by Jo Anne Weinberg, BA, MEd
You have seen many articles that give advice about preparing for a field trip. They mention packing lunches; bus, metro, and plane schedules; medicines; comfortable shoes; sun block; and fun things to do while standing in line. There is, however, another very important preparation that is too often overlooked in the hustle, bustle, and excitement of getting on the road. That preparation is called “Building Prior Knowledge.” For me, it is the single most important component for youngsters and adults. As a tour guide and one that teaches new guides at the Library of Congress to give tours to children, one thing is very clear—children with prior knowledge learn more and participate fully in the experience if they have advance information. Children visiting the Library of Congress and other historical places without prior knowledge glean less and miss out on their opportunity to be actively involved.
Prior Knowledge means that children are introduced to the activity before it happens. Consider a restaurant you want to go to. How about a book you want to read or a movie you want to see. What sparked your interest? Was it the poster, the book’s cover, a friend’s recommendation, or are you familiar with the actors or the author? Perhaps it is something you already know but want more information. Children get excited and involved when they have some information; an introduction. They become comfortable with the new activity.
I greet visitors while they are standing in the security lines to enter the Library. Recently I heard a young boy ask,” What is in here?” His mother responded, “Just wait and see. It’s a surprise.” The child is asking because he did not want to be left in the dark. He wanted to be prepared. Surprises are great for birthdays, but not so great for learning. There is even prior knowledge for birthdays: the child knows they will be receiving a gift. How much more interesting would it be for that youngster to be anticipating the visit based on information. The key to being a great learner is to be an active learner. Below are two easy ways you can build that knowledge and ensure an active learner on you next field trip. Then there is the final activity to tie it all together.
Help Your Child Anticipate the Field Trip
There are many avenues available to help you with this, especially in this era of the Internet. For instance, if you are visiting Washington DC, select the places you want to visit. Children can read books or check out websites to help them become familiar with what to expect. If you have a multi-age group with readers and early readers don’t leave those early readers out. Show them pictures. This does not mean hours of study and research, just spend some time helping the children to build interest and expectations.
Ask Questions Before You Go On the Field Trip
Now that the children have a sense of what they will see and where they are going, encourage ownership of the trip. What do they want to know? Without a doubt, if you are visiting Washington, DC, or any major city, you will be visiting a number of different places. I suggest a limit of one or two questions for each place. Too many questions become frustrating or intimidating. Write those questions down. Now each child has a purpose for the field trip. The child is there to get information.
Guidelines for Questions:
- limit the number of yes/no and true/false questions
- Avoid questions with dates and numbers, usually they can be easily researched, are easily memorized without adding any real understanding, and may stress some children to “remember the right number” rather than the important information.
Always Discuss the Experience Afterwards
Discussion allows everyone to share opinions and ideas. It helps to revisit the day, or ask about information that made an impact, or about a specific place. These types of questions encourage higher level thinking. Sample questions are: If you could revisit one of the places we went to today, which one would you select? Why? Describe your favorite part of this tour and you least favorite part and explain why. Inviting the child to participate in an informal review allows them to think about what was learned. It also gives you the opportunity to listen and build bridges between the field trip and other activities. Before long, the child will be creating her own higher level thinking questions.
Now, let’s revisit the young boy in the Library of Congress security line. I concluded his mother told him he would be surprised because she did not know what she would see either. I asked if I could share some of the things they would be seeing, and not surprisingly, they were both eager to hear. I told them they would see the most expensive metal available in the late 1800s and they would see a perfect copy of the Gutenberg Bible. As you might imagine, they both had more questions as did everyone else in the line. That was one excited young man. After the tour was over he was eager, almost brimming over with all he learned. He could tell me the name of the metal and found out why the Gutenberg Bible is so special. That is what we want for our children. We want them to be knowledgeable, active learners.
When we prepare for field trips let’s not forget to prepare for learning.
About the author:
Jo Anne Weinberg is a volunteer docent at the Library of Congress and a former professional program specialist for the Library of Congress. She creates and publishes educational tour guide booklets to help parents and children get the most from their field trips to historic and cultural places. Jo Anne is also available for speaking engagements.