Schools and Museums: Goals for Students

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).

Students participating in a program at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Students participating in a program at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

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.

Exhibition of tapestries on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014

Exhibition of tapestries on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2014

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.

Screen shot from a video explaining the common core, at

Screen shot from a video explaining the common core, at

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?

18 thoughts on “Schools and Museums: Goals for Students

  1. So I’m thinking about your point that based upon our discussions on the topic, museum educators don’t privilege the relevance to school curriculum when making a case for the value of museum field trips. Since I am in agreement with each of the goals you presented, I would like to add to the list one that is about knowledge acquisition, maybe through visual literacy or object-based inquiry?

    Museums are ideal for object-based inquiry, either individually or in a group, since the viewer encounters an object directly (with limits, admittedly), accompanied at the very least by an object label. We can give students ample opportunity to look slowly, observe/sketch, formulate questions and then use available information (extended labels, catalogs, staff) to develop an answer. This can easily be relevant to a curricular subject.

    • Thanks for this comment, Kathleen. It sounds like the goal you are talking about is really teaching students to develop the ability to think carefully and critically in response to objects. Does that sound right? I would say a knowledge acquisition goal is different. It might be, for example, that all school children should know about the history of the founding of the United States, or that all school children should know about the development of new forms of art in the 20th century.

      One of the biggest advocates for a knowledge goal in education is ED Hirsch, and his Core Knowledge Foundation, who say, “We believe that every person in a diverse democratic society deserves equal access to the common knowledge base that draws together its people, while recognizing our differing traditions and contributions. We believe that offering universal access to this shared knowledge is a primary duty of schooling, critical to literacy, and to the closing of the achievement gap between ethnic and racial groups. Most important of all, we believe that shared knowledge, a shared narrative, and shared ideals of liberty and tolerance are indispensable ingredients for effective citizenship and for the perpetuation of our democratic institutions.” But if we agreed with this goal than museums would collaborate to help ensure that all school children are learning a shared body of knowledge. Very different than giving students opportunities to craft their own responses to a few works of art.

  2. I don’t know whether it’s the same in the US, but in both the UK and Australia the implementation of a National Curriculum has had an impact on school programmes, or at least how they are packaged. Schools aren’t really my area of expertise, but as far as I can ascertain, any activity without clearly identified curriculum links is unlikely to be considered worth the time. Now it’s true that the curriculum has enough “soft” skills in it that I think museum visits can fit that bill (as amply described above), although the onus is on museums to make those links apparent in order to help teachers “sell” the idea of a visit to their powers-that-be.

    • But what does it mean to have to sell the visit? Does it mean we have to be disingenuous about what do? Craft programs around goals we don’t believe in?

      • No – to me selling means explaining how a product or service meets a person’s needs. As far as I know, it’s virtually impossible for a teacher in UK or Australia to get permission to take their class on a field trip unless they’re able to cite chapter and verse what part of the curriculum it satisfies. These links may be obvious to us, less so to teachers who are less aware of how museums can complement the curriculum. I think the UK’s Generic Learning Outcomes helped people move away from purely knowledge-based learning into other areas, but in the current landscape it’s up to museums to connect those dots.

  3. Very interesting reflection. This is an issue I’ve been wrestling with for several years. I think this is where the ideals of the museum educator may run smack into the reality of formal education. With the exception of those long-term and sustained programs (nicely described in the interview with Cindy Foley and Caitlin Lynch) that make kids regular learners in the museum, most kids will barely remember their visit to your museum. What do they really take away from it? When we see kids or work with kids for one or two hours in an entire school year, what can our goals be? Working in a small history museum, many of my goals include both skills and knowlege. I see many of the same kids year after year and am pleasantly surprised when they remember ANYTHING I’ve told them before.

    History tours are still very driven by content and facts (for better or for worse) and we do align our programs to curriculum. Of course, unlike the teacher, we are rarely held accountable for whether or not kids learned anything. Even teachers sometimes seem uncertain about this, telling me they bring kids to “expose them” to something they wouldn’t ever see otherwise. And this brings me to one thing you’ve touched on in your discussion of marketing, but didn’t explore fully, which is the disconnect between goals for the teacher (who decides to go on the trip) and your goals for the students (who are really there under duress). Are the goals for the teacher just marketing? Are goals for the students unrealistic? I don’t have an answer, but I appreciate your blog as a forum for asking these questions about field trips.

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  5. I’ve been thinking a lot of this and agenda lately – because of both my improv/read the audience/listen to the visitor mentality and posts on this site. I want to post what happened, because I think my personal teaching practice is evolving further due to these thoughts. Just a concrete example of what we’ve been discussing!

    Yesterday, I had a very tiny sweet group at the Guggenheim for a family tour and workshop. A mom and her 8 year old daughter, and another mom with her also 8 year old daughter and 4 year old son, who wasn’t having the theme of 2D to 3D, Fat or Flat.

    We did the workshop first, and the kids created original shapes, chose one, sketched on paper and “arranged” with family, then created out of clay. Because the workshop was so small, we were making art as well and had a really nice open studio feel – music and chatting. I’m going to put my educator thoughts in parentheticals. I got a chance to chat with the ladies and found out they loved science and art (conservation), they were interested in having the art works “work” with the others in the “exhibition” (curatorial), and there was a lot of struggle thinking about making a flat interesting form ‘work’ ie stand up (execution/art making).

