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Using Museums in the Classroom

If you visit any national park unit, chances are pretty high that the visitor center will be on your list of stops. It's a great place to get orientations, ask questions, find features of the park you might otherwise miss, or get yourself that must-have souvenir.

Visitor centers are also one of the best learning resources available to visitors (outside the rangers of course) and are utilized by parks as a strategic place to turn visitors into learners because of the foot traffic. What most visitors don’t realize is just how much consideration goes into their design or how these little “in-park museums” are designed to capture interest that leads to unplanned learning opportunities. Here are some of the things we know about why museum are effective learning tools;

  • Museums leverage active learning where visitors interact with different elements of the exhibits in the museum. Research suggests this helps people learn more deeply and retain what they have learned longer than passive learning.

  • Visitors interact with exhibits and displays by formulating their own questions, reflecting on prior knowledge, making their own judgements regarding what they are seeing, and constructing new knowledge through the experience, all hallmarks of strong constructivist practices and encourage the development of critical thinking.

  • Museums utilize principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) by allowing visitors to exercise personal agency in a way that they choose to learn. Read all the text on the wall or just some of it. Watch the video or take the audio tour. These choices allow for self-scaffolding by the learner in a way that classrooms with traditional, one-size-fits-all models fall short.

  • Museums “prime the pump” for future learning. Learners leave with wider foundational knowledge and curiosity piqued, making them more willing to dig deeper on their own even days after they leave.

Since the benefits of this kind of learning are pretty clear, asking ourselves how we can duplicate this in the classroom is a natural reflection question. I myself have wondered this out loud on several occasions, one of the most memorable being during a visit to Manzanar Nat’l Historic Site which interprets the history of Executive Order 9066 that led to the incarceration of Japanese-Americans and preserver Manzanar, one of the largest prison camps operated during the war. The visitor center museum there is truly amazing in the way it presented the story of the camp and the people who were interred there as well as the way it touched on themes like prejudice and civil rights. As I left, I thought to myself, “How can I bring this experience to my students?”

What I am about to share is the answer I have developed to that question, and while I know that not everyone might feel like they have the time to build a museum experience for their students, I hope that you find parts of this process that are valuable to you. One thing to note - I’m not sure what order you should complete the following steps in, so when considering this process adjust the order if you feel like it’ll work for you better.

  1. Define the goals - being with the end in mind. What do you want your students to learn or what do you want them to come away having experienced? You want to make sure that you have a clear purpose in mind or else this entire endeavor just becomes “one more thing” on your plate. Consider what learning goals you want to meet or illustrate more deeply through a visit to the museum.

  1. Find your museum - there are two options here; either find a premade virtual museum OR build it yourself. Obviously one takes more time than the other, but the benefit to building your own is that you walk away with something tailor-made to fulfill your design needs.

Find one - there are several places where you can find virtual museums or exhibits that you can use in support of the learning goals you’ve selected. Here are a couple of my favorite places to check;

Make one - Here is an example I created during a visit to Cabrillo Nat’l Monument in San Diego, CA that focuses on the technology early explorers used:

The process I used for capturing a visitor center museum is a bit technical, and there are costs associated with constructing it, so I don’t expect many people to go this route but I will share how I created the above example in a future post.

  1. Thinking about the visitors - Once you have a museum that supports your learning goal, it's time to think about how your visitors, or learners in this case, will interact with it. Research into how people use museums as learning resources gives us some helpful insights into how we should design virtual museum experiences. In a 2018 study conducted using Bluetooth trackers, researchers found that there were two main ways that people utilize museums for learning through personalizing their own pathway;

One group interacts deeply with exhibits, moving slower as they process what they are seeing and try to connect it back to their interests or questions. They take more time, take in everything regardless of how it is presented, and have higher levels of perceived learning at the end.

The other groups tend to scan exhibits before deciding if they are worth their time. They also look more at how the exhibit is constructed, such as preferring multimedia videos over text or artifact displays. They take less time since they interact with fewer exhibits, focus on modality of learning rather than content, and still come away having learned a lot even if they feel like they learned less.

What does this mean? You need to scaffold the experience so that no matter who your students are, they find resources that align to their chosen method of museum learning. For the see everything group, give them questions to help them be more discerning with their time. For the group that gravitated towards only certain media, provide a museum guide that required they delve into more textual resources or exhibits while also making sure that

  1. What Comes After - one of the biggest mistakes teachers make when bringing students to a museum is not considering what comes after they leave . Many parks address this by prompting visitors within the exhibits using helpful signs that say things like, “If you want to learn more, be sure to check out X” or “Interested in diving deeper? Check out our ranger program on Y”

You can do the same thing by making sure that the learning that happens as a result of the museum visit has a purpose in the larger unit. Maybe there is a discussion following the visit? Perhaps you want students to apply what they have learned to a culminating project? The goal is to make sure that the information the uncover remains relevant, so always consider the next step.

Using museum learning virtually is a great strategy with proven benefits for students growth and engagement, so start thinking about how it might benefit you today!

Sources and Suggested Readings;

Learning In Museums - Harvard Graduate School of Education

How Does Learning Happen in Museums? - University of Melbourne


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