Are School Field Trips a Source of Enjoyment or a Learning Opportunity?

Recently, we had the chance to travel to Europe and visited a few cities in Italy, France and also Spain. An observation that I made when visiting these countries was the large number of children participating in school field trips to cultural and historical places. I was amazed by the number of children from all ages (some as young as 4-6 years old) visiting museums and historical places. It was just wonderful to see that, at least in Europe, we still see the benefits of this type of school activity.

Although school field trips have a long history in Canadian education, it is clear that the number of school field trips is in decline in most Canadian provinces. But, an interesting fact is that when field trips do occur in schools, they tend to be to parks, sporting events or amusement parks. I am not certain if I am generalizing here, but my experience is based on what I have observed to happen in our local schools. 

Reasons Explaining the Decline of School Field Trips

A quick review of the literature indicates that overall the number of field trips is declining in most North American schools.  Many factors may explain this decline, but some that need to be mentioned are:

(1) Teachers are restricted by the pressures from districts or school boards to show curricular results and to cover content in classrooms leaving little time for out-of-school excursions.

(2) Increased emphasis on standardized testing leaves little time for field trips.

(3) Field trips are often viewed as “fluff” or extra-curricular activities and, therefore, are easy line items to cut.

(4) Shrinking budget does not permit to put money on field trips.

(5) Liability and organization issues.

Primary Purpose of School Field Trips: Enrichment or Reward?

The factors listed above are all clear and explain in part why field trips are becoming rare in North American schools. However, they do not explain why whenever given the opportunity schools prefer to visit parks or amusement areas instead of museums or other cultural/science-oriented sites. I found a very interesting article posted in Student Planning Travel Advice that attempted to explain this fact. The article is based on a recent study conducted by researchers from the University of Arkansas. According to this study, cultural/science-oriented field trips are in decline because:

Schools are devaluing cultural, scientific and historical sites, instead taking students to amusement parks, sporting events, and movie theaters instead. This shift from “enrichment” to “reward” field trips is reflected in a generational change among teachers about the purposes of these outings. In the survey conducted by the University, teachers with 15 years or more of experience were significantly more likely to believe that the primary purpose of a field trip is to provide a learning opportunity, while junior teachers saw the primary purpose as “enjoyment.” 

This is a very interesting point, and frankly pinpoints a cultural or generational fact. According to this study, it appears that teachers are behaving like most North American parents (which is not surprising because many of these teachers are also parents!) who believe that a "reward" is a good way to show a child that we are happy with his/her behaviour or performance. 

Is this result surprising? I don't think so. Rewarding children is a very popular parental strategy. I use "rewards" to show my children that I am happy with something that they did. I know many parents who do the same. 

Personally, I don't think that it is wrong to use a field trip as a reward to show children that they are behaving well at school. My problem is the exclusion of cultural, historical or scientific sites because they may not be "considered or perceived" as rewards. I understand that resources and funding are limited and sometimes we need to choose school activities. But, if we tend to exclude cultural/historical-oriented field trips because we "think" that they are not a source of enjoyment or pleasure, we may need to think twice. Reward and learning opportunity are not contrary the one to the other. Children can have fun and pleasure by visiting cultural/historical places or science centers. They should just be given the opportunity.

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