Monday, March 3, 2014

Using Field Trips to Learn About Concepts

Field trips are one of the highlights of many students' school experience. They're remembered for many years afterward. Additionally, these trips to outdoor learning centers, museums, and performance halls provide experiences to children who might not normally have the opportunities to go to such places.

However, field trips can also be remarkable opportunities for learning about life's big ideas. In a Primary Years Program, we call these big ideas concepts: mental constructs that are timeless, abstract, universal, and transferrable to a variety of contexts.

Just like in our classrooms, when we take kids on a field trip, we cannot leave student learning about concepts up to chance. We cannot assume that they'll just learn these abstract concepts by simply going on the trip. Rather, it is imperative that we set up opportunities for students to engage with these complex ideas either before, during, or after the field trip, so that they are able to construct their own conceptual understanding.

Recently, as the sixth grade teachers were preparing to take their students to a history museum, they contemplated the question, "What do we want the students to understand after they've left?" It is important to note here that individual teachers had particular hopes and dreams regarding what their students got out of the experience to the history museum. However, they synthesized all their ideas and collaboratively came up with the following conceptual understanding: The students understand that history is made up of real stories of real people that have many different perspectives.

Next, teachers asked themselves, "How will we know that they understand it?" Teachers thought that by asking their students upon their return, "What is history?" they'd be able to make their students' thinking visible about the concept of history. This type of question asks students to concentrate on the subject's form, a key concept in the PYP.

Once the students returned from the History Center, one teacher grouped the students into small groups of 3-4 students to answer the question. Based on the groups' responses, the class created the following concept map.

Day 1 (green); Day 2 (blue)
After a two-day discussion, students were able to identify that history, in addition to being important events that people will or should remember, facts, and details in the past, involves people and their stories. To further develop the students' conceptual understanding of history, the teacher continued the same process with all the other PYP key concepts (function, causation, connection, change, perspective, reflection, & responsibility).

Based on this story, ask:
  • How do you use field trips to expand and deepen your students' conceptual thinking?
  • Do you find it is effective?
  • Is there a way to change how you use field trips to strengthen students’ conceptual thinking to have a greater impact on their learning?

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