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Constructing Meaning in Museums

Conventional wisdom in 16th century Europe declared that gravity acted differently on different objects. Galileo Galilei climbed the steps of a tower in his hometown of Pisa, dropped two metal spheres of different sizes, and concluded that all objects are accelerated by gravity in the same way. Not content with conventional wisdom, Galileo constructed his own meaning based on his prior knowledge and his observations. As I waited in the baggage claim area at the end of a recent trip, I listened to a young mother admonish her two-year-old son. “Don’t put your fingers there,” she warned as he let the belt move beneath his hand. “You’ll get them stuck and it will hurt.”

Like Galileo, this young man was also interested in constructing his own meaning. With an occasional glance in his mother’s direction, he continued to explore the moving belt with his fingers. He discovered that his fingers did, indeed, sometimes slip between the belt and the track on which it was running, but they didn’t get stuck. He also found that a suitcase might push his fingers too close to the curb. That did pinch a little, but he could avoid that by moving his fingers when a suitcase came too close. Also like Galileo, he ignored conventional wisdom and learned a lot about moving bodies and his mother’s “no.”

Both the 16th century Italian and the 20th century two-year-old were demonstrating a theory of learning called constructivism. It is a theory that is receiving much attention recently, but still, in public and private school classrooms, often takes a back-seat to behaviorist psychology. It could be argued that one of the best places to find constructivist philosophy in action are in the interpretative programs of museums, historic sites, botanical gardens, zoos, and nature centers. Ernst Von Glaserfeld first named constructivism in 1990, basing it on the belief that students construct their own meaning and understanding dependent upon all their prior experience, and upon the prior knowledge and understanding they have already constructed from that experience. In other words, everyone creates (or constructs) his or her own reality. Behaviorists, on the other hand, rely heavily upon the teacher to transmit already established knowledge about the “real” world. The teacher becomes a conduit for knowledge that the student is expected to assimilate.

Behaviorists structure educational programs that help teachers interpret events and objects for their students. Educators who apply a constructivist philosophy to the development of learning programs, however, provide hands-on activities, conversations, and experiences over the long term to allow students to reinforce, adapt, or re-create their own meaning. Elizabeth Murphy (1977) created a synthesis of the characteristics of constructivist learning and teaching from recent educational literature. Examining museum educational initiatives in light of some of these characteristics makes it clear that constructivism and museum education have a natural affinity.

1. Multiple perspectives and representations of concepts and contents are presented and encouraged.

In an art museum, students examine several artists’ interpretation of a particular subject (a chair, a still life, a meadow, a portrait) and then create their own paintings or sculpture. They do not copy, but construct their own views.

Is visual art intended to be documentary or subjective? Students explore these concepts as they interpret the artist’s purpose in portraying any given subject. The docent serves as a facilitator, rather than a lecturer.

2. Goals and objectives are derived by the student or in negotiation with the teacher or system.

Before a school group comes to the museum, historic site, or science center, students work with their teacher to establish class and individual goals for the trip. Museum educators use these goals, rather than pre-established “tours,” to develop experiences and opportunities for the visitors.

3. Activities, opportunities, tools, and environments are provided to encourage self-analysis, self-regulation, self-reflection, and self-awareness.

An historic site or history museum allows children to “try on” the clothing, tools, furniture, games, and transportation of a by-gone era and in doing so helps them reconstruct that time. They imagine how their lives would be different had they been born in a different time or under different circumstances. However, the museum educator is aware of the modern experiences and constructs the students bring to the game and encourages them to articulate the difference between re-created “reality” and actually “being there.”

4. Teachers serve in the role of guides, monitors, coaches, tutors, and facilitators.

With the class’s goals clearly in mind, docents lead students through hands-on activities, ask open-ended questions, provide real objects for exploration, encourage group interaction, and help students validate what they discover. They are not “tellers,” but seekers along with the students.

5. Learning situations, environments, skills, content, and tasks are relevant, realistic, authentic, and represent the natural complexities of the “real world.”

Science/zoo/nature center educators offer multiple samples of the flora and fauna of a particular region so students can draw conclusions about geographic and climatic conditions in that region. In seeing how a zoo or botanical garden cultivates non-native organisms, students make assumptions about nature’s adaptations. They discuss with the docent and with each other the implications of changes made to organisms living outside their natural habitat.

6. Primary sources of data are used in order to ensure authenticity and real-world complexity.

An historic house makes available to students reproduction copies of journal entries written by a family member. As portions of the journal are read aloud, students speculate as to the location in the house where each entry was written. Changes in our conception of family privacy are discussed as students compare their expectations of privacy with those of the journal writer.

