Last month there was an article in Forbes about the benefits of field trips and arts education. It started out in a way I dislike, discussing test scores and neurological development as if arts and cultural experiences were a special fertilizer you sprinkled on to get stuff to grow better. However, it soon moved on to discuss how field trips and arts education provide a broader context and relevance for learning. Essentially, acknowledging that learning doesn’t occur in a vacuum.
Author Natalie Wexler notes that reading comprehension especially is greatly facilitated by life experiences that provide context to a passage. For many children this experience is gained in after school and family activities. For children who don’t have those same family opportunities, in school education and field trips are important for filling the gaps.
The focus of the latter part of the article isn’t that arts and cultural experiences magically help raise test score but help solidify abstract concepts. It isn’t miraculous that children learning about watersheds or historic events have greater mastery of the subject matter after visiting a river or historic site.
While the Forbes piece doesn’t acknowledge this directly, one of the articles Wexler links to does,
In the Woodruff Arts Center experiment we actually found an increase in math and reading test scores for students who went on multiple field trips after the first year of the experiment. I’m not sure I fully believe that result given that it is simply implausible that students learned significantly more math and reading when they saw a play, visited an art museum, and heard the symphony. My only explanation for the test score increase, if it is not a fluke, is that test results are partly a reflection of what students know, but also partly a reflection of their motivation to acquire that knowledge and to show it to us on a test. Feeding students a steady diet of math and reading test drills may not nurture student motivation to learn as well as these enriching activities. And as Core Knowledge proponents have long emphasized, students become more advanced readers by having more content knowledge and knowledge about the world. Field trips clearly provide that.
For arts people there might be some value in learning that a live performance about a topic seems to connect better with students than watching a video on the same subject. Not to mention, they are more likely to bring their families back with them.
We also see that students absorb a high amount of content knowledge on these field trips. In the theater experiment, for example, students learn the plot and vocabulary of the plays much more fully than if they watch a movie of the same story. Lastly, we find that students have a stronger interest in returning to these cultural institutions in the future. In the Crystal Bridges experiment, for example, we tracked coded coupons that we gave to all participating students and observed that students who visited the art museum on a field trip were significantly more likely to return with their family over the following half year.