I’ve led many learners on several museum excursions, not just as a classroom teacher, but also as a museum educator and guide, and I’ve seen a lot of different takes on the field trip to a museum. Students can be divided up into tightly managed groups, or they can be let loose to explore. They can arrive equipped with worksheets, clipboards, and iPads, or just the questions in their heads.
In thinking about all the ways this learning experience can work, I’ve observed that the most pronounced differences in the value of this kind of experience came as a result of how a teacher answered three essential questions:
- What kind of structure will be provided for the visit?
- What will be done before and after the visit happens?
- How can the visit go beyond content acquisition?
Structuring For Success
Teachers have often asked me what level of independence is best for their visit. I’m not referring to freedom of movement or the level of supervision that students need. When I say independence, I’m talking about room to explore. Do you allow students complete freedom to move through the galleries and exhibits at will, or do you tightly schedule and curate their time to ensure that they get the topical information aligned to your learning goals?
In my experience, for a museum visit to be truly impactful, balance is needed, and the research seems to agree. Recent studies indicate that allowing learners a degree of choice in what they interact with in an informal learning space leads to deeper learning. However, we also know that students benefit from structure. Without it, they might end up seeing everything, learning nothing. You can use a scaffolded framework to get the best of both worlds, regardless of how long your visit might be.
First, begin your visit with the entire group together. This allows you to set the tone and model behavior for the visit, and you can take advantage of any educational programs the museum offers as a shared experience for your students. It also allows the staff to orient your students to resources that are relevant to your learning goals.
Then, divide your students into groups. Direct them to a specific exhibit or gallery that pertains to the learning goal that prompted your visit. As students move between the different displays or resources, you can circulate and provide guidance on things they should make sure to see, also noting which students are able to conduct themselves appropriately with less direct oversight.
Finally, allow them free choice. Students can explore other areas for the remainder of their trip in small groups. They can pursue unrelated but engaging topics that they might be interested in, even if they don’t directly relate to the purpose of your trip.
Teachers who have used this model to structure their visit reported higher participation and richer understanding from their students as a result.
Focus on the Before and After as Much as During
Permission slips, chaperones, worksheets. Teachers’ main focus when it comes to field trips is usually the logistics involved in getting there. Helping students think about the experience within the context of the unit or project they’re working on comes second, but there’s a simple way to bring it back to the forefront—anchor questions.
Creating an open-ended anchor question that guides the museum experience by tying the learning goal to the place is useful not only during the visit, but also before and after the experience. If you introduce the question to students early, they can focus on what they need to learn prior to their visit, and afterward they can use it to measure the success of their visit and consider next steps.
Here are some key questions that students can consider:
- What background information do you need in order to answer the question?
- What information or questions are you hoping to gain insight into during the visit?
- What sections or exhibits will be most helpful to explore when we arrive?
- What tools and resources can you gather ahead of time that will help you with finding answers?
- What resources or exhibits from the museum contributed to answering the anchor question?
- Did the visit leave any questions unanswered or generate new questions?
- Are there any new topics, even unrelated ones, that inspired curiosity?
Use Museums For More Than Content
Utilizing museums as a source of content information is fine, but textbooks do the same thing. So, if that’s your only plan for a museum visit, you’re missing opportunities to engage students in critical analysis. Many museums were built decades ago, and updating their exhibits to make them more relevant sometimes takes decades more. Without careful consideration, you might be unintentionally exposing students to developmentally inappropriate exhibits, outdated narratives, or less inclusive, and therefore inaccurate, information.
However, you can use the experience to create ownership and empower students to find ways to make these spaces more inclusive. When you do this, students not only consume information but are actively engaged in a revision process that asks them to think critically and play a role in the improvement of the experience for other visitors. Try the following three activities.
An option for young students. Art museums are great resources, but they are generally not designed for younger learners. Elementary students can engage with art and develop literacy at the same time when you give them adjectives and ask them to find a piece of art that fits their word. They can then write the name of or present their artwork and share why they think it’s a good fit for their assigned words. I’ve seen this done masterfully with Apples to Apples: Green Cards.
Stories told, stories hidden. Sometimes, what a museum doesn’t display can be even more informative than what it does display. Challenging students to look critically at the displays and consider what information is shared and what information might be missing can lead to interesting discussions about access and relevance. A great resource for this kind of exploration is the Field Trip guide from Monument Lab.
Remix the resources. Much of curators’ work in a museum involves the sequencing of objects so that they tell a story. Exploring “how objects speak” is a compelling concept that can lend itself to deeper learning after a visit. During a visit, students can look at objects from a particular gallery, take photos, and then create their own exhibits that incorporate the objects in service of new narratives. They can fill out their new exhibits with images or objects from resources like Google Arts & Culture.