On Display: Preservice Teachers in the Museum


Linda H. Cox and Jill H. Barrow

Students at Baylor University, a private Southern Baptist school, are occasionally accused of “living in a bubble” far removed from the real world. In an effort to make social studies education authentic and innovative, our field-based methods practicum is held at a children’s museum, the Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center in Waco, Texas.1 Each week, elementary students from surrounding rural, suburban, and urban communities visit the hands-on museum. Children from local private schools and home schools are also visitors. Our preservice teachers (30 to 40 each semester) prepare lessons and instruct these diverse groups of pupils using the resources and artifacts of the museum. As a result, these young teachers are challenged to consider methods and materials beyond the lecture and the textbook, and the young students are introduced to the museum as a place for active learning, and not just a collection of objects behind glass.

The purpose of this article is twofold. First, we would like to see local museums being more fully utilized as year-round resources for elementary social studies teachers. Beverly Sheppard has stated, “Most teachers think of museums strictly in terms of field trips or classroom visits. Few have considered the potential for sustained relationships with significant learning impact.”2 Second, we would like to encourage professors of education to provide their preservice teachers with at least some experience teaching in a museum setting. We are concerned that many young teachers abandon active or experimental teaching methods once they leave the university. As our preservice teachers deliver instruction within a museum setting, they gain confidence in using artifacts and directing hands-on activities with elementary and middle school students. We hope that, as a result of this experience, they will seek out and develop a sustained relationship with a museum when they begin their teaching careers.

A nationwide survey conducted over three years, with responses from 450 museums, found that American museums are providing more K-12 educational programs than ever before. Museums offer nearly four million hours of educational programs, as well as teacher training, staff or docent guided tours, and staff visits to school classrooms. Over 70 percent of the museums surveyed reported an increase in the numbers of students, teachers, and schools served in the last five years.3

For many years, the museum-school relationship was dominated by the field trip: a once-a-year race through the exhibits.4 As museum personnel became more familiar with the educational needs of their younger audiences, they began providing more developmentally appropriate, first-hand experiences for them. Teachers were able to schedule class appointments. Although these programs were certainly an improvement, they were still viewed as “extras” and received no regular support in most communities; neither school personnel nor museum personnel felt ownership of them. Over the last decade, however, collaborative programs between schools and museums have evolved.5 These partnerships support long-term educational relationships and can improve the quality of both institutions.6

In Museums in Motion, Alexander posits that children’s museums are a distinctive American institution. There are about five hundred such museums in the United States. The collections in these centers emphasize practical, usable objects, not unusual or priceless artifacts. The permanent collection may not be of great monetary value. Small live animals that children can handle are often a part of the exhibits.7 “Instead of being quiet places where learning happens in whispers, hands-on museums are boisterous places, bursting with exuberance.”8 Children’s museums are learning playgrounds with choices that encourage young visitors to pursue their own interests. “Their mission is to bring things out from behind the red velvet ropes and the glass cases to be touched, handled, felt, explored, and experimented with.”9

Gordon Ambach cites projects of the Philadelphia Alliance for Teaching the Humanities in the Schools, in which classroom teachers interact with museum curators, historians, and scientists. He notes that good museum educators are important, but that they cannot perform in isolation.10 This idea was a central theme at the 1999 conference, “The National Academy on Museum/Community Resources and Strategies for the Classroom,” which featured museum directors, university faculty, and teachers interacting with staff from the Smithsonian Office of Education (SOE) and selected Smithsonian museums to learn about using community resources and delivering object-based inquiry instruction.11

Museums are unique community resources to be enjoyed by everyone. In a recent article, “Teaching Teachers: Museums Team Up with Schools and Universities,” Hodgson states, “Teachers need to be held in special relationships to museums; they should be seen as interpreters for their students.”12 Teachers must not only feel welcome in the museum setting, they must know how to work with the artifacts they encounter. The wonder of seeing the real thing allows them (and their students) to make the connection between the things they see and know and what they are learning every day.13

Another course requirement for our preservice teachers at Baylor is community service. Throughout the semester, they can select from a variety of opportunities to go “beyond the bubble” of academia and work in educational programs organized by the Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center. They, along with members of the county Parks and Recreation Department, provided instructional leadership when the new Waco Zoo opened. Preservice teachers have assisted at various overnight camps for scout groups held at the museum. They have worked at Backyard Monsters, a traveling robotics exhibit about insects. One spring Saturday, several preservice teachers participated in an all-day teleconference in which gifted and talented elementary students communicated through the Internet with elementary students in San Antonio, Texas. Again, the resources of the museum were used as our elementary students discussed online topics such as geography, Native American culture, and experiments with bubbles with their fifth grade “colleagues.”

