Title: “The Educational Value of Field Trips,” plus two related articles: “Supplemental Study: Long-Term Benefits of Field Trips to the Walton Arts Center” and “Methodological Appendix for the Crystal Bridges Experimental Study”

Author(s): Jay P. Greene, Brian Kisida and Daniel H. Bowen (“Educational Value of Field Trips”); Jay P. Greene and Brian Kisida (“Supplemental Study”); Jay P. Greene (“Methodological Appendix”).

Publisher: EducationNext

Year: 2013

URL: http://educationnext.org/the-educational-value-of-field-trips/; http://educationnext.org/supplemental-study-long-term-benefits-of-field-trips-to-the-walton-arts-center/; http://educationnext.org/methodological-appendix-for-the-crystal-bridges-experimental-study/

Topics: field trips, museums, arts education, experimental designs, visual art

Methods: Randomized controlled trial. Researchers worked with Crystal Bridges to assign spots to matched pairs of applicant groups. Treatment group received a tour that semester and control group was deferred to the next semester. Surveys were administered to the treatment group – 489 teachers and 10,912 students – around 3 weeks after their tour. The surveys assessed “knowledge about art as well as measures of critical thinking, historical empathy, tolerance, and sustained interest in visiting art museums.” One of the survey items involved writing a response to a work of art unfamiliar to the students; 3811 of these essays were graded for critical thinking skills according to a methodology developed by researchers at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. 750 essays were coded twice with a high degree of inter-coder reliability. For the analysis, regression models controlled for gender, grade level, and matched pair group, while “standard validity tests confirmed that the survey items employed to generate the various scales used as outcomes measured the same underlying constructs.” A different version of the survey was administered to students in kindergarten through second grade.

What it says: Crystal Bridges is a new art museum in Arkansas that opened in 2011. As the only major art museum in the area, it offers nearby schools all-expenses paid tours for their students. These field trips were very popular on opening and the excess demand created an opportunity for a randomized study. The field trips involved an hourlong tour of the museum during which the students typically discussed five paintings, along with an additional hour or so of classroom instruction with the assistance of materials provided to the teachers. Students who participated in the field trips were able to recall factual details about the paintings at a fairly high rate, display improved critical thinking skills in evaluating a work of art they hadn’t yet seen, manifest increased “historical empathy” and tolerance for viewpoints different than their own, and report a higher interest in visiting museums in the future. All of these effects were stronger among students from high-poverty schools and especially pronounced (with effect sizes sometimes doubled or even tripled compared to the overall control group) among students from rural schools. In addition, the researchers set up a behavioral measure to test willingness to visit a museum by handing out vouchers for free admission to Crystal Bridges to the treatment and control groups; despite receiving 49% of the vouchers, 58% of the visits came from the treatment group – a particularly impressive result given that these students had just recently visited the museum and their appetite could have been satiated by the experience. It appears that to a large degree, the higher effect sizes seen among disadvantaged students can be explained by the fact that this was their first time visiting Crystal Bridges, as students in the treatment group who were new to the museum showed similarly impressive improvements. The K-2 students, who are also less likely to have visited a museum before, likewise exhibited especially strong gains. Notably, students from low-poverty schools and large towns appeared to benefit little or not at all from the exposure.

A second, supplemental study took advantage of a natural experiment in school zoning that resulted in some students making more field trips to performances at the Walton Arts Center than others. This study finds beneficial outcomes for students who took more field trips, including increased desire to attend cultural events or programs, increased desire to participate in choir or drama themselves, increased (self-reported) empathy, and increased (self-reported) tolerance. Notably, these effects are present even though the field trips took place over a period of years.

What I think about it: Overall, the main study exhibits an impressive degree of thoughtfulness in its design that allows for quite a bit of credence in its findings. The questions, about the educational value of one of the most common arts experiences that children have, are quite relevant to practice, and the findings regarding the value of field trips for first-time museum attendees are particularly provocative. For all of the study’s strengths, at many points the effects of attending Crystal Bridges specifically are conflated with the effects of visiting any museum or having any culturally enriching experience, and the authors could have done more to distinguish these by, for example, tracking what other cultural activities the students in the treatment and control groups had been or were being exposed to. (The supplemental study does address this in part by changing the focus to performing arts, but the design is not as tight in this case and the effects may well be attributable to the school environment in general rather than to the field trips specifically.)

In addition, I wonder to what degree some of the results observed are the effect of priming rather than the actual museum experience, particularly survey questions about things like freedom of expression in museums. It would have been interesting to divide the control group and have some students be told or reminded shortly before the survey that they are going to be visiting Crystal Bridges the following semester while other students are not given this stimulus. One important limitation to note is that the study measures only the short-term impacts of the field trips, and it’s unclear if the noted improvement in critical thinking skills would carry over to non-arts contexts. Again, the supplemental study addresses long-term impacts obliquely, but not directly.

What it all means: The Crystal Bridges experimental study strongly suggests that facilitated field trips have benefits to elementary school students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds and who have not had the opportunity to visit a museum before. The experience promotes prosocial attitudes and at least one means of skill-building in the form of visual attention to detail, though it is not clear if this carries over to other kinds of critical thinking tasks. While the effect sizes are fairly small on the whole, they appear to be real and are impressive considering the unsustained nature of the field trip experience. All in all, this is strong evidence of the importance and value of “common” opportunities to participate in the arts even beyond their role of sparking self-actualization through making or performing art.