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How will museums be embedded in the school day of the future?

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Famous futurist quote: “The future is already here, it is just not equally distributed.” (William Gibson)

In other words, hints of any plausible future already exist somewhere in the world around us.

  • A future in which no one has to own, or drive a car (because cars drive themselves)? Check out Nevada (a state always willing to take a gamble).
  • A future in which most historic monuments are leased to private businesses for commercial use, because governments can’t sustain them? Already happening in Albania.
  • A future in which the major form of entertainment is holodecks, a la Star Trek? South Korea is getting awfully close to a prototype.

So, what about the future of education? Where can we catch a glimpse of that?

I’ve written here on the blog about why many forecasters think America is on the cusp of a new educational era and you can read more about it CFM’s recently released TrendsWatch 2012. Some think this next educational era will be built on self-directed, passion-based learning, with learners drawing on a multitude of resources, including museums, to build their curricula.

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If Gibson is right, hints of that next era of learning should exist here and now, so I went on a scavenger hunt with Scott Kratz, VP for education at the National Building Museum, to track these hints down.

And here they are: compiled in Museums and the Future of Education*, a survey of educational innovation in museums across the nation. Read it and be proud of our field! I’m tickled to see how museums channel harness their assets in the service of learning—whether it is the National Building Museum teaching with bridges, the Exploratorium with cow eyeballs, and the Tech Museum of Innovation with (of course) a virtual avatar.

This paper documents numerous examples of museums using their unique assets to teach critical thinking, synthesis of information, innovation, creativity and collaboration. These core skills are widely regarded as crucial to success in the 21st century workplace.

I am painfully aware that this compilation was out of date the moment it was published. (For example, it doesn’t feature the “first preschool at an American art Museum” at the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum.) Help us keep it up to date by using the comment section below to contribute links to the latest, best and most innovative educational projects you know of in museums.

As noted in the paper, I’m particularly interested in projects that have tackled the challenge of scaling up museum educational experiences to serve large numbers of learners—a challenge we have to solve if museums are to play a vital (read: necessary, not just nice) role in American education.

And if you want an actual peek at that school day of the future? Check out this video from Learning 2025: Forging Pathways to the Future.

What do you think, can you see your museum’s education staff serving as “learning agents” in this future?

*Museums and the Future of Education first appeared in On the Horizon Volume 19, number 3: Education and the new normal. It appears on the CFM website by permission of Emerald Group Publishing.

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  1. Ever since I began my career in museum education I have felt that museums play a crucial role in supporting student learning in the classroom. Now that we as a society realize that our industrial model of education is not on track to prepare our students and we are making moves towards incorporating 21st Century Skills into our school curricula, I believe museums can play an even larger role in helping our schools prepare our students for their futures in a global society – especially since states have been slashing education budgets.

    I work for the Civics Program at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and we are working to specifically fill the civic learning gap in schools and communities through grantmaking initiatives and our programming. In May 2010 we began visiting middle and high schools with our Freedom Express traveling museum, which is a 45-foot RV that travels to schools in the greater Chicago area. The computerized interactive exhibits combined with our activity-based exploration guide illustrate how the First Amendment enables a healthy democracy where we can freely exchange ideas, consider multiple perspectives, and act on the issues that matter to us. Our onboard experience as well as our supporting online resources allow students to practice skills necessary for success in the 21st century while promoting civic learning and participation in our democracy. (You’re welcome to visit us at for more information about our traveling museum program.)

    I also read the ‘Forecasting the Next Educational Era’ blog post and a comment that mentioned a concern for funding. Through AAM, museums are making strides in advocacy on Capitol Hill, but what about foundations? Since I now work for a philanthropic organization, I’m starting to think that museums can raise awareness about and support for their educational roles by bringing foundations into the conversation. If educational foundations become more aware about the great work of museums, perhaps they will be more likely to support our role in filling the gaps in the public education system.

  2. It is so inspiring to see that many traditional museums, like the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, are creating opportunities for young children to participate. Having visited the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center last year it was incredible to see how such a revered institution includes their youngest audience. It's important, not just for children's museums, to inspire future museum audiences beginning early on.

    After learning about the many museum schools (Portland Children’s Museum, Indianapolis Children’s Museum) we were inspired to create our own unique early childhood education program here at the Bay Area Discovery Museum called Not-A-School. This program allows children to become immersed in our child-directed open-ended educational approach; it also provides educators an opportunity to hone teaching practices that nurture creative development in young children. Children have participated in the program for 22 weeks so far and we have been blown away by their comfort level here at the Museum. In addition, their parents are more passionate about our mission and have become deeply engaged with our work. We’re very proud of how happy the parents involved in the program are, it’s clear that their children are not just being cared for but are in fact becoming more collaborative, social, and creative.

    Ultimately museums and formal education systems need to pool their resources to survive. As funding becomes slimmer on both sides of the fence partnerships, sharing of best practices,and innovative programs will become more and more valuable to institutions as well as families.

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