Tag Archives: teachers

Tools for Understanding Your World: Museums + Beyond

Can you describe the space you are in right now? Have you thought about the temperature, the colors, the lighting, how the furniture is arranged, the sounds you can hear, the textures you feel, the smells that you associate with this space? When any of those elements change, how does that alter the space? How does that change how you interact with this space?

Yayoi Kusama
“Infinity Dots Mirrored Room,” 1996. Mattress Factory. Photo by Jeanne Kliemesch

These questions are the beginning of many conversations and inquiries we explore at the Mattress Factory on a daily basis. The Mattress Factory is a contemporary art museum with room-size exhibitions. We are committed to supporting artists and their practice. Exhibiting artists are invited to stay in a nearby residence while preparing new work, and the galleries serve both as studio and exhibition space during their stay. The installation art at the Mattress Factory is truly art you can get into. We support artists through the whole process of creation and experimentation, we don’t ask for proposals, and know that the work will transform and often take new shapes throughout their time here.

The experience of visiting the Mattress Factory is very different than a traditional museum environment. There are no guards, much of the art you can touch and explore in a close and more intimate way than is possible in many other museums (you can lay on the floor, reach into, sit on and step inside many of the pieces). This leads to an experience that can be very personal and powerful but also puzzling. The installation is built to be experienced. Sometimes the artwork is not translated easily into a photograph. It can be difficult to describe and to really understand how all the elements fit together – you need to physically be in the room.

With that in mind, we find ourselves asking some questions familiar to us all:

  • How can we create an experience for students that mirrors what happens here?
  • How can we make the museum visit more than just a fun field trip and turn it into a unique and deep learning experience?
  • How do we communicate and share the experience of Installation Art – and all of the rich dialogue that experience sparks – with students that are not able to visit the museum?
  • How do we translate the museum experience to a classroom, a library, a community center?

At the Mattress Factory we decided to do what we do best – and pose these questions as a challenge to a group of artists. We asked them not to make a piece of artwork, but instead to create a tool – one that could be used to inspire the same sort of conversations we have at the museum about space, memory, sound and a plethora of other big ideas. We titled the project The Space I’m In: Tools for Understanding Your Environment.

Interacting with Tametabako and thinking about space.

The Mattress Factory partnered with the Intermediate Unit 1 (a public education service agency dedicated to the counties we were working with) including nine different schools in counties outside of Pittsburgh and students who had little if any exposure to the concepts of contemporary installation art. Art teachers from each of the schools chose a fellow teacher from another discipline to participate in the program. The teams then reviewed the test scores of their schools and chose a subject area where scores were weak. The challenge was to create lesson plans using materials from the museum to improve learning in the targeted area. We provided professional development opportunities and support for teachers as they paired up to create interdisciplinary lessons inspired by the experiences these tools created. We diligently recorded students and teachers experience before and after their experience with The Space I’m In. Student learning in these weak testing areas improved dramatically.

Currently we have a small variety of tools that we offer to schools and teachers as a starting point in their exploration of our environment. One tool is titled Tamatebako designed by artist Yumi Kori. This tool is a large tented cube that you enter through the lower open portion and find various smaller dark tubes, open red environments and even a small opening to the sky. Each of these spaces can provide a different experience, a small dark space that can feel safe or scary, an open space that shifts colors and views. Another tool is a set of Sound Blocks by artist Jeremy Boyle. The Sounds Blocks change pitch when reacting to motion around them, creating an alternative way to explore space through an auditory experience.

Interacting with Tametabako.

We learned that as teachers became familiar with some of these concepts and working with students on these big ideas, they began to not even need these tools. The tools served as an entry point for the students and teachers to create new lessons and work through concepts in a new way. Teachers were often placed outside of their educational comfort zone and challenged to approach a lesson in a new direction. The conversations about space were able to happen in simple and subtle ways and students were challenged to slow down and think more about the environment surrounding them. The project creates connections between our memories, sensory understanding, physical spaces, and engages many different disciplines such as science, technology, math, language and the arts.

