A little bit about some big ideas in education

I’ve long believed it’s possible to think a book is good and still dislike it. I remember getting into a good-natured argument with my 12th grade English teacher about this concept (he casually debated his students a lot). I pointed out that I’m not a fan of the epic genre, and I’ve never read an epic I liked, whether it was Homer or Tolkien -- but I still respect The Odyssey, and believe it’s well written. I’ve now read it a second time, but both times were for school. That’s partly where I am with two of the books on my blog list, Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire (1968), and Understanding by Design by Grant Wiggins, (1998). I think both of them are worthwhile, but they’re just not for me, or not for me right now. As such, I don’t have much to say about either of them, but I’ll share what’s on my mind.

Understanding by Design is about curriculum design. It argues for backwards planning -- figure out what you want the learner to get out of a unit, and then design the activity or the syllabus. We think we do this all the time, but often it’s more that we choose a topic and then design the activity or syllabus, and a topic isn’t the same as an outcome. I was familiar with backwards design because we talked about it at the summer camp where I worked in college, but it’s not usually at the front of my mind, and it’s such a useful concept. Understanding by Design is written from a constructivist perspective, the educational theory that states that learning happens when people build a new understanding based on adding concepts to their previous understanding of a subject. In other words, new information is never processed in a vacuum. It’s always understood in relation to what the individual learner brings with them, including misconceptions, lived experience, and knowledge of related subjects. This is absolutely useful for understanding museum visitors -- in fact, in recent years, the museum field as a whole has been working to get better at meeting visitors where they are in all areas, not just how we help them learn, but what role museums play in their lives.

Pedagogy of the Oppressed also argues for education that allows students to build their own understanding of the material, although it comes from a very different context. First published in Portuguese in Brazil in 1968, and first published in English in 1970, Pedagogy of the Oppressed was written not long after Brazil’s government was overthrown by a military coup backed in part by the U.S. government. The book’s author, Paulo Freire, was an educator who had developed teaching tools in his work with illiterate sugarcane planters; he drew on his Marxist beliefs in the book. Despite this very specific context, it’s a classic of educational theory, used widely in teacher education in the United States. Freire argued that traditional education expected teachers to fill passive students with knowledge, like making deposits in a bank, but that this method is a better vehicle for propaganda than for education, and that to really educate, teachers and students should work together to create understanding. Perhaps my 12th-grade English teacher was co-creating understanding with us when he debated his students.

Reading education theory is interesting for me because so much of it is for classroom instruction (or sometimes for one-on-one tutoring). Classroom teachers get to assess whether their students grasp the material, informally through conversation and classroom activities, and formally through tests and projects. How well those assessments work is an important part of the theory. Then unless they’re in a particularly awful combination of time crunch and rigid, prescribed syllabus, teachers can help students improve their understanding. Museums sometimes asses whether their visitors as a whole are learning the things the museum wants them to learn. However, while visitors surveys are common and prototyping exhibits is growing more common, asking visitors what they learned in enough detail to evaluate whether they “got it “ seems less common. In designing visitor surveys myself, I’ve shied away from probing for whether visitors understood specific concepts, because I don’t want the survey to feel like a test.

Classroom teachers get to check on how much the students understand, and then, with the same students, try to address gaps or misunderstandings. I’m not saying that’s easy -- it’s not, that’s why there are books on how to do it well. To an extent, museum tour guides and other museum educators get to check in informally on how well their audience understands them, but overall, museum learning is often one-sided. Whether the format is a piece of writing, an interactive activity, or an infographic, creating exhibits is in many ways creating a piece of media, in that the communicator and learner are not in the same place, not in dialog with one another. Some museums work to ensure that visitors do feel like they’re in dialog with the museum even if it’s not in real time, by offering lots of opportunities for feedback and visitor-created content, but it’s not museums’ first language.

Sometimes, the best way to give museum visitors a voice in their own learning is to have staff or docents available for them to ask questions of, and that’s a great thing. However, as someone who creates exhibit content, I don’t want to rely solely on person-to-person interactions for the museum experience; I want to make something that’s already good, and then let the personal conversations enhance it. I think that’s part of why I’m feeling like neither of these books is for me right now. I knew going in that they’re not directly applicable to my work, and I liked the idea of getting a grounding in the modern classics that some of museum education work is based on, but this time around, neither one grabbed me. However, I’m on a bit of a kick of doing items on my blog list that are about learning -- I’ve recently started taking a MOOC on tinkering as a way of learning, and it will be the topic of my next post.


  1. I ran an experimental tinkering lab a few years ago when I worked at a small history museum and blogged my thoughts on the pedagogy and learning I saw. http://apmlearning.blogspot.com


Post a Comment