Schoolteacher Learning Agenda Influences Student Learning in Museums

January 1st, 2016

This Knowledge Base article was written collaboratively with contributions from Karen Knutson and CAISE Admin. This article was migrated from a previous version of the Knowledge Base. The date stamp does not reflect the original publication date.

Findings from Research and Evaluation 

Teachers conduct field trips for a variety of reasons

Numerous studies have examined teacher rationale for leading student field trips.  In their study of teachers and field trips Griffin and Symington (1997) found that teachers were able to describe some purpose for their excursion (when asked during the field trip), although they suggest that their rationales may not have been clearly articulated before the interview.  Other researchers have found that teachers describe several different reasons, ranging from enjoyment and reward, to exposure to new experiences, to general enrichment, to more specific reinforcement of classroom curriculum (Kisiel, 2005; Tal, Bamberger & Morag, 2005).  For teachers working in underserved schools and impoverished neighborhoods, and those teachers who themselves lacked such opportunities as students, experience and exposure goals are strong reasons for leading field trips (Kisiel, 2005.) The link to the curriculum is cited quite often by teachers, although it would seem that this is due in part to the need to provide a strong rationale for administrative approval, in light of accountability pressures, coupled with a sense that such curriculum or standards connections are pedagogically correct reasons for field trips (Anderson et al, 2006; Kisiel, 2005)  Indeed the importance of curriculum linkage as a learning goal is put into question when we consider that teachers are more likely to express ‘a positive experience’ as a success indicator, over ‘connected to curriculum’ (Kisiel, 2005), coupled with the fact that post-visit activities are frequently limited following a field trip experience (Anderson et al., 2006; Griffin and Symington, 1997; Tal et al., 2005.)

Teachers may be unsure of their role during field trips

Although students are identified as the learners for field trip programs, their experiences are typically mitigated through the actions of the teacher.  This can have both positive and negative consequences. Earlier studies of teacher involvement have suggested that the teacher can play an important role in affecting the strength and vividness of primary student recollections of a field trip experience (Wolins et al., 1992) by connecting the experiences to study in the classroom.  In contrast, Griffin (1994) reported that teacher involvement in student learning in a museum ranged from actively working with students in small groups, to monitoring student behavior, to leaving students to fend for themselves as they took a break from teaching, suggesting different perceptions regarding teacher roles. More recently, Tal et al. (2005) found that teachers took a more passive position during class visits to several Israeli museum sites and were generally uncertain as to what their role was during the trip.  Similarly, in his investigation of teacher field trip strategies, Kisiel (2006) found that elementary teachers were least likely to describe ‘during trip’ strategies, compared to pre-visit or post-visit strategies.  Anderson and Zhang (2003) noted that many teachers believed that what the students did during the fieldtrip was the sole responsibility of the field trip venue.  Teacher behaviors and comments like these suggest that some teachers feel that they have only a minimal role in promoting a learning experience during the fieldtrip.  Despite this uncertainty, a case study of zoo field trips (Davidson, Passmore, & Anderson, 2010) would seem that the teacher’s learning agenda and views on learning and teaching in the museum setting are more influential on student learning (positively or negatively) than the intended goals of the zoo or museum educators.  In this study, student learning was limited when the teacher described the central expectation was enjoyment, while student learning was more pronounced when the teacher has a specific learning focus for the excursion.  Yet even in the latter case, the conservation messages of the zoo educators were overshadowed by teacher intentions for the experience.

Worksheets are common tools used by teachers to support learning during a field trip.  Although worksheets may contradict the essentially free-choice nature of a museum visit (see for example Price and Hein, 1991; Griffin, 1999), these tools, provided by the institution or created by the teacher, also help to provide additional structure which may help with the juxtaposition of the formal classroom in an informal setting (see for example Rennie & McClafferty, 1995, Kisiel, 2003).  In a study of teacher-generated worksheets, Kisiel (2003) noted that worksheets often reflected the teachers’ agendas—whether they were ‘survey-oriented’ (ensuring that students see a little bit of everything’ vs. ‘concept-oriented’ where the museum visit was used, at least in part, to emphasize a particular concept of idea.  Concept agendas would seem to provide a greater opportunity for deeper learning.  Mortenson and Smart (2007) found that carefully constructed (and properly used)  chaperone worksheets could be used to increase student content-related conversations during a museum visit, suggesting that such guides could be used to provide some structure without diminishing the free-choice nature of the museum experience. Thus we see that it is feasible to help teachers (and chaperones) to better support student learning.

There are numerous research-based recommendations for improving field trip learning experiences

DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) point to several strategies and recommendations for teachers that have emerged from their review of over 30 years of research in student learning on school field trips (see for instance Bitgood, 1994; Balling & Falk, 1981; Mortenson & Smart, 2007; Orion & Hofstein, 1994; Rennie & McClafferty, 1995)  These include:

  • Becoming familiar with the setting before the trip
  • Orienting students to the setting and agenda for the excursion, and clarifying learning objectives
  • Allowing students time for discovery and orientation at the field trip site
  • Incorporate activities that both link with classroom learning in a seamless way, while taking advantage of the unique opportunities provided by the informal setting
  • Plan and carry out post-visit activities back in the classroom that reinforce and connect learning experiences from the trip as well as allow for student sharing

DeWitt and Storksdieck (2008) also report that teachers are generally unaware of such recommendations, and often do not engage in such strategies (see for instance Anderson et al., 2006; Tal et al., 2005; Griffin & Symington, 1997.)  DeWitt and Osborne (2007) propose a framework for museum practice to better support teachers in their use of field trips.  They suggest developing field trip programs that:

  • Adopt a teacher perspective (flexible resources, linked to standards, short implementation time)
  • Provide structure (reducing novelty, providing clear activity purpose)
  • Encourage shared, productive activities (student-student, student-chaperone, and student-teacher interactions, attention to student interests, etc.)
  • Support dialogue/literacy and research skills (opportunities for student writing, development of student-centered projects or investigations)


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