Schools and Museums: Interview with Cindy Foley and Caitlin Lynch

The Columbus Museum of Art has spent the last seven years rethinking the museum’s value and the visitor experience. Much of this work is documented in the July 2014 issue of the Journal of Museum EducationRethinking value and visitor experience has led museum staff to reconsider school programs, including the field trip.

Cindy Foley is the Executive Assistant Director and Director of Learning and Experience at the Columbus Museum of Art. Caitlin Lynch is a teaching artist for school programs at the Columbus Museum of Art.

CMA - Cindy and Caitlin

Cindy Foley (left) and Caitlin Lynch of the Columbus Museum of Art


When Caitlin first reached out to me, she told me that you are in the process of rethinking your school programs. Can you tell me more about this?

Cindy: About seven years ago we started to wonder: What value does the Columbus Art Museum (CMA) bring to our community? Working with Jessica Luke, we generated questions as guideposts to moving forward. One of those questions was, “Is the field trip the future of our relationship with schools and teachers?” We believed it was not — there had to be something more impactful.

To test this we decided to embark on two strategic initiatives that we would research: A redesign of an ongoing program and a new program. The new program, Project Pivot, started with a call from the Arts and College Preparatory Academy (ACPA). They said, “Have you ever wanted to do something totally experimental, and never had a school to work with? We’d like to be that school.” We were taken by their openness to risk and exploration. We used the invitation to imagine and design an ideal partnership with a school and teachers – one that was – a partnership rooted in trust, joint vision, and commitment to experimentation, that would function very differently from the transactional model of school field trips or school outreach.

Cat: That pilot year looked vastly different than the fifth year, which this report documents. The first year was rooted in the needs of the school.  The guiding theme was chosen by school and museum educators. We met with students every Wednesday for four months, mostly in the school itself. Students visited the museum a few times. The takeaway from that first year was the value of the relationships developed between CMA and ACPA educators.

Cindy: We were so excited by how the teaching artists demonstrated and encouraged new ways of teaching and partnering. When we reflected later, we realized that the creativity we had aimed for was evident, but primarily between CMA and ACPA educators. The next phase of the program was possible because we had established that relationship, but the program needed to shift so that students were doing the creative thinking.

Cat: By the final year, a shift had taken place in how we facilitated the experience to allow the students to lead their learning. The project was really just a loose scaffold for students to plug in their interests and develop ideas. We met with students almost every week at the Museum. A few times we met at the library to do research, or at other sites around town.

Cindy: Here’s how we describe Project Pivot now: Students, teachers, and teaching artists work together to develop ideas, conduct research, and translate their creative thinking to experiential interactive and socially driven art and activities.

Cat: The final projects are events students put on, which are open to the community. They are always interactive and sometimes feature performances, games or music. One event involved a mermaid telling fortunes; another had snacks that you had to pass a challenge to get to.

Cindy: The whole purpose of the project was to get the kids to imagine: What are experiences we want to have?

Here are some of the key factors in the success of the Pivot Project:

  • The projects are co-created between educators at both institutions.
  • As students’ interests develop, that’s what leads the curriculum. So teachers don’t know from week to week what they will be dealing with.
  • We rooted the project in essential questions and inquiry. While I’m sure everything could be mapped to standards, that was not our intention and we did not allow that to interfere with the direction of our work.
  • Pivot projects are collaborative and project-based, not individual assignments.
  • We used the city as our campus. We used the library. And as students’ interests develop, they might visit a tattoo artist or a spiritualist. We sought out resources to support them in trans-disciplinary research.
  • Pivot was rooted in the notion that artists are voracious researchers. We held students to high standards around that.

In our research, we looked at outcomes around creativity, critical thinking and problem solving. Those outcomes proved difficult to capture and assess. Our evaluators, Jessica Luke and Jeanine Ancelet, were able to measure a number of skills and habits that fall within Positive Youth Development Frameworks like increased competence, connection, caring – outcomes related to personal and social development.

Students participating in Project Pivot at CMA

Students participating in Project Pivot at CMA

Before we discuss how Project Pivot is influencing your ideas about field trips, tell me about the second program – the one that you redesigned, which is helping you rethink your relationship with schools.

