Inquiry-Based Learning

Using Inquiry to Create Inspiring Field Trips

When students approach a field trip with the goal of answering their own questions, they get to be in charge of what they learn.

June 5, 2023
Hero Images Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Field trips’ academic and social benefits are well-researched, but these events require thoughtful planning to maximize potential learning in a new and unfamiliar environment. Inquiry-based engagement offers educators a simple, versatile approach to place-based learning that they can adapt to fit any age group or content area. Educators know that lengthy and frequent interactions with physical and social features of an environment can stimulate more productive discussions about its content, leading to meaningful learning and deep connections to that location.

Inquiry techniques like those described below encourage students to pay close attention to their surroundings as they employ scientific thinking to decipher what their observations tell them about their new learning environment and its significance.

Ask Questions and Make Observations

Inquiry begins when students engage with their learning environment. Young learners can become overwhelmed when visiting new places; as the facilitator, you can provide academic, social, and cultural context to help them understand what aspects of the field trip destination they should focus on. Before your excursion, ignite the class’s curiosity by taking a first look at the location’s website or online resources together. 

Students in fourth through eighth grades and high school may be able to conduct brief independent research about the location to share with their peers. Model inquiry for your students by asking open-ended questions: “What service does this place provide to the community? What community events are coming up? What public figures are associated with this location?”

As the facilitator of inquiry, you’ll decide the purpose of your field trip: to make observations that inspire further questions or to collect data related to existing investigations. These goals will require a detailed record of what the participants saw and experienced during the field trip. Students might keep a simple journal to write, draw, or diagram different things they observe; encourage them to express their thoughts creatively through various media. Another option for recordkeeping could be to incorporate technology and adult engagement. You could ask chaperones to take pictures and videos at the students’ direction as their groups explore. 

Allow students time to linger on things that spark their curiosity without the pressure of an itinerary or final grade. It’s tempting to push groups to see everything they can before leaving the location, but remember: Long and frequent interactions with different exhibits or features are more likely to inspire productive discussions later on. Thirty seconds may seem like a low bar for engagement, but any element that can hold a child’s attention for that long has the potential to spark new ideas later on.

Uncover Comparative Questions and Explore Predictions

Questioning is at the heart of inquiry-based learning, but the ultimate objective is identifying questions that lead to critical and complex thinking. This investigation step can occur before departing your field trip location, when you return to the classroom, or even the next day—just don’t miss your chance to capture your students’ enthusiasm and curiosity about the trip.

Encourage students to share their observations and experiences and to look closer at the details they recorded: physical characteristics, spatial arrangements, and sensory qualities. In this step, a KWL (Know, Wonder, Learn) chart can be a helpful tool as students track their connections between the field trip and other personal experiences. Work together to find similarities and differences in the class’s observations.

After reexamining the experience, it’s time for your students to generate some questions that they can investigate further. These investigations may relate to the location, the community it serves, or a topic based on their observations. The key is to let the students generate the questions—this engages them in making meaningful connections to something they deem impactful.

As your learners brainstorm, work with them to rephrase closed-ended questions into new, more complex queries. Ask them to consider the following as they work: “How can this question add to our understanding of the world and how it operates?” and “Who might find this question especially interesting?” Uncovering questions that lead to a critical examination of preconceptions and thinking patterns is a skill that takes time and practice to develop. 

When you determine the purpose of your field trip, you also set expectations for how your students can independently and collaboratively work on their research. Take time for the group to plan and test the action steps of their research in small groups or as a whole class. Your investigators need space to process their successes and struggles as they try new investigative methods.

Reflect on Findings and Share Discoveries

For lasting and impactful learning, inquiry about place-based experiences should extend past the initial excitement of getting out of school to travel somewhere. Reflection is vital to inquiry because it allows the learner to identify effective strategies for future learning. Whether the final reflection product is an informal presentation, a written report, an interpretive art piece, or a public exhibition, it’s important for students to share what they’ve learned with others.

Consider what venues and approaches will allow your learners to reach the widest audience of peers, parents, guardians, and community members outside the classroom. Encourage students to share their experiences through quantitative and qualitative methods, and help them identify the parts of their investigations that are the most important or meaningful.

You don’t need to use every aspect of inquiry-based learning to nurture your students’ attachment to field trip destinations. Incorporating any of these strategies can help connect them to new places through combined experiential learning and collaborative interpretation of shared experiences. Inquiry-based learning empowers students to become creators of knowledge by using their experiences to inspire their explorations of the world around them.

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  • Inquiry-Based Learning
  • Place-Based Learning
  • Student Engagement

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