This week, I am beginning the process of reflecting on the past 25 posts about field trips. In this post, I am interested in goals and value: How do the many contributors to Museum Questions answer the question, “Why should school groups visit museums?” What do their answers tell us about the current state of museums, museum education, and school field trips?
To the extent that there is consensus around anything in the “Schools and Museums” posts, it is that museums need to have clear goals for school programs. Teachers require clear purpose. First-grade teacher Meghan Everette said, “Field trips got a bad rap because they were just fun outings … there wasn’t any purpose in it.” And education experts emphasize the importance of clear outcomes and good program design: Learning scientist Kylie Pepper noted, “We all have goals, and it is important to make these goals explicit. The more we simplify and understand what we are reaching for, the more we can think about designing toward those end games.”
What do we mean by goal, or purpose? These words (along with the word “outcome” and “benefit”) are often used interchangeably in the museum education field to describe what visitors or participants gain during the course of an experience. When thinking about field trip design and the gains we promise schools and teachers, it is essential to think about what we want for all students. An individual student might leave with a burning curiosity about dinosaurs, or an interest in becoming a curator, or the determination to sign up for a sculpture class (and Daniel Willingham describes this important aspect of well-designed field trips, as well as how to further this impact). But when we talk about the goals (or purposes, outcomes, benefits) of field trips we are talking about the collective ‘why.’ Why should students visit museums? Why are field trips of value for school groups?
It turns out that museum educators have a wide range of lofty ideas about the value of field trips for students. Six ideas gleaned from blog posts are listed below; the names in parenthesis refer to the educators who shared these ideas, and link back to their posts:
- UNDERSTANDING THE WORLD: Students will understand where the world around them comes from (David); students will question the world around them and the decisions people make (Andrea);students will learn about the community in which they live (Elisabeth);
- ASKING QUESTIONS: Students will know how to ask questions about the past, in order to contribute to a functioning democracy and become an active participant in the world (David).
- SELF-UNDERSTANDING: Students will understand themselves better (Andrea); students will access and feel ownership of a “third space” in which students are free to be themselves (Ben); students will find role models (David).
- CRITICAL THINKING: Students will practice critical thinking skills (Claire); students will process ideas and make connections to other knowledge (Paula); students will think about abstract ideas (Anna).
- INTERPERSONAL SKILLS: Students will practice or learn interpersonal skills such as tolerance and empathy (Anne); students will learn how to articulate experiences and listen to others (Brian H.);
- INDEPENDENT MUSEUM VISITORS: Students will learn how to be independent visitors to museums (Jackie; notably, a number of people commented on this post supporting the importance of this goal).
What do these goals tell us?
We primarily see field trips as developing transferable skills.
Four of these six goals are about honing theoretically transferable skills – question-posing, critical thinking, interpersonal skills, and the ability to visit a museum independently. We see museums as places in which students can learn to think and feel independently.
Assuming that museums effectively teach one or more of these skills within the museum environment, will they really transfer to other environments? We know very little about this. A few studies have been done: Mariana Adams, Susan Foutz, Jessica Luke, and Jill Stein, with the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum showed that critical thinking learned in a school program transferred to the students independent experience in a museum. Randi Korn & Associates and the Guggenheim Museum demonstrated that critical thinking skills learned in classroom-based discussions about art transferred to discussions about literary texts. But in general, experts question the likelihood of transfer, noting that it is very difficult to achieve and that it is most likely to happen with explicit program design (see, for example, Hetland and Winner, 2004; Catterall, Critical Links, 2002 – in particular note pages 151-7; Perkins,1992).
We privilege understanding over knowledge.
Traditionally, education goals are phrased as what students will know, understand, or be able to do after (and because of) a lesson. There is very little about “knowing” in the goals listed above; rather, educators want students to understand themselves or the world, and to be able to think critically, ask questions, relate to others, and visit museums.
