Not Just for Field Trips Any More: 7 Ways to Ignite Learning at the Art Museum

[First posted at Ecology of Education, September 27, 2011]

When we, as educators, think back to our own school field trips to art museums, we tend to remember being paraded around the galleries, being talked at and given a lot of information, and … well, tuning out.  And let’s face it, this has not changed dramatically for most students today, who may still find themselves tuning out rather than tuning in during their museum visits.

Unfortunately, research has shown that the expectations teachers have for museum field trips come largely from their own (often less-than-stellar) experiences when they were students. Oftentimes, museums then work to offer tours that match these teacher expectations—providing the traditional “see everything” experience with little opportunity for open inquiry or deeper investigation. The resulting cycle does not allow much room for schools or museums to envision new possibilities for the learning that can occur during a visit to an art museum.

“Museums often struggle to understand the needs of schools, and teachers and students similarly struggle to understand the role they play accessing, interacting with, and learning from museums. In some ways, the expectations for learning that teachers bring to the museum may not match the possibilities available for learning at these non-school sites.” (Cordova & Murawski 2009)

While there continues to be what James Kisiel calls an “awkward marriage” between museums and schools, art museums are undoubtedly in a process of transformation in light of the demands and challenges of the 21st century. These institutions are working to become more relevant and to play a more essential role in the lives of students, teachers, and their communities. Striving to ignite learning and creative thinking rather than parading students around the galleries in an attempt to “see everything,” art museums across the country are working to serve as spaces where we can begin to see learning in new ways.

But what can teachers do to help transform what is possible during their art museum visit? How can we, as educators, better harness the powerful types of learning that can occur in the galleries of an art museum?  What follows are some guidelines to help begin thinking beyond the ‘field trip’ and to promote a broader vision of what learning can and ought to look like in an art museum.

7 Ways to Ignite Learning at the Art Museum

1.   Think about the art museum as different from your school classroom.

Museums are, after all, informal learning environments that are quite different from schools.  While teachers and students may sometimes think of museums as more restrictive and more information-centered, museums have spent decades working to ensure that they provide experiences that build on the strengths of more informal, out-of-school learning environments. Research shows that students have more positive experiences in museums when they are treated as something that is distinct from their school classroom experiences and do not involve worksheets, fill-in-the-blanks, and basic call-and-response teaching.

Along these lines, teachers can work to challenge museums to “do what they do best” and develop tours or programs that are not solely geared towards school-based content and curriculum standards. Museums are largely underutilized as spaces for connecting students with complex thinking, creativity, and multisensory learning, yet they can actually serve that purpose very well.  With an increasing body of research and practice showing the power of art museums to develop stronger thinking in our students, it only makes sense for schools and museums to make these experiences available.

2.   Be a learner yourself.

While teachers certainly spend a significant amount of time planning their lessons, managing their classrooms, and preparing for field trips, they rarely find time to treat themselves as learners—and being a learner is such a key aspect of being an effective teacher. When it comes to art museums, teachers sometimes only seek out the more conventional types of teacher programs where they will walk away with information about an area of the collection as well as handouts, lesson plans, and materials to use back in the classroom.  But the art museum can be an exceptional place for the personal and professional growth of teachers as learners.

When teachers engage in aesthetic experiences and hands-on activities at their museum as a learner, not just as a teacher, they model an authentic and infectious curiosity that influences how students interact with the art.  Take an art class, a workshop, or attend an evening concert and enjoy your art museum as more than a “field trip” location. When your students are participating in a tour or school program at the museum, participate yourself—take a sketchbook and draw with your students, or get involved in that art-making project that may capture your imagination as much as it does your students.’ As you begin to tap into the creative experiences possible at art museums, you are more likely to involve your students in similar activities during your visits with them.

3.   Get more involved.

Most art museums across the country have some type of teacher advisory board or committee, and they are constantly in search of teachers to help them stay connected to school communities.  Not only can this get a teacher more connected with the museum and their education staff, but there can be some additional benefits such as free memberships, shop discounts, special invitations to workshops or institutes, and free resources and materials.  And if your area art museum does not have a teacher advisory group, suggest working with them to start one and help get them connected with teachers in your area.  Also, get to know the museum education staff who can work with you to develop the best programs for your students, and can advise on how best to utilize the museum and its resources to motivate deeper learning.

Getting involved in these ways can help teachers take a central role in the planning and preparation for a museum visit, ensuring that the experience is a more positive and memorable one for students.

4.   Embrace freedom and choice.

Engage students in learning experiences where they have some element of choice and freedom. Overall, on our visit to the art museum, you might think more about what the students want to discover rather than just about what you want them to see. Free-choice learning can be a powerful way to get students to feel ownership over their museum experience, have a voice, and connect to what they see in more memorable ways. But stay away from scavenger hunts … please! While there are certainly ways to design a more effective scavenger hunt, it is better just to stay away from this format altogether.

Instead, think of a way to provide students with a real problem-solving or small group activity that invites more complex thinking and aspects of creative response that will be more meaningful to them. Try an activity that might motivate a student to select one artwork they are interested in exploring, and invite them to look more closely and connect to that object through their own personal experiences and interests.

5.   Get moving!

While art museums have not traditionally been places where kinesthetic learning has flourished, there has been a resurgence of movement activities occurring in the galleries.  Museum educators at an increasing number of art museums are facilitating movement techniques that can make the museum come alive for students. If you decide to add movement to your museum visit, however, just be sure to provide students with clear rules about what they can and cannot do (and it is always best to work directly with museum staff to facilitate your initial forays into this exciting and effective teaching strategy in the art museum).

As Shelley Weisberg writes in the most recent issue of the Journal of Museum Education: “Movement as an expressive tool offers connectivity for the visitor to museum objects.  Museums are a moving experience.”

6.   Get writing!

Art can inspire students to think creatively, use their imaginations, and generate some pretty fantastic creative writing.  For decades, art museums have served as exceptional places for student writing activities, with school programs at many museums offering such experiences for students across the grade levels. In recent years, several art museums have created new, useful resources for teachers that provide writing prompts and activities to engage students before, during, and after their visits to the art museum—among these being the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s “Looking to Write, Writing to Look” resource and the Weisman Art Museum’s “Artful Writing” materials.

Educator-led and self-guided visits that focus on creative writing can be extremely rewarding and productive for both teachers and students.  These creative activities also value the students’ response and allow them to express their own voice in a meaningful way.

7.   Think BIG.

When planning your next visit to the local art museum, get excited about the possibilities and think big. Challenge your art museum to collaborate with you to think outside the box, take risks, and co-create a dynamic experience that connects with the powerful learning that can happen in museums. Let’s begin to think beyond the ‘field trip’ and explore the art museum as a creative, innovative space for learning in the 21st century.

Warhol image: MOMA

Mask Image: CalState

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