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The Challenges of Teaching with Museums

Posted by Cynthia Wallace...
17 December 2015 - 2:07pm

Did you know that there are more than 1,500 museums in Canada?  Museums encompass many disciplines of study, including history, science, nature, and the arts.  Their collections range from tangible objects to intangible ideas, and their methods of presentation range from static displays to participatory environments.

From a pedagogical point of view, museums present rich learning environments, where constructed narratives are communicated through the use of sight, sound, touch, smell, and emotion.  Within such narrative constructs, as Trofanenko and Segall (2014) have pointed out, pedagogy is often positioned “to assume particular assumptions, perspectives, and views about the world and its people” (p. 1).  In this sense, while museums can provide powerful sites for learning, they can also be exclusionary and restrictive.

As teaching tools, museums also present their own distinct challenges.  This is because what constitutes learning in a museum involves multiple sensory experiences, personal interaction, and extended learning outcomes that change over time.  For this reason, learning in a museum is seldom immediately apparent or easily assessed (Wertsch, 2002, p. 114; see also Falk & Dierking, 2000; Kelly, 2011; Wallace-Casey, 2013).  Falk and Dierking’s (2013) Contextual Model of Learning, identifies four broad contexts for analyzing learning in a museum setting: personal, sociocultural, physical, and temporal.  Such a model also acknowledges (regardless of age or subject discipline) that “Learning begins with the individual. Learning involves others. Learning takes place somewhere” (Falk & Dierking, 2002, p. 36), and learning continues over time (Falk & Dierking, 2013).  This model, while reminiscent of constructivist pedagogy, recognises the complex nature of learning in a museum, and calls for more robust measures for assessment that extend beyond mere appropriation of a desired narrative claim.

Researchers have found that while classroom educators may value museums for their pedagogical potential, a number of factors seem to limit their ability to use the resources effectively (Chee, 2006; Levesque, 2006; Marcus et al.,2012).  In particular, pre-visit preparation is often very weak, resulting in students arriving with no sense of purpose or objective.  In addition, both classroom educators (as well as their students) often assume a passive role in the learning dynamic, acting as empty recipients of pre-packaged information (Chee, 2006; Levesque, 2006; Marcus et al., 2012).  

Another important limiting factor is time.  Researchers have found that when visiting a museum, school groups are often hard pressed for time and thus become boxed into a field trip that is more focussed on logistics than on providing a quality learning experience (Chee, 2006; Levesque, 2006; Marcus et al., 2012; Wunder, 2002). 

Ultimately, however, perhaps the greatest problem associated with teaching (and learning) in a museum rests with professional development.  This is because, as Marcus et al. (2012) have noted, while trained educators "may possess expansive content knowledge in their speciality and an expertise in formal pedagogy; many…  have a more limited knowledge of a museum’s specific content focus and may have minimal training or expertise about how to successfully support & incorporate museum visits into their instruction" (p. 73).  To this end, Trofaneneko (2014), as well as Levesque (2006), and Marcus et al. (2012), have called for a collaborative approach to museum education, in which museum staff and classroom educators learn from each other (Marcus et al., 2012, p. 89).  Trofanenko (2014) has also proposed that educators re-consider museums as more than just authoritarian conveyors of the message—but rather "places of practice" (p. 278) where classroom educators and their students can contribute their own ubique perspectives and become active participants in the museum’s community of inquiry (see also Chee, 2006, p. 13).

In my own dissertation research, I found that by establishing a museum learning environment that was conducive to historical inquiry, both students and museum educators became more engaged in critical analysis of the museum narratives they encountered.  In turn, students enjoyed becoming active participants in the museum’s community of inquiry, and came to realise the problematic nature of historical inquiry. This finding supports the assertion that museums have an important pedagogical role to play in enabling students to critically (re)construct their own narrative interpretations about the past.

Works cited

Chee, M. (2006). Training teachers for the effective use of museums. International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research, 6 (January), 10-16.

Falk, J., & Dierking, L. (2013). The museum experience revisited. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press.

Falk, J. & Dierking, L. (2002). Lessons without limits: How free-choice learning is transforming education. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.

Falk, J., & Dierking, L. (2000). Learning from museums: Visitor experiences and the making of meaning. Lanham: AltaMira Press.

Kelly, L. (2011). Student learning in museums: what do we know? Report prepared for The Sovereign Hill Museums Association (Australia).

Leinhardt, G, & Gregg, M (2000). Burning buses, burning crosses: Student teachers see civil rights. Museum Learning Collaborative Technical Report # MLC-03 ( )

Levesque, S. (2006). Integrating museum education and school history: Illustrations from the RCR museum and London Museum of Archaeology. International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research, 6 (January), 40-47.

Marcus, A., Levine, T., & Grenier, R. (2012). How secondary history teachers use and think about museums : Current practices and untapped promise for promoting historical understanding. Theory & Research in Social Education, 40(1), 66-97.

Trofanenko, B. (2014). On the museum as a practised place: Or, reconsidering museums and history education. In R. Sandwell & A Von Heyking (Eds.) Becoming a history teacher: Sustaining practices in historical thinking and knowing (pp. 269-282). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Trofaneneko, B. & Segall, A. (Eds.) (2014). Beyond pedagogy: Reconsidering the public purpose of museums. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Wallace-Casey, C. (2013). What does learning look like in a history museum? Antistasis, 3(1), 19-22.

Wertsch, J. (2002). Epistemological issues about objects. In S. Paris (Ed.) Perspectives on object-based learning in museums (pp. 113–120). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Wunder, S. (2002). Learning to teach for historical understanding: Preservice teachers at a hands-on museum. The Social Studies, 94, 159-163.

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