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Improving Museum-School Partnerships

Category: Education & Interpretation

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2011issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.


It is the start of another school year, and museums are partnering with schools to complement curricular goals and to inspire learning. From one-shot field trips, to in-depth collaborations that involve students, teachers and families, museums provide environments rich with resources that stimulate curiosity and engage visitors of all ages in the process of exploring, discovering and creating knowledge. Despite budget cuts and concerns about the narrowing of the curriculum, students, teachers and parents value museum experiences. And members of the museum community are constantly developing new ways to offer access to their institutions.

What makes a successful museum-school partnership?

In short, collaboration with a clear mission, a shared vision, honest and respectful dialogue, and consistent and timely evaluation. These collaborations can take the form of multiple visit programs, curriculum development or professional training for teachers.However, your museum must acknowledge that every institution cannot be all things to all school partners. Be clear and intentional about their programming goals and choose goals that best fit your institutional resources. Whatever program you choose, keep in mind your museum’s role in facilitating communication and technology literacy, critical thinking, problem-solving, creativity, civic literacy and global awareness.

How can we enhance a museum school visit using new technologies?

Whether on-site or as follow-up, all tools must be designed to deepen and extend the museum experience. For museums and schools in long-term partnerships, technology provides a platform for showcasing teacher lessons, student work done in response to a museum experience, and the opportunity to establish ongoing “conversations” between the museum and school communities. Furthermore, accessible, succinct downloadable materials (for students and/or families) can be helpful for busy teachers, so it’s important to be thoughtful about the content you share as well as the technological vehicle.

How can we evaluate our museum-school programs?

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Evaluation and accountability are key to the success of all programs. More and more, funders, school officials and community boards want to understand the impact of museum programs on teaching and student learning. There are several tools that you can use to evaluate your programs, including front-end, formative and summative evaluation techniques. Listen to the needs and concerns of the school community, be clear about your resources, and then be flexible and creative about aligning with their curricular content and skills goals. Good program evaluation is embedded in all aspects of the collaboration and is driven by shared questions that shape the gathering of significant, useful and assessable data. Qualitative and quantitative data can be used to review progress, make adjustments, and identify areas for improvement.A program is stronger when there are metrics that measure success toward achieving shared goals and outcomes.

What other partnerships can we consider?

It is important to remember that museums play an important role in supporting learning for a range of audiences and are part of a community’s fabric. Some museums are developing partnerships with neighborhood housing authorities, social service agencies and public broadcasting systems, providing rich environments for stimulating communication and socialization skills that help parents and caregivers increase cognitive development in their young children. Through out-of-school-time— such as after-school, weekend and summertime courses and clubs, and student internships—museums provide young people with opportunities to explore new ideas and passions.

Teachers, school administrators, and school board members are but one segment of the adult audience that appreciates the range of intellectual and entertaining programs offered at museums; seminars and for-credit training programs often provide professional development and a welcome sense of personal renewal. Local community groups, young professionals and older adults also see the museum as a neutral gathering place that brings people together to learn, to interact, and to be inspired, and a variety of program formats meet the diverse needs of a changing population.


Sonnet Takahisa is a teaching and learning consultant for museums, schools and cultural institutions and contributed to An Alliance of Spirit: Museum and School Partnerships, a publication of The AAM Press.

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