There was nothing more exciting in school as a field trip. If your parents drove or walked you to school it was even more exciting if you got to ride the big yellow bus! These trips took us to places we may have never seen before including, fire stations, art galleries, history museums, zoos, theaters and historical sites. Because field trips where such enriching activities schools endured the expense and deviation from the normal schedule. These trips held pride of place in the 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. Field trips gave less-advantaged children, who are less likely to have these experiences a chance to do so. 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.