If you ask most adults to share what they remember most about their K-12 school years, there’s as good a chance as not that you’ll hear about an off site or out of school learning experience. Yet not surprisingly, field trips can be among the first things to go amidst financial and achievement pressures. Hopefully Jay Greene’s recent research on the impact of going to see live theatre, following upon an earlier study on the impact of field trips to art museums, showing the tangible benefits of such trips will serve as a useful corrective and engender deeper commitment and investment to such offsite, experiential learning opportunities.
Brief background about the study: Greene evaluated 670 students, who were divided into two groups. The first group of students was chosen at random to see a live theater performance of either Hamlet or A Christmas Carol, while the second group either read the texts of the plays or watched film versions. When compared with their peers in the second group, the students who attended live theater scored significantly higher on a vocabulary test that incorporated language from plays, and they were also better able to answer questions about the plot and characters, according to Greene's findings.
The live theater group also scored higher on tests that measured their tolerance of diverse points of view and ability to detect emotions in other people. Those gains were still measurable six weeks after students attended the live theater performance, Greene said. Not a bad return on investment, eh? This builds upon Greene’s early study of students visiting art museums that found significant benefits in knowledge, future cultural consumption, tolerance, historical empathy, and critical thinking.
Of course not all offsite experiences are inherently, or equally, enriching. Greene’s work has focused on arts-oriented experiences and it will be valuable to have rigorous research on everything from trips to amusement parks to conducting oral histories in one’s neighborhood. Furthermore, we shouldn’t be valuing such things solely for their impact on academic knowledge but rather in the context of overall youth development. But knowing that such experiences benefit academic AND holistic development is an added boon.
Greene wants to broaden the measures used to assess educational outcomes (impressive coming from a conservative) and to better understand the role cultural institutions may play in producing those outcomes so it will be exciting to follow his work. This field trip study was a modest one conducted with a relatively small group of students in a relatively homogenous suburban neighborhood. Greene plans to replicate the city in a large urban area with more diverse students and a larger array of art opportunities, and I suspect the results will be even MORE significant in such contexts. As Greene himself notes, “The point of culturally enriching activities is to take students to a place they don’t yet know they like and allow them to discover it’s something they might want to do on their own. That’s how we create cultural consumers for the future.” And beyond consumers, cultural producers and civic-minded stewards of the city. Here’s to it!