Schools and Museums: Ideas and Implications, Part II

In Fall 2014 I began an exploration of the relationship between schools and museums on this blog, with the goal of thinking about, and rethinking, the field trip model. At that time I created a page titled Ideas and Implications, optimistically claiming that I would update the page as I conducted interviews and posted new articles. I have not updated the page since that post.

While I reserve the right to revisit and continue this exploration, it is mostly concluded, with 41 related posts over the past two and a half years. And so in this post I am rethinking “Ideas and Implications” for schools and museums, based on the findings from these 41 posts.

Why rethink the relationship between schools and museums? I began this exploration because all too often field trips do not live up to their potential; they take large amounts of energy, time, and money for both museums and schools, and, as a field, we do not hold these brief experiences to very high standards. This concern was echoed by Cindy Foley from the Columbus Museum of Art, who said, “Field trips are problematic. But how do we mine them for something better? How do we allow them to advance our work in some way?” And Karina Mangu-Ward, Director of Activating Innovation at EmcArts, further underscored this concern by saying, “the assumption that field trips are the best exchange between teachers, students, and museums is so far beneath the surface that it no longer gets discussed. To wrench that assumption back to the surface to contest it is difficult. It requires looking at data, real trends in the environment…. If you have evidence that participation is declining, that’s powerful evidence.”

A school group at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Why might field trips be failing to live up to their potential? One possibility is that we have not properly defined what that potential is, so we do not have a goal to aim for, or know what success looks like. Another is that they have become such a high-volume offering that museums cannot afford the time to make these experiences meaningful for every class that visits. And a third possible reason was expressed by Jay Rounds, retired founding director of the Graduate Program in Museum Studies at the University of Missouri St Louis, who is working on a book which argues that museums are in a moment of paradigm flux. Rounds’s thesis is that museums are entering a third stage, or paradigm, and that we are in a moment of transition:

In sum, our problem now is not to choose among either of the previous two paradigms, but to find a way to transcend the very nature of the choices that they presented…. If “education” is a definition of a process for connecting society and individuals, we need to think beyond education to recreate our museums for the new world. The starting place for the museum field, I think, has to be in rethinking our assumptions about what happens when a museum visitor encounters our exhibitions or programs.

My 41 posts included 10 guest posts and 16 interviews, as well as 15 of my own articles. What are the ideas and implications to be found in these posts? How might we rethink the ways in which museums work with or program for schools?

What do field trips teach, or achieve for, students?

As I wrote in a January 2015 post, museum staff are more likely to have goals related to skill-building than content for field trips.  The skill-related goals discussed by my guest-bloggers and interviewees are:

  • An understanding of or connection to the world in which they live
  • The ability to ask good questions
  • Self-understanding
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Interpersonal skills
  • The interest and ability to visit museums independently

I heard over and over again that the value of museums is not the way in which they reinforce the work of schools, but the ways in which they are different from schools. As Claudia Occello, President & CEO of Museum Partners Consulting, eloquently said, “Curriculum standards are easy pegs to hang our hats on.…  But if schools and teachers are already teaching to, and meeting, curriculum standards, what do they need museums for?” A similar idea was expressed by classroom teacher Sarah Schertz, who said, “My students are in the same classroom every day; they see the same kids, play with the same toys, do the same activities. As a teacher you try to change it up but you are constrained within those four walls. Exposure [to a museum] is an important first step because it is something new, different – they see the world from a better point of view, see something they don’t yet know and can only try to understand.” And again by Anna Cutler, Director of Learning at the Tate, who said, ““We want to support teachers to extend their ideas and the curriculum content – we don’t want to deliver it or reflect it. If your purpose as an organization is to amplify and provide for the curriculum, then invite schools to do that. But I don’t think most cultural institutions are set up to do that – they are set up to invite broader thinking in the world.”

Being in a new and different environment also helps with interpersonal connection-making. Sarah said, “Field trips offer an opportunity to have real conversations with your kids, to get to understand what they are thinking and how they view the world. You can learn a lot about your kids in novel situations from what they choose, and how they problem solve.” Kylie Peppler, Assistant Professor of Learning Sciences and Director of The Creativity Labs at Indiana University Bloomington, argued that by visiting a museum and learning something new together, museums also help students see their teachers in a new way – as learners.  And a podcast from the Moth shared a high school student’s experience on a field trip, during which she got to know her classmates in new ways.

A student and teacher learning together.

But there is still the question of whether curriculum connections are essential for marketing field trips. If museums do not align their school programs with the school curriculum, will school groups still visit? One of my interviewees, Brian Smith, a teacher in North Carolina, argued that they would not. “[T]eachers are under so much pressure, that unless [a museum visit] connects to the curriculum, it’s hard for us to say that’s worth our time, even though we as an educator may totally agree.” But everyone else I spoke to – including the other classroom teachers – argued for museums identifying and promoting their own learning goals. Cindy Foley shared a conversation she had with Ken Kay of P21. “He said that instead of catering to schools, we need to be modelling what is possible in learning and education, so we give schools models and hope.” Anna Cutler shared the Tate’s success with field trips that do not explicitly relate to the curriculum:

We don’t tell teachers, “We don’t do this, we won’t connect to your curriculum.” We tell them what we do offer, which is beyond what teachers can do in the classroom. Which seems to be much more exciting. Teachers who have decided that they are going to bring their students to the museum, who bother to make this happen, are already committed. So why not do something really great?…. In the last year we have seen a huge increase in the percentage of schools that ask for a return visit within the year. In one instance it’s gone from 22% to 85%. Something seems to be working.

