Notes on Enhancing the Visits of Middle-School Tour Groups to the Smithsonian

Note: I’m reading and taking notes on this report as I prepare to develop a new walking/bus tour of Confederate Monuments for a group of eighth-grade students from Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School. This tour is based on my existing research on Confederate memory in Baltimore, a tour on slavery and emancipation around Mount Vernon Place, and a tour of Confederate memory around Wyman Park Dell.

Who are middle school students?

They are part of Generation Y, a cohort with distinctive characteristics, as the literature discusses (see, for example, Kelly and Bartlett 2000, Savage and French 2002, and the literature on Generation Y) and as Smithsonian educators attest. (p. 18)

Idea: I want a calculator that I put in the grade of the students and it tells me some of the major events that happened in their lifetime, how old they were for each of those events, and what events they probably don’t know about. It could be based on information from recent Pew Research (?) studies about background knowledge about history, society, and politics; it could also include information about their literacy and language skills. This is probably difficult to actually realize but could be really handy!

Personal identity is a central concern. (p. 16)

What is involved in the “search for personal identity”? (p. 17)

  • “Discovering and developing talents, skills, and interests. […] They also tend to be self-conscious and very sensitive to criticism.”
  • “A desire for more adult experiences. […] They are trying to understand their role in society—who they are in relation to global issues.
  • “An interest in ideas. […] According to a Smithsonian educator, “Middle school kids are really developing this sense of morality, of justice, of what’s right and wrong, and who is a victim and who is not. They are questioning authority and everything else.”

Middle-schoolers want to have choice and to exercise control over their lives.

Social relationships are paramount in their lives.

Middle-schoolers have an intense need for social interaction […] interested in sharing and comparing experiences with friends and partners

Middle-schoolers are far more interested in the present and future than in the past. (p. 17)

Learning: One Goal Among Many

“In broad terms, the goal of the learning that takes place in museums might be characterized as change—adding to visitors’ knowledge, altering their attitudes, and even affecting their subsequent actions:” (p. 19)

Ultimately, museum learning is about “changing as a person”: how well the visit inspires and stimulates people into wanting to know more, as well as changing how they see themselves and their world both as an individual and as part of a community (Kelly and Groundwater-Smith 2004, p. 2, with reference to Kelly 2001, p. 36).

(p. 23

Pre-visit Planning and Preparation

good planning and preparation can often minimize behavior problems and reduce the negative impact of the unfamiliar setting […] absent preparation, students tend to focus on coping with the unfamiliar museum environment, not on the learning objectives.

planning and preparation can help ensure that students have appropriate levels of background knowledge, and can include opportunities for students to practice relevant skills ahead of time. (p. 24)

Remember: You can’t wing it! Glad I’m working on this today – based on this explanation of the purpose of a pre-tour visit to the classroom I need to know what background knowledge the students need to have and what relevant skills they will need to exercise during the field trip.

  • The subject matter and main message(s)/theme(s) of the museum to be visited;
  • The layout of the museum;
  • Appropriate museum behavior;
  • Clear learning goals for the visit, and what students must do to achieve them;
  • The logistics of the visit;
  • Advance notice of group problem-solving activities (if teams of students are to work together), so decisions about individual students’ roles can be made ahead of time.

According to one Smithsonian museum educator, “In the pre-visit stage, involve the students in the logistics, brainstorm the visit, plan with the kids [their] expected behavior, what the museum experience is, culture shock, etc. … They need to understand the subject matter. And they can write their own goals.”

Note: This is approach is great. Treat middle-school students as responsible people, ready to take on an active role in their own field trip experience.

For a bus tour, I could:

  • Show a picture of the bus
  • Show a picture of the tour route
  • Show photos of the places we are going to visit
  • Describe the activities we can do together and solicit feedback on activities to get advance buy-in
  • Learn their names

Note: Asking the students to write their own goals for the visit is a great idea. Here are some of my questions related to goal-setting:

  • What do you want to get out of this visit?
  • Should the students have a menu of options for possible goals?
  • Could we use voting in addition to personal goal setting?

The Role of the Teacher

As many researchers note, teachers often lack the time to prepare relevant teaching materials or to conduct pre-visit activities.

Three other factors play a significant part in undermining the effectiveness of teachers in museum-based learning:

  • inadequate communications with the museum;
  • failure to make use of the materials and pre-visit assistance museums provide;
  • and inadequate understanding of and experience with informal museum education.

Teacher-museum communication. (p. 25)

A Smithsonian educator noted, “NMNH did a survey with teachers, asking about the major obstacles. They said money, logistics, and educational standards. But NMNH believes that communication is an obstacle— it can’t give what teachers need until teachers say what they need, and the teachers don’t know what to ask for.”

