By Angela Watson
After surviving 15.5 hours in coach with two young boys and my husband, my personal circus touched down in Sydney, Australia jet lagged but ready for adventure. We had one day to take in as much of Sydney as possible before moving on. Stationed in Old Sydney just a short walk to the harbor and with a view of the iconic Sydney Harbor Bridge from our hotel window, we set off on foot to see the sights.
First stop, the Museum of Contemporary Art, housed in an historic-meets-modern building, steps from the Sydney Harbor wharf where I happened upon two field trips or “excursions” as they are called there. The first was a group of 18-20 students who appeared to be about 8 years old, seated on the ground in front of the museum. They were dressed in decorated smocks and each had on one of three different hats. These appeared to be costumes of some sort. I noticed two amazing things about this field trip. First, there was one female docent leading this large group of young children, and not another adult in sight! This would be absolutely unheard of in the U.S., where one docent might lead this many small children in a pinch, but there would at least be classroom teachers and parent chaperones to “help”. The other odd thing was that this field trip was taking place at 2:30 in the afternoon. I have never seen this in the U.S., where field trips are scheduled in the middle of the day due to logistical busing issues. Further, this wasn’t a one-off occurrence.
After the obligatory picture in front of the Sydney Opera House, we walked through the adjacent botanical gardens. There I observed two more field trips in progress at around 3:00 in the afternoon. One group of elementary age children wearing matching school t-shirts gathered around a young educator as they studied the flora. A second group, seated on the lawn, watched as another young educator demonstrated a variety of boomerangs and other tools.
At my destination, the Art Gallery of New South Wales which adjoins the botanical gardens, I observed two more groups. This time they were all boys, one a group of middle schoolers in green shirts and shorts and a second group who looked to be a little older dressed in blue. The first group was seated on a gallery floor, again with a single docent who was giving them directions about the drawing challenge she was about to give them. The older boys appeared to be wandering the museum unguided. Gasp.
As my family toured Australia, I continued to pop into art museums, called “galleries” here. I visited the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, a beautiful state-owned institution next door to a magnificent science museum. Here I saw hands-on studio and outdoor components as part of the field trip experience. Finally, while in Perth I toured the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Unfortunately, I was there on a Sunday and wasn’t able to observe any field trips, but I did see several urban parents with young children lined up at the doors at 9:59am waiting for the 10:00am opening.
It certainly appeared that the field trip scene in Australia was quite robust, but it is worth mentioning that the school year was ending in Australia as they were beginning their summer break. It is possible that every day looks like this in the Aussie excursion world, or that it was busier because everyone was taking field trips before the end of the year. Whatever the case, there were several important things that I noticed about what Australian arts and culture institutions are doing that we in the U.S. might consider.
Field trips are free in Australia- well at least to the institutions I visited, including the botanical gardens and science museum. Further, each of the institutions I visited was directly adjacent to several other arts or cultural institutions. Both the low cost and high access could work in tandem to encourage students and their teachers to make a day of their excursion. There is a trend in the U.S. for new museums to be located in cultural centers or next to science discovery museums; in Bentonville, Arkansas; Miami, Florida; and Milwaukee, Wisconsin to name a few.
Field trips in Australia are occurring much later in the day than they are in the U.S. This is interesting when considering how field trips work in the U.S. Stateside, we rely on school busses to get kids from schools to arts institutions for field trips. This is problematic for several reasons. First the cost of the bus is a very real deterrent to schools attending field trips, especially for schools who can’t afford the extra bus cost. If the cost of the bus isn’t enough of a problem, there are the logistical constraints. The busses pick up kids from their homes, drop them off at school, then pick them up from school and take them to the field trip, then return them to school before dismissal so that the busses can then resume their originally scheduled purpose of returning kids back home. The long and short of this busing gymnastics is that school field trips must be scheduled between 10:00am and 1:00pm. This constraint seriously limits the capacity of arts institutions because they can only see a certain number of students in that small of a time window. In Australia, I never saw a single school bus parked outside any of these cultural institutions. In America, each school brings a school bus and the streets in front on the museums are lined with these busses, parked and waiting. It does seem rather inefficient.
Further, the busing constraint and resulting abbreviated visiting window seriously limits WHO leads the field trips that are offered. Most U.S. museums use volunteer docents to staff school field trips. By limiting field trip times to roughly 3 hours in the middle of the day, you also limit the type of people who are leading field trips to those who are available during those times. There appears from my interviews with museum educators across the country (forthcoming in my dissertation), a growing consensus that staff educators, as opposed to volunteer docents, may be the next wave of arts education reform because there is a concerning disconnect between the diversity of those lead, and their volunteer docent leaders. School field trips are the most diverse groups to set foot in art museums. However, the folks who volunteer to lead these diverse students are largely white, retired (aka relatively wealthy), and female. The racial, gender, socioeconomic, cultural, and generational gaps are evident. If field trips were available at more diverse times, possibly museums could more easily recruit diverse volunteers.
Field trips in Australia appeared to have larger touring groups and fewer adult supervisors than in the U.S. Perhaps, Aussie kids are more reserved (I didn’t witness much difference). It is equally plausible that they visit museums more often and therefore have more experience with museum etiquette. Also possible is that we have smaller touring groups in the U.S. due to lowered student expectations. Whatever the case, lower student to adult ratios do several things. It increases the number of adults needed on a touring day which costs more either in staff pay or in docent training. It also means that classroom teachers usually tag along on the field trip to “help”. Some museums actually require one parent/teacher chaperone for every 8 students on a tour. While this seems like a necessity or at least a good idea, I have seen instances of the classroom teachers usurping the docent’s authority, taking over the discussion, or worse, squelching it. I have seen stressed classroom teachers threaten students, always boys, with never going on a field trip again for small infractions. Sometimes students are so scared of their teacher’s retribution that it casts a pall over the entire experience. These teachers may be fine in their own controlled environments within the confines of the classroom, but taking the show on the road, into a building filled with priceless works of art may not bring out the best in them. In Australia, I saw several field trips with a single docent in charge of a large number of students with no other adult present. Obviously this has certain risks, but if well done the benefits could outweigh the risks. Relieving teacher stress and even separating them from their young charges during the experience could help everyone get more out of the day, and larger student to adult ratios could help to facilitate this. Larger student to adult ratios could also be a step towards affordable staff led tours.
From my observations of Australian arts and culture field trips I am curious to find out more about increasing field trip capacity in the U.S. by mitigating busing constraints. Many museums offer something akin to a busing scholarship where there are funds available to reimburse schools for busing costs. Alternatively, possibly American museums could increase capacity and widen the field trip visiting window by using those funds to charter private busses or to run a fleet of their own busses, that could be at the school earlier and later than the school busses can. Wider visiting hours, even 9:00 am to 2:00 pm, could also open the door to more diverse docent volunteers who might be able to lead a tour in the early morning or later afternoon hours, thus helping abate diversity and inclusivity concerns.
Angela Watson is a Distinguished Doctoral Fellow and Research Assistant in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.