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A Guided Research Program Asks the Right Questions

After years of conducting tours for high school students, the docents and education staff at the Montana Historical Society realized that something was missing. Secondary students responded well to the inquiry method we used, but their need to explore on their own wasn’t being met. A docent and staff brainstorming session produced what has become the Guided Research Program.

The Guided Research Program is a carefully crafted set of questions that provides students in grades seven through twelve with an opportunity to take an in-depth look at Montana’s history through the artifacts in our Montana Homeland exhibit. Under the theme of people and environment, Montana Homeland examines what life was like in Montana’s past. The exhibit focuses on how people lived. worked, played, raised families, and built communities, and how they adapted — to each other and to the world around them — in this place we know today as Montana. The Guided Research Program tour of Montana Homeland promotes individual exploration and group work, as students teach and learn from each other.

A key component of the Guided Research Program is the pre-visit lesson. This lesson allows students to develop the skills — museum literacy and visual analysis — they will use while working in the museum. The museum literacy reading and discussion section of the lesson attempts to familiarize students with the concept of museums and how people learn in them. Visual analysis is, of course, a valuable skill to possess when visiting any museum as it helps students closely examine an object and formulate questions to give meaning to the object.

The classroom teacher models the visual analysis process with her students using common objects, such as a Coke can or computer disk, with which the class is familiar. Then the students work in small groups to analyze a different object. After describing the object’s physical aspect, students explore other questions. What emotions, moods, or ideas does the object seem to convey? How has the creator of the object manipulated the elements of art (color, line, form, light, balance, etc.) to convey these emotions, moods, or ideas? What social, cultural, and historical factors might have influenced the creator’s choices? What personal significance do you find in the object?

The core of the Guided Research Program is the questions the students answer during their on-site visit to the Montana Historical Society Museum collection. The questions, five groups of four corresponding to designated sections of the exhibit, allow students to become “experts” on a topic. The students use five research “tools” — the exhibit text panels, the object identification labels, the objects themselves, people (classmates, chaperones, teachers, and docents), and their own prior knowledge. Each group’s questions about a particular part of the exhibit build upon information from the other groups, so, as the class proceeds through the exhibit, they acquire the same amount of information through their own research that would have been provided by a docent using the lecture and inquiry methods of a traditional tour.

A post-visit discussion back in the classroom helps students retain the information they learned during their visit. In addition, we have included a grading component. Teachers are given a grading rubric, which measures the students’ ability to work in a group, their oral presentation skills, their ability to work within an established time frame, and the thoroughness of their research and answers. The grading rubric allows teachers to formally evaluate their students’ performance during the Guided Research Program. It also provides a way to have teachers and chaperones actively engaged in the tour as they assist the groups in locating and discussing answers.

As the Guided Research Program tours began, we learned from both students and teachers and made changes to our original design. At the suggestion of the Montana Historical Society Teacher Advisory Panel, we added “hooks” before each section of the tour. We started with four “pre-fab” hooks — an excerpt from Meriwether Lewis’ journal, an excerpt from the Saco Divide Irrigation Committee’s 1937 report, iron pyrite (fool’s gold), and a piece of coal. Docents were encouraged to use the “pre-fab” hooks or to select their own objects or readings that allowed them to introduce each section of the exhibit and to make connections between Montana’s past and present.

We first tested the tour with a group called Junior Leadership Helena, juniors from Helena’s two high schools. We attempted to focus their attention by having them sit on the floor in a large group at the end of each section of the exhibit as their classmates shared what they had learned. When we asked for feedback at the end of the tour, the students told us it was hard for them to understand which objects each group was talking about if they could not see them. Now, instead of sitting down as a large group to share answers, each group stands to the side of their portion of the exhibit so their classmates can look and listen at the same time.

A few weeks after the docents began leading the Guided Research Program, a group of juniors and seniors from Drummond, a small town in western Montana, took the tour. They were very disappointed that they did not get to see all of the objects in the exhibit. We had developed the program to offer an alternative tour for local high school students, most of whom had visited the museum many time throughout their primary and middle school years. We had not fully considered those who may not have visited us before. Now when we book the tour, we ask the teacher if a majority of the students have visited the museum before, and we emphasize the fact that the students will not see the entire exhibit in this program. They are encouraged to spend more time exploring the exhibit on their own after the tour.

The education staff decided to train a pilot group of docents to conduct the tours before we trained the entire staff This enabled us to slowly introduce the new tour to our docents, as well as allowing us time to rework the tour according to the feedback we were receiving from students, teachers, and docents. We considered all the comments that we received during the 98-99 school year and made final revisions before training our entire docent corps for the 1999-2000 year. We are promoting the tour to middle and secondary teachers, and our tour calendar is quickly filling with Guided Research Programs. The experiment turned into a smashing success, and we are currently looking for ways to adapt the “guided research” concept to our other exhibit galleries.

Kristin Gallas is the education officer at the Montana Historical Society. She received her B. S. in secondary history education from the University of Vermont and her M.A.T. in museum education from The George Washington University. The Montana Historical Society, located in Helena, Montana, was established in 1865 by the Territorial Legislature and is the oldest historical society west of the Mississippi River.

Gallas, Kristin. “A Guided Research Program Asks the Right Quetions,” The Docent Educator 9.2 (Winter 1999-2000): 14-15.

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