Education in Museums

Education in Museums – Reflections from Museums Australia Conference

Last week at the Museums Australia conference in Adelaide there were a number of presenters that spoke about Museum Education (broadly referring to museums, galleries, libraries, zoos, historic sites etc.) – about engaging school audiences.  Despite being an Museum Educator myself, I intentionally did not go to all education-related presentations, with the aim of looking more a the big picture of what is happening in Museums.  However I did go to a number of Education streams, particularly on the first day of the conference.  From these presentations I came to some general thoughts and conclusions about what is happening in our sector…

Firstly – we are all facing similar challenges around connecting with our audiences.  Teachers are notoriously time-poor and there are so many requirements that pull their attention and limited time in different ways.  With the advent of a new curriculum, this is more true than ever.  While, as organisations working to support teachers, we understand their needs and create programs that are as efficient as possible, we all find teachers that have not (or will not) find and use our materials and programs.

When choosing what resources to produce there is often a dilemma between producing resources that are very open-ended and allow teachers to use them in anyway they want, and resources that are simple pick-up-and-run activities.  Similarly with onsite programs there is the challenge of finding the balance between specific and broad sessions.  Some teachers come with a very specific purpose for their visit, others have no idea why they are even there.  I know many of us have the desire to support teachers to the full extent possible, but struggle to reach them with the information.

Secondly – good teaching and the ability to capture the students is essential.  I believe the pedagogy of museum education is, at times, very different from classroom pedagogy.  Listening to some of the programs that are run by other organisations, we often end up on the same page.  Typical activities can be: hands-on exploration, investigative/discovery, missions, and expert explanations.  At the conference, Bronwyn Sugars spoke about the move from students being ‘taught’ to being active ‘learners’.  I agree that students need to be active in their learner, but I don’t believe, as some do, that this precludes stand-and-deliver type programs.  It just has to be good stand-and-deliver.

We have a mix of programs at Sovereign Hill, some are very hands-on, some involve a fair amount of talking to the students.  But when delivered well, with good story-telling (or interpretelling!) and statements or questions that promote thought, they can actually set the students up for some in-depth learning.  These statements or questions are ones which challenge students pre-conceptions or their place in the world, or requires them to make connections.

In his presentation, Simon Langsford spoke about the idea of giving students a false fact, something that contradicts what they’ve learnt.  Then encouraging them to find evidence to challenge it.  Rosa Garcia spoke about a program at the SA Migration museum that gives two opposing perspectives on migration (eg. Colonists and Indigenous peoples), intentionally creating a juxtaposition that forces students to consider how those views are formed.  This is similar to a program I was involved in when I worked at the State Library, called Contesting Kelly.  In that session, two Education Officers retell the story of Ned Kelly (requiring extended listening from the students), but they become increasingly biased either in support or in opposition to Ned Kelly’s actions.

These sort of programs often work in these settings because they push students beyond their boundaries and take them by surprise.  In a way, we are disrupting what they know, breaking down the ‘fact’ and asking them to look a things differently.  It is like what my colleague, Pete Hoban, frequently refers to: resonance and dissonance – we want resonance in our lives, so if we create dissonance for the students they naturally work to recreate the resonance by trying to make sense of the new understandings and fitting it into what they already know and understand.

Thirdly, we are all grappling with the use of new technologies in our museums and by our students and teachers.  They provide some fantastic new opportunities for connecting, collaborating, publishing and extending the influence of the visit.  Angela Casey and Catherine Styles share the NMA’s Museum Game on iPad and this is a great example of using the technology to approach the collection in a different way, and tapping into students current preferences on these devices (by taping into the sharing and liking/voting phenomenon).   Michael Yeo from SA’s Botanic Gardens talked about using existing programs, in their case myparx.  Many organisations face limited resources and want to engage with students and teachers in these forums without the financial outlay.  I spoke about a few strategies for low-cost digital engagement in my presentation.

But however we are using new technologies, there is a recognition from most that we need to head in that direction.  Of course the challenge is to meet the teachers and students at the right point, to create resources and programs that are the most helpful for them.

What are your thoughts?  Does this summary resonate with your experiences of museum education?  How can museums continue to improve their engagement with teachers and students?  

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