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Museum-based Professional Development

As educators, we want to continue learning, which is precisely why we look for professional development opportunities. How can you use museums as a resource to enhance your own education, breathe life into your traditional social studies curriculum, and get students excited about learning history?

As educators, we want to continue learning, which is precisely why we look for professional development opportunities.

A recent study by the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) demonstrates the power of teaching and learning opportunities in a museum setting. MCNY worked with Randi Korn & Associates, Inc. (RK&A), a museum evaluation and planning firm, to evaluate the Traveling Through Time (TTT) program, a 90-minute field trip facilitated by museum educators that explores New York City history through objects and inquiry.

The study focuses on whether and to what extent this program affects students’ history knowledge and history-related skills. RK&A developed rubrics to measure attainment of each of the skill areas. For the study, RK&A conducted open-ended interviews focused around a set of images and an object, similar to those used in TTT, with a treatment group and control group of 4th-grade students in New York City public schools. The interviews produced qualitative data that was then quantified through rubric scoring. The study revealed that the TTT program had statistically significant positive effects on students’ achievement of all history-related skills. These skill areas are historical knowledge (understanding facts about people/events), historical inquiry (explaining how they know what they know about a primary source), historical perspective (understanding and appreciating the differences among people, situations, and cultures), and historical reasoning (understanding cause and effect and change over time). The results are astounding when one considers the program is only 90 minutes.

How can we understand these results in relationship to what constitutes meaningful professional development opportunities for classroom educators?

  • Strong ties to your curriculum. Look for opportunities that were developed as supplemental to the curriculum you are mandated to teach. Additionally, consider museums that boast developing their programs with classroom teachers, or use feedback from teachers, so the goals of the experience directly meet the needs of classroom teachers.
  • Object and primary source-based. How information is delivered is equally as important as the content itself. Look for opportunities that are based on source materials such as objects/artifacts, maps, letters, print ads, newspapers, photographs, paintings, etc. Primary sources are visual or tangible and encourage interactive learning, discovery, exploration, and analysis. They help to teach a complete story, which may not be the case when using secondary sources alone, such as textbooks. Many museums will give educators materials to use in the classroom so they can replicate the techniques they learned during the professional development session. A hands-on experience will help students absorb, retain, and generate curiosity to learn more.
  • Inquiry-based. Using open-ended questions to guide the delivery of content is very effective. Practicing this technique in a museum environment alongside other classroom educators, guided by a museum professional who knows the content, allows for a deeper exploration of the content rather than being told the information. This technique also encourages you to think about multiple perspectives of an event or issue. Using inquiry-based techniques supports dialogue—talking, sharing, and discussing—and is a critical component to meaning-making. Further, inquiry itself has proven to be an effective teaching strategy across a range of fields, including art, science, and history. As noted in Jensen, pushing students to answer “how” questions can help “expose the boundaries, limitations, and genius in student thinking” (1).

What is your learning style? Do you prefer to read for content, listen to a lecture, or participate in a discussion? Do you want to be stimulated by analyzing primary sources? Do you want the opportunity to consider multiple viewpoints or have the option to ask questions? Museums are wonderful learning environments that can offer opportunities for all these learning styles through lectures, workshops, gallery tours, performances, and more. In choosing professional development, consider how your students learn, so your own experience can support them back in the classroom.


1 E. Jensen, Teaching with the Brain in Mind (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1998).

For More Information

Institute for Learning Innovation, Results from the Quality Fieldtrip Study: Assessing the LEAD Program in Cleveland, Ohio (Edgewater, MD: Institute for Learning Innovation, 2006).

Randi Korn & Associates, Inc., Educational Research: Evaluation of Traveling Through Time, a School Program of the Museum of the City of New York (Museum of the City of New York, 2010).

Randi Korn & Associate, Inc., Program Evaluation: School Programs of the Frederick A.O. Schwarz Children’s Center at the Museum of the City of New York (Alexandria, VA: Randi Korn & Associates, Inc, 2007).