In the face of decreased budgets and increased pressure to improve students’ performance on standardized tests, many schools have reduced the number of field trips they provide to cultural institutions, such as museums and historical sites.  Instead, schools have focused on increasing the amount of time students spend in class preparing for tests and often allocate resources to “reward” field trips to entertainment venues, such as amusement parks, for students who improve their attendance or test scores.  However, new research suggests that in de-emphasizing culturally enriching field trips, schools are missing valuable opportunities to develop students’ critical thinking skills as well as their ability to appreciate and understand diverse peoples, perspectives, and historical periods.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Arkansas, is the first large-scale, random-assignment analysis of the effects of cultural-enrichment field trips on student outcomes.  The research design compared survey results between matched pairs of K-12 students.  For each student pairing, one student was randomly selected to participate in a cultural-enrichment field trip during the period of the study and the second student’s participation was deferred.  Researchers found that the students who participated in field trips experienced significant increases in their critical thinking skills, as well as benefits in terms of historical empathy (i.e., the ability to understand the lives and perspectives of people who lived in different places or in different times), tolerance, and interest in cultural institutions.  Notably, the benefits of field trips were considerably stronger for disadvantaged students.  The study’s authors conclude:

We don’t just want our children to acquire work skills from their education; we also want them to develop into civilized people who appreciate the breadth of human accomplishments.  The school field trip is an important tool in meeting this goal.