Schools and Museums: Interview with Paula Gangopadhyay

Paula Gangopadhyay is the Chief Learning Officer at The Henry Ford, which is a multi-site destination located in Dearborn, Michigan. It consists of the Henry Ford museum, Greenfield Village, Benson Ford Research Center, Ford Rouge factory Tour, IMAX and a public charter school, The Henry Ford Academy. Prior to joining The Henry Ford, Paula’s leadership roles included Executive Director of the Plymouth Community Arts Council and Curator of Education, Public Programs, Visitor Services and Volunteers at the Public Museum of Grand Rapids. Paula has also worked closely with schools as Executive Director of the Commission for Lansing Schools Success.

It is worth noting that Paula has significant institutional support for the work she is doing at The Henry Ford. She notes that, “The Henry Ford was initially conceptualized as Edison Institute, a school where Henry Ford wanted students to ‘learn by doing’, and only later opened as a museum, so education is in the DNA of the institution. When I was hired in 2008, the institution felt that we had a bigger role to play in education, but they didn’t know at that stage what that role would be. I was humbled to be given this responsibility to envision changing the paradigm for education, not just for The Henry Ford, but for the American education system.”


In the Center for the Future of Museums’ “Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem” you highlight The Henry Ford’s new educational website,, and the way you are using this website with teachers. What is the relationship between the site and school visits?

As we all know the K-12 curriculum is a mile long and an inch deep. There are so many standards in each subject area that teachers are rushing through each topic, but not really able to give kids the opportunity to learn or analyze in depth.

Most museums align K-12 programs with existing state and national education standards. Very few museums take an advocacy role. At The Henry Ford we are taking an advocacy role – we are advocating for changing the curriculum. How can teachers change how they engage students? How can teachers offer deep-dive content exploration opportunities to students? How can they make room for creativity and innovation? And how can we at The Henry Ford support this work?

We get over 200,000 school visitors each year. Teachers have traditionally brought students to our venues and used resources we provided, or designed their own scavenger hunts. We said, “Let’s create some innovative and content-rich pre-visit digital modules that the teachers can use to set the context for the field trip.” This led to the establishment of a multi-pronged digital platform housing classroom resources that can be tapped by any teacher. For teachers bringing students to The Henry Ford, it can really deepen the students’ experience and make the field trip a true learning trip. We also created some post-visit learning experiences, where kids could synthesize what they saw, digitally play around and express their understanding with some of the artifacts that they might have seen while on a field trip.

Often museums create resources, and place them on their websites, and teachers still don’t know about them. How do you tell teachers about these resources?

That is very true. We have a long way to go still as most teachers – even those who bring their students on field trips to The Henry Ford – have no idea about all these new digital resources we have created for them. It’s a constant educational process.

Our Call Center makes teachers aware of related curricula when teachers book a trip. We hold annual educator open houses. We had more than 800 teachers and guests come to open houses this year. They become our ambassadors and tell other teachers.

We started sending out about 75,000 hard copies of the ‘Educator Guide’ that lists all our onsite and online programs, the educational topics, and where teachers can go on the website to find the curriculum connections, as that is still the most critical element to justify a field trip. All our online resources are currently offered as free downloads, for teachers to use as they want.

We have since introduced e-newsletters. We have over 22,000 e-subscribers, and every month we highlight engaging ways teachers can use our resources before and after visits. We also have partnerships with PBS and other national distribution channels that list our resources and reach large numbers of teachers.

Educator Open House 2

Teachers at an Open House at The Henry Ford


How many classrooms are using the OnInnovation website? How do you know that teachers are using it in conjunction with a visit to The Henry Ford?

We developed digital curricula supporting various topics that we have expertise on, such as Transportation in America, America’s Industrial Revolution, American Democracy and Civil Rights, and more. Then we presented them to teachers, to see what they would use. We found that because innovation is such a hot topic in the education arena, and because The Henry Ford has unduplicated assets on innovation, our Innovation 101 curricula became very popular.

Once we learned that, we tested the Innovation 101 curriculum by training 40 teachers to use it with 1000 students nationwide. They gave us positive feedback, saying that it was a very effective tool in engaging students and teaching innovation, STEM and 21st Century skills. (Evaluation results from this pilot program can be found here.)

We are now scaling up that effort nationally to reach 5000 teachers over five years through the Innovation Learning Accelerator. We plan to individually reach out to all the teachers (nearly 5000-6000) who bring their classes on field trips to The Henry Ford every year, and explicitly invite them to join the Innovation Learning Accelerator initiative.

Are you offering all 5000 teachers professional development?

Yes. We are offering on-site and on-line professional development. The on-site professional development is a 6 hour workshop.

We teach teachers how to teach innovation to the students. In the process we share insights on how they can unlearn traditional ways of teaching – how, instead of being a “sage on a stage” they can be facilitators of learning, encouraging students to learn from failures and think in new ways. Teachers leave the workshop with an instructional kit; they are asked to take the kit and implement the curriculum during the school year. They don’t have to implement it exactly how we have taught them – we empower them to infuse their own creative ideas. They love being given that flexibility. Once they implement it, we ask them to fill out an online survey about how the implementation went. That way we are constantly improving our offerings and learning what works.

The online workshop is two-and-a-half or three hours, through video conferencing and conference calls. We have staff who are constantly following up with these teachers.

We are in the first year of this five year plan. We are steadily inching close to training 250 teachers and may exceed the first year target goal of 500 teachers, as there’s a lot of interest.

It sounds to me like you have an overt agenda – teaching content around innovation – but also a more important covert agenda, to change the way teachers teach.

