Can we control what students learn on museum visits?

This week’s post is by Lisa Gilbert, a doctoral student in education at Saint Louis University. Lisa studies the pedagogical nature of public history spaces as well as ways individuals relate to historical narratives. The National Council for History Education asked Lisa to write a related article for teachers on strategies for making the most of student visits to museums.You can read what she wrote here.

lisa gilbert

Back when I worked as bilingual gallery educator at the McCord Museum of Canadian History, we always ended our tours by asking the children what they had seen at the museum that day.

Sometimes their answers were what we expected – beautiful Inuit carvings, evocative photos of Montreal’s Japanese immigrant community, early examples of hockey or lacrosse sticks.

Other times, their responses sounded more like the drawings on thank-you cards I sometimes received during my tenure as K-12 Programs Manager at the Missouri History Museum: careful diagrams of the tables in the classroom, a picture of the payphone by the drinking fountain in the hall outside.

While the goal of the “what did you see?” question was to do a quick review of what the children had learned that day, the truth is that these responses taught me an important lesson about museum education. They reminded me that, while I saw a clear difference between the museum building and the exhibit they were there to see, the children were experiencing the institution in a more holistic way than I had for a long time.

While an initial response might be to label the children’s answers as off-topic (or worse, simply wrong), I think we should return to the beginning of The Little Prince. There’s a moment when the prince shows the narrator a drawing and asks the most basic of museum questions: what do you see? Now, the adult narrator has been socialized away from answering the question and toward giving an expected response. As a result, he misses the point: clearly, it’s a snake that swallowed an elephant.


Illustration from “The Little Prince.” “I showed my masterpiece to the grown ups and asked them if my drawing frightened them. They answered: “Why should anyone be frightened by a hat?” My drawing did not represent a hat. It was supposed to be a boa constrictor digesting an elephant.”

I think something similar happens to us as museum educators. Neoliberal reforms have impoverished our notion of education itself, reducing it to filling children with testable bits of information. As a result, we’re clutching to the idea that our value is in disseminating content. We think that, in order to be seen as legitimate educators, we have to convince teachers that our content is special, and we’re experts in getting that content into children.

I beg to differ.

In my experience communicating with K-12 teachers, no amount of ostensible Common Core alignment is worth as much as speaking to their deepest hopes as educators. They too are tired of a reductionist view of learning that focuses on picking up twigs of information rather than seeing the forest for the trees. They know how much paperwork it’s going to take to get the children out of school that day, how many conversations with administrators, and yet they’re still willing to take on that headache. I think it’s because they want to feel the same excitement their students do on the way to the museum.

The good news is, what we’re especially good at is exactly what our society’s all-too-often diminished concept of education is missing.

We’re ideally situated to champion process over product.

If museum experiences are special, it’s not the content itself, even if it’s backed up by the presence of artifacts or staged in immersive environments. These experiences are special because the day you come to a museum is a special day. And on that special day, as I used to tell my staff, children’s brains go into High Fidelity Recording Mode: you never know what they’re going to pay attention to, but you can trust that what they’re experiencing is going into the part of the memory that’s reserved for the exceptional.

In this context, everything matters. The important thing that happens that day may not be inside the exhibits or even inside the building. But if we’re interested in education that has ripple effects over a lifetime, museums are great places to be.

The downside is that the result is unpredictable, and unable to be measured by a standardized test. This doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to articulate it, however. One of the museum theorists I wish people would read more often is Dr. Jay Rounds, a scholar I had the good fortune to study under during my time at the University of Missouri – Saint Louis.

Rounds reminds us that, while most content-centered education tries to posit a tightly coupled system in which inputs lead to outputs, museum experiences flow through a confluence of influences. There are too many streams in motion for the museum to control (or even predict) outcomes; this isn’t a problem, because this is a theory that recognizes the agency of visitors within institutions.

Diagram of a loosely coupled system from Jay Rounds

Diagram of a loosely coupled system, from Jay Rounds. From Rounds’ article, “The museum and its relationships as a loosely coupled system” in Curator.

