I love field trips. Ask anyone who has ever worked with me. If I could, I’d have students out of the classroom almost every day. And I even have a stupidly persistent knack for being able to navigate the intense bureaucracy required to make them work. And I prepare for them – not only using the materials the site offers me, but materials that I find and / or design myself. In sum, I feel like I’m doing my part.
So here’s my challenge to places that are open to field trips, particularly museums. Do away with the docents. I know they are volunteers (and therefore cheap) and that many of them know a lot (though many have just memorized a lot). Many of them (in my experience) are older, which it makes it challenging for them to connect with high school students. And, in my experience, the large majority of them are white, which makes it challenging for them to connect with my students.
Obviously, it’s easier (though not easy) to have students interact at the likes of a hands-on science museum. (Some of you know the reason for my bias; nevertheless, it’s true.) Students do stuff there.
My worst experience ever was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (when it was at its original location). I saw an article about the work of Lorna Simpson. The focus was on her work on hair and how it related to identity. I saw the exhibit myself and took notes. I prepared an assignment for my students. I also prepared them for behavioral expectations. And, for the only time in my 24 years, a field trip destination provided a free bus! (Field trip sites take note: Free and discounted tickets are great, but not if we can’t get there. Include transportation when you write grants for funding.)
And then we got there. And we got a docent. And she had a plan. And no interest in mine. She was going to talk. The students were going to listen (and not have time to complete their assignment). And while the students found some of the other modern art pieces interesting, they did not have time to immerse themselves in the Simpson exhibit. Nor did they have the opportunity to form their own interpretations of any of the art; the docent simply told them what it “meant.” She read from her notecards.
Recently, I attended a field trip with my daughter because I’d seen the exhibit she was going to see (twice) and had sent students to see it with another teacher (and I helped her prepare). It was this, a great photography exhibit featuring images and objects from the Civil Rights Movement. We got our docent. And he began to talk, to tell the students about the Movement. Now perhaps they needed it and perhaps they didn’t, but they were there to look at the pictures – to learn how to ‘read’ pictures and, in particular, these pictures. I’m a big fan of Visual Thinking Strategies. You can practice in the classroom, and the process invariably elicits great observations, inferences, and insights. Let students do. Practice enough, and they will internalize the process. Have them write / draw and (gasp!) even talk right there in the gallery. Let them choose which images attract their attention. Let them make meaning – in small groups and / or individually – with the docent or teacher as the proverbial guide on the side.
So, teachers, do your part. Take these opportunities not as an opportunity to have someone else teach for a few hours, but as a spectacular chance to have everyone do some real learning. And museums, do away with the docent approach.