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Interdisciplinary Teaching: Branches, Ties, and New Connections

Museum Objects as Springboards for Interdisciplinary Studies

The concept of interdisciplinary studies is actually quite simple, based on the premise that children do not learn concepts and facts in isolation from one another. Parents know this. Teachers know this. Yet, ironically, schools tend to divide the day into forty-three minute blocks of study, focusing on the teaching of one discipline at a time. At the end of a given unit of instruction, student learning is usually assessed by a written exam.

Thankfully, many teachers and progressive schools have abandoned tJiis approach in favor of the “integrated curriculum.” This means that math is not just taught during math time, but integrated throughout the course of other units of study; e.g. when learning about ancient Egypt, children keep journals in hieroglyphics, count with abacuses, create their own myths to explain scientific phenomenon in everyday life, and study city planning and build replicas of dwellings, and design their own clothing based on Egyptian motifs.

Curriculum development is an arena where museums can become national leaders. Our collections and exhibitions are excellent curricular resources if we develop approaches to teaching with these objects. In schools, subject matter content and teaching strategies become the basis for curriculum development and lesson planning. This can happen in museums too, if we re-think the way we design our tours. At the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, we call these “lessons.”

Curriculum Development and Lesson Planning in Museums
A lesson plan is not a rigid step by-step rule for teaching. The best lesson plans provide guidance and suggest choices for the docent educator. Below are a few examples of activities described in museum- based lesson plans developed by the education staff and taught by docents at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.

A recent exhibition of the work and life of 19th century painter Thomas Eakins included a re-creation of the artist’s studio. Docents told students that the studio space could be considered Eakins’s “office.” Then they asked, “What are some of the places or offices where your parents, or other people you know, work?”

The docents informed children that the objects seen in this space could be considered the “tools” that the artist needed to do his work. Students pointed out the “tools” they saw in the studio. Then the docents distributed “tool” cards (picture cards with illustrations of 19th-c. tools on them). Students were directed to discuss their tool cards with the student sitting next to them. Wherever possible, docents also showed students 20th-c. versions of the same tools by carrying prop bags into the gallery with them.

The focus on Mists’ tools and work spaces helped docents introduce the concepts of scientific and artistic anatomy, the artist’s use of perspective studies based on mathematical principles. These related to the material in the exhibition and held the interest of students who enjoy exploring science and math.

In another exhibition of narrative paintings, docents explored the visual, oral, and written tradition of storytelling using a nineteenth-century “gift book.” They told a story from the gift book to a group of students in the gallery before helping them create their own gift books to take home. They asked questions to create interdisciplinary links to the school curricula.

Examples of math questions included: On what month, day, and year does the story begin? When the story begins, Thomas is 14 and Margaret is one year younger. How old is she? Mr. Williams’s rent was $100 a year. He paid one quarter’s rent in advance. How much did he pay?

Social studies questions included a comparison of the cost of living in 1835 with prices today. The groups also compared what a 14-year-old did then and now. At what age do most people marry today? How could we find this out? Docents also asked students to name three forms of transportation mentioned in the story. They queried, “How long would it take Mr. Williams to reach New York?”

In the area of language arts, docents introduced the notion that a fable is a story that teaches a moral lesson. Students brainstormed other fables they knew and the lessons implicit in them. Docents also helped students create their own stories based on works of art in the exhibition.

Museums can play a major role to foster interdisciplinary studies by developing pre- visit materials and lesson plans that distinguish problems to be solved and culminate in a variety of student projects that help teachers form an emerging picture of the individual learner and the materials to be covered. These “assessment” projects might range from journals, to creative writing, to portfolios of drawings and other art work, to reports, analyses of experiments, interviews, or game design. These are all viable tools teachers can use to judge students’ acquisition of skills and facts and their integration with what the learner already knows.

With fewer resources allocated to individual schools, classroom teachers are frequently asked to justify school field trips. While docents, interpreters, explainers, and museum educators know the value of quality museum experiences, we need to do a better job of helping teachers respond to these concerns. The difference between thinking of the museum visit as a frill ╤ a break in the school day — and thinking of the museum as a partner in education, lies in the way we communicate what we teach with original objects and the kind of teaching that takes place in the galleries.

Museums that deliver pre-visit products and services, followed by engaging museum visits and post-visit suggestions to extend the museum’s resources in the classroom, are institutions that want to align themselves with their local educational community. This kind of community cooperation advances the agendas of both schools and museums. While museum educators often lead this initiative, docents insure that it happens.

Indeed, museums can be models of institutions where visitors — young children, students, families, and adults — encounter a variety of social and educational opportunities. Visitors can try activities on their own or in small groups, watch a demonstration, apply a concept through guided experimentation, perceive and question, see a short film, and participate in debated discussions offering multiple points-of-view. When visitor-directed activities ive combined with docent-directed experiences, museum galleries will have been transformed into rich and varied learning environments for members of our community.

Inez S. Wolins is the director of the Wichita Art Museum in Wichita. KS. Prior to this she held education positions in a number of art museums including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia where she served as curator of education. During that time. Ms. Wolins held a Joint appointment in the graduate program in museum education at Bank Street College in Manhattan.

Wolins, Inez S. “Interdisciplinary Teaching: Branches, Ties, and New Connections,” Docent Educator 2.2 (Winter 1992): 6-7.


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