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Remaining Relevant in the Face of a Changing Curriculum

Contributed by John Buchinger, former middle school teacher, museum educator and chief instigator at bRabbit Consulting

Museums have a direct relationship with schools. For almost any institution worth its salt, school field trips, teacher resources, and outreach visits are critical pieces of a comprehensive museum education department. But what happens when your museum’s focus isn’t on the top list of priorities for your local schools? How do history organizations stay relevant when the latest national or state initiatives bulldoze sections of the curriculum that made us relevant to schools, students, and teachers?

The traditional docent-led field trip tour may no longer be enough to meet schools’ needs.

Recently we have seen a great deal of evidence telling us that we, as a nation, are lagging behind in science, technology skills, engineering, and math. Yes, you put the acronym together for me: STEM. If it wasn’t bad enough that in the early 2000’s No Child Left Behind started making history courses irrelevant to many schools. The need for expanded literacy, math, and reading skills brushed aside those bread-and-butter field trips. How do we have a relationship when there is no need to learn history?

I remember sitting in rooms with museum colleagues, cooking up connections to state standards that made our venerable programs relevant, or creating new programs in an effort to keep our old audiences or build new ones. This often resulted in mixed results at best. We often wasted time on developing programs people never accessed, and worse yet, money and energy on marketing these programs to an audience who never came. But do we do nothing when our audience needs seem to be shifting, and what do we do as history organizations to remain relevant?

Megan Wood, visitor experience department manager at Ohio Historical Society believes that sticking to who we are as purveyors of history is a good idea:

“I strongly believe that we [employees at history organizations] should use the unique nature of our content and experiences and not try to stretch and strain to be something that we’re not. “

Wood says that the curriculum can inform our relationships and help to highlight the importance of what history organizations do:

“History organizations can use school curriculum as an opportunity to highlight how the strengths of the organization can be used in harmony with the school curriculum to create a more meaningful learning experience.”

Working with teachers can help museums increase their relevance.

One such organization is National History Day. The premier national contest in student historical inquiry encourages students to do in-depth original research and produce projects that reflect their positions and learning. In a jam-packed curriculum it can be challenging for students to engage in this program. Anne Claunch, NHD’s director of curriculum and guru of teacher professional development, shares one of NHD’s main ways of staying connected with schools: teachers! Claunch says:

“[It’s about having] practicing teachers connected with your organization.  Teachers will always bring credibility to your mission and keep you updated with the new trends and keep your finger on the pulse of what is happening in the educational community.”

I agree whole-heartedly. It is all about making those relationships. Loosing one teacher who brought classes to an institution for twenty years can be a real blow. But developing a relationship with a new teacher, even if it means going to visit their classroom or crossing a discipline once in a while, can ensure relevancy. If you find those people who need you, and whom you need, you will keep your institutions content relevant. Claunch continues:

“No organization has enough resources to tackle a connection with all the disciplines, so if you are a history institution, stay with the history focus and help the community to see how the other disciplines connect.”

This may be Museum Outreach 101. But in the face of a continuing limp economy that leaves schools with fewer dollars to pursue field trips or new curriculum additions, do we need some radical or at least progressive approaches to keeping our institutions relevant?

Jody Blankenship, education director at the Kentucky Historical Society, has made a career of successful partnerships for the organizations for which he has worked. He has a great vision for how organizations should approach staying relevant and lean:

“Historical organizations need to reframe the public perception of history from entertainment and leisure to that of a tool for improving our communities. We have to highlight the application of history and the practical value that it provides both in the short- and long-term.”

Blankenship suggests that approaching these new curriculum standards be combined with a solid dose of humility and common sense:

“We’re reluctant to let go of our role as experts, but I’m not sure that the public sees us in this role – the only reference I’m aware of that places historical organizations in this role is in The Presence of the Past. When I talk to teachers and students in Kentucky, I hear them saying that they want to dig into the work, be a part of something of substance, but they need guidance not answers.”

So guidance, not answers! I think for many of us this means more attention to our collections in an effort to find out how they provide answers, or partnerships that allow schools direct access to the stuff and ways to come up with “the answers.”

I like this thought because it removes the financial chase or retooling of programs in an effort to stay with a current trend. Blankenship acknowledges a changing environment, but his suggestion for keeping up offers hope, as it calls on us to help engage in the essential function of most history education programs: encouraging historic inquiry and lifelong learning.

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