The Failure of Field Trips, Part 1

by | May 1, 2007

Many educators stress the importance of field trips–opportunities to get students out of their desks and away from their books, and to give them direct, vivid, sensory experience with the world around them. Reflecting on my own education, these excursions off campus are indeed some of my most memorable moments–but not because of their educational […]

Many educators stress the importance of field trips–opportunities to get students out of their desks and away from their books, and to give them direct, vivid, sensory experience with the world around them. Reflecting on my own education, these excursions off campus are indeed some of my most memorable moments–but not because of their educational merits, not because they brought alive the important knowledge I had gained in the classroom. I remember them either as days off–reprieves from my painfully dull schooling–or as painfully dull experiences in themselves.

Whether the trip was playtime or punishment depended on which of the two main purposes that field trip was to serve. In practice, one of the goals of the typical field trip is to offer a treat, a diversion, a rewarding break from the “daily grind” of learning. Mrs. O’Brien, a VanDamme Academy teacher, witnessed this when working as a student teacher at a Minnesota public school. She relayed to me a discussion among some teachers planning a trip to the park, desperately seeking some “educational” excuse for the outing. “We could stop by the cranberry field along the way, and give them a quick lesson about cranberry farming?” suggested one.

This attitude toward field trips can be seen reflected in the popular destinations, from water parks to movie theaters to bowling alleys, and in the reasons offered for given destinations. An on-line educators’ resource recommends visits to a taxidermy shop–for the “ick factor”–and to a bakery or grocery store–for the “free samples of their wares.”

Clearly, the need for these in-school vacations, these diversions entirely unrelated to the curriculum content, is the consequence of a much deeper problem: the work is not motivation in itself. Teachers and students alike view education as a painful chore to be dutifully endured–and occasionally rewarded with a “Pajama Day” a pizza party or a park trip. (See the other issues of this newsletter for a different attitude toward education: www.pedagogicallycorrect.com.)

Others use field trips as opportunities to expose students to culture, to politics, to important worldly knowledge and experiences that they view as sadly lacking in the children’s day-to-day education. I distinctly remember a junior high field trip to a production of Madame Butterfly, or rather, I distinctly remember falling asleep. In school, I had never been exposed to operatic music, I knew nothing of the story or historical context of the drama, and I was consequently thoroughly unprepared for this cultural bolt-from-the-blue. Similarly, at a performance for students of Cyrano de Bergerac, I watched in sadness as the teenage audience giggled, passed notes, and whispered in each other’s ears, becoming engaged in the play only when something went awry or there was some blatant, physical humor. I didn’t fault the students; it is the school system that should be held accountable.

The problem inherent in field trips of this kind is that they try to cash in on a bankrupt account. Students are exposed to a cultural experience, whether a trip to Washington, a classic play, or an art museum, that they do not have the educational background to value. This error is one example of a problem prevalent in education: the violation of hierarchy, or the proper order of knowledge.

Another violation of hierarchy is the field trip designed to promote a political cause. In California, for example, an increasingly popular outing is “Ocean Day.” In 2006, over 7,000 California kids converged at the beach to clean up trash. The day culminated with the students posing for a picture meant to capture the experience: they were lined up for an aerial photograph in the shape of a fish with an oxygen mask. The express mission of the program’s sponsors, the Malibu Foundation, is “to motivate children to care about their environment and to do something about it.” To demonstrate the program’s success, the foundation’s website describes an 8-year-old participant gazing out at the water, declaring, “I think I can save earth.”

If this were simply a community-spirited effort to have trash-free beaches, its worst offense might be no more than a waste of the children’s precious school time. But such an outing is fraught with political and ethical questions: Is community service a moral obligation? Should industry be regulated to protect marine life? Does earth need to be “saved”–and if so, by what means? Field trips like this smuggle in implicit answers to these important, complex, abstract questions.

I contend that an 8-year-old has no business contemplating or forming judgments on these issues, because he does not have the knowledge of history, the thinking skills, and the life experience that would allow him to consider them rationally. An 8-year-old should concern himself with such problems as how to master long division, when to study for his history test, and what to wear to school in the morning

Lisa VanDamme obtained her BA in philosophy from the University of Texas (Austin) in 1995. While pursuing graduate studies in education at Pennsylvania State University, she was invited to California to develop a curriculum for a gifted child who was not being challenged in traditional schools. She found that her program worked equally well for students of all levels of ability, and has had success educating students from 4th-8th grade for the past six years. VanDamme Academy is the product of her six years of devotion to developing and teaching this inspiring and systematic curriculum.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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