NOW READING: Museum Field Trips—How Museums Differ from the Classroom

Museum Field Trips—How Museums Differ from the Classroom

This is the second in a series of articles from guest writer Stephen Berer focusing on literacies, fluencies, and projects for museums and classrooms. If you missed it, you can read the first article in the series here.

In my previous article I outlined the three primary tools I use to help prepare teachers and students for engaging, educationally meaningful museum visits. They are:

  • visual literacy
  • solution fluency
  • project-based learning

If you are taking your students to a museum or on a field trip, these are the best tools I know to help guide you in building a lesson plan that will not simply walk you through the building, but will be fun and educationally meaningful for you as well as your students.

In future articles I will discuss templates for projects and lessons that you can easily customize to dovetail seamlessly with your curriculum (and I invite you to participate in that discussion, and to share your ideas and lessons). I will outline effective ways to use these tools so that your students will actively and enthusiastically sign on to your learning expectations.

However (and this is a BIG however), these three tools are not enough. The museum (and field trip) experience takes place in a very different environment from your classroom. That may seem obvious, but let’s take a look at the differences, so that you can help your students maintain their focus to insure they have an engaging educational experience.

The Benefits of a Museum/Field Trip

  1. Students are energized by the excitement and anticipation of leaving the school environment.
  2. The transportation to and from the museum/site is often a pleasant open-social time.
  3. Students have the opportunity to see new things and learn about them in a more unstructured way.
  4. Students have the opportunity to determine what they learn and how they learn it. Said differently, student learning can be interest-driven, not teacher- and curriculum-driven.
  5. Students will experience a more holistic, integrated picture of the information that, in the classroom, may have only been presented in a textual and abstract way.
  6. Museums and many other kinds of field trips are multi-media experiences. Therefore, learning is enriched and reinforced with superimposing sensory and intellectual inputs.
  7. Most museums are designed to stimulate curiosity and actively engage the visitor, so you have a very professional partner working with you to help your students learn.
  8. In some museums you can arrange for your class to meet with a museum educator, often in a private classroom, to facilitate directed learning and/or provide a question-answer session.
Wide open spaces and many rooms

Impediments to Learning on a Museum/Field Trip

Your  classroom provides structure, limits, and authority to focus student attention and behaviour. All of these are seriously diminished or entirely dispensed with on a field trip. Therefore, in spite of your high expectations, the museum trip may end up having little or no educational impact on your students.

  1. Too often, for too many students, the trip becomes a texting opportunity or a socializing event.
  2. In open spaces and without close supervision, many students may simply not have the discipline or interest to pay attention to what they’re seeing.
  3. Moving through rooms and/or open spaces, students can get lost from the group. Suddenly everyone’s attention is turned to finding the missing student(s) instead of being absorbed in the learning opportunity at hand.

Field trips take students into public spaces. Therefore, even if your students are disciplined and interested, the multimedia environment and the public bustle and noise will most likely be distracting. Also, if you’re in an enclosed public space (like a museum, as opposed to a park or battlefield), you can’t talk to your students as a whole group.

Indeed, even in small groups, you will be limited in your ability to lecture or open a discussion. The multimedia environment and the public noise will definitely distract your students, and your discussions can disturb other visitors. These factors will deteriorate the quality of any kind of small group discussion you might try to have.

Crowds at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum

Besides the problem of public spaces, your field trip can take you to many different kinds of places. Each place has its own narrative and pacing.

Consider these four different kinds of museums:

  • American history museum
  • Holocaust museum
  • Aviation museum
  • Art museum

Each of these museums has a very different story to tell, and they will probably tell it in very different ways.

An art museum may arrange its collection thematically (impressionism, modernism, Renaissance, etc), but there’s virtually no narrative connecting one object to another, or one room to another. How, then, will your students understand what they’re seeing, or remember the art once they leave the museum?

An aviation museum may arrange its collection chronologically, at least to some extent, and that will help your students contextualize the information, but such museums are usually exceedingly popular. Your students may experience large, noisy crowds that will be highly distracting. You may find yourself spending most of your time making sure they don’t get separated from the group, and looking for those who inevitably do get separated.

A Holocaust museum may arrange its collection chronologically (that’s good), and even if there are large crowds, you can expect them to be hushed and thoughtful (that’s good too). However, the material is usually so emotionally charged and troubling that your students’ emotions may well shut down their intellect. (Indeed, that’s a common response, in my experience.) Very likely they will emerge with intense emotions and a few strong visual memories, but no new understanding or insight into how and why it all happened.

Emotionally overwhelming

An American history museum will be thematic and/or chronological in its presentation (that’s good). The material, at least in part, will probably be familiar to your students (that’s good too). Very likely it will not be emotionally overwhelming (third good thing). But here, students will incline to fall back on what they already know.

A fact here or an image there may catch their eye, but how can you keep them from becoming bored and turning their experience into a clandestine texting game?

These are some of the problems you may face if you want your museum/field trip to be educationally meaningful. Not to worry! From here on out, I’ll be presenting solutions to these problems, and project templates to help you build engaging, active learning experiences.

In my next article in early April, I’ll discuss why my favorite museum in DC, though rarely visited by school groups, could become your favorite museum, too!

Tell me what you think, or describe a positive or negative experience you’ve had on a field trip. What did you learn from it, or how can we help you make it better the next time?

Steve Berer is an educator, author, and founder of Museum Exploration Partners, an independent education company that strives to turn your trip to Washington into a life-changing experience. Visit them at