As visitors – including students – move through this sea, they direct themselves in ways that have personal meaning. Rounds suggests that museums are ideal spaces for identity work: drawing a parallel with biology, he says that museums are outstanding places for visitors to pick up ideas that may serve no practical purpose at this point in their lives, but which may serve them in the person they may someday need to become.

Many of us are familiar with Falk & Dierking’s work in the ways different visitors pursue different goals during their time with us, stemming from the different motivations they had for their visit. Rounds uses optimal foraging theory to suggest that a comprehensive use of the exhibit (e.g., reading every single label) may not maximize returns, even for visitors who are motivated by curiosity about the exhibit content.

While Rounds intended this theory for adult free-choice visitors, I am sure these ideas hold true for student visitors, even if they didn’t choose to enter the museum that day, and even if it’s likely to be an unpopular idea in an era when we want to be able to predict the returns on an educational investment.

This means challenging prevailing definitions of “education,” in both K-12 and museum contexts. So instead of trying to show our ability to engage in content- and skills-based work to classroom teachers, let’s respect the fact that certain valuable tasks, like the critical inquiry skills involved in evaluating historical evidence and building arguments, take time and repeated effort to develop. We value these things (and often tap into skills students bring with them into the museum) but we’re not well positioned to teach them effectively. These claims actually diminish our trustworthiness with K-12 audiences because teachers know when we’re overreaching. It’s not only hard to convince them that one or two hours at the museum will somehow do what they work an entire year to accomplish; it’s disrespectful. And it misses our expertise.

Instead, let’s ask to be recognized on our terms and develop language for celebrating the ways we know how to capitalize on anonymous and ephemeral encounters. While we do this, I would make a modest suggestion that we treat students more like adult visitors and stop enforcing behavior toward a goal of content acquisition. The scavenger hunt is one of our oldest strategies for this, and I’d like to advocate its retirement.  Here’s why.

Years ago, while visiting the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, I struck up a conversation with a volunteer about her experiences with school groups. She was frustrated with the education department’s recent decision to discontinue the use of scavenger hunts. I secretly cheered on my museum education colleagues but frowned in sympathy, asking her what kinds of questions had been on them. She lit up talking about how there was a penny sunk into the mosaic on the floor, and students had to find out what year was on the penny. “They were so motivated,” she said sadly, “They used to work so hard to find it. Now what will they do?”

lincoln penny kids

Children looking at the penny in the floor of the Lincoln Museum. From the blog

The docent was mourning the excitement she had seen in children’s faces, and she didn’t know if anything worthwhile would replace what had been lost. While I join her in valuing excitement and fun as an important part of museum experiences,I didn’t feel as anxious as she did because I don’t think activity is the same thing as engagement.

For my part, I was thinking about everything Lincoln’s presidency represents in the history of our nation, and feeling strongly that their time in that highly imagination-sparking environment should be spent engaging with fundamental questions about our democracy. Otherwise, I thought, all they’ll remember will be looking for a penny on the floor.

But the truth is, I can’t control what they’re going to remember.

None of us can.

I think, like this docent, we can feel uncertain as to whether something worthwhile will replace what might be lost if we loosen our grip on content as the goal of museum experiences.

But then I think about how Lonnie Bunch III, Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, has suggested that one hallmark of a successful exhibit or program is that audiences will “become more comfortable with ambiguity and with complexity.” He’s absolutely right: both as a profession and as a society, we need to become more comfortable with ambiguity. Museums can serve this important role.

Ironically, even though this sounds like an uncertain goal, I know that each of us has the certainty of our own experiences.

Here’s mine: one of my earliest museum memories is of being a little girl in the Missouri Botanical Garden’s gift shop with my grandmother.  Perhaps still in kindergarten, I was fascinated by the wind chimes for sale. They were tuned to specific notes that matched various chords, and for some reason I had never considered that a wind chime could be as precise as the piano in my family’s home. I was entranced, and then I went home.

