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Building a Well-Rounded Education: Field Trips and Hamlet with Dr. Jay Greene

Sometimes my mom pokes fun at my dad for being a little portly. His response is always the same: “I’m just a well-rounded individual.” But while my dad’s goal (every year) is to make himself narrower around the middle, that may be exactly the opposite of what we want to see in our children’s education.

Jay Greene, already one of my favorite academics due to his work on school choice, has most recently taken to arguing for wider ranging liberal (no, not that kind of liberal) education in American schools. He begins a recent post on the topic thusly:

Some people seem determined to narrow education.  I’ve been trying to make the case for a well-rounded, liberal education, but that idea has less support than I realized.  In their effort to maximize math and reading test scores, schools have sometimes narrowed their focus at the expense of the arts and humanities.

That narrowing focus often cuts programs like art, music, drama, field trips, and extracurricular activities. Some have even gone so far as to attack athletics in schools, accusing them of being silly distractions unfit for kids who would like to get ahead in the real world. In a New York Times article posted yesterday, Amanda Ripley from the New America Foundation wrote:

The problem is the dishonesty. By mixing sports and academics, we tempt kids into believing that it’s O.K. if they don’t like math or writing — that there is another path to glory.

Clearly Amanda is out of touch. I mean, who needs to practice math when there’s an app for that? Oh, stop. Put your pitchforks down, friends. I’m only kidding. I’m a big supporter of both sports and academics, and I believe the two can (and should) exist in harmony.

But what about other stuff like field trips or “cultural enrichment”? Sure, they sound kind of fluffy, but we may need to think twice before dismissing such activities as frivolous distractions.

Dr. Greene’s previous research has found that something as simple as a field trip to a museum can have significant positive effects on kids’ learning. And just recently, Greene and his colleagues published a study that found similar effects on kids who were taken to see live theater productions of plays like A Christmas Carol and Hamlet. The study’s conclusion sum things up nicely:

Culturally enriching field trips matter. They produce significant benefits for students on a variety of educational outcomes that schools and communities care about. This experiment on the effects of field trips to see live theater demonstrates that seeing plays is an effective way to teach academic content; increases student tolerance by providing exposure to a broader, more diverse world; and improves the ability of students to recognize what other people are thinking or feeling.

As always, more research will be necessary to fully explore these findings. But in the meantime, it sure sounds to me like I should go on more field trips. And who knows? Maybe I can even play sports.