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Field Trips: A Critical Element in Learning

Fabulous Field Trips

Contributed by Philip Shepherd, arts and humanities consultant for the Kentucky Department of Education

New discoveries about how the human brain processes information reinforce some of our long-held assumptions about learning. In recent years, more has been discovered about how we are able to store and retrieve information—in other words, our memory systems. Educators commonly use field trips as a way to solidify learning. New research and understanding of how the human brain processes information supports this practice and provides an understanding of why field trips are so important to learning.

We have different kinds of memory. We have short-term memory that enables us to remember just long enough to dial a phone number before forgetting it, and we have working memory that can last for a more extended time. Working memory enables us to cram for a test and retain the information long enough to transfer it to the test form the next day. Once we no longer need the memory, we begin to lose it. We also have long-term memory that we keep with us over very long periods of time, and even for an entire lifetime.

Brain research has helped us to understand that there are different ways that we create memory and different ways that memories are retrieved. These “memory pathways“ provide a map for educators as to how they can most effectively organize content and instruction so that students will be able to recall information over the long term. Research findings also help us understand various educational strategies and their impacts on students’ learning. Based on this knowledge, educators can intentionally use practices that are most effective in establishing long-term memory.

The Memory Pathways Table included in this section outlines our different memory systems. The chart outlines the different kinds of memory, the role of each kind of memory, examples of how we use each, and strategies that help to aid the creation of and retrieval of memories. It is important to note that all categories of memory are important; each plays an important role in the survival of the human species. But some play a greater role in relation to educational practices and remembering subject matter content.

For example, semantic memory is used when we repeat our times tables over and over again until we can recite them from memory. If we continue to do this, eventually we can create a conditioned response involving embedded memory that tells us when we see the symbols 6 × 6, the answer is 36. This is an example of over-learning or implicit memory. If we don’t repeat the times tables enough to enable this over-learning, we simply don’t remember them.

Our most powerful kind of memory in terms of capacity is episodic memory. There are “episodes” in our lives that we can recall clearly no matter how long ago they may have occurred. If we focus on an episode from our past, we can begin to recall more and more details about it based on what we have determined to be the important issues. We can also recall and even experience the same emotions that we experienced at the time of the episode. In fact, emotions can trigger the memory of the episode. This is an incredibly powerful kind of memory, and skillful educators make the best use of it.

Field trips are a critical tool for creating episodic memory. Episodic memory is created through sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, location, and emotions. Field trips combined with arts activities before, during, and after the experience enable students to create powerful memories that they can recall the rest of their lives. The arts help to provide emotional content for the episode and establish emotional triggers that enhance storage and recall of memories from the experience. This approach incorporates both explicit and implicit memory pathways, thus increasing the likelihood of retrieval.

Memory Pathways Table

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