What Can Teachers Learn from Informal Learning Environments?


Describe your most memorable learning experience.How many of us, as educators, have been asked to ponder this? After a group discussion and a common list of indicators about memorable learning experiences we are then asked to consider the implications for our own classrooms. What elements can be replicated in our classroom? What makes lifelong learning? Why do we remember one learning experience over others? And why are so many other learning opportunities forgotten?

I always fall back on one particular personal memory when asked to describe my most memorable learning experience. It was the Ramses II exhibition and I was 8 years old. I remember every detail about that day, the curiosity, the wonder, even the confusion I confronted learning about something brand new. I remember the desire I had to learn more. I remember taking home the exhibition catalog and reading and rereading it. I remember sitting on my grandmother’s lap teaching her about every object in the catalog, reading the label text and introductions with her and anyone else I could convince to sit down with me. Even now, 30 years later, in the gut of my stomach, I can feel what I felt then, that passion and drive to know more and that need to tell the world what you know. That feeling is the goal of all teachers, right? We want to ignite that fire in our students. We want them to want to learn. We want them to get lost in their learning.

But, why is that my most memorable learning experience has nothing to do with a teacher or a classroom, a textbook, or an assessment? And, why should we pay attention to what the answer to that question means for our classrooms? What is it about informal learning that leaves such a lasting impression? How can we integrate informal learning into our curriculum while still meeting benchmarks?

I have spent the last 8 years working to answer these questions, collaborating with countless teachers and students on a museum-integrated approach to learning. It doesn’t take a complete overhaul of your curriculum or your school design to extend learning using museum education strategies.

Start with collections

Most museums are collecting institutions. Their mission is to collect, preserve, and research for future generations. As part of that mission they exhibit those collections and communicate their learning. The mission of a teacher is similar. Our classrooms are galleries where we want our students to exhibit and communicate around their learning.

Even our youngest learners can understand collections. At home they have collections of toys and trophies and trinkets. Chances are their parents have collections. Those collections are an entry point to connecting classrooms with museums.

In younger grades, ask students to bring in their collections. Sort and classify those collections by physical characteristics. Create mini exhibits with those collections using the space of a desk or a table. Include label text to explain the story behind the collection.

In upper grades take this a step further by asking students to research the objects in their collections. Analyze museum exhibits as a class and then encourage students to convey the main idea of their collection using museum design strategies like color and object placement. Students can include an exhibition title or interactive elements (video, QR codes, etc.) to allow viewers to deepen their understanding. Challenge students to only include a few select objects in their collection to present the collection as a whole.

Instead of a traditional open house night at the beginning of the school year, host a collection day. Students become the docents for their collections. Invite another class to visit your collection museum in the classroom. Then leave the displays up for parents to view at night.

Read paintings, objects, and photographs.

This isn’t an activity just for art or social studies class. Reading paintings, objects, and photographs can engage students with new content or deepen understanding across disciplines. Paintings, objects, and photographs tell stories and getting to those stories takes a lot of critical thinking. It encourages students to build connections, examine perspectives, and build empathy. Museums are making it easier than ever to access collections online and even sort and curate your own collections for use in the classroom later.

When I use paintings, objects, and photographs I start with observation. Ask students to point out what they notice. It’s actually pretty challenging for students to only focus on observation. They want to jump immediately to inference. We move to inference only after deep observation and then on to questioning and reflection.

This is the gateway to engagement. From there you can do almost anything to connect your curriculum. Have students write a song or poem about a work of art. Tie in literacy by charting main and details from a painting or photograph. Connect a piece of informational text to a photograph or object. Promote historical thinking by asking students to find a primary source associated with an object. Allow students to curate their own set: a painting, object, and photograph around a big idea as an assessment. Talk about senses in relation to your observations. Look for patterns. Create a reader’s theater with a photograph. The possibilities are endless.

Visit and reach out to local museums.

I frequently visit museums to look for new and interesting ways to present content. Because museums are built around choice and social interactions, I find they are innovative in the methods they use to appeal to visitors. Those methods are ones I strive to imitate in my classroom.

Museums excel at interactivity. Make your classroom interactive. I am not talking about using collaboration or technology tools. Find areas in your classroom for students to open a drawer and learn, lift a flap to find out more, or slide and see. It doesn’t have to be high tech to be effective.

Few people know that museums will let teachers forego the typical school tour and use their space as a classroom outside of school. Museums are not stuffy. They are dynamic learning environments. You know best what your students need and how you want a museum visit to connect to your content so why not use museum collections to your advantage and teach in the museum space? It takes a bit of planning and a visit ahead of time, but it is well worth the effort. Contact the museum’s education department ahead of time to find out if there are any stipulations. Most museums do not allow certain writing utensils. Museums may even allow you to come a little ahead of opening time when the museum is less busy. Visit with a specific purpose, maybe spend all your time in one exhibition. If you are teaching human body, go to an art museum to look at how the human body is portrayed in art. History museums typically have amazing timelines to teach chronology.

Build partnerships with local museums that work for your curriculum. Get to know the museum educators in your area. Reach out to them when you are looking for museum objects that correlate with your content. If the perfect object isn’t out on the exhibition floor, it may be in storage. A museum might be willing to either bring it out of storage or share the catalog record and image with you for classroom use. Museums also want stories, especially local history museums. Think of the many skills you can incorporate when students self-create for a museum by sharing their stories with a museum either through writing or speaking.

Take students out of the physical confines of the classroom with just a few tweaks to your curriculum through museum-integrated learning and inspire your students through informal learning.

Jill Cross is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher and a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University Museum Studies graduate program. Jill was formerly the curriculum integration specialist at a Museum Magnet school, where she worked with local museums to bring museum resources into the classroom to enhance curriculum. She is a 2016 ASCD Emerging Leader and a Colonial Williamsburg Master Teacher. Currently she is the Director of Teaching and Learning at Maclay School, an independent school in Tallahassee, Florida. Jill writes about museum learning and curriculum on her blog https://jill4learning.com/. Connect with Jill on Twitter @JCrossEdu.