Visiting the museum with (educational) purpose

Museums offer a visual impact, usually accompanied with some sort of audio presentation, whether in the form of a tour guide, docent or audio device (including cell phones and apps).  As such, a museum exhibit falls within the middle of Dale’s Cone of Experience:

“People generally remember 50% of what they see and hear | Attend exhibit/sites; Watch a demonstration | People are able to (Learning Outcomes): – demonstrate, -apply, -practice” [Incidentally, you would expect films to fall within this range, but they do not.]

So, museums are potentially very useful educational tools, but there is a point at which one can be overconfident with this utility.  In the case of museums, and other field trips, educators cannot assume that students will make connections between class material and museum visits.  If a student has been learning about the Peloponnesian War or Persian invasions of Greece, and he is looking at a bust with a facemask sitting back on his head—does he make the connection?  He may walk right past Pericles, whose funeral oration he read in class, and miss him.  How do you make this a moment of impact?

Context for an exhibit such as the Smithsonian's 9/11 "Remember" exhibit is essential for students

Let’s say, extravagantly, that the visit is to the enormous, wonderful Metropolitan Museum in New York.  In the Iliad, there is a prophecy that the first man to set foot upon the beach will die.  A brave captain accepts the role to fulfill the prophecy.  In the Greek gallery, a large hall full of statues, there is a marble Roman-made statue of a struck soldier.  The marble copy in the Met was made by a Roman between 138-181 AD.  The original was a bronze statue, finished ca.  460-450 BC.  Scholars believe it is a statue of Protesilaos who stepped first off the boat.  By making specific use of this statue in connection to the material being studied, a deeper connection is made to the piece and thus deeper thinking and reflection is achieved.  Make the link to the epic—even reread them while standing next to the statue.  Take the time to build on the importance of the Roman remake of the Greek statue.  (

To get the most out of a museum visit emphasize three learning phases: 1. anticipation (before the visit), 2. contemplation (during the visit), 3. reflection (after the visit).  Each of these needs to be worked the day of the visit.  The class material begins well before the visit, any and all of these phases should build off of class material.  I like to make-up a worksheet—I have a template, but then customize for specific learning outcomes or to accommodate the exhibits.  The activities can vary according to need: compare two pieces in one exhibit, compare two pieces each from a different exhibit, analyze a specific exhibit—special exhibits, in particular, often have story arcs or a similar sort of rubric—scavenger hunts or other searches, document-artifact match and more.


How can exhibit on the Apollo Theater in Harlem NY enrich students? Use an exhibit such as this to augment units on American history and segregation.

Anticipation (before the visit)

The students should consider what they are going to see at the museum exhibits.  This can be done the night before if they are assigned a project or reading from the museum’s website as homework for the trip—it should be a directed assignment on the web, not “go review the website”.  The important thing is that the students are actually actively thinking about the sorts of things they can expect to find in a museum.  This forces them to think about what they already know and to engage their imagination in an attempt to fill in gaps in their knowledge.


Contemplation (during the visit)

At this point, you want to add to student knowledge.  The idea is to get them to really take time and consider some of what the museum offers and not just glaze over and glide through.  I’ve already mentioned some of the activities, above, that work well, but it depends on what you are doing in class and the sorts of connections you wish to make.  The museum’s education departments are an essential resource, too.  They are there for the exact purpose of liaising between the museum and educators.  In this capacity they often already have some stuff in place, including tours and free materials.  My advice is to explore these options, take advantage of them where you can, but don’t blindly follow them—adapt to the learning outcomes and goals that you are pursuing.

TIP: Given that museums are educational tools and have the power to inspire individuals in ways a teacher or parent cannot predict, try to make time for students to explore the museum beyond the exhibit or exhibits that you wanted to focus on.  The older the students the easier this is to do.  Encourage curiosity!  If students have their own interests in something that the museum offers, try to accommodate that.  Those are special moments and you don’t want to lose them because they had to be at the docent’s art class—this is where chaperones for school groups can be a real asset and where parents who are flexible in their timing can do themselves and their families a real service.  The most important thing to have when you visit a museum is purpose, but curious interest can trump that in terms of making it a lasting educational experience—otherwise most people just get overwhelmed with the magnitude of many museums.


What has a student already learned that will help make this piece resonate? How does this piece build on that knowledge?

Reflection (after the museum)

The reflection should facilitate some deep thinking about what the students saw and include tools and questions to make connections to their current knowledge—this usually means providing just enough direction to trigger their brains to do the rest; they don’t always realize that they already have the knowledge.  There needs to be a sense of timeliness, here.  The longer the space between the visit and the reflection, the harder it is for students to accurately recall and make connections.  Without this aid, students will often miss what may seem obvious to instructors.  It is also a good point to challenges students to contemplate what is foreign and familiar.  A reflection in two stages, thus, can be employed: 1) ask one or two stimulating questions that help students take the next analytical step—their answer can come in a variety of forms: narrative, story, essay, skit, letter to historical figure, etc.; 2) supply a compare and contrast exercise—this can be with a previous culture that students have studied or with their own culture, or some other variant that encourages thought about change and continuity.


Prompt reflection that expands on the students analysis and analytic skills--compare and contrast the past with the present.

This model is adaptable for other activities, events or programs besides museums.  It can be applied to a novel, theater performance, documentary or lecture.  Part of the purpose is to make the content memorable, but it also provides thinking exercises for developing brains—the muscles we want to be strong and flexible in adults.


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Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

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