Field Studies, not Field Trips

Among the earliest casualties in the education funding wars were class field trips.  You may remember a special field trip from your elementary days -- touring a factory or firehouse or dairy.  In high school you may have been lucky enough to hop a bus for a tour of a local college or vocational program.  Field trips broadened our awareness of the community around us but didn't always add to the curriculum.

But field studies do add to the curriculum.  In fact, teachers should look at the community around them as the place to apply what is learned in the classroom.  Imagine the following:

  • Physics students examining the structure of a nearby bridge.
  • History students interviewing elderly folks at a nursing home.
  • Government students participating at a Congressman's town hall meeting.
  • Biology students measuring water temperatures at a fish spawning stream.
  • English students creating a story about early years in their town solely from the information on cemetery tombstones.
  • Spanish students teaching basic Spanish to pre-schoolers.

The possibilities extend as far as the teacher's imagination.  Every community offers opportunities.  A Field Study is different from a field trip because the student is actively engaged, prepares for the field work prior to going and will follow through after returning to the classroom.  The basics have been learned and now the Application and Inquiry take place.

My first job as a principal began with an organized bus tour of the community for the teaching staff.  We visited many of the highlights of the community, from the Darlingtonia fields to the Treehouse Resort to a historical museum to a ghost town and butcher shop.  After each stop, we discussed how students could apply their learning at the sites.  How can your lessons extend into the community around you?  I set aside a chunk of my discretionary budget for these opportunities and made sure teachers understood the difference between field trips and field studies.  The art teacher took her students into nature to sketch and apply lessons about form and color.  A history class dug around in the museum's archives looking for items relevant to their studies of Chinese mining.  The biology teacher took his students to a mountain lake to examine patterns of plant growth.

One of the most fascinating field studies I've seen took place in an elementary math curriculum and required no buses or permission slips.  After a lesson on measurement, graphs and grids, the teacher took students to a dirt area beside the school.  Students used rulers to mark off 1 foot square parcels with popsicle sticks and string and created grids within their parcels.  Then they counted the number of insects and worms in each square.  They then dug down one inch and counted those just under the surface.  Students then returned to the classroom to graph their results and as an introduction to the scientific approach, to formulate a hypothesis about bugs and worms.

We can surrender the old-style field trips and let parents provide those.  But let's encourage and support field studies.  The stale classroom environment needs this connection to the community around it.  Lessons that don't connect to our world and frame of reference are not only boring, they're soon forgotten.  Let me do something meaningful with what you've taught me and I'll not only remember it, I'll be curious enough to ask still more questions and find out more than you intended for me to learn.