A-Muse Ed

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The teacher who brings his or her class on a museum field trip provides that class with a potentially lasting impression. It is hoped that this impression benefits that class “educationally” (within rigid academic understanding and assessment) and experientially (those aspects of learning which are more personal and which reach beyond the immediate assessments of paper and pencil tests).

The value of an elementary school or middle school museum field trip as opposed to visiting the institution’s Web site is raw physical sensation of being in a new or rarely visited space. A space that is not always planned with the mission of teaching children. A space that in varying degrees and in varying ways offers opportunities for firsthand interactions or observations with physical objects. This is important because these interactions and observations potentially engrain the learning to create a lifelong lesson or experience.

When I was a student in the Museum Education at Bank Street, one of the questions we had to reflect upon was the purpose of the museum. After much debate the class concluded that a museum “had to be all things to all people.” It sounds glib but when you consider the processes museum curators and educators must engage in it makes sense.

The museum must first decide what is artifact and what is just junk. Then it must decide whose artifact or junk it is (as in cases of objects with potentially strong religious or cultural connotations)? Then it must decide on how to present that object in a manner that is dramatic and engaging while not offending its potential visitors. Then it must figure out how to teach with that object.

A museum without an education department or hearty educational offerings is not complete. While it may have exquisite and rare objects in their collection, those objects carry no additional value outside being pretty or rare and will immediately devalue once another like object is found, made prettier, or simply rises to fashion. Trained museum educators imbue a museum’s collection with meaning and relevance both academically and emotionally (or experientially).

When I heard on NPR that the Field Museum in Chicago was “teaching to the test,” my immediate reaction was negative. I mean how could they sully a potentially brilliant experience of visiting a museum by forcing that museum to adhere (in my opinion) to the worst aspects of institutionalized schooling – the unending creation of irrelevant data through an increasing battery of absurd tests.

Much like the stance taken by the author of the Instructify post, Rebecca Haines, the idea of museums being diminished to satellite test preparation centers was infuriating. I believe as Rebecca believes. Museum field trips are the “most valuable for all of the other learning opportunities and experiences” students can be provided. I also believe that a student’s museum experience can “enhance and reinforce the topics to which students are exposed in the classroom.”

But then, perhaps due to mellowing from old age, I took a more moderate view of the situation. I could see the need to “teach to the test.” I am willing to consider Director of Education at the Field Museum, Elizabeth Babcock’s need to show teachers that the Field Museum is relevant to their classrooms by addressing the demands of their administrators and districts.

However, I believe that relevance has always been there per Rebecca’s words. I also believe caution must be taken to avoid corruption of the positive and very necessary educational experiences museums provide. Unquestioned wholesale adoption of “teaching to the test” is not relevance but a short term fix based on the pedagogical whims.

If the shared definition of a museum “teaching to the test” is it providing opportunities for its visitors to practice academic skills in meaningful and relevant real world ways then I see no reason to condemn it. However, if it is not then we risk diminishing the true value of the museum as “space.”

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