Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Challenges of Teaching with Museums

By Cynthia Wallace-Casey, PhD
University of New Brunswick

Did you know that there are more than 1,500 museums in Canada?  Museums encompass many disciplines of study, including history, science, nature, and the arts.  Their collections range from tangible objects to intangible ideas, and their methods of presentation range from static displays to participatory environments.

From a pedagogical point of view, museums present rich learning environments, where constructed narratives are communicated through the use of sight, sound, touch, smell, and emotion.  Within such narrative constructs, as Trofanenko and Segall (2014) have pointed out, pedagogy is often positioned “to assume particular assumptions, perspectives, and views about the world and its people” (p. 1).  In this sense, while museums can provide powerful sites for learning, they can also be exclusionary and restrictive.

As teaching tools, museums also present their own distinct challenges.  This is because what constitutes learning in a museum involves multiple sensory experiences, personal interaction, and extended learning outcomes that change over time.  For this reason, learning in a museum is seldom immediately apparent or easily assessed (Wertsch, 2002, p. 114; see also Falk & Dierking, 2000; Kelly, 2011; Wallace-Casey, 2013).  Falk and Dierking’s (2013) Contextual Model of Learning, identifies four broad contexts for analyzing learning in a museum setting: personal, sociocultural, physical, and temporal.  Such a model also acknowledges (regardless of age or subject discipline) that “Learning begins with the individual. Learning involves others. Learning takes place somewhere” (Falk & Dierking, 2002, p. 36), and learning continues over time (Falk & Dierking, 2013).  This model, while reminiscent of constructivist pedagogy, recognises the complex nature of learning in a museum, and calls for more robust measures for assessment that extend beyond mere appropriation of a desired narrative claim.