    Since I was leading the tour, I was “in charge” of the path/experience, while another educator was “in charge” of the studio experience. We’ve worked together before, and we have a good collaborative style, but she wasn’t coming on the tour with us. We left the studio, had a snack break (they asked for it, I loved the casual feel, so I wanted to keep it) and headed up to see Wang Jianwei Time Temple, the exhibition we referenced in the workshop. After some student led inquiry (what are you interested in about this work, what surprised you after seeing the photos of it downstairs) and a bit on investigation into the creation of the work/layout of the work (we were focusing on one single work, it has two parts) we got in a conversation about abstract vs concrete art, since we managed to name the work everything it wasn’t named. Rebecca, I still use (and teach everyone I meet) your technique for showing the difference between abstract and concrete (octagon vs squiggly thing), and then I decided to bring them into the permanent collection to see the other end of things. We stopped at Woman Ironing, and had an amazing student/parent led conversation regarding color/emotion (CONSERVATION IN! The painting under!!) – a notice about how weird her body was (abstraction in a seemingly concrete work!), the idea this must be old because we don’t really know what she’s doing and her clothes are “weird’ and then a purely educator led moment caused by the questions regarding the date on how to read an object label (they were so excited to find out they were right about it being old!)

    We looked at one other object comparison briefly (like 5 min) – Van Gogh vs Monet – and then called it a day. The gallery time amounted to about 75 minutes.

    A few notices on my end:

    -The workshop was COMPLETELY amazing in the beginning. I fight with where the workshop “should” be, but those conversations I had were incredibly informative in crafting an experience.
    -I basically dropped the 2D vs 3D theme. I’m notorious for this, pretty sure all museums I work for know I’m not a big theme fan, and tend to follow the group’s interest. This worked because it was a family tour, but I could see this being a problem with a really agenda focused teacher/supervisor. Knock on wood, I haven’t had that problem yet…but then again I think I work at places that feel my flexibility is a strength.
    -These girls were ON IT. They built up a comfort level with me in the studio, I’m usually pretty good at disarming people in general, but they felt free to ask any questions they wanted to
    -I was recording the questions. Sometimes, I forget to go back to things, so writing down their interests was so key
    -We did some movement, but not a lot, it wasn’t necessary. People ask me all the time “Oh your tours must be all improv activities and movement/theatre/crazy!” No. When I’m working for an institution, my ideas about improv/movement are used when they add to an experience. We mirrored Woman Ironing, and that’s it. Nothing else was needed.
    -I followed their interests with my knowledge. I listened, thought about what they were saying, and crafted something on the spot.

    During this doom snow day, I’ve had time to think, my main goal as an educator, to put into words, is to encourage curiosity and empower the learner outside of “traditional” education environments. I struggle with the last part – I hate the word “informal” in reference to museums. More thoughts I’m sure, but so glad this conversation is happening consistently.

      • Alli, i think it’s dangerous to say that rich and engaging is “enough.” There are two reasons for this. First, rich and engaging doesn’t offer any information about what Jen, or other educators, might want participants to get from the tour. Therefore, it doesn’t help Jen be thoughtful about tour design or potential. Second, I have seen far too many educators who insist that heir tours or programs are engaging, that people love them, and that’s enough — and then deliver what I would consider less than ideal tours. (That is NOT a comment on Jen’s tours! But it is an important truth more generally.) Without clearer goals we give ourselves permission as educators to be complacent.

      • Rebecca, I agree with your comment. “Enough” might have been the wrong word here. I guess I meant that, in some cases, couldn’t a rich, engaging experience in the moment be a valid goal, especially for a family workshop (I’m assuming this was a drop-in type program)? I can see the educator’s objectives for this related to creating a positive association with a museum, introducing or practicing museum literacy skills, providing an opportunity to use high-level vocabulary in an authentic context, creating a shared social experience among inter-generational family members, etc…
        I guess I’m wondering about goals focusing on the “in the moment” experience versus ones that focus on long-term impact. I’m also thinking about how families’ own goals for visiting a museum tend to focus on the former such as “have fun” or “share time with family” rather than specific long-term learning goals.

      • The point of contention (perhaps too strong a word, sorry) here is about the use of the word “goal.” If the goal is visitor-focused, than it is that visitors will have a rich, engaging experience. That in itself could be a sufficient – in fact, wonderful – goal, but in order for it to be useful in terms of program design or evaluation, we need a better understanding of what it means for visitors to have a “rich” experience, or an “engaging” experience. This quickly leads to clearer goals. For more on engagement and the fuzziness of it, see this post:

      • Rebecca, thank you for continuing the dialogue as I wrestle with my ideas here.
        I’m afraid I don’t see the point of contention, though. I suppose I’m using the term “goal” in a formal education sort of way. See for example:

        I agree “rich, engaging experience” would be insufficient for program design (a lesson plan). So then, what objectives could be used to describe Jen’s tour? Jen noted that in her tour she, “followed their interests with my knowledge. I listened, thought about what they were saying, and crafted something on the spot.” I’ve had experiences like this as well where the visitors and I “click” and the conversation is full of insight and connections flying in all directions. The conversation *in the moment* and a well-trained, responsive educator are the drivers of the program. My experience, and it seems Jen’s experience too, with these types of programs is mutually satisfying (intellectually, socially, aesthetically) for the visitors and facilitator. I wonder if there are measurable objectives that can describe this “satisfaction,” and if there aren’t any, is this type of program “enough” or as you said permission to be complacent?

      • In the site you directed me to, goal still describes how the participant benefits, not qualities of the experience. But I agree with the basic question here is, how can we articulate how visitors benefit from museum experiences? Maybe a little action research is in order – what would happen if, after a successful tour following the model that Jen describes, we asked visitors how they thought they benefited? If a few educators collaborated on this, we might soon develop more clear language around visitor outcomes, which could guide us in helping others implement these strategies as well as honing our own practice.

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