Comparisons are made between the journal and other primary sources available to the museum — family letters, newspaper articles, diaries kept by other members of the family. After examining different primary source interpretations of single events, students interview their own friends and family members about more current events to see how age, experience, and other variables impact our perceptions.

7. Knowledge construction and not reproduction is emphasized.

In a science center, students look at a DNA model and create chains of paper cut-outs representing the four different bases in DNA — adenine, guanine, thymine, and cytosine — to form unique “species.” They examine the unique characteristics of plants and/or animals represented in the center, and then they combine characteristics to create new organisms. Their knowledge becomes the basis for informed discussion about cloning and other genetic engineering controversies.

8. The learner’s previous knowledge constructions, beliefs, and attitudes are considered in the knowledge construction process.

Before a class arrives at the museum, classroom teachers and museum educators exchange information about needs and possibilities. The museum staff is aware of students’ developmental stages, of course, but also takes into consideration individual differences. Information about learning requirements, textual material used in the classroom, and students’ knowledge become part of the process in planning museum experiences.

9. Problem-solving, higher-order thinking skills and deep understanding are emphasized.

What is beauty? This classic philosophical question is one of many complex concepts explored with the anthropological collection examine utilitarian and ritual objects of other cultures (as well as their own), they explore the very definition of “art.” Teenagers, especially, have much to contribute to discussions of the pressures different societies place on their members to conform to pre-defined ideas of masculine and feminine roles and societal concepts of beauty.

10. Exploration is a favored approach in order to encourage students to seek knowledge independently and to manage the pursuit of their goals.

After gathering data in a colonial cemetery, part of an historic site, individual students compile information into graphic form and begin to draw conclusions about the lives of those members of the community who are buried there. What was the average life span? Were there multiple deaths in a single year; was a single “season” more deadly than another? Was there a marked difference in the age at death of males and females?

The search for answers to the questions raised by this initial exploration is continued in the primary source collection of the historic site, again with individual data collection combined with information from the whole class.

11. Knowledge complexity is reflected in an emphasis on conceptual interrelatedness and interdisciplinary learning.

Students in a high school geometry class come to the art museum to examine the symmetry of the Renaissance paintings and the use of geometric shapes in African art. They visit the quilt collection of a history museum to study traditional designs, and they learn from a journal that, although quilts were “quilted” by a community, their designs were by individual artists. Back in the classroom, they create their own miniature quilts, and combine history, art, literature, and math.

12. Collaborative and cooperative learning are favored in order to expose the learner to alternative viewpoints.

With maps in hand, small groups of students explore the physical layout of a zoo, noticing which animals are enclosed together and how predator and prey are separated. A zoo decent explains the rationale used for creating the zoo as it is. When, later, the individuals in each small group work together to develop their own zoo plan, they must find answers to other questions. How much space does a particular type of animal require? What kinds of food does each animal eat, and how will the food be delivered? Should the animals be arranged by type or by geographic habitat? Solutions to these problems will be shared with other groups, and the zoo displays their final projects.

13. Assessment is authentic and interwoven with teaching.

“Pay attention; there’s going to be a test later” is a phrase you’ll never hear at a museum, historic site, zoo, or botanical garden. When a student reconstructs a wooden bucket, he has successfully constructed meaning about the bucket and the people who once made it. When students at a zoo encourage other visitors to observe the “Don’t Feed the Animals” signs, and explain that the animals’ nutrition is carefully monitored by the zoo staff, they have successfully constructed meaning about the zoo’s purpose. When, at the completion of an art museum visit, a student says, “I liked the Matisse collage best because I can make one,” a personal connection has been made and an appreciation of the fundamental purpose of art has been constructed.

In reality, of course, educational programs are combinations of the best of many learning theories. Developmental theorists such as Jean Piaget help us understand that all humans pass through stages of development during which they exhibit certain strengths and limitations. Behaviorists, such as Ivan Pavlov, encourage educators to offer instruction in small, concrete, progressively sequenced tasks with frequent reinforcement. Cognitive learning theories, such as those propounded by Robert Gagne, explain the connection between good teaching techniques and the way in which the brain processes information and, consequently, emphasize sensory learning.

Traditional classrooms, with their prescribed curricula and state established educational objectives, still largely operate from the standpoint of the transmission of socially-agreed upon knowledge. Museums, as repositories of concrete evidence of the fluidity of what society “knows” to be “true,” are ideal for constructivist learning. By using their student visitors’ knowledge as the basis for the content and objectives of their educational programs, museums become the best places for students to construct reality.

Murphy, E. (1997) Constructivism: from philosophy to practice. Available at http://

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Constructing Meaning in Museums,” The Docent Educator 7.3 (Spring 1998): 4-6.

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