Relating Objects to Pedagogy: Challenges and Opportunities

This summer I am a Teacher in Residence at the Freer Sackler, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art.  I, along with two colleagues, am working on a project to think about how we might best promote the museum’s collection of Chinese Art objects to an audience of teachers, while providing materials that support the objects’ integration into curriculum and instruction.  It has been a wonderful opportunity. First, it is such a luxury to simply be in a museum surrounded by gorgeous, thousands of year old art everyday.  I casually walk by gilt buddhas and jade bi and bronze bells and silver platters served in the courts of Persian kings. Secondly, I began my teaching career as a museum educator and at a particular point decided I could do my best work in schools – how many chances do we get to walk the road not taken? Third, I love standing somewhere in the middle between museums and schools thinking about the needs of both institutions, their relationships, and how they can best serve each other.  The following essay examines trends that present opportunities for museums to engage schools beyond content standards, and in doing so, perhaps make themselves and their objects even more valuable.
Any survey will show that teachers have varying degrees of autonomy in designing curriculum, which can be determined at the classroom, school, district, or state level.  The majority of teachers have guidance on what they should teach from a supervising authority and some control over how they teach it.  Materials should show sensitivity to the many angles from which teachers may approach them.  They may be looking for an exciting way to start a social studies unit or to provide the context for an experience with a specific art medium or to heighten students’ critical thinking skills in preparation for a design project.  Whether a generalist or a specialist, teachers must maximize each minute of instruction.  There is never enough time to complete all that teachers want or are expected to.  Lessons that allow them to achieve multiple goals are very attractive.  In addition to considering current national and state standards there are a few other trends that could, and perhaps should, impact this work.

First, there is increased conversation around culturally responsive teaching and relatedly, the need to educate for global competency.  Culturally Responsive Teaching is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning.  Global competence is “the capacity to examine local, global and intercultural issues, to understand and appreciate the perspectives and world views of others, to engage in open, appropriate and effective interactions with people from different cultures, and to act for collective well-being and sustainable development” (OECD).  The cultural distance from which students approach objects varies greatly.  These frameworks might lead to questioning how the collection serves as window and a mirror. How might students recognize themselves in the collections?  How do the collections help them better see and understand the culture of others?  How do objects in the collection relate to the modern issues facing the world’s people and the solutions they will need to create? These frameworks might center the relationship the viewer is making to the object rather than the object itself.  In this case, the objects might be selected for their potential to foster connection or to widen the viewer’s perspective by challenging commonly held assumptions. 

Teachers are also prioritizing tasks that incorporate Social Emotional Learning practices.  In what ways can interacting with objects in the collection help build empathy, self-regulation, communication, and cooperation? When students are asked to listen to one another, to put themselves into the shoes of someone else, or to share a story, they are practicing essential life skills.  How might our objects help students build stronger relationships to one another? To a culture? To the past? How might learning about the struggles and accomplishments of people long ago increase resilience and creativity? How might it inspire inquiry, conflict resolution, or teamwork?   Viewing encounters with objects as opportunities to build these critical competencies means the experience will have lasting effects far beyond the lesson or visit. 

Another impactful trend is Backward Design. This process begins with assessments as opposed to curriculum.  First, the specific skills and knowledge that are being assessed determined and the level of rigor students are required to reach in those areas is defined. Then the most effective way to assess student performance is determined.  Lastly, instruction and learning activities are designed to align with the assessment.  In these cases, teachers will be looking for activities (and objects) that align with predetermined outcomes.  These are more likely to be related to widely applicable skills and understandings rather than specific facts or narrow contexts.  Focusing on the broader implications of an object’s material or cultural nature enhances the likelihood of a teacher making those connections.
A fourth important trend is the ongoing conversation about 21st Century Skills.  Teachers are very focused on delivering an education that is relevant to and prepares students for an unknown future.  A persistent question should be how might educators use objects from the past to meet 21st century objectives?  The objects selected and presented might then be evaluated for their potential to engage teachers and students in experiences that foster the necessary learning, literacy, and life skills.

Overall, there are many opportunities to connect experiences with objects in the collection to the concerns and requirements of today’s teachers.  Centering the experience of the viewer and their ability to connect and extend that experience into various contexts will make it more likely that both teachers and students readily accept an object’s importance.  From a teaching perspective, relevance is in the eye of the beholder.  Teachers and schools are attempting to respond to dynamic changes in the educational landscape.  Museums and their objects can and should choose to be extraordinary resources that support those efforts.

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