from school groups representing 38,347 students in kindergarten through grade 12. We created matched pairs among the applicant groups based on similarity in grade level and other demographic factors. An ideal and common matched pair would be adjacent grades in the same school. We then randomly ordered the matched pairs to determine scheduling prioritization. Within each pair, we randomly assigned which applicant would be in the treatment group and receive a tour that semester and which would be in the control group and have its tour deferred.

We administered surveys to 10,912 students and 489 teachers at 123 different schools three weeks, on average, after the treatment group received its tour. The student surveys included multiple items assessing knowledge about art as well as measures of critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and sustained interest in visiting art museums. Some groups were surveyed as late as eight weeks after the tour, but it was not possible to collect data after longer periods because each control group was guaranteed a tour during the following semester as a reward for its cooperation. There is no indication that the results reported below faded for groups surveyed after longer periods.

We also assessed students’ critical-thinking skills by asking them to write a short essay in response to a painting that they had not previously seen. Finally, we collected a behavioral measure of interest in art consumption by providing all students with a coded coupon good for free family admission to a special exhibit at the museum to see whether the field trip increased the likelihood of students making future visits.

All results reported below are derived from regression models that control for student grade level and gender and make comparisons within each matched pair, while taking into account the fact that students in the matched pair of applicant groups are likely to be similar in ways that we are unable to observe. Standard validity tests confirmed that the survey items employed to generate the various scales used as outcomes measured the same underlying constructs.

The intervention we studied is a modest one. Students received a one-hour tour of the museum in which they typically viewed and discussed five paintings. Some students were free to roam the museum following their formal tour, but the entire experience usually involved less than half a day. Instructional materials were sent to teachers who went on a tour, but our survey of teachers suggests that these materials received relatively little attention, on average no more than an hour of total class time. The discussion of each painting during the tour was largely student-directed, with the museum educators facilitating the discourse and providing commentary beyond the names of the work and the artist and a brief description only when students requested it. This format is now the norm in school tours of art museums. The aversion to having museum educators provide information about works of art is motivated in part by progressive education theories and by a conviction among many in museum education that students retain very little factual information from their tours.

Results

Recalling Tour Details. Our research suggests that students actually retain a great deal of factual information from their tours. Students who received a tour of the museum were able to recall details about the paintings they had seen at very high rates. For example, 88 percent of the students who saw the Eastman Johnson painting At the Camp—Spinning Yarns and Whittling knew when surveyed weeks later that the painting depicts abolitionists making maple syrup to undermine the sugar industry, which relied on slave labor. Similarly, 82 percent of those who saw Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter could recall that the painting emphasizes the importance of women entering the workforce during World War II. Among students who saw Thomas Hart Benton’s Ploughing It Under, 79 percent recollected that it is a depiction of a farmer destroying his crops as part of a Depression-era price support program. And 70 percent of the students who saw Romare Bearden’s Sacrifice could remember that it is part of the Harlem Renaissance art movement. Since there was no guarantee that these facts would be raised in student-directed discussions, and because students had no particular reason for remembering these details (there was no test or grade associated with the tours), it is impressive that they could recall historical and sociological information at such high rates.

These results suggest that art could be an important tool for effectively conveying traditional academic content, but this analysis cannot prove it. The control-group performance was hardly better than chance in identifying factual information about these paintings, but they never had the opportunity to learn the material. The high rate of recall of factual information by students who toured the museum demonstrates that the tours made an impression. The students could remember important details about what they saw and discussed.

Critical Thinking. Beyond recalling the details of their tour, did a visit to an art museum have a significant effect on students? Our study demonstrates that it did. For example, students randomly assigned to receive a school tour of Crystal Bridges later displayed demonstrably stronger ability to think critically about art than the control group.

During the first semester of the study, we showed all 3rd- through 12th-grade students a painting they had not previously seen, Bo Bartlett’s The Box. We then asked students to write short essays in response to two questions: What do you think is going on in this painting? And, what do you see that makes you think that? These are standard prompts used by museum educators to spark discussion during school tours.

We stripped the essays of all identifying information and had two coders rate the compositions using a seven-item rubric for measuring critical thinking that was developed by researchers at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. The measure is based on the number of instances that students engaged in the following in their essays: observing, interpreting, evaluating, associating, problem finding, comparing, and flexible thinking. Our measure of critical thinking is the sum of the counts of these seven items. In total, our research team blindly scored 3,811 essays. For 750 of those essays, two researchers scored them independently. The scores they assigned to the same essay were very similar, demonstrating that we were able to measure critical thinking about art with a high degree of inter-coder reliability.

We express the impact of a school tour of Crystal Bridges on critical-thinking skills in terms of standard-deviation effect sizes. Overall, we find that students assigned by lottery to a tour of the museum improve their ability to think critically about art by 9 percent of a standard deviation relative to the control group. The benefit for disadvantaged groups is considerably larger (see Figure 1). Rural students, who live in towns with fewer than 10,000 people, experience an increase in critical-thinking skills of nearly one-third of a standard deviation. Students from high-poverty schools (those where more than 50 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches) experience an 18 percent effect-size improvement in critical thinking about art, as do minority students.…...

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