Backwards Field Trips

by Saul Kaplan

Backwards Field TripField trip! What child doesn’t get excited when a teacher proclaims these magic words? The permission slip is the first thing out of the backpack. I remember counting down the days until the day finally arrived. You can probably still remember those school adventures like they were yesterday. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to get out of the boring classroom and to experience the real world? The destination doesn’t matter. Anywhere out of the classroom works. The enthusiasm and student energy is palpable whether the destination is the zoo, aquarium, museum, or a historical reenactment. Experience beats a boring lecture every time. With all of today’s technology why can’t we make every day in the classroom feel like a field trip?

An article in the New York Times recently, Museums Take Their Lessons to the Schools, caught my attention. Apparently with school budgets in a death spiral, field trips are a luxury that many school districts can no longer afford. Field trips to the Boston Museum of Science are off 30% since 2007. As someone who drove my three kids crazy with incessant trips to this very science museum I am troubled by any reduction in school field trips. No problem, the museum has figured out how to take the museum’s science experience to the classroom. They have created fourteen programs that can travel to the classroom including an inflatable planetarium so kids can gaze at the galaxy, Animal Adaptations, Cryogenics, and the kindergarten favorite, Dig Into Dinosaurs. These traveling programs are so popular the museum expects to visit 1,000 classrooms next year. Katie Slivensky, an educator from the museum, refers to these travel programs as “backwards field trips”. Great idea. Bring the real world experiential learning opportunity in to the classroom. We need more backwards field trips.

My friend Bob Ballard, the incredible ocean explorer and discoverer of the Titanic, is passionate about challenging students to apply their knowledge to the real-world scenarios scientists face every day. Imagine bringing students on a field trip to the bottom of the ocean. Bob Ballard has enabled exactly that. He partnered with National Geographic on the Jason Project to connect students directly with great explorers and exploration events to inspire and motivate them to learn science. This program actually brings the magic of ocean discovery in to the classroom and lets students interact live with Jason scientists and Argonauts. Students are able to ask questions and get live responses via the web. I have spent time with Bob and have seen student’s faces light up when they interact in real-time with ocean explorers simultaneously viewing rare marine life and objects from the ocean floor. Bob’s face lights up too, he is still a little kid. The teaching opportunities are obvious and student receptivity is tangible. I wish we could bottle the student engagement from exciting programs like the Jason Project.

There are many examples of programs like these that are trying to bring experiential learning in to the classroom. They are still too isolated and need to become more of an everyday activity than a rare special treat for students as a break from the usual mind numbing classroom routine. I agree with W.B. Yeats when he said “education is not the filling of a bucket, but the lighting of a fire”. If we want to light a fire in each and every student we need to replicate in the classroom every day the same energy and enthusiasm we observe when the teacher proclaims, Field Trip! With all of the bandwidth and new technology available in our classrooms there is no reason that we can’t make every day a backwards field trip.

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Saul KaplanSaul Kaplan is the Founder and Chief Catalyst of the Business Innovation Factory (BIF). Saul shares innovation musings on his blog at It’s Saul Connected and on Twitter at @skap5.

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