Why it Works

The Philosophy

The Beyond the Classroom model is a unique, revolutionary way of educating students. It takes teachers
and their students out of their classrooms into the real world where learning is much deeper and more
powerful. Traditional teaching in schools is not producing the creative critical thinkers that we need in
our world today. This model shows what can be done.

Museums and schools – a necessary partnership for learning

Those who are reading this are likely from one of two worlds: the world of the museum or the world of
the school. (The word “museum” refers here to any community resource such as a zoo, nature area, or
arts centre.) These two worlds don’t usually work together in a meaningful way. Each considers the other as peripheral. In the museum world, education programming is often an add-on, not integral to the core of
the institution’s existence. In the school world, taking students to museums is called “field trips” and often
treated like a frill, a non-essential activity. What is missed is that combining the two worlds as full partners
results in learning that goes far beyond what can be achieved alone.

Learning is so much more than simply giving people skills to read a form or check a bank balance. It is the
essence of being human. With learning we see the world in new ways, we make better decisions, we can solve problems, we can create and not simply survive. Thus school district documents include goals that cover
problem solving, critical thinking, curiosity, as well as literacy and numeracy. And what do museums want?
A major goal is often to collect, protect, preserve objects or places, whether it is documents, paintings, or wetlands. However a second major goal is to help people gain deeper understanding of areas specific to that museum, so a zoo for example would want visitors to know more about conservation. That second goal is “learning.”

Thus learning is the major goal for schools and one of the major goals for museums. The difficulty is that teaching strategies in schools and education programs in museums are often not based on what is known about how people learn. Many cognitive scientists, educators, writers, and now neuroscientists suggest that people learn in-depth when students have:

  • Interesting, concrete primary experiences that involve the senses
  • Opportunities to talk and to work with others
  • Open-ended activities where there is choice
  • Activities that are built on prior learning
  • Time to slow down and become immersed in a task or experience

In schools:

It’s difficult for classroom teachers, even in the best situations, to bring all those elements into their teaching. Schools are not the real world, with all the richness that entails. A teacher is limited by the four walls of the classroom and by the demands of an ever-widening curriculum. They are also limited by their own range of experiences, knowledge and skills.

In museums:

Our communities are full of fascinating collections of everything from classic airplanes to art to exotic animals. We have many natural areas that focus on wetlands, seashores or forest. We have institutions that encompass world-class research, the workings of a city, or Olympic sports.

What we don’t usually have are education programs at those places that take into account what we know about learning. Instead we have programs that put students through activities for one to two hours, where little attention is paid to what students already know or are interested in. The classroom teacher is usually not involved in the process, and therefore little is done at school either before or after the experience at the museum. Both teachers and museum staff accept this process, with neither group realizing that it can be done very differently.

Learning in Museums

We know much about the theory behind learning in museums from the work of researchers such as Falk and Dierking. In their latest book Learning From Museums (2000) they describe their Contextual Model of Learning. They consider three contexts for learning: the personal, sociocultural and the physical. Personal context covers areas such as how motivated the visitor is, whether they can make links to prior knowledge, and how much choice they are given to pursue what interests them. The sociocultural context describes how people learn in groups and through mediation. This is where the opportunity to talk and to share is so important. The third context is physical and includes Falk and Dierking’s “novelty effect.” That means that when humans are in a new situation they are too anxious to be able to slow down and learn. When information is provided ahead of time there is less anxiety. Included in this context is the idea of providing experiences that connect to the senses, for example smelling a leather tunic in the drawer in the museum collections or touching the beaded headdress while wearing white gloves. The Open Minds concept adds a fourth context – the importance of time. Much more learning occurs when the museum visit is extended over several days. The novelty effect is decreased, there is more time to revisit chosen exhibits, and more time to really “see.” As Margaret Holtschlag says about her experiences with her program in Michigan which is based on the Calgary concept, “Students take time at the museum… taking time to process information is a key to remembering and a key to making meaning.” (Holtschlag, 2000, p.17)

The Open Minds program in Calgary and the other communities that have used a similar concept have moved what we know about learning into practice. The long-term study that includes the week at the site, whether it is a wetlands, a zoo, an art museum or a city hall, provides these common elements:

  • teachers and museum educators work together and the museum visit is part of a long-term interdisciplinary study at school designed by the teacher.
  • students are given extended periods of time, usually a week, to become immersed in their surroundings, overcoming Falk’s “novelty effect.”
  • the students make sense of objects and exhibits of their choosing, enhancing critical viewing, descriptive writing, and drawing skills acquired at school.
  • teachers are given their own learning opportunities at the museum prior to the visit. They are thus equipped to help their students acquire the necessary skills and they also become powerful role models.

It is time to break down the barriers between the world of the museum and the world of the classroom. School as we know it today is a fairly recent phenomenon where children are separated from the community to learn. Teachers cannot be expected to educate our citizens on their own – to paraphrase the well-known saying “it takes a village toeducate a child.”  We have very rich resources and expertise in our communities that could be an integral part of our education system. It means that both sides – the museum world and the school world – need to work together, valuing each other’s strengths and basing every decision on what we know about how people learn.

Falk, J. & Dierking, L. (2000). Learning from Museums. Walnut Creek CA: Altamira Press.

Holtschlag, M. (2000). The big history lesson. Visitor Studies. 3 (3), 15-17.

Kydd, G. (2005). Seeing the World in 3D: Learning in the Community. Victoria B.C.:  Trafford Publishing.