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EL Education's Ron Berger on Field Trips, Fieldwork, and Maximizing Learning

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    Alexis Margolin

Ron Berger, EL Education Chief Academic Officer, discusses how to maximize learning of field trips in Education Week's Classroom Q&A with Larry Ferlazzo.

When I was a kid I loved field trips. The promise of a day of adventure in the "real world"--not another day sitting at our desks--was as close as I was going to get to Disneyland. It hardly mattered where we were going and what we were doing: the possibility was exciting. The fact that these field trips were not leveraged to deepen our learning (in fact, they were often disconnected entirely from our studies) was not something that even occurred to me. 

Ron Quote Ed Week

In second grade we visited a dairy farm. A real farm! We were not studying farms or cows, but there had been a story in our reading textbook about a dairy farm, and evidently this trip was a yearly tradition. We weren't complaining. When our school bus arrived in front of a real red barn, we clambered down and boarded a miniature train with tiny, kid-sized seats and no roof, and we cheered as the train chugged its way past smelly pigpens and pastures of cows. It was only as an adult that I looked back and questioned this: a train on a dairy farm? (I guess hosting tours supplemented the small farm's income). What we remembered most was the chocolate milk we got to drink at the end of the tour--from glass bottles!

Fieldwork instead of Field Trips
At EL Education we use the term fieldwork, rather than field trips. This is not just a semantic difference. Fieldwork is not sitting on a miniature train looking at sites, and it's not just taking a tour of an historic home or walking through an aquarium. Fieldwork is what adult professionals do: research in the world. It may happen to take place in an historic home or an aquarium, but the students are not there as passive listeners. They are there to conduct research for their studies: taking notes, taking photos, interviewing experts.

An EL Education middle school in Cooperstown, New York, did their fieldwork on local dairy farms. It was very different from my second-grade field trip. As part of a year-long science/humanities learning expedition on agriculture, students studied the fundamental change in their community as the local economy shifted away from centuries of farming toward the tourist industry. They met and interviewed the local dairy farmers and worked in teams to visit their farms and learn in detail about their history and their current areas of success and challenge, from a farming perspective and business perspective. The students created a book to share with the community to honor the farms and families that were the historical foundation of the local economy. They did scientific research on the farms to create a guide to the vertebrates and invertebrates that shared the farm ecosystems with the domestic animals. (The teacher leader of this expedition, Amy Parr, was chosen as NY State's Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher of the Year for 2013). For students, this was a transformational educational experience.

What makes this type of fieldwork different from traditional field trips? 

  • Students travel to places that are integral to what they are studying. The travel is not seen as a break or a reward but an opportunity for important learning. 
  • Students have an important purpose--a mission--for every trip. They are collecting information to create something of quality and value to share with others. 
  • Students are deeply prepared ahead of time with expertise in what they will be seeing and whom they will be meeting. They arrive excited to see in real life the things and people that they have learned about. 
  • Students are actively engaged on site in interviewing experts and collecting information: taking notes, photos, videos, sample measurements. They are scientists and historians, not passive visitors. They are trained and prepared to collect information politely, effectively and wisely. 
  • Students return to the classroom with a charge to use their data and the learning to create something meaningful. The fieldwork experience does not end when the bus returns to school: the class reflects on what they learned, how they behaved and worked together, and how they will make good use of the fieldwork in their work. 

Going Deeper
A memorable example for me of the power of fieldwork was when it transformed a class of first graders at the Mary O. Pottenger Elementary School in Springfield, Massachusetts. The teacher, Chris Scibelli, was a talented veteran teacher who had a tradition of bringing her students on a field trip to Sturbridge Village as a part of a study of Colonial America. Sturbridge Village is a restored colonial village where craftspeople of all types demonstrate colonial trades as characters in period costume. Chris's students always loved seeing blacksmiths, weavers and coopers in their workshops.

When Pottenger first joined the EL Education network, Chris was understandably skeptical about changing her practices. She was already a very successful teacher, and her routines and practices worked fine. She kept her skeptical eye but was willing to give this new approach a shot. With EL support, she redesigned her colonial study into a more full learning expedition which would culminate in her first graders creating a picture book for kindergartners: a "Then and Now Book of Colonial Life." The book would have writing and student drawings to teach younger students about how daily life was different during colonial times.

That year her students took the usual trip to Sturbridge Village, and students were excited as always to meet the actors/craftspeople. This year, however, they had a different mission: they each had to choose a colonial craft or trade about which they would become an expert. One week later, the class returned to Sturbridge Village for a second trip, and this trip was entirely different: small groups of students, with a parent or teacher helper, spent the entire visit in one workshop, learning from one craftsperson, interviewing, taking notes (adults helped with note-taking), photographs, and samples as that craftsperson worked with visitors.

I visited the classroom when students were working intently on their book and was amazed by their knowledge. Every first grader knew more about a colonial trade or craft than I did. They were bursting with knowledge to explain, stories to tell, photos to share. They were truly little experts. While the unit on Colonial America had been successful in the past, this year it was a wholly different level of success. This was the power of fieldwork.

You can see what fieldwork looks like in a diverse urban school, King Middle School in Portland, Maine, in this video.