Cindy: A version of our Artful Reading Program has been around for 40 years. All 5000 fifth graders in Columbus City Schools (CCS) come to the museum as part of this project. Six or seven years ago, we determined that we had to make changes to address declining participation in the district as well as what we viewed as the essential need that we weren’t effectively addressing – impacting critical thinking skills.  Leadership from both the museum and CCS vowed to significantly change our Artful Reading Program field trip model and pair it with research to determine if our new outcomes and outputs could garner deeper impact. The changes we all committed to were:

  1. Monthly meetings between CMA and CCS educators. About four CCS art teachers serve as liaisons with the schools and lead professional development for the other 80 or 90 art teachers in the city. They work with us to design professional development around creative and critical thinking, rooted in themes like idea generation or developing comfort with ambiguity. The teachers also learn to use our thinking routines.
  2. We require that each class have a pre-visit led by CMA docents, during which they teach students and educators the thinking routines.
  3. We co-create a post-visit activity with our CCS liaisons. The project is facilitated in the schools by the art teachers. This proved to be challenging for them. The educators were more familiar and comfortable with step-by-step lessons with predictable products. We really pushed for project- or challenge-based activities rather than activities in which students create objects that look like “art.” For example, one project allowed students to work in groups to create their own board games.
  4. We decided we needed an annual Columbus City Schools Day for Families – a day to celebrate the relationship between the schools and the CMA. This day now averages 3000 visitors.

So the goal of this field trip program is to change teaching in the schools?

Cat: Yes. What we are interested in is changing how we are valued, and the culture around museum use and visits. You can’t change a culture without a relationship, and to have a relationship, you need a common language. And right now, the common language we have is field trips.

Cindy: We are six years into this redesigned program now, and educators see us as a lifeline. We offer them coaching, advocacy and empowerment. They don’t want to go back to the old field trip model, but we had to gently trick them into this model. The field trip is now just a tiny piece of the larger picture of impact.

So how are these programs impacting your school visit program?

Cat: After five years of evaluating the impact of Project Pivot, we are taking this year to really think about how it will influence our next projects. An important part of this process is taking time to have these conversations and to think.

Cindy: We are coming to terms with the idea that field trips will always be a portion of our work, but they are no longer our bread and butter.

So why do it? Why offer field trips?

Cindy: Because… at this point primarily because our community still asks for it. We actually don’t overtly advertise our tours, and we haven’t seen any significant drop in tour numbers. I think the bigger question is how much energy we put into the one-off field trips.

Cat: We always try to circle back on our larger mission of creativity. Our pre-school visits, Artful Adventures, used to be about playing in front of art. It’s still very much about play, but over the past couple of years we started to make the provocations more open-ended, and build in reflection. We ask kids: What did you see? What did you hear? What does this mean? We wanted to make them more aware of their own creative thinking.

Cindy: Dewey said, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” We are thinking about how to better embed reflection in field trips. We have done some experimenting. Last year we invited two schools to be what we call “museum schools.” We gave memberships to all of the students, so that they could come for as long as they wanted, as often as they wanted, and use the museum as they want to. One progressive suburban school came eight times, each time reflecting on how the museum impacted their learning and leaving evidence of their thinking behind in our classroom.

Cat: We want schools to see value the way that we see value. That’s why we do the work with the 5th grade teachers – to ensure that the experiences are part of a larger plan for student learning. We want them to think, “How the museum can be valuable beyond a break from teaching?” But until we have that common ground we don’t really have the canvas on which to experiment.

Cindy: I had this conversation with Ken Kay, the former Director of P21 and one of the architects of the idea of 21st century skills. He said that instead of catering to schools, we need to be modelling what is possible in learning and education, so we give schools models and hope. This is one of the philosophical shifts we make, away from producing lesson plans and field trips. It’s a difficult shift: Museums have always felt that we are a secondary educational tier, but informal learning environments are needed to lead and take an important seat at the top tier.

When we decided to zero in on creativity, it became our lens for impacting learning and experience in our spaces and our programs. When we announced this change, we were shocked by the number of school principals and superintendents that called asking us to advise or help them. They knew their cultures were suffering, because their staff were so wigged out by testing, and their teachers so focused on content. They didn’t have clear pathways for how to change that, and they wanted our help.

Field trips are problematic. But how do we mine them for something better? How do we allow them to advance our work in some way?



4 thoughts on “Schools and Museums: Interview with Cindy Foley and Caitlin Lynch

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

  2. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Three Experiments | Museum Questions

  3. Pingback: What if our school programs didn’t align with curriculum standards? | Museum Questions

  4. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Ideas and Implications, Part II | Museum Questions

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