Docent Educator Logo

Doing Schools Right!

Years ago, I introduced one of my sisters to a colleague from work. I thought that the two of them would really hit-it-off. Like my sister, this fellow was interesting, well educated, and engaging. Yet, after only a few dates, my sister ended the relationship.

When I asked about their abrupt break-up, my sister said that the guy was too self-consumed. Apparently, when they were together, he only talked about himself He never asked tor her thoughts or opinions. He only wanted to discuss his own ideas, activities, and interests.

In some ways, developing successful relationships with schools is similar to developing successful relationships when dating. A healthy dose of mutual respect and dialogue is required. An institution cannot simply focus on its own programming ideas and exhibitions, while neglecting to factor in the schools’ priorities and needs.

Museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens are self-referential environments. The danger when creating programming in such settings is becoming too self-involved. After all, the institutional collection is authentic and intriguing. The objects, artifacts, or living things present in concrete what blackboards and textbooks can only offer in the abstract. In other words, we’ve got “the good stuff!”

So, why do many teachers choose not to visit your institution during the school year? You might assume you know the answer to this question, but when was the last time you actually asked teachers and administrators, and really listened to their answers?

Where the Focus Belongs

Just because your collection is educationally significant does not mean that you are “too good to pass up.” Taking field trips is an arduous task that requires obtaining administrative approval, parental permission, chaperones, transportation, funding, and integration with classroom lessons. And, even if hoards of school children already march through your exhibits, that doesn’t mean that schools receive the services they most need or want.

To construct significant and enduring relationships with schools, museum educators must develop relevant programs that are educationally sound and enriching. And, those who deliver these programs (docents, guides, or interpreters) must be competent and well-prepared for the act of teaching the ages and varieties of students they receive.

Developing School Programs

While it is essential to understand the significance of your collection, and right to take pride in your institution’s exhibitions, these are not the best vantage points from which to develop school programming. To use an analogy, when they dance together, it is schools that must “lead” and museums that must “follow. “This choreography is not meant to denigrate the educational role or responsibility of museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens. It simply acknowledges the fact that such facilities are auxiliary educational institutions and that schools have the primary responsibility for educating their students.

Begin creating or reviewing programs for schools by seeking guidance and input from school administrators. Make appointments to speak with the various curricular supervisors of the subject areas most relevant to your collection. Tell these administrators of your desire to create relevant programs, and ask to borrow copies of the “curricular competencies.” Such curricular competencies spell out, in great detail, what is required in each subject area, by grade level, throughout the school year.

The units or themes that shape classroom lessons are wonderful points-of-departure for constructing relevant tours. Though it may take a little more imagination to develop programming using the school’s curriculum as the reference point, rather than the collection as presented by the curatorial staff, it becomes easier with practice. Looking at the collection from the school’s viewpoint is useful, appropriate, and stimulating to idea production.

Target your programming, tour themes, special classes, etc. to particular grades and note their relevance to specific areas of the curriculum. Send out information describing these connections to school principals and to teachers. If costs become prohibitive, ask the school system for assistance by placing this information in the school’s in-house publications or by distributing your own brochures using the school’s mail system.

Make an appointment to see the School Superintendent after doing your programmatic homework. Tell that official how you have worked to make programming more consistent and supportive of school curriculum, and ask him or her to support the use of your facility and its collection. Make presentations to the School Board, at teacher in-service events, and to local parent organizations. Describe your institution, discuss the range of its school programming, and stress how these offerings reinforce what is taught in the classroom.

Prime teachers for using your facility. Send teachers free passes to visit your institution during the summers or during the first month or so of school. Hold teacher workshops or in-service events at your institution. Discuss the collection and demonstrate how programming reinforces curriculum by providing teachers with tours and sample lessons in the exhibit areas.

Send teachers pre-visit materials that they can use with their students to prepare them for working with your collection. Remember, teachers are already hard-pressed and overworked, so make the materials easy to use.

Don’t forget to redo this process every few years. The curriculum is not a static document. It, and other factors, will change. Reviewing your programs, as well as school needs, will prevent your relationship with schools from becoming stale or static.

Conducting School Programs

The docents, guides, or interpreters who conduct school programs have just as formidable a set of responsibilities as those who develop the programs. Beyond knowing the subject matter, docents must understand the techniques and dynamics of teaching. This can only begin when docents realize that teaching and knowledge are not, necessarily, synonymous.

In addition to knowing the subject matter, docents must have an understanding of age- appropriate teaching methods, individual learning styles, and effective communication techniques. They must also develop the self-confidence to be relaxed with students and teachers.

Once relaxed and self-confident, docents must cultivate the attribute of flexibility. They must know how to shift gears from their planned program in order to respond to a child’s question, a class’ diverted attention, or a teacher’s interjection. Docents must know how to be in charge without being autocratic, and should be aware that the integrity of the students’ relationship to their classroom teacher must always be preserved (even if it is to the detriment of the museum lesson).

Communication between docents and classroom teachers is vital. Whenever possible, docents and teachers should speak prior to the students’ visit. Docents should know, and discuss, the teacher’s expectations. They should also be aware of students who have special needs or who may present special challenges. How have the students been prepared for their visit? Are there any particular reasons for the timing of this visit that might affect the docent’s teaching? These issues and more should be part of the pre-visit dialogue.

Of Concern to Docents and Staff, Alike

Museums, historic sites, zoo, parks, and gardens are special places that provide important opportunities for learning. But, to be worthwhile to schools, these institutions must not mimic what can already take place in the classroom. There is no need to bring a class to the museum if all that will take place could happen with a script and slides in the classroom.

Lectures, speeches, and “show-and-tell” programming need not be conducted in front of genuine objects, artifacts, or living things. Institutional programming for schools, and its execution, should distinguish itself from classroom activities by its conduct, activities, and methods for engaging with the collection. Participatory teaching and active learning are a must!

Investigating and understanding authentic objects should be easily distinguished from traditional classroom lessons. Learning in schools usually requires deductive reasoning— moving in thought from significant, big ideas down to particular examples. For instance, students might learn of the devastation of a nation at war with itself by discussing the reasons for civil war. Then, they might read about the major battles, as they begin to narrow their investigation toward particular examples.

A museum experience, however, usually calls upon inductive reasoning — moving in thought from particular examples to significant, big ideas. Therefore, a study of civil war might begin by reading one soldier’s letter. From that single piece of evidence, students’ might make conjectures, as they work toward understanding the larger concepts. Another distinguishing characteristic between classroom and museum teaching is that when one teaches with collections, questions are asked to provoke curiosity and investigation, not to determine factual retention or to test comprehension.

In all facets of developing and conducting school programming, excellence and effort are essential. Remember, school-aged visitors are among an institution’s most important constituency. This is not simply altruism, for the school children of today are the adult contributors, supporters, staff members, volunteers, and taxpayers of tomorrow.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Doing Schools Right!,” The Docent Educator 8.3 (Spring 1999): 2-4.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *