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.
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?