This guest post is by Claudia Ocello, President & CEO of Museum Partners Consulting, LLC. Claudia has over 25 years’ experience in museums working on exhibitions, education programs, accessibility and evaluation projects. In 2008, Claudia was honored with the Award for Excellence in Practice from the Education Committee of the American Alliance of Museums (2008) and the New Jersey Association of Museums’ John Cotton Dana Award (2013).
I recently found my copy of the Dr, Seuss book Hooray for Diffendoofer Day, which was a gift from someone at a school district I worked with. When she gave me the book she said, “This is what your museum does for our kids.” It was a great compliment, because the book touts the remarkable education at Diffendoofer School, where the kids are:
learning lots of things
Not taught at other schools.
Our teachers are remarkable,
they make up their own rules.
The students at Diffendoofer School ace their standardized tests because they have gained so much knowledge and skills that don’t come from book learning.
The book reminded me of question that has been nagging at me for weeks: What if our museum programs didn’t align with curriculum standards?
My thinking about curriculum standards is evolving
In May I spoke at the Association of Children’s Museums conference about working with a museum to revise their education programs to align with curriculum standards, and how successful that change was for the museum. And a recent project for my consulting business included watching videos of a museum’s education programs and creating a chart of standards alignment for the museum’s website. But this work has led me to think more about how content standards influence museum school programs, and to wonder if we should be thinking differently.
Arguably, current content standards are better for museums than previous versions. For example, the Common Core English Language Arts standards‘ emphasis on “informational text” is great for archives and exploring primary source documents. These standards also include speaking and listening skills, which works well for museums that encourage students to share responses to art or artifacts in the form of a presentation, skit, or artwork. Next Generation Science Standards emphasize being able to do something (create a model, use evidence, evaluate evidence, etc.) over factual knowledge (i.e. naming parts of a flower). There are many museums who have embraced and developed well-received programs that connect museums and schools along the curriculum standards (see this issue of the Journal of Museum Education for some great examples).
Education is changing
There’s so much going on in the field of education: dissatisfaction with the current educational system; protests over standardized testing; alternative forms of credentialing; a rise in homeschooling; and more. Museums have responded to these trends, but most still keep one eye on curriculum standards in developing and advertising their school programs.
We tout museums as being different from schools. We teach using unique methods and unique objects in unique settings. Yet we still market our school programs through alignment with school standards. What are we really promoting, then – more of the same?
When I was a classroom teacher there were no curriculum standards to follow (yes, it was that long ago), and standardized tests were really just benchmarks. We were never instructed to “teach to the tests.” We took field trips because they matched with subject matter – for example we took our kids to see original Egyptian artifacts when we were studying ancient Egypt. It was more about the experience, and seeing authentic artifacts, than addressing certain standards for learning. When the standards came along, museums began claiming that teachers could “meet” curriculum standards with a museum visit. We needed – and some would argue, still need – to ensure schools see value in a museum visit. But with the changing educational landscape, why are we still touting how much we are in line with the aspects of formal education we don’t necessarily like?
What could museum’s school programs look like?
Curriculum standards are easy pegs to hang our hats on. They help us justify our services and create a reason for museums to offer programs for schools. Standards-aligned programs reinforce what is going on in schools already. But if schools and teachers are already teaching to, and meeting, curriculum standards, what do they need museums for?
What if instead of following the school system’s lead, we took on the role of school reformers? For example, what if instead of aligning with the Common Core, we taught children to be innovators, rooting programs in skill sets such as Tony Wagner’s list of skills innovators need? Or our programs fostered characteristics such as flexibility and open-mindedness? What if we aligned museums with educational thought-leaders such as KnowledgeWorks instead of with existing public school policy?
I am not suggesting we should completely abandon curriculum connections in favor of developmentally-appropriate concepts and practices, but I am suggesting that we use the latter to frame our current work and move beyond it. If the sixth graders in your district study ancient civilizations, and that’s part of your collections, use the objects as a jumping off point for your program (there’s the content). Now imagine moving beyond teaching the content of culture, civilization and art, finding ways to cultivate metacognition, curiosity, and associative thinking. What could that look like?
Some museums are already engaged in this work. The Columbus Museum of Art has been focusing their education programs on how to think like an artist. (See also Journal Of Museum Education, Vol 39, No 2 July 2014 which is dedicated to exploring Columbus Museum of Art’s process in rethinking/refocusing their programming.) and the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum promotes a program called Explore/Challenge/Become which promotes curiosity and experimentation. Neither of these museums mention curriculum standards in marketing materials, with few complaints from teachers or administrators, and many booked programs. Accokeek Foundation’s Eco-Explorers: Colonial Time Warp programs “supplement” social studies and environmental education and encourage decision-making skills and physical activity. While they had a few complaints from teachers and some issues with staff when they introduced this new format and emphasis, the program won EdCom’s Innovation in Museum Education award in 2016 from the American Alliance of Museums. I’d love to know about other museums that are straying from standards-aligned school programs and what the response is from audiences and staff (please comment below!).
We are starting to move in the right direction
One of the focus areas for the American Alliance of Museum’s 2016-2020 strategic plan is P-12 Education. As part of this plan, AAM is pledging to better integrate museums into the K-12 landscape. I am already encouraged by the creativity I have seen in the responses to the Center for the Future of Museums’ Education Future Fiction Challenge, and the creation of a Ford Bell Fellowship to address museums and education. I would love to see museum educators have a role in shaping education at the policy level. Imagine if the next Education Secretary had a museum background!
If your museum is interested in rethinking your school programs to move away from basing them on curriculum standards, I encourage you to experiment. Maybe you are event considering about how to entirely reinvent the school program format. Share how your museum is straying from standards-aligned school programs, the outcomes of your experiment, and your questions and thoughts.
I’m certain we can have an impact on the learning ecosystem as it evolves over the next century. Then we’ll declare a holiday as they did (sort of) in the Dr. Seuss book:
You all deserve a bow.
I thus declare a holiday –
It starts exactly now.
Because you’ve done so splendidly
In every sort of way
This day shall be forever known
As Diffendoofer Day Museums Changed Schools Day.”*
*From Seuss, Prelutsky, and Smith’s Hooray for Diffendoofer Day, with a bit of artistic license by the author.
Journal of Museum Education. (2014). Intentionality and the 21st Century Museum. Vol 39 No 2: Museum Education Roundtable.
Journal of Museum Education. (2015). Common Goals, Common Core: Museums and Schools Work Together. Vol 40 No 3: Museum Education Roundtable.
Seuss, D., Prelutsky, J., & Smith, L. (1998). Hooray for Diffendoofer Day. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Wagner, T. (2012). Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. New York: Scribner.
Wagner, T., & Dintersmith, T. (2015). Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing Our Kids for the Innovation Era. New York: Scribner.
Special thanks to Nathan Richie for helping me think through and better articulate these issues.