HM - Sept. 2014 - Green

Classroom Applications


Connecting Twenty-first Century Learners with Living History
Theodore D. R. Green, Ph. D.,
Associate Professor and Department Chair
Teacher Education Department, School of Education, Webster University

“Museum educators first start to lay out the story. What story do we want to tell? What do we want them to walk away with? What experiences do we want to share?   . . . I think good education, whether it is Living History or a classroom, is all focused on engagement. ”[i]

Our place in time, our place in nature, connects us. The tenets of place-based education, as manifested in Living History Museums, are made of the “stuff” that should unite further the museum education field and the formal classroom. Drawing on research over the past decade, it is apparent that educators operating within these museums face the same challenges and opportunities as today’s social science teachers. As evidenced by sample programs from three institutions— Colonial Williamsburg, Old Sturbridge Village, and Plimoth Plantation —the connections between museums and the classroom are being realized in twenty-first century ways. We should seek to develop and strengthen our strategic partnerships and collaborations to remain relevant and vital in engaging the twenty-first century learner.

Each of the following Living History Museums implements virtual programs that promote cross-institutional collaboration. Descriptions of each program reflect how contemporary museum educators have acknowledged the need for technological progressivity in their curricular planning and are available to view via each organization’s website. A short description follows which highlights one or two of their virtual programs.

Colonial Williamsburg
Colonial Williamsburg has a large body of virtual materials from which social science educators can choose. As the name implies, Electronic Field Trips provide an experience as immersive as possible without actually visiting the museum. Lesson plans include themes ranging from the Bill of Rights to the War of 1812, and center on interactive, streaming activities. The Idea of America, a comprehensive history curriculum, frames American history through a series of substantive values debates—law versus ethics, freedom versus equality, commonwealth versus private wealth, and unity versus diversity. Again, this is a digital and interactive interface that not only speaks to the twenty-first century learner’s penchant for technological immersion, but also provokes opportunities to make learning relevant. A full complement of teacher resources accompanies the program.[ii]

Old Sturbridge Village
Old Sturbridge Village, a nineteenth-century New England, outdoor museum, has crafted educator resources that, importantly, reflect the contemporary influence of academic standards. With options for all grade levels, lesson programs such as Antislavery accompany unit programs such as Using Primary Sources; each conforms to national standards which are helpfully enumerated on the organization’s website. Comprised of a variety of primary source texts, the emphasis here is on developing analytical and research skills in the interest of furthering the contemporary application of historical learning.[iii]

Plimoth Plantation
Part of Plimoth Plantation’s stated mission reflects the perspectives of their bi-cultural institution: English and Native. This diversity opens doors to the globalized twenty-first century learner and is manifested in the program, Thanksgiving Interactive: You are the Historian. The proprietors of the program have considerately included software and download requirements on the website, and the teacher’s guide includes answers to frequently-asked questions, such as how to implement and assess lessons. Acting as “history detectives,” students in social science classrooms can investigate, with more accuracy than popular misconception provides, events more likely to have occurred in 1621. A multifaceted approach of evaluating primary sources and cultural traditions directs students to a final activity: creating a Thanksgiving panel to represent that which they have learned. Such immersion and variety appeal to the affective needs of the contemporary learner.[iv]

We often approach history from “finish to start,” a chronological rather than a generational perception. This traditional view presumes that when we are is more important than where we are. Environmental writer, Wendell Berry suggests that if we did not know where we were, if we did not understand our place in nature, we could not know who we were. David Donath, president of the Woodstock Foundation, suggests to this we add an understanding of our place in time—knowing where we are in history, in our roles as citizens in our communities, our personal identities, and our human wellbeing. All of these qualifiers, taken together, create the mosaic from which we interpret and learn history, and then pass this learning on to others. Donath continues: “[The] historical context of a place is used to foster, facilitate, and nurture something bigger, something more powerful, and something more meaningful than a singular understanding of the past.”[v] We must appreciate our own place in time before expecting our audience, our students, to appreciate it.

But, who is our audience in the twenty-first century? How best can we reach them? In order to adequately adapt and integrate modern concepts into our curricula, we must first understand this contemporary learner. Susan Hanson, principal for History Behind the Scenes and Association for Living History, Farms and Agricultural Museums (ALHFAM) Past President, recently encouraged educators to consider the attributes of such learners by invoking questions relating to social media.[vi] As prudent as this thinking is, it is by itself not the sole characteristic we should consider. Not only should we consider who they are in terms of technological connection, but also where they are in their learning, what their educational expectations are, what topics are relevant to them.
Everyday classroom students and museum visitors grow to have less in common with last century’s learners. Like it or not, we have moved from book learning and traditional interpretive techniques to a fundamental need for geographical and technological awareness. Terms like globalization, collaboration, the aforementioned social media, and “apps” have replaced traditional educational jargon. Instead of resisting such a tidal force, an effective strategy is to adapt current programming to meet and move with it. A generation that has grown up immersed in the virtual worlds of video games and internet connectivity is inclined to an immersive experience that is equally appealing and gratifying.[vii]

Living History Museums present an ideal laboratory for the implementation of various learning theories. Learning theory is a phrase that has applicability in arenas far removed from the traditional classroom setting. Contemporary museum educators have both recognized the need for, and begun the process of, integration of best educational practices into their curricula. Additionally, a refresher on place-based education is in order for all educators; combining the maxims derived from the progenitors of place-based education along with contemporary application of learning theory can facilitate optimal learning in the field and to help us stay relevant in reaching our twenty-first century audience.

A visit to a Living History Museum is often characterized by the ubiquitous terminology “field trip.” A technical denotation for this phenomenon involves, at its heart, a “visit made for purposes of observation.”[viii] To simplify an immersive experience within an extraordinary location by the utilization of such vernacular, however, belies the work of scholars such as Martin Buber and Aldo Leopold, who would help bring place-based educational opportunities to life in a much more poetic and meaningful manner. Indeed, yesterday’s field trip has evolved into something more—an ideal opportunity for high-quality, place-based education.

In essence then, the visitor is part and parcel to the Living History Museum site. He or she is immersed in the historical experiences of the past yet connects those experiences to the present.

The philosophy of place-based tenets can successfully inform modern curricula. They have a renewed resonance in the twenty-first century. Contemporary educators are using the inspiration of the last generation to model ideas for the practical integration of such programming. In reviewing the literature on place-based education, Scholar Gregory Smith identifies five thematic patterns that exist in current educational settings and several common elements worthy of note.[1] This overlap creates a bridge between the formal and informal educational communities that should be reinforced at both ends, in the interest of furthering mutual educational goals.  

A field trip to a Living History Museum affords each learner a unique, immersive experience, one that cannot be adequately replicated (to the chagrin of many a social science teacher) in the classroom. Conversely, the field of education proper continues to develop and refine learning theory applications that contribute to a better understanding of history, and synergy with, the contemporary student. The “permeable layer between communities and schools” that Smith notes encourages the interchange of the advantages each institution has in a collaborative learning effort. Scholar Melissa Peet, emphasizes the utilization of Integrative Knowledge Questions, questions that are effective in helping students identify, synthesize, and apply the knowledge and skills they acquire in a learning environment. Questions such as ‘What caught my attention, interest and sense of curiosity?’ and ‘How did my interactions with others change or expand my own views or perspectives?’, have relevance inside and outside of the classroom; they can be utilized in any curricular program and are useful when applied to a single learning experience—from a hands-on activity to an evaluation of a primary source document.[ix]

“The accessibility of social media and related technology in the modern world is circling the core of what we do, pressing us to deliver our product differently to a wider, more geographically distant, virtual audience.”[x]