What is “Classroom Management” in the museum?

On March 2, I blogged about classroom management, and invited readers to complete a (now closed) survey. The 29 completed surveys include a great deal of information worth mining, and I am trying to find a way to share all of the answers with anyone who might want to take a look.

A number of people talked about the importance of engagement, and at a future date I hope to explore what people had to say about the relationship between engagement, program design, and management. In this post, however, I want to explore the question, “What is ‘classroom management’ in the museum?”

Before exploring this question, I want to rename it. The phrase “classroom management” is telling – it indicates that museum educators working with school groups conceptualize the galleries as an extension of the school experience, and that they approach students as classroom-defined groups. But it is also a phrase that is used because of habit and lack of alternative language. To remedy that, I am going to shift to talking about group management, a more general and flexible term.

So – what did the surveys tell us about the question “What is ‘group management’ in the museum? For most people, group management seemed to boil down to three areas of concern: safety, engagement in group learning, and museum-appropriate. Below is a look at each of these categories.

Tactile Sculpture (read the hilarious caption)

Yves Klein, Tactile sculpture, c. 1957, with “Do not touch” sign. Photo by Kenneth Lu from flickr.

1. Group management as a set of rules that protect the students and/or the objects or living collection on display.

“We have a few basic rules for safety in our gallery a) no running … b) do not touch objects behind barriers.”

“[Classroom management is] Safety of our visitors and our artwork/objects.”

Rules related to the safety of students and of objects include telling students not to touch objects, not to run in the galleries, and to stay together as a group. These rules are unarguably important. It also seems as though, with a few exceptions, these are not terribly difficult rules to enforce.

I wonder how group management might feel if these were the only rules tour guides needed to share and enforce?

Student group at Musee d'Orsay

Student group at Musee d’Orsay

2. Group management as a set of behaviors that help students work together in a community toward a shared learning objective.

“[Classroom management is] Maintaining structure for the group experience…. (listening to each other, looking carefully, sharing ideas).”

“The term ‘classroom management’ in my tour-giving practice means keeping the students focused enough on the topic at hand so that they can intellectually engage with the idea.”

This area of management includes rules such as asking students to raise their hands during a group discussion. It also includes group management strategies that prevent or accommodate for distractions outside of the discussion, or a situation in which one child monopolizes a group discussion.The situations in which this area of group management is at issue are those in which the museum is used most like a classroom – in particular, group discussion time.

As Jackie Delamatre noted in her post for Museum Questions, museum educators tend to privilege an educator-centered method of learning reminiscent of the classroom. I fully confess to having dedicated countless hours to writing about and training educators to facilitate group discussions about art. But I am now rethinking this, as I wonder: Are group discussions more appropriate for the classroom than the museum? What would happen if museum educators did not depend on group discussions as a primary tool for school groups?

The challenge of group learning in the museum is evident in evaluation. Good school program evaluation looks at the impact of a school visit on students. But when evaluating school group visits, it is nearly impossible to tell if individual students leave knowing, understanding, or being able to do whatever it was we articulated in our goals. Because we construct the experience as a group experience, we can only evaluate the group as a whole. But our goals tend to be individual – students will observe carefully, will analyze works of art, will form a personal attachment to our museum or our collection. If we worked with individual students, would we have a better chance of understanding, and thus improving our chances at, impact?

500 Clown card deck from the Smart Museum.

500 Clown card deck from the Smart Museum.

3. Group management as a set of behaviors that make other visitors more comfortable.

“In the simplest form, classroom management involved overseeing the behavior of groups of students to ensure that their use of the museum doesn’t hinder another visitor’s enjoyment of the same spaces.”

“[Classroom management is particularly important] when VIP tours are moving through gallery areas.”

The most obvious rule in this group is volume. Other related concerns might include keeping students together between galleries, or making sure students are visually focused on a particular object. These rules are important for maintaining a certain type of museum culture. One educator emphasized this with a cautionary tale:

It is crucial that museums retain this culture of manners. The museum where I work is one dedicated to applied arts and sciences and is over 10 years old. It had to refocus 20 years ago whereby they removed the glamour and made it more “accessible” (kid-friendly). As the years have come by a new attitude of children running amok and generally having the space to do as they please in a playground like fashion has ultimately affected visitation and philanthropy. The museum is now in dire straits, recently letting go of a lot of staff. It was widely acknowledged (including by the director) that the museum had become a dumping ground for children whereby the displays “babysat” them and no longer a space for adults.”

Allowing groups to behave in ways not normally seen in museums is a challenge to traditional museum culture. Educators cannot rewrite these rules without a museum-wide consensus around what a museum culture should be. That said, they can model new ways of interacting with objects. I remain taken with Anna Cutler’s statement that, Being with young people in a space and using it differently impacts the public visitors that are there. It shifts the social relations in the space, which is quite interesting.”

The Smart Museum in Chicago worked with the performance group 500 Clown to create a set of cards with prompts for use in their gallery spaces. One of the most provocative prompts challenge museum behavior:

What volume are you comfortable speaking at inside the Museum? Increase that volume incrementally. When you start to get embarrassed, can you take the time to notice what is happening around you? When do you feel the need to stop versus when do you perceive someone is telling you to stop? Is it fun or just embarrassing?

Museums are in the midst of efforts to increase visitorship by expanding the demographics of visitorship. Museums are also moving toward an emphasis on visitor production as well as consumption. The shift toward a participatory mindset demands that we rethink what we mean by “appropriate behavior.” What if we celebrated loud voices as evidence of engagement? What if instead of asking children to conform with 19th century adult behavior we asked them to help us define and model 21st century museum behavior?

2 thoughts on “What is “Classroom Management” in the museum?

  1. Rebecca, thanks for following up the previous post about this topic.
    I’m intrigued by your reflections on #2 above – “Group management as a set of behaviors that help students work in a community towards a shared learning objective.” You note that perhaps we need to consider how to work with individual students to better get a sense of their grasping the “shared learning objective.” I’m trying to reconcile this with the idea that learning is social – and especially for so many age and developmental groups, peer learning (and acceptance/interaction) is crucial. We know that’s true for the classroom, why might it not be true for museum learning? I would love to figure out a way to test this idea…

    In addition, the idea of working together in a community is a keystone in a democratic society and in many workplaces in the 21st century. Having some kind of “group management” system to teach kids these skills is something museums can play a role in and helps us advocate for ways museums can contribute to the health and well-being of a community. Having a non-threatening, comfortable, non-school space to practice these skills – and interacting in a new way with peers – seems to me a great way for museums to work parallel to or in tandem with schools to embrace the education of the whole child.

    • These are great points. On the flip side, museum going is often a solitary experience, or something done in a pair or small group. Is there a group size that is best for encouraging learning in this environment? I don’t think a social / proximal learning experience needs 15 or 25 kids.

      I also agree that learning to work together in a community is of central importance in education. And I have long argued this as a goal for conversations around works of art. But I am wondering, is a museum the best place to teach working together in a community?

      There are so many competing goals to reconcile here. It is really important for museums to figure out their own genuine goals, and to be thoughtful about what the MUSEUM provides (rather than what educational standards require).

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