It is notable that museums in the 21st century are not committed to teaching visitors – or at least not school groups – about the art history, history, or science that drive collections and exhibitions. Ben Garcia organized the Museum of Man’s exhibition “Monsters,” which focuses on where images and ideas about monsters come from, and how they spread; however, Ben’s goal for field trips is self-understanding rather than anthropological knowledge.The Metropolitan Museum may invest a great deal of money and effort into an exhibition about medieval tapestries or Cezanne’s images of his wife, but field trips are not framed around helping students to understand these topics. Rather – at least in the eyes of David Bowles, who plays a key role in training educators and shaping tours – they are about posing questions and understanding the world.
The rejection of content knowledge as a goal for field trips evidences what Jay Rounds describes as paradigm shifts. When museums were first founded, they were situated in very different contexts than 21st century society. But these shifts are slow and difficult, and – argues Rounds – we are in the middle of one now. So on the one hand, we believe that museums collect in order to organize and sort the world, and that they are institutions which generate greater understanding of this world through disciplinary research. But on the other hand, 21st century museums, and in particular contemporary museum educators, value individual response over disciplinary expertise.
In a recent National Art Education Association Museum Education Division Peer 2 Peer “hangout” on the topic of readings for training staff to lead tours, one person asked about whether inquiry-based philosophies were shared by co-workers institution-wide. This question was greeted with a few laughs and – it seemed – the general consensus that educators’ goals for visitors are generally not shared across other departments. This will come as no surprise to us. But it is important to note, because there are two implications:
1. The broad and disparate list of understandings that we may (or may not) be teaching make it difficult to effectively advocate for these goals within our museums. Ongoing conversations about these goals, real research into whether and when they are possible, and why and whether they are important to different museums, might help us to better understand and advocate for certain visitor outcomes.
2. Because departmental goals are at odds with each other, there is often a disparity between exhibition design and program design. This may compromise program effectiveness and clarity of messages about value for the visitor.
We don’t actually care about the school curriculum.
Only one interviewee – teacher Brian Smith – suggested that the goal for field trips was to support the school curriculum. Anna Cutler very clearly articulated the concern that supporting the school curriculum was antithetical to the larger vision of most museums: “If your purpose as an organization is to amplify and provide for the curriculum, then invite schools to do that. But I don’t think most cultural institutions are set up to do that – they are set up to invite broader thinking in the world.” Clearly, however, many school districts require museums to articulate how field trips support curriculum standards. Aligning the field trip with the curriculum is thus a communications issue: it falls (or should fall) into the category of marketing rather than program design. Cindy Foley and Caitlin Lynch, from the Columbus Museum of Art, described the relationship of a multi-visit program to the curriculum: “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.” That “mapping” – articulating how a field trip can support the core curriculum or school standards – is an interesting exercise in understanding points of convergence between school and museum goals. But goal-setting is something different: It is the process of understanding, articulating, and designing programs to ensure that students are learning something of value, as defined by the museum.
The study shared by Jeanne Hoel, which surveyed 66 art museums, found that almost all museums deemed supporting Common Core learning outcomes as a priority. This is an indicator that museums are more committed to ensuring that schools will book field trips than they are to identifying their own priorities. I don’t mean to suggest that marketing is unimportant – just that it should be understood as marketing, and not be used to guide program design or evaluation.
Back to you, dear reader
Are the 25 contributors to this series representative of the diversity of views held by museum educators, teachers, and experts in related fields? Probably not, although I hope it’s a good start.
I would like to turn this question back to the readers of Museum Questions. Are the goals listed above useful? Do they capture the primary reasons you feel people do or should visit museums? Are there any that you feel are particularly important? Are any missing? As a field, are there two or three rationales for visiting museums that we can advocate for more broadly?
Equally important are the implications for these goals. An upcoming post will look at the strategies suggested by blog contributors, and how they align with goals. If you accept these as our goals, how should our school visits look? What should the experience of school visitors to the museum be like, and how can we achieve this?