How Do We Get to Know Our Students?

Photo by Christine Healey

Participatory museum experiences and museum visitor identity seem to be the focus of much attention of late in the museum educator community. It is something I have given a lot of thought to, and I have enjoyed some thought-provoking conversations on Twitter about it. I like to think that students are at the centre of the experiences I create for them at the museum, in the same way that student-centred learning is championed in school-based learning and teaching. But I wonder if student-centred teaching at the museum is something that can actually be claimed as part of our practice.

Placing the students at the centre of a learning experience means knowing who the students are and I wonder how many assumptions can be made about this before they become irrelevant or wrong. In the museum we can’t get to know or form relationships with the students easily. They come to us in batches of around 25 students, ranging from pre-school to high-school levels, staying for a short time, making it practically impossible to know them as individuals, as their school teachers do.

So how do we get to know our students?

I have noticed that I form assumptions about who students are before they arrive on site — that I create a fictitious or generic version of who I think they might be. The information that I base this on is mainly tacit. I know what year level they are and so have an indication of age range, although this may not be a good indicator of maturity. I consider how well prepared the teacher is for the visit and what they hope students get out of the experience. This assists me to understand the students previous learning and the anticipated outcomes of the visit. I know what the curriculum expectations of the visit are, and that these are often the justification for the visit. Experiences with my own and other children I know also informs how I relate to children. For each class or group that visits I test my assumptions to decide on the best level to pitch my discussion with them.

Photo by Christine Healey

My goal is to create an experience that will be meaningful for the students. I want to facilitate the students’ capacity to drive curiosity and find personal meaning, as well as awe and inspiration in the artworks that I choose to show them. I perform in (what I think is) an engaging or entertaining manner to maintain their attention and focus. I make sure I am present in the moment and pay careful attention to what they are interested in. I ask questions and ask for questions. I give and request feedback. I paraphrase to build on what students are noticing and thinking, encouraging others to contribute and find viewpoints of difference or similarity. I tell stories and share what I love about art and artists’ capacity to surprise and delight. I try to let them drive the experience and am willing to be adaptable and flexible to go along with it.

The ‘truth’ is that I don’t know my students. I can’t know them in a once off, one hour visit. But each new experience I have teaching informs the next, and I shape my practice so that I am creating experiences that are driven by the needs of the students generally.

What are some ways you get to know students before they arrive at your museum? As they tour the galleries? After they leave the museum? Before the next school visit?


5 thoughts on “How Do We Get to Know Our Students?”

  1. This is a great post, and a topic that I gave much thought to when deciding to switch paths from classroom teacher to museum educator. In my limited experience on the classroom teaching side, I often felt frustrated with presenters and presentations that were just a little bit ”off” from the point at which (in my opinion) the students would get the most out of the experience. I often had to bite my tongue to not jump in and make connections for the students or supplement with familiar vocabulary (I get pretty excited about new learning opportunities, if you can’t tell!).
    This has often made me wonder if there is a better way to involve the teacher in facilitating field trips. I know many are looking for a new voice and a new experience for their students, and many others just want to get a cup of coffee and sit in the cafe. Hopefully, connections are made back in the classroom. But, I agree that we don’t really know the students in our field trip programs.
    I just started a new position and am in charge of revamping my museum’s educational programs. I’d love to see a study asking if teachers generally feel like I did – biting their tongue through programs – or if they’d rather give their students access to a new voice at the museum.

  2. Negotiating the relationship with visiting classroom teachers can be complex. As you said, their needs vary so much, from being laissez-faire to heavy-duty participation. Each circumstance is different, which makes it difficult to generalise. I’m very comfortable with long silences while children are thinking but sometimes their teachers aren’t. They demonstrate this by responding on their students’ behalf. Rather than enter into a battle of wills, I try to default to the aphorism that “the customer is always right”. The excursion is their experience, and it is their need I’m trying to meet, not mine. What I think is best, is only my opinion, and I want teachers to leave feeling happy and wanting to revisit. Having said that, most teachers respect my professional knowledge and I offer program choices that reflect my own pedagogy.

    Involving the teacher beforehand isn’t always possible. It is fantastic when the teacher has visited the museum, and is familiar with the exhibitions and facilities. My museum offers complementary tickets to encourage this. The booking form has space for teachers to inform me of their educational expectations too. I often verify this when I greet them by asking if there is anything particular they want covered and I give them a brief overview of what we’ll be looking at. I also read student handouts when they have them.

    I advocate for museum education research and encourage you to ask this question on your feedback form, in general conversations and at professional development programs to (dis)qualify your thoughts. Then share your findings with us!

    Thank you for the positive feedback and best wishes with your new position. Your enthusiasm will take you far.

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