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UMA Annual Conference Takeaway: Museum Education Best Practices

Tuesday, October 13, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Lorie Millward
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UMA Annual Conference Takeaway: Museum Education Best Practices Session

By Lorie Millward, Director of Education / Curator of Curiosity, Thanksgiving Point


The Museum Education Best Practices session provided us with the time, space, and community to investigate the research underpinning how people learn and how we can apply that to our own education efforts. We divided into four groups, who each shared one of the four aspects of learning. Our session was social, active, situated, and motivated.


Take a look at the great work that each group did to build the community knowledge about learning. Included is an essential question that I pose to you to keep in mind as you work to incorporate your new understandings into the good work that you do. The resources for further investigation are also here.


Let’s keep the conversation going and learn from one another. Please share your thoughts, ideas, successes, and not-so-successes on the blog.


Group 1: Learning is social

Understanding is co-created socially and involves social groups, like families or peers as contexts for building knowledge. Social interactions can be imitative, collaborative, or instructive.

-       groups of people can learn together

-       any group can learn together

-       learning requires more than one person


Group 1: Strategies to harness the social aspects of learning

-       create exhibitions and experiences that champion social interaction

-       create spaces designed for social interaction

-       museums are NOT tombs!


Essential question:

In what ways can we allow and encourage discourse, exploration, and activity?


Group 2: Learning is active

Learning is a constructive process of building understanding on a foundation of previous experience, cultural/familial contexts, and beliefs.


-       to be active is not always physical, but also mental/intellectual/social

-       challenges can enhance and allow visitors to build upon prior knowledge

-       individual engagement must be activated


Group 2: strategies to harness the active aspects of learning

-       ask open ended questions

-       don’t need to have all the answers – be comfortable with ambiguity

-       present a challenge

-       encourage visitors to ask and develop their own questions

-       facilitate visitor learning – recognize that when one provides the answers or interpretation it says to visitors that their thoughts and questions are valuable. “Whatever I have to say isn’t as interesting as what you have to say.”

-       Provide tools to articulate new ideas


Essential question:

How can we activate learning as soon as our visitors arrive?


Group 3: Learning is situated

Learning is promoted when there is a familiar or personal context for new information or experiences to connect to or build upon. Immersive environments also provide context for new information.

-       learning is inquiry-based

-       universal concepts act as a framework

-       unique environments/exhibits/situations provide a reason to care

-       context helps make the unfamiliar familiar

-       give visitors permission to use their own vocabulary and references


Group 3: Strategies to harness our institutions as places to situate learning

-       understand our own objectives

-       utilize sensory experiences

-       keep it object-based

-       embrace the uniqueness of your institution

-       Cultivate skilled facilitators – educators, docents, others


Essential question:

What unique environments, exhibits, and experiences can our organization provide?


Group 4: Learning is motivated

Opportunities for learners to persist through a problem or investigate a new idea promote motivation. Providing a continuum of experiences to allow learners to take their new knowledge further is important.

-       motivation allows longer term engagement

-       allows for repeated and repeatable experiences

-       motivated when learners encounter engaging learning experiences and environments

-       motivation nurtures a willingness to persist


Group 4: Strategies to provide and increase motivation to learn

-       ask visitors why they came, direct them to experiences that honor that motivation

-       design experiences that create curiosity

-       encourage/allow visitors to record their thought and ideas and ask them what they would share with others

-       take ownership of a program


Essential question:

Are we currently using strategies or vocabulary that eliminate or limit the motivation to learn?






Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. Touchstone, N.Y., NY. Available online at


Falk, J.H. (2009). Identity and the museum visitor experience. Left Coast Press. Walnut Creek, CA.


Hein, G.E.(1998). Learning in the museum. Routledge Press. N.Y., NY.


Hein, G.E. (2012). Progressive museum practice: John Dewey and democracy. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA.


Hooper-Greenhill, E. (1994). Museum and gallery education. Leicester University Press. London.


National Research Council (2000). How people learn. National Academy Press, Washington, DC. Available online at


National Research Council (2010). Surrounded by science: Learning science in informal environments. National Academy Press, Washington, DC. Available online at


Sachatello-Sawyer, B. et al. (2002). Adult museum programs: Designing meaningful experiences. AltaMira Press, Walnut Creek, CA.


Simon, Nina (2010). The participatory museum. Santa Cruz: Museum 2.0. Available online at


            Talboys, G.K. (2011). Museum educator’s handbook. Ashgate Press. U.K.



Journal for Education in Museums. GEM: The voice for heritage learning.


Journal of Museum Education. Museum Education Roundtable. Maney Publishing.




Art Museum Teaching: a forum for reflecting on practice.


Northern Illinois University, (n.d.). Experiential learning. NIU Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center. Available online at


Stephenson, N., (2013). Introduction to inquiry based learning. Available online at


UCDavis and California 4-H Youth Development Program, (n.d.). Why use experiential education as a model for teaching and learning? Available online at

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