Connecting to Educators – Back to Basics: Research

by Tobi Voigt on

Recently I was asked to lead a webinar on connecting with educators for Ohio History Connection’s Creative Learning Factory. (They have a whole series of awesome webinars for museum educators.) My first point in said webinar, which I will talk about here, related to the importance of research in building relationships with and quality programs for educators and students. Nothing in this post is ground-breaking or innovative, but it is a good refresher.

My first year in museum education had a steep learning curve. Although I have a museum studies master’s degree, I hadn’t planned to work in education so I knew very little about the topic. As a result, I spent that first year doing a lot of homework, which I found to be incredibly beneficial. I focused on three key areas that ended up serving me very well then, and now:

Standards and Terminology

What I learned early on is “non-traditional” education organizations (like museums) need to earn their “street cred” with teachers. And by that I mean we have to talk the talk and walk the walk.

First, I had to get up to date on learning standards. These vary from state to state, and now Common Core is complicating it further. I found all my state’s learning standards on their website, downloadable as PDFs. I download and saved all the standards, but printed out the ones that were most relevant to my institution and its mission and put them in a binder that I could use as easy reference.

I then studied them all to get familiar with what teachers were required to teach. I marked up the ones that had a direct connection to the mission. It also helped me know what the schools had to teach in each grade level. (For example, Michigan History is taught in 4th and 7th grade.)

Second, I put together an education vocabulary list. If you think museum lingo is overwhelming, education has us beat. I kept encountering terms I have never heard before, like “pedagogy,” “scaffolding,” and “authentic assessment.” I developed an education lexicon that I used to learn all the relevant terms. I have shared this lexicon with countless museum folks over the years.

Learning Theories

I also found it helpful to read up on different learning theories. This is pretty high-level for everyday teachers, but the state of education in America is always in flux, and administrators, government officials, etc. are always trying to find that perfect method of instruction. (Ok, well, maybe not.) But the point is, museums have the flexibility to create innovative learning experiences based on the latest studies and findings on effective learning.

Dale’s Cone of Experience is probably my favorite. It’s quick, concise, and has a visual graphic! It states that people remember 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear, 30% of what they see, but 90% of what they DO. This is a key tenant of museum education – hands-on! Interactive!

In addition, the three learning theories I find most relevant for museum education are:

They are all different, but all have DOING at their heart. If not for your own knowledge, learn about these because when you have to pitch out-of-the-box ideas to the Director or the Board, being able justify it using learning theory gives you a little lift in credibility.

Museum Theory

This is where I share the unwritten rule of museum educators: We rarely reinvent the wheel – we borrow and steal what other museum educators are doing and adapt it to our own use. There’s no shame in that, as long as we all admit it. Plus, I’ve never met an educator who wasn’t totally geeked to share a program idea.

So, how does museum theory fit in? It’s probably not a surprise to any of you that, in the last 20 years or so, there has been a shift in how museums operate. We are moving to a more education and community engagement focus, and away from “these hallowed halls” and “cabinets of curiosity” focus. This is good for us, the educators! It’s job security.

People like John Falk and Lynn Dierking have been writing on learning in museums for years, and newcomers like Nina Simon are encouraging us to push our boundaries and be co-creators with our visitors.  You may or may not agree with all the viewpoints, but it is worth it to see what ideas they have.

Next post I’ll talk about the importance planning, evaluation and teacher participation in program planning and development.


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