Social studies teachers can find a local historical site or museum whose staff will help them to enhance lessons in and beyond the classroom. The Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center currently features ten rooms, each with a different theme. Using materials from the Communications Room in both weekly lessons and teleconferences, children learn (for example) the terms sender, receiver, and message as they explore the earliest forms of communication and present-day technologies such as computers and satellites. In the People Room, students try on clothing and
learn customs from different countries. The lesson is enhanced by a room-size rug map where children can stand on the country they discuss as they learn about longitude and latitude. For example, students can draw a U.S. or foreign coin from a basket, stand within the outline of that coin’s country, and then describe what is on the coin, as well as the latitude and longitude of their location. They can also use the globe and maps to locate countries as they participate in a rhythm band using instruments from specific countries. Another favorite site of both the college students and the children is inside the teepee in the Native American Room, where children learn how the Waco Indians built their homes, hunted for their food, and carried out their chores within their families and their community. The children actually grind corn, scrape animal skins, and beat Indian drums. (These are new experiences for most of the preservice teachers as well.) The Vertebrate Room and Invertebrate Room can be quite a challenge for preservice teachers and young students alike. Not all of the teachers opt for these rooms. The former has live snakes, guinea pigs, rabbits, and turtles; the latter has hissing cockroaches and Rosy, the tarantula. One preservice teacher, a true animal lover, remained calm when Slinky, the rat snake, wound himself through her belt loops.

According to Sheppard, “A focused field trip is a learning experience planned around a central learning purpose and a set of clear learning objectives. The focus of a field trip will encourage many uses for one collection.”14 Our preservice teachers use the same artifacts and in the same settings, but vary their instructional strategies according to the ages of their students and educational objectives provided by their supervising teachers. Preservice teachers begin to understand the rationale for visiting a museum many times during the elementary years, not just for the annual field trip.

We use assessment strategies (such as videotaping, peer evaluation, self-evaluation, and portfolios) that allow the preservice teachers themselves to be part of the assessment procedure. Jeff Passe notes that one of the problems in the preparation of social studies teachers is the chasm between theory and practice. “Considerable theoretical support exists for early field-experience assignments that are geared to self-reflection and analysis . . . many students in early field-based experiences do not receive analysis of their efforts; nor do they have opportunities for self-evaluation.” He concludes that young teachers may place low expectations upon themselves. Once they are on their own, survival becomes the goal. For example, many teachers accept children’s responses to questions of factual recall without considering how effective their method of evaluation really is.15 In our classes and museum practicum, preservice teachers learn to incorporate higher-level questioning throughout their lessons.

Preservice teachers evaluate themselves as they watch their videotapes from each teaching experience. They also perform peer evaluations. As they try out their own approaches, assist their peers, and write evaluations, they experience much of what the profession is all about. Because they often teach the same lesson in back-to-back sessions, they have the opportunity to make corrections or to apply suggestions immediately rather than waiting until the next day or week to do so. After watching them teach either live or on video, professors and mentors provide both written and oral feedback. The preservice teachers have expressed appreciation for the opportunity to teach in the Discovery Center.

Teaching social studies means becoming involved in the community and knowing how to respond in a variety of situations. Over the past eight semesters, we have provided our preservice teachers with more than textbooks and college campus experiences. The museum where they teach is housed in an old high school building located next to a housing project, which is not the traditional academic environment or typical preservice placement setting. Howard Gardner says that schools should be more like museums. Weüapply his idea in our teacher education curriculum “not to convert each school into a museum, 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.”16 Learners must be empowered to construct their own understandings. Museums can encourage both young students and preservice teachers to “become a part of history,” while helping them to understand and prepare for their own future.

