Monday, May 7, 2012

Promoting Student Learning in Museums, Part One

We are currently in the thick of school tour season at the Dickinson County Heritage Center, and so far, it has been a great experience meeting school kids and showing them some of our museum artifacts.  We have certainly seen the affects of the US economy this year.  In some cases, schools have decided to cut down on field trips due to transportation costs.  In other cases, schools have banded together, planned their field trips in conjunction, and traveled together on the same buses.  One teacher, whose students arrived at the museum in a charter bus, said it was cheaper for the students to travel in a rented bus, rather than one owned by the school.  She also said that a large portion of the travel costs were paid with money raised by the students.  No matter how you look at it, field trip budgets have been severely diminished across the board.

Now, I realize you may be thinking, "Well of course he is going to complain about this.  He works in a museum and wants visitors."  That is probably a valid criticism, but while I do want visitors at the Heritage Center, I more importantly want learning to occur.  In school, most students are educated via direct learning, meaning they are directed through a specific lesson or curriculum, with their teacher serving as a guide and educator.  This type of learning exists in museums as well.  As a museum educator, I get the opportunity to lead students through a museum tour.  I offer factoids, ask questions, and point out important things.  But I always do one other thing as well: I let the students explore.  The students are allowed free-reign of an area of the museum, a chance to explore, to learn something new.  Free choice learning gives visitors the chance to learn at their leisure.  We all have different experiences and interests that guide us through museums.  Just because I am interested in historic photographs does not mean the next guy will be.  That is the beauty of museums: there is something for every type of learner.  At least, there should be.  Does free choice learning occur in classrooms as well?  Undoubtedly.  But it occurs in museums to such a large degree, it becomes of paramount importance for museums to provide and promote these opportunities.

In my next post, I will focus on what museums need to do to entice school districts to support field trips for their students.  I will also provide some examples of what museums can offer the public inside and outside their physical buildings.

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