A More Meaningful Field Trip

How thoughtful educators are making museums more welcoming for students and their teachers

December 12, 2016
Designing a Better Field Trip

“Don’t touch that!”

“Settle down!”

“Shhh!”

For some students, these are the common refrains during a museum field trip that at times must feel more like an extended punishment than a chance to explore great art. And these trips are often no treat for teachers and chaperones who, already feeling the stresses of organizing the day and wrangling students, have little chance to model their own curiosity. Throw in a lecturing museum guide, and the day can seem a total loss.

But at many museums across the country, the traditional field trip has become ancient history. “One of the fundamental shifts is really a shift away from the lecturing model, toward more of a listening model,” says Nathalie Ryan, a senior educator and manager of family and teen programs at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Ryan says the key to this new approach is “valuing what people are walking in the door with, and letting them have an authentic experience with the art.”

Today, museum educators are creating powerful experiences that give students — and their teachers — the space for critical thinking and authentic engagement. Here are some of the innovative ways they are making field trips more meaningful.   

Questions That Invite Conversations

“The whole tour is about the students,” says Lydia Ross, an educator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago. “It’s a lot of questioning, so students have different points of entry for making sense of what they are looking at and drawing connections to their own lives.” 

Teaching-artists at the MCA use a variety of tools to lead inquiry-based tours and connect with students on a personal level.

  • They’re equipped with a question toolkit. From the minute students enter, they are slowly building up a dialogue with the guides, who ask students about where they are from and what they are expecting to see, to larger questions about what art means to them and what they think of when they hear the term “contemporary.” The goal is to let “students know this is a different experience than their classroom, and the point is to get to have a conversation together,” says Ross.
  • They encourage students to take the museum back to the classroom. Students participating in the multi-visit program at the MCA get to complete a student journal called “My _ _ _ _  Book.” Designed to allow students to more deeply engage with the museum, the guides, and each other, the journal is a place for students to ask questions, make inferences, and creatively respond to the art they are seeing, and it’s something they can bring back to the classroom for continued reflection.  

Putting Teachers First 

When Andrea Curtis became the education program manager for the Farnsworth Art Museum in Rockland, Maine, her first priority was to listen to what teachers had to say, a lesson she learned from studying partnerships between Boston Public Schools teachers and area museums.

“There was a slight disconnect between the museums and the teachers in Boston,” says Curtis. While museums felt like they had raised money to offer programming that teachers should be jumping at, Curtis says teachers often felt overwhelmed and left out of the decision-making process. “As much as you can, make teachers’ voices heard,” Curtis advises. 

  • Give teachers a voice (and connect to their classroom). When Curtis arrived at the Farnsworth, the museum had already signed up several local classrooms to be part of an arts-integrated yearlong program called “Stories.” She quickly discovered, however, that teachers hadn’t had a say in the decision. After interviewing them, she learned that their main concern was a worry over having enough time to connect the new arts program to curriculum requirements. So Curtis made the “Stories” program explicitly for 4th- and 7th-grade classrooms, years in which all students had to study Maine history.
  • Inspire teachers, inspire students. All teachers who take part in “Stories” attend summer professional development. While that may sound like an added burden, they are paid for their participation, and during the training teachers have a chance to recognize areas they are most interested in studying. “I often feel if the teachers aren’t passionate about what they are teaching, the students won’t be,” says Curtis. 

The Importance of Slowing Down

To say it would take a lifetime to explore the entire collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is hardly an exaggeration. But for students visiting the museum, the tour isn’t about seeing everything.

“We have thousands of pieces in the collection, and some people only spend a few seconds with each,” says Ryan. “There is a quote we often use from Georgia O Keefe: “’To see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.’ We’ll spend an hour with one artist to try and understand more deeply that artist’s intent. Just slowing down so you can have that room for wondering is a more human way of experiencing the museum.”  

  • Think artfully. Volunteers who work at the gallery use thinking routines, originally developed for classrooms by Project Zero, in the museum setting. Ryan says through this mindset the artwork is viewed as puzzles with no one correct answer. Students engage with art in more complex ways, asking questions, exploring different viewpoints, developing reasons based on evidence, and drawing connections to their own lives.

Additional Resources

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Usable Knowledge is a trusted source of insight into what works in education — translating new research into easy-to-use stories and strategies for teachers, parents, K-12 leaders, higher ed professionals, and policymakers. Usable Knowledge is produced at the Harvard Graduate School of Education by Bari Walsh (senior editor) and Leah Shafer (staff writer). Contact us at uknow@gse.harvard.edu.