Hirzy writes, “Museums are educators. They can be forums for free and open discussion of authentic historic, aesthetic, and scientific dilemmas. . . . In the end, the effectiveness of museums as educators will be measured by what they can make us realize about ourselves.”17 We hope that training our preservice teachers in a museum setting will inspire them to seek out the community resources that will be available in their own first teaching assignments—and to use them to the fullest extent.



1. The Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center is located at 815 Columbus Avenue in Waco, Texas. In 1965. When Ms. Moen was chairman of the Cultural Arts Committee in Waco, she started a “visiting children’s museum,” with exhibits in shoe boxes, which she took to elementary schools. When the displays became too numerous to transport, she moved them to the old high school building. A final site for the “OMM Discovery Center” (along with a natural history museum and historic village) is in preparation on the campus of Baylor University.

2. Beverly Sheppard, Building Museum and School Partnerships (Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Federation of Museums and Historical Organizations, 1993), cited in Ellen Cochran Hirzy, ed., True Needs, True Partners: Museums and Schools Transforming Education (Washington, DC: Institute of Museum Services, 1996), 51.

3. “New Survey Shows Increase in Museum Education Programs,” Community Update, no. 69, U. S. Department of Education (July-August 1999).

4. Ellen Cochran Hirzy, True Needs, True Partners: Museums and Schools Transforming Education (Washington, DC: Institute of Museum Services, 1996), 10.

5. For example, Linda L. Gesek. “Let Me Explain: Students as Colonial History Docents,” Middle Level Learning (May/June 2000), M2.

6. Hirzy., 12.

7. Edward P. Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums (Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 1996), 208.

8. Joanne Cleaver, Doing Children’s Museums: A Guide to 225 Hands-On Museums (Charlotte, VT: Williamson Publishing, 1988), 5.

9. Ibid.

10. Gordon M. Ambach, “Museums as Places of Learning,” Museum News 65, no. 2 (December 1986): 35-41.

11. The National Academy on Museum/Community Resources and Strategies for the Classroom (Conference sponsored by Association of Teacher Educators and Smithsonian Institute, Smithsonian Office of Education, Washington, DC, May 23-25, 1999).

12. Judith Hodgson, “Teaching Teachers: Museums Team Up with Schools and Universities,” Museum News 64, no. 5 (June 1986): 28-35.

13. Wilma P. Greene, Museums and Learning: A Guide for Family Visits (Washington DC: U.S. Department of Education and Smithsonian Office of Education, 1998), iii.

14. Beverly Sheppard, ed., Building Museum and School Partnerships, 44.

15. Jeff Passe, “Early Field Experience in Elementary and Secondary Social Studies Methods Courses,” The Social Studies 85, no. 3 (May/June 1994): 130-133.

16. Jessica Davis and Howard Gardner, “Open Windows, Open Doors,” Museum News 72, no. 1 (January-February 1993): 34-58.

17. Hirzy, 65.



Berman, Sheldon. Children’s Social Consciousness and the Development of Social Responsibility. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.

Caston, Ellie Bourdon. “A Model for Teaching in a Museum Setting.” In Museum Education History, Theory, and Practice, edited by Nancy Berry and Susan Mayer. Reston, VA: The National Art Education Association, 1989. pp. 90-108.

eavis, Jack D., and R. Williams McCarter. “An Experiment in School/Museum/University Collaboration.” Metropolitan Universities 4, no. 4 (Spring 1994): 25-34.

“Field Studies-Learning Thrives Beyond the Classroom.” Curriculum Update (Winter 1997).

“The Field Trip: Frill or Essential?” Instructor (May 1985): 14-15.

Gardner, Howard. “Making Schools More Like Museums.” Education Week (October 9, 1991).

Gold, Marvin, ed. Gifted Child Today (emphasis: Children’s Museums) 12, no. 5 (September-October 1989).

Pitman-Gelles, Bonnie. Museum Magic and Children: Youth Education in Museums. Washington, DC: Association of Science-Technology Centers, 1981.

Voris, Helen H., Maija Sedzielarz, and Carolyn P. Blackmon. Teach the Mind, Touch the Spirit: A Guide to Focused Field Trips. Chicago: Department of Education, Field Museum of Natural History, 1986.


Linda H. Cox is a senior lecturer in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the School of Education at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.

Jill H. Barrow is Director of the Ollie Mae Moen

Discovery Center, also in Waco.