Historic sites and museums provide a wide range of professional development opportunities for teachers, especially in the summer. What do educators really want to learn? And what makes a great learning experience? From 2016 to 2018, staff from Ford’s Theatre and researchers from George Washington University are partnering with the Institute of Museum and Library Services to find answers to these questions.

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What Matters to Teachers: Our Research on Professional Development at Historic Sites

So many historic sites and other cultural institutions offer teachers “professional development” programs. What makes teachers want to sign up? To tell their friends? To return?

The 2017 summer class of The Seat of War and Peace in D.C. Photo by Alex Wood.

When we first developed the Civil War Washington summer program in 2008, our goal was to introduce teachers to the resources and programs offered by some of Washington, D.C.’s, more obscure historic sites so they would sign up for field trips. In partnership with other sites (listed below), we circulated local teachers through a week of walking tours, house tours, object exercises and theatre activities.

Nine years later, our museum educators collaborate with a network of historic sites across the area to model museum and arts learning strategies for as many as 75 teachers each summer. The program has evolved considerably. We know anecdotally we’re doing something right, but we want better data. We want to know for real that our program does what we say it does, and what makes it work.

We are two years into a three-year evaluation, working with George Washington University researchers to validate and document our summer teacher institutes. In September, Professor Maia Sheppard and I shared what we’ve learned so far with a roomful of our colleagues at the 2017 American Association for State and Local History annual meeting in Austin, Texas. We presented alongside staff and researchers from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Columbia University Teachers’ College, whose research led to some similar conclusions. This fall, I’ll share our learning with you.

Maia found this definition of Experience-Based Learning (borrowed from Andresen, Boud and Cohen) to be helpful in explaining our work. I wholeheartedly agree. Its significant characteristics are:

  1. Engage the whole learner: Not only do we introduce content as facts, but we engage empathy, point of view and kinesthetic learning strategies
  2. Honor and engage prior experience:  We facilitate a community where teachers are comfortable sharing their teaching experiences and contexts and talking about how they will apply what they are learning in their classrooms.
  3. Prioritize continual reflection: Educational philosopher John Dewey said it best: “We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting upon experience.” No reflection = limited learning.
  4. Design intentionally and transparently: At the beginning of the week and throughout it, we talk about why we choose activities and how they relate to the rest of the week’s experience.
  5. Facilitate, don’t lecture: Teachers are more engaged and open to learning when they feel valued. We present ourselves as co-learners, investigating and enthusing together with them. Our programs are led primarily by each site’s staff. We try to stay for the whole week, even when we are not leading a particular program, to model co-learning, co-teaching and a collaborative learning environment. When we call on scholars, which we rarely do, it is to provide us with a particular framework or set of ideas that help to shape the teachers’ learning throughout the week.
  6. Assess authentically: Identify learning outcomes clearly and assess them using strategies related to how you are teaching them. For example, don’t take a walking tour and then give a multiple-choice test.

This is just the tip of the iceberg regarding our learning. Over the next few months, I’ll delve into some of these ideas in more depth:

  • Creating authentic learning experiences that develop content knowledge and model museum pedagogy.
  • Modeling professional practice and inquiry strategies that build a community of learners.
  • Explicitly engaging in reflective practice throughout the week.

Supplying teachers with the resources and support to successfully transfer new knowledge and skills.

Partner sites: Frederick Douglass National Historic Site; Tudor Place Historic House and Garden; President Lincoln’s Cottage; National Mall and Memorial Parks; Civil War Defenses of Washington; Arlington House and Arlington National Cemetery; Howard University; and the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers’ Office.

Sarah Jencks is Director of Education and Interpretation at Ford’s Theatre. She oversees interpretation, exhibitions and education initiatives and is particularly excited to measure the impact of our education programs. She tweets at @sarahjencks and sometimes at @fordsedu.