Schools and Museums: Three Experiments

When I started the Schools and Museums series I was working as a consultant, and wished that there were a museum in which I had the freedom to experiment with some of the ideas shared by contributors. Now I have just such an opportunity – at the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum – which (like many opportunities) is also a challenge. It is easy to gather and share ideas, to argue for ways of doing things. But it is much harder to put them into practice. When put to the test, will I be able to place depth and partnership above field trip income in school programs? Can I find ways to articulate value as I believe in it, and still convince school groups to visit the museum?

With this in mind, I have identified one basic commitment and three field-trip-related experiments that I would like to try, in partnership with a yet-to-be-hired Education Manager.

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, 1768

Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump, 1768

Commitment: Align tours with PlayHouse goals, and offer tour themes that reflect these goals (rather than classroom instruction).

I can’t call this an experiment, because I have done this before, as have a number of other museum educators. But it is essential, and therefore I want to be sure to include it in this post – which is, essentially, a public promise to putting ideas from this blog into practice.

At the PlayHouse we have two overarching goals. The first is to encourage and support visitors in becoming explorers and creators of the world. The second is to support and promote play in the fullest use of the word. Our goals for students, then, will be something along the lines of:

  • Students will explore in the museum, and learn to explore beyond the museum
  • Students will create in the museum, and learn to create and innovate beyond the museum
  • Students will understand play as part of the work of scientists, artists, engineers, writers, educators, and other professions.

All tours will need to be designed to achieve these specific goals. This doesn’t preclude mentioning core curriculum connections in marketing material, but only as these connections can legitimately be mapped to the tour after it is designed.

Experiment #1: Support teachers in helping kids follow up on areas of interest or curiosity inspired by the tour.

For each tour available, we can work with teachers to create and constantly update a list of resources that they might share after the visit with students who are curious or inspired. This might include other field trip destinations in Central Illinois that students might visit independently or as a class, along with books, web sites, even movies or episodes of television shows. This will make it easier for teachers to support the curiosity that students generate in the museum – a difficult but essential job, as noted by Daniel Willingham.

We can start this work in the museum by ending tours with time and concrete prompts to help students think about what they are interested in, or to think about what they would do if they visited again with their families. As John Dewey said, and Cindy Foley and Caitlin Lynch reminded me, “We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.”

Experiment #2: Offer school groups the opportunity to make the museum their own for a day.

We cannot offer this to every group, and I would guess we will need to charge something for the space. But I imagine offering a classroom space to teachers who would like to spend the day using the PlayHouse, the neighboring zoo and botanic gardens, and the park in which we are all situated as a classroom. In this way, teachers and students can make the museum their own, moving in and out of the galleries as part of a day-long lesson.

Experiment #3: Have students respond to exhibits in ways that change them and impact the experience of other visitors.

As Anna Cutler pointed out, we can use the controlled laboratory of the field trip to model new ways of engaging with the museum. What signs, videos, objects, exhibition components, images, and other products might students create that could in turn challenge drop-in visitors to think in new ways?


Those are my experiments. What are yours? What new ideas do you have about school visits to museums? What is one experiment you – as a teacher, museum educator, museum administrator, parent, or in any other role – would like to try this spring, or for the 2015-16 school year?




3 thoughts on “Schools and Museums: Three Experiments

  1. I like how you frame these experiments, Rebecca, especially the last one. It feels like a creative challenge for us educators and also for program/field trip participants.

  2. Pingback: An Underused Resource on What We Know about Museum Learning - Museum Commons

  3. * waves from further east along I-74 at the UIUC Spurlock Museum of World Cultures in Urbana * I love these ideas! We’d really benefit from #3 especially – let young visitors know they have good ideas to contribute and that they are a part of the museum (and the university campus).

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