Yes. That’s where the advocacy comes in. We are not only sharing our content, but we are teaching them a new methodology of teaching as this generation of students can be engaged very effectively if we adjust our ways of teaching them. Our innovator stories guide us in believing that allowing creativity in education is essential.

We are also helping teachers become innovative leaders. Many times we hear the educational community complaining about not having enough resources, such as funding. We teach teachers how to be resourceful, a key trait of innovators.  We teach them that by being innovative and resourceful, they can still do a lot, against all odds.

I want to step back to a very basic question. Why should museums offer school tours?

True learning is not just about acquiring new knowledge but about processing knowledge and then exhibiting it in real-world situations. Making relevant connections is essential for absorption and retention of knowledge – this has been proven over many years by brain research I regularly attend Learning and the Brain conferences; Dr Judy Willis talks about how students, focus and memory can be enhanced with practical engagement strategies. Field trips offer a layered learning experience that can help a child think critically which automatically supports the retention of information. Field trips help people develop into divergent thinkers.

The other thing that research has proven again and again is that there are many kinds of learners, and there should not be a one-size-fits-all way of teaching. Field trips are multi-dimensional learning experiences, which make learning by osmosis possible. Especially for kids who are creative learners, who don’t learn the rote way, the field trip might be the only way to learn.

Because we have assets that no other institution has about American innovation, and the United States needs more innovators and STEM practitioners, we feel that we have a responsibility to help develop the next cadre of innovators. We want to walk the walk on our recently adopted vision statement which is, The Henry Ford will be a nationally recognized destination and force for fueling the spirit of innovation and inspiring a ‘can-do’ culture.  If Edison, Ford, Wozniak, Gates and others could do it, YOU can do it, too.

What if teachers could teach these critical thinking and innovation skills without museums? What if your professional development were so successful that teachers could do this in the classroom, on their own? Would there still be any reason for schools to visit museums?

Absolutely, there will always be a reason for schools to visit museums because what we offer is not just methodology, it is content – content that is not available in books. Museum visits are also about experiential holistic learning experiences.

I see our role as catalysts that bring about positive change with how we teach and what we teach. Teachers are already asking me for more innovation teaching units. The content that we have can be constantly deployed by teachers. Museums, whether we are small, medium, or large, have unique content, collections, and sometimes local stories. We are the providers of ‘relevant content’ that schools need. I don’t think we can ever become obsolete. In fact, I see the opposite happening. I envision newer, tighter ‘co-creation’ partnerships developing between teachers and museums to benefit today’s learners. We haven’t even scratched the surface.

What would school tours look like in an ideal world?

In the ideal world, students would have enough contextual information given to them in the classroom so that when they come to the museum they are curators themselves. They would be recognizing artifacts, making connections, discussing diverse viewpoints among themselves, asking pertinent questions of museum presenters and then interpreting the artifacts and exhibitions. Students would be divergent thinkers and knowledge creators themselves. In the ideal scenario we, the museum staff, are facilitators for the teachers, the teachers are facilitators for the students, and the students are the real knowledge creators and presenters. It’s all about empowered education.


Students visiting The Henry Ford


What kinds of knowledge are they creating? After all, you don’t want them creating or inventing history.

They would be juxtaposing historical knowledge – or content from, say, a science museum – and juxtaposing it with relevant examples from their life, or what they know from social media and their own explorations. There is no way one teacher or one museum can offer all the information these kids have access to today. The knowledge or interpretations they might create may be something we can’t anticipate and should not try to manage. For example, students may want to compare Edison with Steve Jobs, offering their own interpretations of common traits and phenomena.

So in your ideal scenario teachers are the facilitators, not tour guides hired by the museum?

Yes. Learning is best when it’s self-exploratory. The Henry Ford is one of the few museums that doesn’t offer the traditional docent-led tours at its venues, but we have strong history and education principles that guide every nugget of experience the visitor will have. We have very well-trained presenters at key exhibitions and buildings, who go through rigorous content and skills training for effective visitor engagement. We also offer many layers of added-value experiences such as dramatic presentations and arts and crafts demonstrations. So if a teacher is well informed about what we have, she can easily facilitate a stellar educational experience for the students.

But there is something which breaks my heart: teachers often have to rely heavily on chaperones, and many times we see the chaperones on phones or texting. As a result the experiences that the different student groups are getting may be totally varied in quality.

Ideally the teacher would have an orientation meeting or briefing or phone call with the chaperones. They would lay out the expectations for the learning goals, lay more responsibility on the chaperones. The chaperones’ role can be make or break for a kid. Museums might offer wonderful dramatic presentations and opportunities, and if chaperone is not managing time well, she may just be rushing them through a compromised learning experience.

It sounds like the pre-visit lesson is essential?

Yes. It comes back to what I said earlier about school learning being a mile long, inch deep. That’s where the paradigm needs to change. We need to make the knowledge deeper, more contextual. This can only happen if you scaffold the learning experience between the pre-visit, visit, and post-visit. The post-visit is equally important: it’s the opportunity for these knowledge creators to analyze and synthesize, and give their own perspective on a given issue.

One of the frameworks that I have used in my 20-year career is the 4 As of Learning – Acquisition, Association, Application and Assimilation. We as classroom and museum educators do a good job with the first three As. But where we fall through is with assimilation, because we do not really allow time for synthesis. That’s an opportune window in education for all of us to bring some positive change.

One thought on “Schools and Museums: Interview with Paula Gangopadhyay

  1. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Goals for Students | Museum Questions

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