What do museum educators need to know about learning and impact in museums?

Recently, I have been thinking about the role of research in museum education work thanks to the podcast Sold a Story. This podcast shares the rise and fall of Reading Recovery, a popular reading program in elementary schools. Reading Recovery took schools by storm in the 1980s, but it is based on ideas that have long been disproven. In fact, results from a large, long-term research study reported on by NPR show that “by third and fourth grade, children who received Reading Recovery had lower scores on state reading tests than a comparison group of children who did not receive Reading Recovery.” The program is based on a system titled “3 cuing,” and this system is based on what we now know to be faulty ideas about how people read. We know more now because research evolves; for example, according to Sold a Story, eye-tracking studies conducted by Keith Raynor in the first two decades of the 21st century “showed that good readers rely on the letters to know what the words say,” debunking the idea that readers are more likely to use context and memorization of what words look like. Ongoing research assumes that knowledge evolves.  Thus, our ideas about what works in education need to evolve as well.  Nothing is constant. 

One other story about changing research: an episode of the podcast Build for Tomorrow titled “The Greatest Myth About Learning,” looks at learning styles, an idea made famous by Howard Gardner, which says that some people learn best visually, others by listening, others through reading, and still others, kinesthetically. But in the last decade this idea has been disproven. Beth Rogowsky, a professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, published a book debunking the idea of learning styles, and Polly Husmann, a professor at the Indiana University School of Medicine, has followed up with additional research supporting Rogowsky’s findings. Once again, research can help us teach better, but only if those who teach keep up with the research and change their teaching practices accordingly.

Many schools and teachers use methodologies that they believe help kids learn, but research shows they are misguided. This misstep isn’t due to lack of research, as formal education has an entire research industry; rather applying research in the classroom is complicated and full of road blocks. For example, teacher training at the university level is slow to change—even though their classes are at the institutions doing the research; information about new research may not make it to the individuals running schools and school systems; and large, bureaucratic school systems may find it challenging not just to keep up with research, but to make meaningful changes to teacher training, or to find the resources to retrain teachers.

Museum education has different problems. Without an academic PhD-granting arm of our practice in the United States, the community conducting ongoing research is very small. To the best of my knowledge, museum educators have little time to keep current on research in other spheres of education or psychology. Most program changes are rooted in unfounded ideas about how people learn and what people want, bolstered by small grant-funded evaluation studies designed to determine what worked and what did not in that one programmatic situation.  It’s important to note here that traditional evaluation looks at whether a specific program achieved what it set out to achieve; while evaluation is important and useful, it differs from research.  Traditional research poses a hypotheses and then seeks to disprove the hypothesis using control groups and other stringent protocols; thus, research findings can be more broadly applicable than evaluation reports.   

Elliott Kai-Kee’s discussion of art museum education in the 1980s illuminates the field’s dependence on lived experience rather than research. He cites Elliot Eisner and Stephen Dobbs’s 1986 report The Uncertain Profession: Observations on the State of Museum Education in Twenty American Art Museums, noting that Eisner and Dobbs “concluded that museum education lacked both a scholarly literature and a theoretical foundation” (p40). In response, leaders from the field met in Denver to discuss, among other things, non-research-based ideals for teachers and teaching in the museum, many of which we still follow.

Clearly my own bias is that research is important. I believe our assumptions about learning are shaped by personal experience, and thus are heavily subjective. I believe that research can help us improve how we teach, thereby increasing our effectiveness. But perhaps you disagree. Arguably, conducting research on museum education programs is not the best use of limited resources. Perhaps there is no need to deepen our knowledge on how our programs achieve impact because we are already achieving success, however you may define it. I welcome alternative viewpoints on research, applying research to practice, and achieving impact, so please share in the comments or on my LinkedIn post about this blog article.

Conducting research in museums is complicated. Time-consuming strategies are needed to measure impact beyond the typical evaluation approach of collecting data immediately after a visitor experience; studies involving participant follow-up can become costly (at least compared to the scant evaluation or research budgets of most museums). If we want to know how to shape programs in order to successfully impact participants, where might we look for this? How might we, as a field, better conduct or learn from rigorous research about our practice and the effectiveness of it on the publics and communities we serve?  How might research-based knowledge drive decisions about our practice so we can make a difference in people’s lives?

    • Given the number of individuals graduating from museum education programs and looking for work, one suggestion would be to work with universities to invest in a few PhD programs, or partner with PhD programs from other related disciplines to generate museum-focused research. This is a list of museum programs in the US; neither I nor ChatGPT could find any museum education PhD programs here or by searching the internet. Certainly, some intrepid academics are able to secure a PhD in museum education, but it generally involves finding an adjacent area of study such as art education and making museums one’s focus.  (See this 1996 article from a debate in Curator: The Museum Journal on this topic.)
    • Find ways to obtain access to existing research-rich resources. The website Informalscience.org houses links to the research that exists; however, most of it is inaccessible to many museum educators, because it is housed behind paywalls on sites such as EBSCO or JSTOR. Arts Education Partnership also shares research briefs, although it does not link to the longer reports, most of which are also presumably behind paywalls.  Could the American Alliance of Museums create an online academic library available to members even if it were for an extra fee? Could the Smithsonian do this for all museums?  Or could museums partner with local universities so staff had library privileges in exchange for providing free access to university students, professors, and administrators?
    • Look to research in the broader education field. I have enjoyed learning from Daniel Willingham at the University of Virginia, who writes about the implications of cognitive psychology research for K-12 education. I’d love to know where else people look for updates in research on education and related fields.  Please share your resources!
    • Identify and share new education research findings at conferences and in professional journals. Could the Journal of Museum Education have an annual roundup of related research conducted inside and outside museums? Could this become tradition at annual conferences attended by museum educators?
    • Individual museums can and should invest in learning about research and applying it to our work. I spent much of 2019 exploring this with my team at the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum through distance-learning sessions with experts in approaches such as Reggio Emilia, Playwork, Montessori, and Play Therapy. Our front-line team members activated some of these ideas in the museum and shared their informal findings. We were not in a position to conduct comprehensive research on the impact of using these strategies, but like some practitioners, we adapted these tried-and-true teaching approaches to our own setting. I am passionate about the work of applying research to museum learning and working with staff at other museums to adapt new strategies, so if your museum would find value in working with me, I would be delighted to a create collaborative learning course for your staff and museum (contact me here for more information). 

    What other ideas do you have for how museum educators can learn from research? What was the last new research you found that changed the way you think, teach, or plan? Where and how did you find it? Feedback to this post indicated that the best place for conversations is LinkedIn, so I strongly encourage you to share your thoughts on this post in that space – I look forward to this conversation!

    Please add your thoughts to the discussion!

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

    WordPress.com Logo

    You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s