How do you define educational success?

On Tuesday, several Smithsonian educators, and myself, attended a session of the Museum Education Roundtable.  (mer-online.org/)  The discussion focused on defining educational success in museums, and how differing educational approaches not only help to determine results, but differing definitions of success as well.

The speaker was Margaret Lindauer, faculty member of Virginia Commonwealth University, and an experienced evaluator, having assessed the educational impact of exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of American History, among others.  She outlined four approaches, commonly attributed to curriculum, and how the relationships between teacher and learner change, as do the outcomes.

A laissez-faire plan allows a visitor to self-direct and pursue their own interests, with a desired outcome being an enjoyable experience.  On the contrary, the Tylerian method is what we most associate with a traditional classroom – a teacher imparts knowledge to the learner with success measured by how well the learner grasps major themes.  In a constructivist approach, the teacher facilitates through provocative questioning, placing the emphasis on a learner’s self-generated solutions.  Answers are not absolute, but success involves the visitor generating their own answers.  Finally, a narrative path  turns both teacher and learner into storytellers, where facts become stories, and the learner ultimate relates their self-knowledge into the broader, contextual narrative of the program.

It was interesting for us all – educators from the Freer/Sackler to NASM to American History – to think about the approaches used at the Smithsonian, and their effectiveness.  What seems most clear is that no methodology is objective nor comprehensive – the same exhibit might employ all of them to great success.  Rather than neat boxes, these approaches seem to represent a spectrum to consider while evaluating the museum as learning environment. 

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