That experience lay dormant in me until, decades later, when I bought my first house, one of the first things I did was return to that shop to buy a wind chime. Now whenever I hear its tones outside my bedroom window, I am subtly reminded of a plethora of experiences, from my relationship with my grandmother to my connection with that institution as a place for exploration and beauty.

wind chime in backyard

Lisa’s wind chime, from the Missouri Botanical Garden

It’s deeply meaningful. But if a guide had asked me what I had seen at the museum that day, they might have been upset with the answer being an item in the gift shop.

I also don’t know how (or, for that matter, when) museum staff could have captured this information on a post-visit survey.

It poses a problem in an era of standardized testing in the K-12 realm and donors who want to see measurable results in the museum realm. But we’re educators, after all: let’s start teaching people that we need to be held accountable to something higher. 



Bunch, L. G. (2010). People need to remember: American museums still struggle with the legacy of race. Museum (Nov-Dec), 42-49.

Falk, J.H. and Dierking, L.D. (1992). The museum experience. Washington, DC: Whalesback Books.

Falk, J.H. and Dierking, L.D. (2013). The museum experience revisited. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc.

Rounds, J. (2006). Doing identity work in museums. Curator 49(2), 133-150.

Rounds, J. (2012). The museum and its relationships as a loosely coupled system. Curator 55(4), 413-434.

Rounds, J. (2004). Strategies for the curiosity-driven museum visitor. Curator 47(4), 389-412.

6 thoughts on “Can we control what students learn on museum visits?

  1. I’ve struggled with this concept as well. If museums provide all the detail as to how our programs accomplish the myriad Common Core objectives, in some way are we not encouraging school districts to cut their art programs because the local museum can provide “all” of that content? On the other hand, teachers in certain buildings have to write out specific content connections in order to get permission to go on the field trip. So museums are in a bind, playing the game by the school districts’ rules as opposed to serving in the capacity that best fits museums.

    • Jason – I agree with you that we can’t entirely ignore curriculum objectives. My experience was that teachers found it helpful when I talked about “resonating” with those objectives, rather than “accomplishing” them – it emphasized a respect for their expertise at the same time as it freed the museum from too tight a bind with that system. And in terms of art programs being cut, as a history educator I feel a similar frustration with elementary schools which teach double English and double math (tested subjects) while leaving out science and social studies (or pretending those can get ’embedded’ in other disciplines). It’s inappropriate for a single history museum experience to substitute for a year’s worth of engagement with the discipline – and it’s worse when we consider that it’s the already disadvantaged schools that are doing this. Another reason for us to be wary of neoliberal reforms, standardized testing, etc. – there’s a real social justice angle here to consider. I think museums can push back by being clear that no, our programs DON’T “accomplish” curriculum goals; we’re not a substitute; we’re an enrichment, in the very best sense of the term…

  2. Thank you for writing this! I am going to share this with others. The timing is perfect. I was talking to a colleague yesterday on what we want children to take away from their visit to our site when they participate in our Junior Ranger program. What we as educators and interpreters feel is important and meaningful is not necessarily what the children will remember. We need to respect their responses as being valid. Having a positive and memorable experience is much more important than trying to make them focus only on what we feel is important. It’s hard for many of us to let that go when we are told that what we do needs to convey our site’s purpose and mission.

    • Julie – thanks for your kind words! I so agree. I think there’s a balance between our goals for students (which are still good to have) and recognizing their limitations. We’ve gotten so focused on inputs and outputs that sometimes we forget we are working with human beings who bring a rich variety of experiences and intentions to their interactions with our sites (and with us). My grandmother was telling me this week about how she remembers going on a field trip to The Field Museum as a 10-year old – she and her friends hid behind the dinosaur skeletons to try to avoid going home! I’m sure that, whatever her teachers’ intentions for her learning were that day, they would smile to know what has stayed with her all these years later. My hope is that, as a field, we can articulate what’s missing in many input->output visions of learning by celebrating the value of this kind of experience too. Education can (and should) be powerful in more than one way…

  3. Pingback: Episode 58: Learning History Outside the Classroom with Lisa Gilbert – Visions of Education

  4. Pingback: Episode 58: Learning History Outside the Classroom with Lisa Gilbert | Gradgrind's

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