On Display: Preservice Teachers in the Museum

By Cox, Linda H.; Barrow, Jill H. | Social Education, October 2000 | Go to article overview

On Display: Preservice Teachers in the Museum


Cox, Linda H., Barrow, Jill H., Social Education


Students at Baylor University, a private Southern Baptist school, are occasionally accused of "living in a bubble" far removed from the real world. In an effort to make social studies education authentic and innovative, our field-based methods practicum is held at a children's museum, the Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center in Waco, Texas.(1) Each week, elementary students from surrounding rural, suburban, and urban communities visit the hands-on museum. Children from local private schools and home schools are also visitors. Our preservice teachers (30 to 40 each semester) prepare lessons and instruct these diverse groups of pupils using the resources and artifacts of the museum. As a result, these young teachers are challenged to consider methods and materials beyond the lecture and the textbook, and the young students are introduced to the museum as a place for active learning, and not just a collection of objects behind glass.

The purpose of this article is twofold. First, we would like to see local museums being more fully utilized as year-round resources for elementary social studies teachers. Beverly Sheppard has stated, "Most teachers think of museums strictly in terms of field trips or classroom visits. Few have considered the potential for sustained relationships with significant learning impact."(2) Second, we would like to encourage professors of education to provide their preservice teachers with at least some experience teaching in a museum setting. We are concerned that many young teachers abandon active or experimental teaching methods once they leave the university. As our preservice teachers deliver instruction within a museum setting, they gain confidence in using artifacts and directing hands-on activities with elementary and middle school students. We hope that, as a result of this experience, they will seek out and develop a sustained relationship with a museum when they begin their teaching careers.

A nationwide survey conducted over three years, with responses from 450 museums, found that American museums are providing more K-12 educational programs than ever before. Museums offer nearly four million hours of educational programs, as well as teacher training, staff or docent guided tours, and staff visits to school classrooms. Over 70 percent of the museums surveyed reported an increase in the numbers of students, teachers, and schools served in the last five years.(3)

For many years, the museum-school relationship was dominated by the field trip: a once-a-year race through the exhibits.(4) As museum personnel became more familiar with the educational needs of their younger audiences, they began providing more developmentally appropriate, first-hand experiences for them. Teachers were able to schedule class appointments. Although these programs were certainly an improvement, they were still viewed as "extras" and received no regular support in most communities; neither school personnel nor museum personnel felt ownership of them. Over the last decade, however, collaborative programs between schools and museums have evolved.(5) These partnerships support long-term educational relationships and can improve the quality of both institutions.(6)

In Museums in Motion, Alexander posits that children's museums are a distinctive American institution. There are about five hundred such museums in the United States. The collections in these centers emphasize practical, usable objects, not unusual or priceless artifacts. The permanent collection may not be of great monetary value. Small live animals that children can handle are often a part of the exhibits.(7) "Instead of being quiet places where learning happens in whispers, hands-on museums are boisterous places, bursting with exuberance."(8) Children's museums are learning playgrounds with choices that encourage young visitors to pursue their own interests. "Their mission is to bring things out from behind the red velvet ropes and the glass cases to be touched, handled, felt, explored, and experimented with. …

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