Museum Educators Next, Part, Part V : Bringing Informal Education to the Classroom


In a series of posts over the past year on next steps for museum educators, I’ve expressed disappointment at the over-identification of museum learning resources and experiences with the methods of formal education – too many lesson plans, tests and reading assignments–all of which are fine in themselves but not our forte. One promising trend in  the opposite direction is the use by some museums of their growing digital expertise and capability to share informal education approaches and resources with their school audiences. Following is a guest post by the Smithsonian’s Reema Ghazi describing a program that does just that.



Museum-School-Community Partnerships: Bringing Informal Education to the Classroom



Reema Ghazi, Youth Experience Coordinator for Smithsonian EdLab



The EdLabSmithsonian is a product of a three-year partnership between the Smithsonian Institution and the Pearson Foundation. EdLab’s goal is to change teacher practice and student learning through experimentation, evaluation and dissemination of new media practices by integrating the technology and media experience of the Pearson Foundation with the object-and project-rich resources of the Smithsonian Institution.  Since summer 2010, EdLab has offered workshops to over 600 teachers. These workshops have engaged content and expertise from over 11 Smithsonian units and six other cultural sites in Washington, DC.


Current Project


This school year, the Smithsonian EdLab is partnering with the Capitol Hill Cluster Schools in Washington, DC to complement existing curricula with opportunities for mission-based learning. Mission-based learning, an approach developed by EdLab, brings classroom content to life by challenging students to use real objects in museums, along with digital tools, to investigate issues that exist in the real spaces around them.


An important tenet of EdLab is that learning cannot exist in a vacuum inside the classroom. The learning process must incorporate informal environments of learning, ranging from museums to other spaces in the community that can broaden perspective on a given topic. Beyond looking outside classroom walls for research, young people must be given opportunities to share their work with the broader community in order to develop deeper investment on the part of the learner—students will become engaged if they feel that their work bears some sort of impact.



As part of this partnership with the network of Capitol Hill Cluster Schools, we have been arranging mission-based field trips to various Smithsonian museums and have asked students to use museum objects as launching points for further investigation into the broader challenge that has been designed by the teacher. We pair the museum visits with visits to community organizations, in order to take a look at issues rooted in the students’ immediate environments.

Over the past few months, we’ve worked with a number of teachers on missions and taken field trips to various Smithsonian museums.

Peabody Early Education pre-schoolers have a mission to “become philanthropists,” exploring the meaning of philanthropy as part of learning about their school’s founder, George Peabody, a philanthropist with myriad interests, especially education. As part of this mission, the 4-year-olds visited So Others Might Eat, a local community organization that cares for the homeless, to distribute lunch to patrons of the cafeteria. Students later visited the Smithsonian Gardens to learn what it means to be someone who does good for nature. The pre-schoolers recorded video interviews of visitors to the Enid A. Haupt Garden about their thoughts. They will continue to visit community organizations and Smithsonian museums in the coming weeks to look at philanthropy from different community perspectives. Ultimately, the students, with the help of their teacher, will create a presentation using digital tools and present their philanthropic efforts to the school and neighborhood community.


Watkins Elementary fifth graders have a mission to investigate the intersection of food & cultural diversity in the Capitol Hill neighborhood where their school is located. Students visited the National Museum of the American Indian. In the Mitsitam Café, which serves food from a variety of Indian traditions, they recorded video interviews with visitors speaking about their own food culture and traditions. The students will be conducting interviews with local restaurants in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, talking to business owners about food culture and traditions. Ultimately they will create digital posters that share information about the culture of a given restaurant, population and immigration statistics, and more, to serve a number of math & social studies goals for the year.





While have been pleased overall with the progress of projects such as those described above, we’ve encountered challenges along the way. There have been basic, but systemic, issues like inconsistent access to wireless networks, which serve as obstacles to students looking to use digital media in creative ways. We have also experienced difficulties in accessing cloud-based tools that can be used for educational purposes, but are blocked because they are deemed “social”—meaning that if there is some aspect of a site that connects individuals to each other, the prime example being Facebook or Twitter, it is categorized as recreational and not something to be used on school grounds.



There is also the broader issue of how to enable teachers to become more familiar and comfortable with object-based learning. While we would like to encourage teachers and students to make museum spaces their own and to use tools such as Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Project Zero thinking routines independently, they look to museum staff to lead interactions with objects. This dynamic poses a challenge to the issue of scalability.  In order to expand the program we will need to depend on the teachers we have partnered with over the course of the year to serve as guides or mentors to their colleagues.  Without the help of teachers who have experienced the program, it will be difficult to achieve our goal of involving more and more of the formal education system in applying a more informal, mission-based learning approach that involves museums & community spaces in the exploration of curricula.


What kinds of partnerships do you have with your school communities? Have you attempted to share more open-ended and experiential approaches to learning with educators in the formal system? What challenges have you encountered in the process?

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