Educators engage in a professional development session at The DoSeum. Credit: The DoSeum

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The average American spends less than 5% of their life in the classroom. This figure surprises most, with many viewing formal education as life’s primary avenue for learning. But our time outside of the classroom is critical for development, and it presents endless opportunities for learning.

Referred to as free-choice or informal education, it represents the perfect complement to learning in a formal environment. Learners pursue their own interests and questions while building upon the foundational knowledge and skills acquired through schooling. Cultural organizations like museums and zoos can play a significant role in this lifelong pursuit of knowledge.

Though the concept of museums likely dates back further, the Wunderkammer of the 16th century represents the earliest, well-documented collections and presentations of art, nature, and human engineering. Displayed in fanciful arrangements that represented early attempts of categorization, these collections were often restricted in their access. Some represented closed sanctuaries for their owners, while others were selectively shared as not-so-subtle showcases of wealth and societal rank. With scientific advances in the 18th century, the motley assortment of objects found within these early cabinets was viewed and displayed differently. Curation and arrangement were now driven by reason over aesthetics, and the modern museum was born.

While museums have for centuries been perceived as places for learning, the scholarship surrounding how people learn in museums is relatively new. Museums are more than galleries of things. They are trusted sources of information and laboratories for learning and research. The research of John Falk and others has brought a sharper focus to the topic, including the intersection of formal and informal education. The traditional field trip, often characterized by groups of unfocused children slowly migrating from one gallery to the next, is just that. Today, the opportunities that museums can provide teachers and their students are far greater and more strongly connected to the needs and goals of educators.

For museums that hold collections, show-and-tell is no longer enough. These specimens and artifacts are now presented through the lens of inquiry. For the researchers that study them, these objects are puzzle pieces that, when viewed collectively, lead to our understanding of the natural world. They speak to the process of science: asking questions, making observations, and using evidence to support a conclusion.

It quickly becomes clear to young learners that more evidence leads to stronger conclusions while also leading to new questions. This never-ending process, which is rooted in curiosity and reason, is that which advances scientific knowledge. The same can apply to institutions of art. New approaches invite students of all ages to create their own interpretations based on what they see and how it relates to their past experiences rather than absorb and regurgitate the interpretations of others. Active learning replaces passive consumption.

For teachers, working closely with museum educators and curators can bring new insight and resources into the classroom – from teaching approaches to collections-based instruction. In San Antonio, five cultural organizations are partnering in 2021 to further bring their resources to the city’s educators. Museo Institute is a year-long professional development program co-developed by The DoSeum, McNay Art Museum, San Antonio Art Museum, San Antonio Zoo, and the Witte Museum that invites formal educators to explore informal learning and teaching approaches, discover opportunities for collaboration, and create lessons and activities that merge the best practices of informal and formal education to the benefit of students.

Upon successful completion of the program, educators will receive up to 85 CPE credit hours, research-based curriculum resources from leading institutions, and new methods for teaching STEAM in each educator’s unique setting. Collaborative programs like Museo Institute are advancing not only the educational approach within museum galleries but also the relationships between classroom educators and their local cultural organizations, all in service of our city’s young learners and their understanding – and potential pursuit – of the sciences and arts.

We invite you to learn more on The DoSeum’s website.

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Richard Kissel

Dr. Richard Kissel is the Vice President of Education at The DoSeum. With more than 20 years of experience within museums, his interests include constructivist and inquiry-based approaches to STEAM education,...