Schools and Museums: Interview with Daniel Willingham

Daniel Willingham is a Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia. Until about 2000, his research focused solely on the brain basis of learning and memory. Today, all of his research concerns the application of cognitive psychology to K-16 education. He writes the “Ask the Cognitive Scientist” column for American Educator magazine, and is the author of Why Don’t Students Like School?, When Can You Trust the Experts?, and Raising Kids Who Read (forthcoming).

Daniel Willingham


Why should schools visit museums?

There’s no doubt, as you have noted in previous posts, that the cost to teachers in time is high. It’s not just that they lose teaching time the day of the field trip. The amount of time they invest in making arrangements, organizing students, lining up chaperones – it’s an incredible nuisance for teachers. But there are things that can happen in a museum that can’t happen in a classroom.

There is a difference between seeing a great work of art, or a reconstructed skeleton of a dinosaur, and looking at a picture online or in a book or hearing teacher tell you about it. There’s something about being in the presence of physical objects that is really moving. Once you are an expert, a reproduction is notably not the same. When you’re a 4th grader you don’t have this expertise, but even so, being in the presence of a palpable object and being told it’s 400 years old is really motivating.

There is psychological research on the way people think about physical objects. In one study, people were asked to imagine a sweater, and then walked through various scenarios relating to the sweater’s previous existence.  When asked to imagine that this sweater had been worn by Hitler, people did not want to wear the sweater. Odd. It’s not like the shirt is now contaminated with the qualities of Hitler, but there’s some sense in which we feel like the shirt is contaminated. That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about the quality of being in the presence of physical objects, knowing what their histories are, that makes them more exciting than reading or hearing about them. [Note from Rebecca: On a related note, the Yale Daily News recently published the article, Contagion Helps to Explain Art Value.]

Herbert Simon once said about travel:

Anything that can be learned by a normal American adult on a trip to a foreign country (of less than one year’s duration) can be learned more quickly, cheaply, and easily by visiting the San Diego Public Library

Herbert Simon was one of the great thinkers of 20th century intellectual life – a towering figure in cognitive psychology, a Nobel Prize winner in economics, and the winner of similar recognition in computer science. In his autobiography he said that traveling was an incredibly inefficient way to gain knowledge.

As we have said, it takes a full day of school for kids to get an hour in the museum. So if the goal is information transmission – to maximize the knowledge kids are going to learn – museum visits are really inefficient. But museums are wonderful for school groups because you get something that goes far beyond information transmission – the possibility of enthusiasm and motivation.

The San Diego Public Library (although not the building with which Herbert Simon was familiar)

The San Diego Public Library (although not the building with which Herbert Simon was familiar)

Museums often articulate value for school visits in terms of the school curriculum. How do you see this enthusiasm and motivation as relating to the curriculum?

Like so many decisions that teachers and administrators are facing, field trips are a balancing act. There are many schools that feel there is no space for anything except standardized testing.

The word “curriculum”… You can make museum visits part of the curriculum, and have broader goals than particular content knowledge. For example, helping kids understand what excites and motivates and interests them can be part of the curriculum.

So it’s really about how you are creating a curriculum that is going to meet standards and goals for a particular school. A lot of educators are worried that their goals for education are being overwhelmed by standards that are being set externally.

If we understand the purpose of a school field trip to a museum as to excite and motivate kids, what needs to be in place to make field trips successful?

That’s no small challenge for teacher, because he or she needs to follow up. If your goal is simply for children to think of museums as exciting places, then the teacher would not need to do anything.

For a field trip to motivate… If a child sees and gets excited about a work of art or a science demonstration, or discovers an interest in animals, the teacher will want to pursue that and figure out how to help the child continue to pursue that interest, and how that interest can be leveraged in other content areas.

Museum educators often create class lessons for before or after the visit. But in this model, the teacher’s role is to respond to the individual child – it’s a more personal response.

It is certainly worthwhile for teachers to lead a whole-class preparatory or follow-up lesson. It will further interest for some students, and it also communicates to the whole class that the museum visit is taken seriously – worthy of preparation and thoughtful post-visit follow-up.

But individual follow-up is equally important. And the right way to follow up depends on who the child is, their age and abilities, and what they are interested in. If the child is in 8th grade, and is a strong reader, and you’ve lit a flame on a topic through a museum visit, the teacher may not need to do anything more than offer a very carefully selected book to the child, related to his or her interest and the museum content. That won’t work for 2nd grader, or for a weaker reader, so it’s hard to generalize.

You spoke about the appeal of objects. Some museums – science centers, children’s museums – don’t have objects. What about them? And arguably, more traditional object-centered museums are displaying fewer objects to make room for computers and other interactive displays.

The point of museums is that there is stuff there you can’t do at home. Think about art museums. You can access those works of art from home, but they are faint imitations. They are not faint because they are imperfect reproductions, but because you know it’s not the real thing. In science museums there are cool activities that you can’t do at home, which motivate and excite visitors.

As for web simulations… it seems to me what you are looking at an artificial copy. At science centers you can engage in activities that are much better than those you have access to at home. This is not true with computer interactive activities. Sure, you’re not going to get the same science content at home, but, depending on the age of the kids, they don’t care about that. They are not excited because the content of a computer game is science, they are excited because the activity or object is interesting and cool.

Talking as a parent – I take my seven- and nine-year-olds to science centers. They run up and start fiddling with touch screens because they are screens, not because they are interested in nutrition or whatever the content is. They like interactives because they like games, but I am not persuaded that this is the kind of thing that makes a museum special.

Child in the exhibition "Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs" at the Tate Modern, drawing on a touch screen.

Child in the exhibition “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” at the Tate Modern, drawing on a touch screen.


Is there anything else you want to add about school visits to museums?

Any of the things that we are talking about can be implemented well or poorly. To be effective they need to be implemented well.



5 thoughts on “Schools and Museums: Interview with Daniel Willingham

  1. I think that this notion of ‘they lose teaching time the day of the field trip” needs to be rethought.
    For many students, the train ride to the city can be an education, the walk from the train station to the museum can be an education. Perhaps there us a lose of a traditional ideology of ‘teaching time’ – but when you think about learning in a broader context – I would argue that the whole day of the excursion offers many opportunities for learning and for teaching about the world we live in.

    • I agree that the day of the excursion offers many opportunities. However, right now I wonder how many teachers or museums are taking advantage of this time. As mentioned in some posts, teachers have a great deal to worry about and manage during the trip. And museums rarely offer resources or support for extending learning on the field trip beyond their own walls.

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

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