What management lessons from teaching transfer to the museum?

Anthony Pennay drafted parts of the following post as a comment on my post “Why do we need classroom management in museums?” He had so much to say that I asked if we could delve a little deeper into some of his points.

Tony was a classroom teacher for a decade before becoming a museum educator. He taught middle school English, Social Studies, Journalism, & Creative Writing formally, and basic rules and codes of conduct informally. He is now the Director of the Walter and Leonore Annenberg Presidential Learning Center at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation.

tony pennay

What are some things you learned about classroom management as a teacher?

Advice on what it took to manage a classroom well was as varied and contradictory as the teachers, books, articles, and videos that professed expertise. One teacher told me I needed to scare students straight and encouraged me to throw a book across the room in frustration. One teacher told me I needed to enforce each and every rule immediately and without any consideration of the circumstances or context. One teacher suggested a three strikes and you’re out policy. Any student who thrice (over the course of a semester) broke one of the classroom rules and expectations, regardless of which offense or how severe, was immediately sent off to the office for  suspension.

When I observed these teachers, their classes seemed to work well. The kids sat quietly. They seemed like they were paying attention, and there were no interruptions in the class. Generally, their approaches worked well in terms of “managing” the classroom. But “managing” a learning environment is much different than creating a powerful learning experience. The single best piece of advice I ever received on “classroom management” was from Rafe Esquith. (His book, Teach Like Your Hair is On Fire, is a great read.) He said that the best form of classroom management is a great lesson plan. If the learning is engaging and meaningful to the students, they will be so into the learning they won’t have time to misbehave.

Does this mean that you agree with Kylie Peppler that classroom management problems in the museum reveal design flaws in our programs?

Yes and no. I believe that most behavior/classroom management issues that occur in a museum come from programs that are flawed in their design. Is it reasonable to expect a group of elementary school students to sit quietly and listen to an interpreter speak about a piece of art for 15 minutes? Or to expect 30 middle school students to silently sponge up the finer points of the differences between SALT and START arms discussions? Probably not.

One of the key ideas that Kylie Peppler mentions in her interview is the idea of connection. Whenever students encounter new pieces of information, or new environments, or new learning scenarios, we know that, neurologically, their brains begin to act like librarians. The brain takes the new piece of information, and immediately tries to connect to it and put it in the context of prior experience and learning. For example, let’s say a student visits the Getty Villa and sees the Lansdowne Herakles. Once they see the statue and know that it is of Herakles, their brain, sometimes naturally and sometimes with the right bit of prompting, is connecting to other statues they’ve seen, is thinking about the Greek Mythology book they read back in the fifth grade, it might connect to the cartoon, or even to the movie 300. The brain might compare his muscles to those of LeBron James or other famous athletes they’ve seen on SportsCenter. The brain might connect in any of a thousand different ways. The stronger or more emotionally intense the connection, the more the student will engage with the content and the experience.

The Lansdowne Heracles, c. 125 CE

The Lansdowne Heracles, c. 125 CE

I think that one of the major reasons museums experience behavior issues is because the students feel absolutely no connection to the material, the environment, and the experience. That said, brilliant, engaging program design won’t always solve behavior issues in museums. Sometimes you get the class that comes with a substitute teacher, sometimes something happened on the bus ride in, sometimes you’ll get a student who has been traumatized or bullied in such a way that nothing would cause them to be productively engaged. There is no perfect program! Our challenge as museum educators is to create an engaging experience, help foster connections, and continue to evolve and improve our programs to ensure maximum impact.

So what does it take to ensure that students are focused and appropriately behaved in a museum?

If a year in a classroom is a steady progression up a hill, then a visit to a museum is an exciting leap across a chasm. It’s an intense, hands-on, beautiful assault on the senses that breathes life into art, history, science, culture etc., in a way that is nearly impossible to replicate in a classroom, through a textbook, or via the internet. This is not a knock on classrooms. They are just as essential to a holistic learning experience as are (hopefully frequent) visits to museums and cultural institutions.

Museums should have a distinct and separate set of “engagement in learning” strategies rather than “classroom management” strategies. Three strategies are key to this: Context, Clear Expectations, and Engagement.

First, context: Students should have context around where they are visiting, what they can expect, why it is important, and how they can best take advantage of the learning opportunity they will have at your institution. Ideally, this would involve the students being prepared beforehand by their teacher, a member of the museum education team, or some combination of the two. I know that budgets and time are always a consideration, but taking the time to ensure some sort of contextualization is key. Is it better to lose 20 minutes of a tour or experience to provide this context, or to spend two hours working with students who are disengaged and missing the content anyway?

Just to clarify: I think you are suggesting that if students are going to spend an hour in a history museum learning about a facet of late 19th century US history, and the teacher has not done any pre-visit work, the museum should consider spending the first 20 minutes with students in a lecture hall, to give them context. Is that correct? How do you make this 20 minutes of content delivery engaging?

Absolutely, that is what I am suggesting. Would you rather have 40 good minutes, or 60 minutes that cause your staff to consider early retirement?

At my museum, we send out packets of materials that give some background, so the students should be relatively familiar when they arrive on site. The truth is, as I am sure will not surprise you, many classes come in completely cold. When I first started here, the pre-brief consisted of a map and a lecture with our educators. There would be discussion and questions, but the educator was doing most of the work.

When we received a grant to redesign the pre-brief, we wanted to shift the lion’s share of the work from the educator to the student. We built an app for the iPad that is filled with questions, photographs, information, interactive maps, etc… Now we have moved from the educator delivering 90% of the content with a few students raising their hands and answering specific factual questions to a model where the educator poses big questions, but turns the students loose to explore and interpret information from a variety of sources. The students now find and share the context with each other, and the educator helps make sure they don’t miss any of the big stuff. But we still use the first 30 minutes to build context.

Students using the iPad app at the Annenberg Center

Students using the iPad app at the Annenberg Presidential Learning Center

So the first strategy is to give the students the content background, or context, they need to engage with the program. What’s next?

The second strategy is clear expectations. Students should know what it looks like to learn effectively in the environment you create for them..

For example, we have a simulation here at the Library. In the pre-brief, before the simulation, students are presented with a general overview and they are asked to work with a small group to review primary source documents, photographs, and begin making decisions about the information they encounter. Our educators do a nice job of showing them that in this particular learning environment, you will collaborate with your classmates, you will critically examine important pieces of information, and ultimately you will combine these to make decisions that will drive the simulation. At the same time, you just might learn a thing or two.

And the third strategy is engagement. The visit must be engaging. Just as our field has focused intensely on the visitor experience in the museum, as educators we must focus on the student experience. Are we asking a coterie of squirming 8th grade students to listen quietly as an interpreter speaks at them for 45 minutes, or are we giving them the tools to explore, learn, and engage themselves? Part of effective engagement in learning means pushing the onus of responsibility for learning onto the students and visitors. Give them the tools to be successful, certainly, but then allow them the freedom to utilize those tools.

I am certainly not suggesting that this approach will cure all behavior issues in museums, but if educators ask themselves, Are we giving students the context they need to understand what it means to learn here? Have we painted a clear picture of what it means to engage with our content? Are we allowing the students to engage with our institution? And if we are honest in their answers and evaluations, then I believe we will find the answers they need for effective engagement in learning.

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One thought on “What management lessons from teaching transfer to the museum?

  1. Pingback: Schools and Museums: Ideas and Implications, Part II | Museum Questions

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