Teachers’ failure to use museum pre-visit resources. (p. 26)

For example, Anderson and Zhang (2003) note that teachers in their study wanted “museum-produced documentation in print that was clear and accessible and, more importantly, showed the links to school-based curriculum … They wanted a contact person or liaison from the field-trip venue whom teachers could readily access” (p. 10)

Idea: I could address this issue by preparing a packet of material for the teacher. I can drop this off in a print format during the pre-tour classroom visit. I’d love to create a print stylesheet specifically designed for tour materials, e.g. itineraries, maps, logistical directions, contact information, next steps, etc.

Also, as noted, teachers’ objectives for field trips are often less narrowly focused on the educational outcomes that preoccupy museum educators.

**Lack of teacher training in informal museum learning. **(p. 26)

See Anderson, Kisiel, and Storksdieck (2006):

The authors concluded, “there is value in helping teachers to become more aware of the varied learning opportunities that can be afforded by field trip experiences … field trips can be educationally legitimate even when their focus does not lie predominantly on cognitive objectives related to classroom topics, curriculum or standards” (p. 368). (p. 26-27)

Anderson, Kisiel, and Storksdieck (2006) further suggest that “Museums might also consider how they might more effectively utilize onsite resources to develop experiences that are self-contained and rely less on teacher activities back in the classroom” (p. 381). (p. 27)

What Engages Students in Museums

“the most important factors contributing to a positive museum experience for middle-school students are” (p. 27-28):

  • Providing personal value;
  • Allowing choice/control over the visit;
  • Offering opportunities for having fun while learning;
  • Fostering social interaction with fellow students;
  • Interacting with knowledgeable adults;
  • Supporting physical comfort.

Underlying all these factors is that learning must unfold in an interactive way that connects to the students’ lives, needs, and interests. They are “[n]ot a group to do things for—programs are done with this group” (Kelly and Bartlett 2000, p. 2).

Providing personal value.

According to one Smithsonian educator, “They are just interested in each other and themselves, so you have to relate whatever you’re talking about to them. You have to make that personal connection. If you can’t do that, then you fail.” (p. 28)

Kelly and Groundwater-Smith (2004) argue,”In order to be substantively engaged in learning in the museum students need to: know how things work; be able to think through ideas; have opportunities to ask questions; be able to handle, manipulate and closely examine artifacts and exhibits; be able to seek out information from several sources in language that is appropriate to their age and stage of development; be stimulated through various of the senses (p. 9).” (p. 28)

Allowing choice and control over the visit.

Further, they “want to look at things at their own pace, to follow their own line of interest … Children also like that they can negotiate to meet their individual interests and needs” (ibid.).

According to Mayer (2006), “[T]he most significant kinds of learning take place when the learner is engaged in experiences that allow him to discover answers, interpretations, ideas, and concepts for himself” (p. 20).

“Family visitors value their ability to choose what they attend to and exploit this strategy in order to pursue their personal agenda, and to find out things for themselves” (Griffin 2004, p. S60, with reference to Wood 199611). (p. 29)

Tours “need to offer middle-school students a combination of structured and free time”

Learning and having fun. (p. 30)

Middle-schoolers want “variety and opportunities for active participation” (Jensen 1994, p. 84), and “new and interesting information and …‘hands-on’ various exhibits and artifacts” (Kelly and Groundwater 2004, p. 5). Savage (2000) notes that “exhibitions and programs which are not overtly ‘educational’ may be more successful in attracting this age group” (p. 6).

One interviewed educator noted that Smithsonian exhibitions are not inquiry-based and do not consistently offer hands-on activities and interactives; they are still “curators talking on the wall.” Another said that the subject matter is not always accessible to middle-school students—”We are not the most accessible place, and we are a little obtuse…we are really hard to grasp.” Savage and French (2002) warn that “Exhibitions which are entirely past-focused and do not make direct connections to very recent history and to current society run the risk of being relegated to irrelevance by this age group” (p. 3).

Question: The bias away from inquiry-based interpretation is an important question and a hard one to answer for our tours: How do you make a bus tour or a walking tour of a physical environment into an inquiry-based experience? Should the students take on the role as members of the Review Commission? Or editorialists in the same time period as the monuments? Or maybe a mix? I’m intrigued by this idea but it might take more preparation than I have time to pull together.

Discovery carts are a common technique for allowing visitors to touch and manipulate objects, and they are appealing to students.

One Smithsonian educator noted, “The problem is that the docents consider [discovery carts] a lesser form of interpretation, and for the most part feel that they should be lecturing, the way they were trained by curators.”

One Smithsonian educator talked of the time when a colleague, worried about the effectiveness of a program, finally relaxed when she got the last delivery—live animals, with their distinctive odors. It made the exhibit real to visitors: “They had the olfactory system overload … and I remember thinking that the best programs are so because the physicality and accessibility really take over the senses. In museums we put things in glass cases. To what extent can we use our collections to make it a multi-sensory experience? And for that age group [middle-schoolers] in particular, because you can’t talk to them; so then how else are you going to engage them?” (p. 31)

According to Jensen (1994), many students in her study “spoke of these focused museum visits in which they had to fill out worksheets, draw pictures, and take notes to bring back to the classroom, as boring, laborious experiences limited to the agenda of the teacher,” in contrast with “the more open-ended, fun museum visits they experienced with their families” (p. 86). (p. 31)

However: “well-constructed worksheets and scavenger hunts can be positive activities”

One educator talked about how a worksheet could be used effectively in the NMNH Mammals Hall, if the emphasis were less on finding facts: “Make it so that students can’t just copy from each other. Structure the problems so that they have to give examples, take a picture, or draw something.”

