Why do we need “classroom management” in museums?

At the end of this post there is a link to this survey. Please help me more deeply consider the question of classroom management by completing and sharing the survey!

A few months ago, I was tagged in a tweet asking whether I knew of any good resources for classroom management in the museum setting. More recently, a colleague started an on-line conversation asking for classroom management strategies. And, although I can’t put my hands on other similar tweets and posts, I am certain that I have seen this question many times recently.

Museum educators are concerned about management strategies because it is very difficult to teach a group of children in the galleries when they are not following a shared and accepted code of behavior. It is hard to facilitate a large group discussion if children do not listen to each other, which often involves being quiet for most of the time and raising their hands before sharing their ideas. It is difficult to efficiently move from one gallery to another if children wander off.

children in museum raising hands

Students in Museum Art Classes at The Cleveland Museum of Art.

It concerns me – and I suspect others have noted this, as well – that museum educators often resort to the phrase and model of “classroom management.” This implies that we are using classroom behavior as a model for gallery behavior. On one level, this makes sense: A class of school children presumably knows a shared set of rules, and it is easier to enforce these rules in a new educational setting than to create and teach new rules. But there are a number of reasons that this approach may be misguided:

1.The contributors to Museum Questions have noted over and over that the value of the museum experience for school groups is that it is different from the school setting. To cite just one of these contributors, Brian Hogarth wrote, “What I hope is emerging is the idea that museums are not extensions of the classroom, but rather engender exactly the kind of learning that we believe students should engage in.” In order to rethink museums as spaces apart and different from the classroom, we may need to rethink the behavior we expect and encourage in school groups.

2. The need for “classroom management” may indicate a program design problem. Kylie Peppler, a professor of Learning Sciences, claimed that management problems on a class visit are “an indicator that something is not working in the tour. Something is not high quality in that environment. In a high quality environment the teacher reports a sense of Zen.” If children on a group tour are acting in a way that makes learning challenging, is it possible that the learning experience is structured in a less-than-ideal way? Instead of relying on classroom learning strategies, are there alternate ways we can engage children?

3. Ongoing concern about classroom management reflects a set of long-held, and possibly faulty, assumptions about museum and classroom behavior. Do we want children to raise their hands because this makes conversation possible, or because it is part of our own familiar and respectful code of behavior? Do we want children to walk from point A to point B without stopping to look and talk because point B is so worthwhile, or because of an ingrained and unquestioned assumption about how museum tours should be structured? In the article “Intentional Civility,” Elaine Heumann Gurian questions our beliefs about how people should act in museums. She writes, “it is past time for public institutions… to intentionally review the many assumptions they have made about the people they interact with, [and] how those assumptions have been translated into action.” Gurian is speaking about the general visitor, not school groups; she notes that assumptions about visitor behavior reflect “a model from a former time, when good manners were assumed to be part of the upper class armamentarium to which the rest of society either already aspired, or ought to. Museums, in this formulation, are gracious places and should not be inclusive of such behaviors found in a diversified culture that might undermine their elevating effect.” The article is a call for museums to consider the intent of behavioral rules and assumptions, and to allow these to guide a reconsideration of the behavior we encourage among both staff and visitors.

Ferris Buller kids on line in museum

Perhaps instead of asking about strategies to manage and encourage a certain set of behaviors, we ought to be asking: What does good behavior look like for school visitors to the museum? Under what conditions do these behaviors occur?

I would like to better understand the context and use of classroom management. Perhaps some of you have figured out program designs that reduce the need for management. Perhaps some of you have great management resources to share. Perhaps there are certain groups that are most difficult, which might reveal more about why and when management is needed. Please help me to learn more by completing this survey. I encourage you to share this survey with other museum educators who work with school groups, including those who lead the tours. If enough of you respond, I will use the responses to create a follow-up post.

11 thoughts on “Why do we need “classroom management” in museums?

  1. I am not a museum educator, but as a parent I often accompany classroom visits to museums. One thing I have noticed is that the behavior they expect is more in line with sitting-quietly-in-desks (such as your comment about raising hands). If children are from a school that emphasizes hands-on, project-based, and/or self-directed learning – where kids are more independent – the tour guides tend to view them as “problems” or “undisciplined.” The teachers can help with this by reminding students ahead of time that they’re going to need to engage in different kinds of behaviors, but it would also be great if museum educators (and volunteer tour guides) could remember what it’s like to be excited and curious about a totally new environment. It’s tricky, I’m sure!

    • Tricia – I have seen independent learners treated as problems, as well. But I have also seen educators who thrive with groups of this sort. I don’t want to forget that there are models and moments in which educators and groups are matched in such a way that any group management is either unnecessary or invisible!

  2. Rebecca, thanks so much for writing this article. It’s such an important topic. My belief is that if you empower and engage children, they will meet and often exceed your expectations. I cringe when I see students being sternly herded around a museum. And yet if you just turn them loose with a token worksheet, fully 75% will (understandably) simply find a place to sit down and start texting or chatting.

