What is the role of research in museums’ K-12 programming? 

This guest post is from Michelle Grohe. For the past ten years Michelle has been the Director of School & Teacher Programs at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, Massachusetts, where she has overseen the School Partnership, an intensive multiple-experience program with local Boston schools, including in-depth professional development with classroom teachers. Michelle has taught courses using Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) at Harvard Medical School and Simmons College and she is also the Eastern Region Representative for the National Art Education Association’s Museum Education division, for which she started the Peer to Peer initiative. 

Michelle Grohe Headshot SPR14

I was very drawn to Lynda Kelly’s literature review, Student Learning in Museums:  What Do We Know?, posted a few months ago on Museum Questions. At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, we have an institutional commitment to research in our educational programming  This is part of what keeps my job interesting – I LOVE to geek out to data – and I challenge my colleagues to embrace research, as well.

Michelle Grohe - CODING FEB14

Coding data capturing student thinking for aesthetic development, February 2014.


There are two types of research in the field of museum education. Unfortunately, we often only think about one of them: large-scale studies. So, when compilations focusing on art museum program design and implementation (for example, Next Practices in Art Museum Education by the Association of Art Museum Directors, and Building the Future of Education: Museums and the Learning Ecosystem by Center for the Future of Museums) mention research, they focus exclusively on in-depth investigations. But there is an equally important, often-neglected type of research, in which practitioners work on a small scale to examine the impact of their programs.

The National Art Education Association (NAEA) Research Initiative is looking at the role research plays in our work. As part of this initiative, NAEA’s Museum Education division is asking the question, “what are the benefits of art museums to people?,” in particular (initially) our K-12 audiences. In July 2014, as NAEA Museum Division Director Jackie Terrassa was working on this project, she and I discussed the wide range of goals for school programs or tours listed by art museum websites. As Rebecca described in her recent Goals for Students post, this buffet of outcomes covers a range that includes developing critical and communication skills, encouraging students to be independent lifelong museum learners, modeling how to ask questions and find the answers, and providing opportunities to form connections to oneself and/or larger community.

As many of the Museum Questions’ School and Museum posts demonstrate, museums are effective at articulating a wide range of goals for K-12 audiences.  What we are lacking, however, is quality research that provides evidence of the impact of the programs we offer schools. By research I don’t mean major, expensive studies (although here is a bibliography of those). I mean small scale studies such as internal program evaluation, action research, and student self-evaluation. Through its Research Commission, NAEA is working to understand, expand, and support this type of practitioner research. You can help NAEA in this effort by completing this survey by Friday, February 6th.

There are many ways in which we as practitioners can engage in research and assessment to inform our work. At the Gardner Museum, we often use an approach that combines big picture ideas with questions about program details. For example, a museum educator might be asked to answer these questions at the end of a tour:

  1. Big Picture: How did the group respond to their visit? What happened today?
  2. Detail: How did the group respond when I gave a bit of information to help them understand where to look for the answer to their questions about artist’s intention? Did they get there? How did the small groups problem-solve through an activity I gave them?
  3. Big Picture: What do we still have questions about? How could we answer those questions? What did today’s visit tell us about this group of students and their comfort in the museum environment?

To complement this thinking, we often ask the same questions of our partner teachers and the students themselves, whose reflections provide another lens onto the museum experience. Our answers to these questions become a reference for future programs and curriculum design, a growing body of data and knowledge we can draw on.

 School Partnership Program educators from the Gardner Museum map out program outcomes from students, August 2014.

Gardner Museum School Partnership Program educators map out program outcomes for students, August 2014.

To embark upon this type of action research, ask yourself:

  1. What questions do you want to answer? These questions might relate to your program, audience, working styles, personal/professional goals.
  2. What information about or from your audience would help you design or teach better programs?
  3. How would you change your programs in response to what you learn and discover through this process?

Build in time to ask these questions of yourself and of your audience. What just happened? Was it expected? What did you see that makes you say the goals were or were not accomplished? How did your audience know what was expected? Follow up after five days, five weeks, five months, and five years later.  Has your understanding changed? If so, how?

In recent years the museum education field has developed a number of tools for sharing findings from small-scale research such as this. Blogs are one way to share – they are immediate, manageable in length, and often quite candid in their exploration of ideas.  Mike Murawski started his blog, Art Museum Teaching, for exactly this purpose. Similarly, the NAEA Museum Education division’s Google+ page and monthly Hangouts on Air were started for the similar reason of providing ongoing dialogue between colleagues.

Michelle facilitating Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS discussion) at the Gallery Teaching Marathon at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego during the National Art Education Association annual conference, March 2014.

Michelle facilitating Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS discussion) at the Gallery Teaching Marathon at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego during the National Art Education Association annual conference, March 2014.

So, I challenge you, readers and colleagues, to embrace the mess of our art museum education questions, trials, and experiments, and to share that process as you go! You could…

  • Organize a Google+ Hangout on Air, where your conversations are recorded and available for others to listen and respond to, and revisit later. What did you learn along the way?  Do you have more questions about your work now?  Share it.
  • Propose a session for a regional or national conference where you talk through your questions and experiments.
  • Follow David Bowles’ lead and reflect on Facebook.

Make your questions and resources available to others (the link in this sentence is to a bibliography crowd sourced during an NAEA Museum Division Peer to Peer Google Hangout). By doing so, you will find thoughtful colleagues who are grappling with similar issues and questions, and others who may help you see new perspectives, and strengthen our field by deepening our shared exploration and understanding of our K-12 programming.




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