Research Summary

Challenging beliefs, practices, and content: How museum educators change

Helping Museum Docents Shift to Student-Centered Pedagogy

Science Education

Museums hold great potential to expand and enhance learning that occurs in schools. However, most school trips rarely take advantage of the unique learning opportunities afforded by museums. Instead, when working with school groups, museum docents often adopt the role of traditional educators and rely on familiar, didactic, teacher-centered pedagogies. Furthermore, most museums do not offer their docents professional development that would support the docents’ continual growth.

This study examined how the educational practice and conceptions of learning of several docents at a natural history museum (NHM) evolved through the professional experience of implementing a student-centered, inquiry-based school trip program. The researchers sought to answer two main research questions: (1) How do docents at an NHM think and talk about learning in the museum? (2) How does involvement in iterative implementation of a new, inquiry-based school trip program about climate change influence the way docents think and talk about learning in the museum?

As part of a four-year collaboration to develop a climate science learning experience for middle school students from a local public school district in a midsize Rust Belt city, the university research team worked with NHM staff and the school district to design a curriculum that was then iteratively implemented by museum docents. The pedagogical design of the school trip program sought to balance scaffolding with free-choice learning and was quite different from the traditional school trip format, which had been highly docent-centered and transmission focused.

During the new trips, docents would start by briefly modeling scientific observation at an exhibit. From there, students were encouraged to record their own observations and analyses of other exhibits, while docents would circulate to engage students in conversation, answer questions, and present driving questions. Three principles guided this new program: learner autonomy, conversation and reflection, and deep investigation. Docents participated in an iterative implementation process of the new program in which they tried successive versions of the program with students. After each implementation, docents would reflect upon the experience with the project team and other docents. Eight docents participated in the study. Data sources included four observations of school trips, debrief meetings following each school trip, and interviews with each of the docents at the end of the implementation period. The authors detailed case studies for four of the eight participating docents.

Although individual docents differed in their professional growth, they all displayed changes in practice with the implementation of the new curriculum. Steve, a docent who had been strongly attached to teacher-centered pedagogy, grew to embrace the principle of learning through conversation, as he witnessed its positive impacts on learning. Another docent, Elizabeth, who also typically clung to teacher-centered pedagogy, found that she was “loosening” her tours to include more student interaction and conversation. Paul, who was eager to try new techniques, embraced the new pedagogy and found it quite effective for middle school students. Although Lucy expressed discomfort with the inquiry-based format, she increasingly incorporated the principles of student autonomy and conversation into her tours. Furthermore, with the debrief meetings, all docents actively reflected on the process of their professional growth and contributed to growing a community of practice among themselves. The in-depth debrief sessions following school trips allowed the docents to engage in reflective discussions where they shared examples of how to scaffold student learning using the three guiding principles of student autonomy, conversation, and driving questions.

This study portrays the beginning of a community of practice among docents. Such a community, with its professional vocabulary and pedagogy unique to a museum setting, could help practitioners challenge the dominant, teacher-centered notions of teaching and learning. As it did in this study, a community of practice within a museum could provide docents with the opportunity to share and grow strategies for engaging audiences, while also supporting these museum educators with ongoing professional development through conversation and reflective practice. In this study, the reflective, iterative implementation process allowed the docents to connect their own learning and training to practice. Enhancing communities of practice within museums could be an important step toward expanding high-quality science education for all students.

The Bottom Line

Museums and informal learning environments offer the best learning opportunities when educators, such as docents, relinquish teacher-centered pedagogy for a student-driven, inquiry-based one. This study offers three guiding principles for implementing this new teaching style: learner autonomy, conversation and reflection, and deep investigation. In this framework, the educator’s role is one of listening, reflecting, and asking driving questions to encourage the student to go deeper in their investigation. Creating communities of practice—where educators have an opportunity to engage in reflection and discussion with colleagues—helps educators to work together to challenge the traditions of teacher-centered, didactic pedagogy. These communities of practice allow for educators to share successes and difficulties, and to continue refining best practices for teaching.