What’s the Value of an Art Museum Field Trip?

Photo by Stephen Ironside

Photo by Stephen Ironside

By Anne Kraybill, School and Community Programs Manager, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

Early in my career, I worked at an art museum that experienced what many art museums have experienced, a steady decline in school tours. Our tours did not cost anything to the schools, we had a grant for some transportation and the school district had funding as well. As an institution, we were puzzled. If the tours were barrier-free in terms of cost, what could be causing this? This was just around the time of the initial implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and we had anecdotal evidence that preparing for the NCLB test was deterring administrators from approving field trips during the months preceding the exam.  But even in the non-test prep months, attendance was down.

As I progressed throughout my career, I continued to face the challenge of convincing administrators that a trip to the art museum is a worthy endeavor. Even with funding for transportation, it has been a difficult case to make with little rigorous research available to back up our arguments. Through my teaching practice in the gallery, I can see the connections students are making: the critical thinking and inference, and the expansion of their interpretive framework that opens up their world. But could it be proven? We needed hard numbers:  How does a one-time field trip to an art museum actually impact a student, and is that impact enough to convince an administrator?

Fortunately, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art inherently believes in the power of the field trip and the multiple effects it has upon student learning. Thanks to the generosity of the Willard and Pat Walker Charitable foundation, the Museum established a $10 million endowment that provides every school with transportation, substitute teachers, and a lunch for students during their museum visit. This makes a field trip barrier free and as one might imagine, the demand was high. Everyone wanted to visit the Museum when we first opened. But as I had experienced previously, financial barriers are not the only challenge to ensuring school visitation. How could we ensure that five or ten years from now we still had the same interest and support from school administrators?

Photo by Stephen Ironside

Photo by Stephen Ironside

Located in the Ozarks, Crystal Bridges is the first large art museum in the region. Prior to the opening of our Museum, schools would have to drive to Tulsa or Little Rock to visit an art museum. The combination of never having an art museum in the area, plus a demand for field trips that exceeded our Museum’s initial capacity, lent itself to a natural experiment. We contacted the University of Arkansas, Department of Education Reform to measure the impact a one-time field trip has upon students.

Researchers Jay Greene, Brian Kisida, and Daniel Bowen designed a random assignment study. Schools applied to visit the Museum in grade levels or pods. Groups were matched and then randomly assigned whether they would get the field trip right away, or if they would get the field trip later. Once the study began, the treatment group visited the Museum and the control group was surveyed. Following the field trip, the treatment group was surveyed (an average of three weeks after). The research was conducted from March through December 2012. There were almost 11,000 students and 489 teachers at 123 different schools throughout the region in this study.

Tour Methodology

Crystal Bridges school tours are similar to those at many art museums. We use interactive dialog that allows the tour to be student driven. Students make observations or statements and Museum Educators respond through paraphrasing, questions, or layering additional contextual information for the student to a level of understanding that they might not get to on their own. For many students and their teachers this is their first time on an art museum field trip. We want to be sure they know this is not about the passive reception of information. We emphasize to the students that this tour is about their ideas, and we produced a video to help deliver this message:

Tours are led by Museum Educators that are on staff rather than a volunteer corp. As they are leading tours daily, the educators are continually refining and reflecting. In addition, peer review and mentoring is part of the training process.

The Findings

Photo by Stephen Ironside

Photo by Stephen Ironside

The researchers were interested in revealing several areas of possible impact. These included cognitive and non-cognitive skills from knowledge acquisition, critical thinking, tolerance, historical empathy, and desire to visit museums in the future.

  • Overall, students remember what they learn from works of art! Shocking I know, but students were able to answer very specific questions about contextual information, demonstrating that they retained that information not because they had to for a test, but because it was interesting information to keep.
  • In critical thinking, students also displayed more observations and inferences if they had been on a field trip.
  • Students indicated that they would be more open to diverse opinions, even if they were in opposition to their own thinking.
  • Students were better able to imagine a situation unlike their own in the form of historical empathy.
  • There was also a built-in behavioral measure indicated if the treatment or control group would be more likely to come back to the museum. The treatment group did independently return with their families at a higher rate than the control. In all of the areas there is an impact, but the most significant impact is found within student populations that are considered to attend low-socio economic and/or rural schools.

With recent research in non-cognitive abilities as a predictor of student success, these findings help to make a rigorous case to administrators, policy makers, philanthropists, and educators that there is significant value in a field trip.

To learn more about the findings and research methodology, read the article in Education Next.

To hear the research team discuss the findings, view the September 16th Media Conference.

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About Author

AnneKraybillANNE KRAYBILL: School and Community Programs Manager at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. With a team of educators, she developed and implemented all programming related to K-12 students, teachers, and pre-service teachers as well as community groups. She has held positions at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, MD, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, the Center for Creative Education, and the Vero Beach Museum of Art. Prior to joining Crystal Bridges, she worked as the Art School Director at the Durham Art Council, managing visual and performing arts classes for over 3,000 youth and adult students annually. She is currently developing a distance learning initiative for Crystal Bridges and pursuing her Ph.D. in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Anne’s postings on this site are her own and don’t necessarily represent the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

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8 comments

  1. Anne — I just wanted to be one of many voices in congratulating you on the research you have done on the value of school tours and field trips! A powerful resource as we work with our own stakeholders to support the types of learning happening at our own institutions.
    I’d love to hear others’ thoughts about the study, and also use this as a space to open up some dialogue about what learning looks like in the art museum and how we can communicate its value and impact. Please add your thoughts and questions here.

  2. Anne, I am a museum educator who is fighting the same fight. Do I have your permission to reprint part of your article for distribution to teachers? Please let me know.

    Thanks!

    Constance

  3. mike, thanks for the support and I would love to continue the conversation. This is the start of what I hope will be many more research projects to help inform and advance the field.

    Constance, please disseminate to anyone that you think may benefit! The Education Next link can be forwarded on. in addition, there will be articles looking at critical thinking in more depth down the road, I’ll let everyone know when that comes out.

  4. Anne, thank you so much for your work on this subject. As a children’s museum grant writer, I have been referencing this work in my grant proposals and it has certainly strengthened them. I look forward to further articles…

  5. Pingback: Looking Back / Looking Ahead | Art Museum Teaching

  6. Hi everyone! I also wanted to share another great article that is a result of this research. http://edr.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/11/12/0013189X13512675.abstract

    This is focused on critical thinking.

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