Experiential learning has taken a back seat to test-driven education, but here’s why it still matters. This was written by Matthew Wheelock is a former teacher and the executive eirector of Live It Learn It, a Washington D.C.-based non-profit organization.

By Matthew Wheelock

My 4th grade students struck gold a decade ago when I was a teacher at Walker-Jones Elementary School in the District. Like many low-income kids in D.C. public schools, my students had little access to vital educational resources and routinely scored poorly on standardized tests. But this day offered new hope.

During the last practice session leading up to the official standardized test they had to take, my students encountered a reading passage about French artist Henri Matisse. Normally, such a passage would flummox my students – even the name “Matisse” might throw them off. But my students knew all about Matisse: several months before, I had taken them on a field trip to the National Gallery of Art, where they had learned about Matisse’s paintings and cut-outs.

As the class encountered the excerpt about Matisse, every hand in the room shot in the air: “Mr. Wheelock! It’s Henri Matisse!”  They quickly dove back into their test booklets, smiling as they drew upon personal experience to interpret the questions. After the test, they excitedly told me about the passage in detail, acting as if they had secret knowledge that helped them get the answers right.

 That trip to the National Gallery – and other similar trips we took – made my students more confident, more motivated, and more successful in their daily learning and on the standardized tests. My students’ experience was not unusual. A new study released by the University of Arkansas found that visiting an art museum even just one time made students more observant, analytical, empathetic, and tolerant — and the benefits were greater for low-income students.

The powerful effect that field trips had on my students inspired me in 2005 to create Live It Learn It, a non-profit organization that partners with D.C. schools and cultural resources to offer students academically rigorous field trips to two dozen local sites. My experience with Live It Learn It highlights a problem that is often overlooked in conversations about education reform. Much of what we call the “achievement gap” is better described as an “experience gap” – the vast gulf in personal educational experiences between many low-income students and their middle and high-income peers. This experience gap starts early and widens as students get older, manifesting itself in grades, test scores, and college attendance rates.

Long before their children enter kindergarten, many more affluent parents offer an endless stream of experiential learning opportunities that engage their children and give them personal knowledge about the world. By the time they reach testing age, these students have a keen understanding of the connection between classroom learning and the world around them – and a vast store of personal experience and knowledge upon which they can draw when confronted with standardized test questions.

By contrast, my students spent more time in passive activities such as watching television and had little personal interaction with the learning opportunities that exist nearby. The dominant educational model today does little to address this.  Many schools either neglect experiential learning or do it haphazardly. Under pressure from the testing demands of No Child Left Behind, school leaders may fear that experiential learning is too costly, in terms of money and classroom time, both of which could be spent preparing students to take tests. Many principals and teachers are interested in integrating experiential learning into their classrooms, but they often lack the curricular infrastructure and prior experience they need to do it with appropriate rigor.

The end result is predictable. Students with a vast array of personal experiences have the intellectual flexibility and internalized knowledge to respond to a variety of unfamiliar questions and subject matter; students with fewer personal experiences that relate to school learning must fall back on shallow classroom knowledge and test-taking strategies that seek to mask their lack of deep understanding of the material. It should be little wonder, then, that standardized tests show a profound “achievement” gap.

To bridge the experience gap, schools should reinvigorate the much-maligned field trip. When done right, a field trip is an inexpensive but powerful form of experiential learning that can boost academic skills and motivate students to excel – both of which are critical to insuring a student’s long-term academic success.

The problem, of course, is how to do them well. To be effective, a field trip must be carefully planned and implemented as one component of a broader classroom unit. Teachers must provide rigorous pre-trip instruction to maximize the learning opportunity offered by the trip.  The trip itself should be academically intensive, with guided activities that immerse students in the experience. After the trip, students should have an opportunity for guided reflection about academic concepts examined during the trip.

As a new school year dawns, teachers and principals alike should think creatively about how to give their students firsthand experience with the wealth of learning opportunities that exist in our area. By integrating rigorous, academically focused field trips into the learning model, they can help deepen their students’ well of experiences. Not only will their students grow more confident and enjoy learning more, they will also do better on the tests. Just ask my former students at Walker-Jones.