Brian Hogarth, Director of the Leadership in Museum Education program at Bank Street, shared similar insights: “Mizuko Ito’s group, Connected Learning, speaks eloquently about the need to stop chasing curricular goals, and to focus instead on the engagement of the learner…. museums are not extensions of the classroom, but rather engender exactly the kind of learning that we believe students should engage in.”

What does good museum teaching look like?

Contributors to this blog defined good museum teaching in ways that may be discipline-specific, but which are worth examining for their value for all museums. Here are some of the big take-aways regarding the planning and facilitation of school group experiences:

When planning a school experience, contributors recommended thinking about story or role play, and focusing on a big idea. These framing strategies make an experience cohesive and memorable.

Children learning about the experience of Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement, at the Atlanta History Center.

Create an experience that gives students real agency. For example, pose a problem or a question and let students solve or address it, or dedicate the tour to letting them work independently to learn and use museum-going strategies that they can later repeat on their own. Part of this is introducing children to the language of the discipline, the importance of which was noted by both Marcos Stafne and Anna Cutler.

There is a significant difference in the work of trained staff vs. volunteers. Recognizing that some museums cannot afford to have staff lead all school experiences leads to the questions: should we be offering experiences if we cannot afford to implement them well? And if we decide to move forward with volunteers, how do we ensure that they are well and fully trained, and held to the same accountability as staff would be? As Ben Garcia, Deputy Director at TheSan Diego Museum of Man, noted, “finding a way to bring docents along that path when you only see them weekly or monthly is one of the structural problems that museums have.” It is also worth noting that museums need not only expert staff, but sufficient staff – for example, a science demonstration is most successful when staffed by two educators.

Part of the value of the field trip is in the reflection that happens (hopefully) in the classroom afterwards. For this reason, Kylie Peppler recommends keeping the entire class together for the experience.

Good facilitation of experiences for school groups (and perhaps any audience) includes:

A museum experience should not feel like a school experience, but educators still need strategies for managing large groups of students in an educational setting. Useful strategies include ensuring that students know the rules and that there are clear boundaries as well as clear expectations. Educators need to have reasonable expectations for student attention. And it is essential that students feel welcomed and wanted in the museum.

Finally, a small but important note: kids need to eat. Many museums don’t have a space for this, but need to find a way to provide it. Anne Kraybill of Crystal Bridges and David Bowles both speak to this.

How do we know what works?

Finally, it is important to note that museum professionals make a lot of assumptions about what works that are faulty. Some of these assumptions have even been proven wrong, yet we perpetuate them. For example, Holly Kerby, Executive Director of Fusion Science Theater, noted:

there is scant evidence that traditional demonstrations teach the concept that they are demonstrating.  By traditional, I’m talking about demonstrations in the form of Introduce, Demonstrate, and Explain (IDE).  People assume that they do – in fact they go to great lengths to cite learning theory.  They also say that they may not teach a concept at the time of the demo, but that they promote future learning.  But there is no evidence for that either.  What evidence we have comes from classroom studies and that data shows that IDE demonstrations DO NOT result in increased understanding of the concept.

Similarly, museum educators sometimes suggest that we are teaching skills that can transfer to other arenas. But, as Kylie Pepper, notes, [R]esearch is showing that kids learn things in one context, but have trouble transferring it to another context. Unless we make those connections for the kids, they won’t make them.”

Kylie also said that existing research can help us understand the importance of post-tour workshops, and how these are different than pre-tour workshops. And she noted the importance of adult facilitation in learning:

Here is something we know about high quality parenting: Watching Sesame Street in and of itself not consequential to kids learning. It is consequential if you watch Sesame Street with your parents. Why is that? Because of connected learning – when I travel with my child to another environment, I connect back to it.  It is a way of creating a common language with your kids.

Lynda Kelly’s review of relevant research may be helpful to educators. However there is also important information from other areas of education that museum educators need access to, and strategies for ongoing updates on.

School in the Park in San Diego’s Balboa Park.

What next?

These posts illuminate important truths about museum tours, and have important implications for why museum school tours are important, how they should be led, and what we know about teaching in the museum. As always, new ideas lead to new museum questions, and I am left with questions such as:

  • How can we as a field better understand the impact of these tours? Is there a way to collaboratively engage in longitudinal studies that better illuminate what these programs achieve?
  • What other research exists in other fields that might help improve our practice?
  • If a museum implements the perfect tour, is there a significant impact? How many museum visits would it take to spark the imagination and curiosity of every student in a class of 30 children? What would this look like?

What questions are you left with?


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