The long-term investment of creating relationships and training the teachers became the real key to the success of this project. From the museum end, we had to teach museum educators the language, the ideas, the artists, and the flexibility to translate the museum experience to the world beyond. They became the liaison to working with a teacher in their environment to ensure their comfort with these concepts. We learned that there are so many ways to change, alter, and think about our environment. We learned that we could use these same lessons without the tools.

Working in a museum environment we often take for granted the lingo we use and the knowledge we have acquired. Collaborating with teachers forced us to step back and start at the very beginning. We learned not to assume anything and to work through every step of the process in explaining and teaching the big ideas that go with installation art.

Student and teacher exploring the environment created by The Walls, a tool as part of The Space I’m In project.

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?

Rethinking the Way Museums Work with Teachers

Experiences that provide for the professional and personal growth of teachers play an increasingly vital role in museums’ efforts to connect with educational reform. Faced with the complex demands of teaching and learning in the 21st century, museums across the country are rethinking the ways they interact with teachers.  At the recent 2012 National Art Education Association conference in New York, I was fortunate enough to lead a session with William Crow (Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Rachel Bernstein (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) that examined how art museums are collaborating with teachers to develop a “co-expertise” approach that allows for co-creating resources, co-delivering programs, and developing dedicated spaces for a shared exchange of ideas.

As we described through our own work, this “co-expertise” model can afford museums a new way to build meaningful exchanges with teachers and to develop new partnerships with teacher professional learning communities. One central question (of many) that guided our thinking was:

  • In what ways might a “co-expertise” approach catalyze a shift in what learning looks like in a museum, and allow for new ways in which teachers and schools access those types of informal learning?

Since teacher voices are essential to this approach, I spent some time interviewing teachers that I work with through the Saint Louis Art Museum and the CoLab.  The teachers I spoke with had all directly experienced various programs shaped by the co-expertise model, from summer institutes to school partnerships (learn more about the CoLab’s recent work by clicking here, here, and here). I asked each teacher what “co-expertise” means to them, in their own words — how would they describe their shared learning experience with the art museum and with other teachers, and what key things make this approach successful to them and their students?  Here is a short video compilation of these teacher voices, gathering insights from teachers across grade levels, subject areas, and even coming from 3 different states:

To me, these teachers’ perspectives (among many others) have been so inspiring, focusing in on some of the essentials of the co-learning experience.  In my own work with teachers and conversations with colleagues (including William Crow and Rachel Bernstein), a few aspects of the “co-expertise” model have bubbled to the surface for me:

  • Letting go. By this, I mean museums letting go of their ‘authority’ over knowledge and meaning-making, and instead empowering teachers to collaborate with museums as we work together to explore ways to learn from collections.  This model of co-creating learning experiences WITH museums — as opposed to passively receiving content FROM the museum authorities, whether that be text panels, audio guides, curators, or even educators — is so central to rethinking the way teachers interact with museums. It may be one of the most daunting aspects, too, since it requires many museums to broaden their approach to learning.
  • Recognizing teachers as experts. Part of achieving this “letting go” is simply valuing teachers’ voices and recognizing teachers as creators of content, knowledge, and meaning in relation to museums. Professional development workshops can be re-envisioned with more of an emphasis on developing communities of practice where we learn from each other no matter what our “home” educational setting might be (school classroom, university, museum, etc.).
  • Shared growth and experimentation. This sense of creating a community of practice then builds toward a shared, reflective process that leads to professional growth on the side of both teachers and museum educators. Through an open process of thinking ‘outside the box’ and taking risks, we can all move forward in our practice as teachers and learners.

Through this work that I have been engaged with thus far, I feel that the art museum has begun to make a shift in what it has the potential to become: a dynamic cultural landscape where authentic, learner-driven experiences are developed and enacted by teachers and their students. These experiences are empowering teachers to chart their own pathways in unpredictable ways and inviting parallel exploration, risk-taking, and fresh discovery on the part of their students.  And isn’t rethinking the way museums work with teachers ultimately about envisioning a new way to engage students in museum learning?

Reposted through the National Writing Project’s Digital Is website.