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VIEWPOINT: What kids learn outside the classroom

May 15, 2006

Like many discoveries, my first "aha" moment about the importance of parents' involvement in their children's school success occurred when I was investigating something else.

In 1999, shortly after I arrived in Indianapolis to work at Conner Prairie, I set out to learn how kids rated their school visits to the museum. I located a fourth-grade teacher who would let me and museum researcher Jane Hetrick talk to students. She happened to be the teacher of an "Inquiry" class, Washington Township's name for its gifted-and-talented program.

I theorized that the Inquiry kids would have pretty much the same reactions to their school trips as kids in regular classes, although they might be a bit more articulate. Jane and I sat down with about two dozen 9- and 10-year-olds who had visited Conner Prairie the week before.

"How many of you had been to Conner Prairie before last week?" Jane asked. Nearly all the hands shot up. One boy volunteered, "My family are members." "How many others of you have family memberships?" Around eight hands went up. "How many go to Conner Prairie two or more times a year?" Well over half raised their hands.

Then nearly all the kids talked about visiting every other museum in Indianapolis and some around the country. I left Allisonville Elementary School wondering whether these families were taking their kids to so many places because they were so bright or, conversely, the kids were so bright because their parents were participating in their learning. I suspected the latter.

After that visit, I began to read what scholars say about how learning occurs and what factors contribute to school success. I found that ideas have changed in recent years. We used to think kids were "sponges" that absorb all the information given to them. Today, learning theorists such as John Falk, former president of the Institute for Learning Innovation, uses a different analogy, saying kids (and adults) are more like snowballs that build learning as they move along. New snow, which is learning, sticks together to make the ball grow bigger, adhering best to areas where previous learning, exposure or experience-especially experience-has occurred.

Everyone knows that if a subject comes up to which you have a personal connection, your interest immediately piques. For example, if your mother was an actress who frequently brought you to the theater, you might be more likely to read and remember plays by Shakespeare.

Jane and I followed our reading by studying how families interacted as they visited Conner Prairie. We put microphones on families and taped them through about an hour of their visit at the museum. We found that parents coached and prompted learning connections throughout their visits, saying things such as, "Do you remember when you read the book about the pioneers and it talked about ... ?" or "Did I ever tell you that when I visited my grandparents, I used to sleep on a horsehair mattress?" We followed our initial study with two subsequent, larger studies that confirmed our findings about the role of parents as learning facilitators.

I share this story to highlight the critical importance of learning that takes place outside the classroom. We know parents struggle with the family calendar, balancing soccer practice and ballet lessons, but when they can work in trips to these kinds of institutions, here or while on vacations, they are providing the opportunity to grow their children's actual learning. This is a critical consideration, too, as the state considers funding the costs of school field trips for these kinds of experiences.

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to share my story about the Inquiry class with the new, perceptive and articulate superintendent of Washington Township Schools, James Mervilde. After I told him my story, I asked him what he thought of the importance of parental involvement in encouraging learning. His answer was clear. He simply sighed and said, "Ah. Therein lies the achievement gap."



Rosenthal is president and CEO of Conner Prairie.
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