    I’d like to share with you what I believe is one successful model of museum learning. Developed in close collaboration with educators at the Museum of Australian Democracy, TRAIL asks teams of students to self-navigate through the gallery, undertaking museum-authored digital activities that engage students with surrounding objects and interpretive displays. If you can spare 4 minutes, I’d urge you to watch this short documentary video: http://vimeo.com/edmstudio/trail. With “class management” no longer an issue, MoAD’s educators now spend their time interacting on matters of content.

    • I enjoyed watching this video and will be sharing it with others to get their reactions. I see many positives with the TRAIL system but I’m not sure you can call this “self directed learning” if the students are following a predetermined route assigned to them by the computer system. What they seem to be in control of is when they move to the next location, which pacing, not learning. And, because they are answering multiple choice questions they are focusing only on predetermined content. What would thrill me would be a system like this that encourages students to ask their own questions and then be guided to find the answers.

      • Hi Susan, thanks for watching the video and taking the time to offer feedback. A couple of clarifications. TRAIL does have an option where students get to choose their next stop/activity. It’s just that this isn’t typically used at MoAD owing to the incredibly tight schedule. Students literally have 20 minutes in the gallery, and experience has shown that giving them the flexibility to choose takes away from time spent considering museum stories. Re the abundance of multiple choice scenarios, this is a bit misleading in the video. In actuality, there is a relatively large palette of interactivity types. The can be combined in arbitrary combinations when authoring an activity. Multiple choice, yes, but also opinion-type questions, voting scenarios, image captioning, “go and do”, etc. MoAD uses more open-ended questions for their secondary school programs, whereas primary school kids really seem to want questions with well-defined answers.

        I’d like to emphasize that TRAIL is not – and was never intended to be – a replacement for museum educators. The educator remains key to the success of the experience in a number of important ways: By setting the tone and expectations in the introductory brief; by interacting with students at opportune moments on the trail; and finally, by bringing it all together in the follow-up discussion. (Also, at MoAD, students move from the TRAIL program to a role-playing scenario in one of the old Parliamentary chambers. This gives educators a further chance for personal interaction and to emphasize tie-ins with gallery content.)

        Tying this back to Rebecca’s original post, it’s worth mentioning that we did miss the mark with our initial attempt at continuing the TRAIL experience post-visit. During the program, the educator used to ask the teacher for his/her email. TRAIL would then automatically email a PDF summary of each student team’s experience, augmented with educator-authored classroom activities. Unfortunately, an evaluation of this “Democracy Download” via download statistics and follow-up questionnaires shows that it isn’t working. There’s a number of factors at play here, from the burden it puts on the teacher to download up to 20 different PDFs, to the base assumption that the PDFs would find their way to the students. What’s obvious though is that on-site success doesn’t necessarily guarantee a successful off-site experience. This is something that we’ll be working on over the next few months. We’ve got some ideas.

      • Darran, thank you so much for the additional information and clarification. I am both a museum educator and a grad student, so I posted about your system in one class discussion forum and we’ve been having lively discussions about it! I will post your additional information and continue the debate! I can see the issues at play with your efforts to generate post visit sustainability.

  3. The idea of “classroom management” or how to handle a group in a museum setting comes up when I’m working as a consultant with museum educators, docents, volunteers, even front-line staff…I think it may have to do with people’s backgrounds. Some people working with the public and with school groups are well-versed in content, less so in public speaking, group dynamics, age and developmental levels, etc.

    I’m not sure that “design problems” are the crux of all “classroom management” issues. Being in an out of school experience excites kids. Some people feel OK leading a group that is chatty and wiggly and excited, some don’t. And when you need to get the groups’ attention – for safety reasons, for transitions, and/or for opening/introducing and/or closing a program – I think you need to know what might work to get (and keep) their attention AND maintain that excitement – so it’s not the same as school in that respect. There are so many creative ways to do this, I hate calling it “classroom management” but as noted in Tweets about this post, it’s hard to come up with other language! What is appropriate for preschoolers is not for high schoolers, and I think that people not versed in child development struggle with knowing the difference.

    Museums are not school, nor do I think they should be. I do think some of the ways we work with kids can overlap – so I’m wondering what we can put in the shared space in a Venn diagram about “Classroom Management in Museums” and “Classroom Management in School classrooms?”

    • I’d like to see that Venn Diagram (although, as you suggest, it’s probably different for different people).

      I’m not sure how design connects to management, either, although I have been thinking about Kylie’s comment since she made it. What I would like to understand is, what are the conditions under which the need for group management is reduced? And where does this overlap with good learning experiences in museums? Does the need for management – or do different types of management – tell us anything about what makes a successful museum experience?

      There are a lot of questions to unpack here – I am hoping that the survey answers will help!

  4. Pingback: What is “Classroom Management” in the museum? | Museum Questions

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