Progressivism in Schools: the Field Trip

In the ever-growing forest of school reform since A Nation at Risk report (1983)–curriculum standards, tests, and accountability–it is hard to see individual trees since those woods are dense.   Planters of that forest see the slow triumph of standards and tests as improved schooling  while critics of the timberland see the same growth as the hardening of traditional education.

The metaphor of the forest-and-individual-trees may be a stretch but the point I want to make in this post is that U.S. public schools have grown and, yes, changed over the past century to include a melange of progressive and traditional practices that can be seen daily if one were to walk into schools– yes, those individual trees have braided trunks for those who smile or wince at the metaphor. These hybrids of past and present practices, blends of Deweyan and traditional schooling are alive and well within the nation’s schools.

None of my focus on mixes of old and new structures and practices in public schooling is meant to dismiss the age-old persistent inequalities in spending, misallocation of experienced teachers in urban schools, and continuing achievement gaps between minorities and whites. U.S. public schooling is a complex institution reflecting societal inequalities, inadequate funds for public and private goods, and economic and social gaps between minorities and whites.

With this caveat in mind, I offer a small glimpse into the mix of old and new in schools that seldom gets noticed by both partisans and critics of U.S. schools: field trips.

Many of John Dewey’s ideas embedded in Progressive Education were adapted and put into partial practice in early 20th century age-graded public schools–projects, thematic units crossing disciplinary boundaries (e.g. math and science/ English and history taught together), scaling back teacher-centered instruction and increasing student-centered teaching (e.g., small group work, more student participation in discussions, less lecture), and children and youth involved in the outside world. The notion that the real world outside of the classroom’s four walls should be part of every student’s experience, became the basis of what a later generation called “experiential education.” One piece of “experiential education” were when teachers and students took field trips.



From day trips to museums to week-long science camps, outdoor treks to battlefields and historic homes of local and national figures and even community-based research–I could go on in this list–but most readers have been on field trips in their own schooling and chaperoned children’s out-of-school ventures and know whereof I write.

Field trips–short-term experiential education–have become a habitual practice in school. Although the past 30 years of vocationally-driven school reform aimed at higher academic achievement, gains in test scores and more high school graduates attending college have cut into perennial day and week-long experiences (as have reduced school budgets), the field trip remains a mainstay of public schooling in urban, suburban, and rural schools.





Is there evidence that the field trip is effective?

That question was seldom asked when these experiences were introduced a century ago. Children and youth visiting museums and learning science and history in trips outdoors and to historic monuments was deemed a “successful” progressive practice. And that practice has become part of the topography of U.S. schooling. It has endured regardless of whether it was “proved” to be effective in altering children’s achievement, attitudes, and the like.

Nonetheless, in a climate of evidence-based practices and decisions driven by data, the question of effectiveness is front-and-center. The evidence, however, is slim but nonetheless present.

A recent study, one of the few randomized controlled trials (RCT) done in schools, found that after a tour of an art museum, students who took the tour outperformed those who did not tour the museum “in assessing knowledge about art as well as measures of critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and sustained interest in visiting art museums.” Students took these surveys three to eight weeks after the tour. No one study, of course, proves anything. Nor do students’ and teacher’s recollections (including a sociology professor) of field trips amount to a steel-trap conclusion (see here, here, and here).

For the fact is that “field trips” have become part of the landscape of public (and private) schooling for over a century. Even with retrenched budgets, schools maintain annual science camps, museum visits, and other short-term out-of-school experiences (see here and here). A progressive innovation–too often unrecognized–as other new additions such as playgrounds, lunch rooms, and nurse-run clinics) that have endured and become a “natural” part of a “real” school in the U.S. (see here ).

Public schools have changed over time and innovations that once were thought ground-breaking have become mainstays of the “modern” school–the dense forest obscuring those individual trees.





Filed under how teachers teach, school reform policies

2 responses to “Progressivism in Schools: the Field Trip

  1. I enjoyed this article, Larry. I have, however, seen quite a few papers about learning on field trips — especially science field trips. In these cases, there can be (though there isn’t always!) a clear learning aim, despite the openness of the experience. So, as with so much pedagogical research, depends on what phenomena you’re measuring, how you’re measuring it, etc etc…
    One with a fun title is “Don’t forget your leech socks!” Research in Science & Technological Education Vol. 25, No. 1, April 2007, pp. 135–150.
    but there are more.

    • larrycuban

      Brian, thanks for pointing out that field trips have teacher-planned lessons to guide them and link to article. Appreciate it.

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