Making Schools More Like Museums

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In a book to be released next week, the Harvard University researcher Howard Gardner, acclaimed for his theory of multiple intelligences, applies what is known about how the human mind develops to an assessment of current methods and practices in American schooling. The process leads him to the radical critique that "even in our best schools, we are not teaching for understanding. In the following excerpt from The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach, Mr. Gardner looks at two institutions---one old, one new--that offer hope, in his view, for a true restructuring of education:

I imagine an educational environment in which youngsters at the age of 7 or in addition to--or perhaps instead of--attending a formal school, have the opportunity to enroll in a children's museum, a science museum, or some kind of discovery center or exploratorium. As part of this educational scene, adults are present who actually practice the disciplines or crafts represented by the various exhibitions. Computer programmers are working in the technology center, zookeepers and zoologists are tending the animals, workers from a bicycle factory assemble bicycles in front of the children's eyes, and a Japanese mother prepares a meal and carries out a tea ceremony in the Japanese house. Even the designers and the mounters of the exhibitions ply their trade directly in front of the observing students.

During the course of their schooling, youngsters enter into separate apprenticeships with a number of these adults. Each apprentice group consists of students of different ages and varying degrees of expertise in the domain or discipline. As part of the apprenticeship, the child is drawn into the use of various literacies--numerical and computer languages when enrolled with the computer programmer, the Japanese language in interacting with the Japanese family, the reading of manuals with the bicycle workers, the preparation of wall labels with the designers of the exhibition. The student's apprenticeships deliberately encompass a range of pursuits, including artistic activities, activities requiring exercise and dexterity, and activities of a more scholarly bent. In the aggregate, these activities incorporate the basic literacies required in the culture--reading and writing in the dominant language or languages, mathematical and computational operations, and skill in the notations drawn on in the various vocational or avocational pursuits.

Most of the learning and most of the assessment are done cooperatively; that is, students work together on projects that typically require a team of people having different degrees of and complementary kinds of skills. Thus, the team assembling the bicycle might consist of half a dozen youngsters, whose tasks range from locating and fitting together parts to inspecting the newly assembled systems to revising a manual or preparing advertising copy. The assessment of learning also assumes a variety of forms, ranging from the student's monitoring her own learning by keeping a journal to the "test of the street"--does the bicycle actually operate satisfactorily, and does it find any buyers? Because the older people on the team, or "coaches," are skilled professionals who see themselves as training future members of their trade, the reasons for activities are clear, the standards are high, and satisfaction flows from a job well done. And because the students are enrolled from the first in a meaningful and challenging activity, they come to feel a genuine stake in the outcome of their (and their peers') efforts.

A reader's first thought on the possibility of youngsters' attending such an intensive museum program rather than or in addition to the public school may be disbelief. The connotations of the two types of institution could scarcely be more different. "Museum" means an occasional, casual, entertaining, enjoyable outing; as Frank Oppenheimer, founder of San Francisco's Exploratorium, was fond of commenting, "No one flunks museum." "School," in contrast, connotes a serious, regular, formal, deliberately decontextualized institution. Would we not be consigning students to ruination if we enrolled them in museums instead of schools?

I believe we would be doing precisely the opposite. Attendance in most schools today does risk ruining the children. Whatever significance schooling might once have held for the majority of youngsters in our society, it no longer holds significance for many of them. Most students (and, for that matter, many parents and teachers) cannot provide compelling reasons for attending school. The reasons cannot be discerned within the school experience, nor is there faith that what is acquired in school will actually be utilized in the future. Try to justify the quadratic equation or the Napoleonic wars to an inner-city high-school student--or his parents! The real world appears elsewhere: in the media, in the marketplace, and all too frequently in the demimonde of drugs, violence, and crime. Much if not most of what happens in schools happens because that is the way it was done in earlier generations, not because we have a convincing rationale for maintaining it today. The often-heard statement that school is basically custodial rather than educational harbors more than a grain of truth.

Certainly there are exemplary schools, and just as certainly there are poorly designed and poorly run museums. Yet as institutions, schools have become increasingly anachronistic, while museums have retained the potential to engage students, to teach them, to stimulate their understanding, and, most important, to help them assume responsibility for their own future learning.

Such a dramatic reversal of institutional significance has come about for two complementary sets of reasons. On the one hand, youngsters live in a time of unparalleled excitement, where even the less privileged are exposed daily to attractive media and technologies, ranging from video games to space exploration, from high-speed transportation to direct and immediate means of communication. In many cases, these media can be used to create compelling products. Activities that might once have engaged youngsters--reading in classrooms or hearing teachers lecture about remote subjects--seem hopelessly tepid and unmotivating to most of them. On the other hand, science museums and children's museums have become the loci for exhibitions, activities, and role models drawn precisely from those domains that do engage youngsters; their customary wares represent the kinds of vocations, skills, and aspirations that legitimately animate and motivate students ....

I have documented some of the difficulties exhibited by youngsters in coming to understand the topics of school. It is of course possible that, even if one cannot flunk museum, one might fail to appreciate the meanings and implications of exhibitions encountered there. Indeed, I suspect such non- or miscomprehension often happens on "one-shot" visits to museums. An active and sustained participation in an apprenticeship, however, offers a far greater opportunity for understanding. In such long-term relationships, novices have the opportunity to witness on a daily basis the reasons for various skills, procedures, concepts, and symbolic and notational systems. They observe competent adults moving readily and naturally from one external or internal way of representing knowledge to another. They experience firsthand the consequences of a misguided or misconceived analysis, even as they gain pleasure when a well-thought-out procedure works properly. They undergo a transition from a situation in which much of what they do is based on adult models to one in which they are trying out their own approaches, perhaps with some support or criticism from the master. They can discuss alternatives with more accomplished peers, just as they can provide assistance to peers who have recently joined the team. All these options, it seems to me, guide the student toward that state of enablement--exhibiting the capacity to use skills and concepts in an appropriate way--that is the hallmark of an emerging understanding.

If we are to configure an education for understanding, suited for the students of today and for the world of tomorrow, we need to take the lessons of the museum and the relationship of the apprenticeship extremely seriously. Not, perhaps, to convert each school into a museum, nor each teacher into a master, but rather to think of the ways in which the strengths of a museum atmosphere, of apprenticeship learning, and of engaging projects can pervade all educational environments from home to school to workplace. The evocativeness and open-endedness of the children's museum needs to be wedded to the structure, rigor, and discipline of an apprenticeship. The basic features I have just listed may assume a central place in educational environments that span the gamut of ages from preschool through retirement and the full range of disciplines.

Vol. 11, Issue 06, Page 40

Published in Print: October 9, 1991, as Making Schools More Like Museums
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