Another gave the example of a scavenger hunt at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, which made clear linkages among the elements that were to be found—”It’s one thing to fill X, Y, Z information for them, but it’s a different thing to make those conceptual connections with the scavenger hunt. What is the purpose of finding the 10 items or whatever? How do they all hang together? … Why did you have to go find these things?”

Fostering social interaction with peers. (p. 32)

“The big issue with students is what their peers think. So you have to make the tours social.”

According to Kelly and Bartlett (2000), “Traditional museum exhibitions do not facilitate dialogue and social interaction, relying for the most part on text panels and display cases to convey the message to visitors. This age group appears to want to share and compare experiences rather than read and view” (p. 1).

Griffin quotes Birney (1988, p. 31314) as saying that students “‘appear to associate new knowledge with an increase in their social value…they frequently comment that…someone who has seen this material is somehow special and can tell others about it’” (p. S63). (p. 33)

Savage (2000) comments on an important role of museums: they “can provide safe public space for simply being together, but, more importantly, they offer content which encourages visitors to share their views with each other and get to know each other better” (p. 6).

Interacting with knowledgeable adults.

Students “appreciate having a knowledgeable adult facilitator who can answer their questions and provide interesting information.”

What are the “ground rules for what constitutes acceptable interaction with adults”? (p. 33):

  • the language adults use
  • the way in which they interact with students

Kelly and Groundwater-Smith (2004) state that adults who interact with students must be “sufficiently learner-focused and prepared to start from the learner’s perceptions and understandings” (p. 8).

Sakofs (1984) says that educators need to make students feel that their views and comments are valued. (p. 33)

In this type of interaction, the adult serves as an explainer—facilitating understanding of the exhibits, and not teaching didactically. This approach requires a lot of training, and some educators have trouble unlearning the lecturing style to which they are accustomed. (p. 34)

Question: Are there any self-evaluation tools for determining if your teacher is meeting this standard for interaction? Or any tools that could help a colleague with similarly limited experience evaluate me when I lead a tour?

Kisiel (2006) notes that the level of engagement during talks by docents varies hugely based on the extent to which the docents involve students, connect to their experiences, share their energy, and address questions that relate to their interests at an appropriate level. (p. 34)

The same educator also recommended that “Tours should be given by someone younger, closer to the students in age. Or have students work with the museum on tours.” (p. 34)

Question: How could this idea of recruiting younger guides work in a one-off field trip experience? Can I recruit students to be “guides”? Would splitting up into student-led or student-directed groups create to an unpleasant experience of cliques? Any way to combine, split, and recombine groups during the tour? Or is that too disorienting for participants?

a commonly noted problem—museum staff, including volunteers, tend to be older adults who are more interested in dealing with other adults. (p. 34)

The educators stressed that most teachers are not familiar with informal museum learning, and do not know how to use a museum effectively. One said, “There is a pedagogical disconnect between formal and informal learning environment, didactic versus constructivist. Teachers have to give up control, and that is scary. There needs to be a crossover between their reality and ours.” (p. 35)

Idea: How about creating a reference sheet for each monument we might see during the tour? The reference sheets could be passed out to students – a Pokedex of Baltimore monuments?

Feeling physically comfortable.

The novelty of the museum setting in itself can also create discomfort. Adequate orientation to the museum can address this.

Similarly, focusing students’ attention on a small number of key points or objects can reduce the sensory and cognitive overload sometimes created by a large, busy museum. (NASM’s self-guides are limited to exploration of five objects.) (p. 36)

Indicators of engagement and learning.

“Indicators of learning mentioned in the literature (see, for example, Griffin 2002, Bitgood 1994, and Kelly and Groundwater-Smith 2004) include”:

  • Evidence of students’ taking responsibility for and initiating their own learning
  • Evidence of an interest in sharing learning with peers and experts
  • Evidence of confidence in personal learning abilities
  • Evidence of responding to new information or ideas
  • Evidence of an ability to explain what has been learned to others
  • Students’ personal declarations—for example, in letters to the museum following a visit
  • Affective responses (p. 37-38)

“Assessment of the success of a visit can also address process questions. Process indicators include”:

  • Time teachers spend preparing for the trip (pre-visit activities)
  • Availability of museum offerings likely to engage middle-school students, such as hands-on activities, interactives, and access to a knowledgeable adult experienced in working with this age group
  • Appropriate curriculum fit
  • Presence of a teacher/chaperone with each group of students to maintain discipline and/or enhance learning
  • Use of post-visit activities (p. 38-39)