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More than Busy Work

They’re everywhere! Pre-schoolers who can barely write their names bring home worksheets with bears, bunnies, and baseball bats circled to show they know the /b/ sound. A worksheet with blanks to fill in appears in my church bulletin each Sunday to help me stay “on task” during the sermon. Even in the venerable British Museum, I found dozens of uniformed school children dashing from mummy to Mummy as they completed a treasure-hunt-style worksheet.

Are worksheets an educationally sound method of involving museum visitors or are they merely a convenient substitution when there aren’t enough guides to go around? Properly developed and used, they can be both.

Probably the most common type of worksheet in use in museums, historic sites, science centers, zoos, and botanical gardens is the fill-in-the-blank, treasure-hunt. These worksheets ask visitors to locate certain objects in the collection and, perhaps, copy information contained in or near the object. They are usually obtained from the admissions desk and require no other interaction between visitor and staff. They help to give structure to a drop-in visitor’s tour, and they often provide a springboard for discussion between parents and children. However, without discussion, these activities serve more to prove that the visitor actually found the object in question than to help develop any real information about it.

When these treasure-hunt style worksheets are used with groups, however, additional problems arise. Besides the superficial nature of any learning that might take place, most treasure-hunts are presented as a competitive activity. “The first team to have all the answers wins a prize from the Museum Shop. ” In addition to prohibiting any sharing of information, such a set-up almost guarantees that speed, not knowledge, is the goal of the student teams.

The goal of such worksheets seems to be to familiarize students with the entire museum, or with particular galleries. A more effective activity employs the fascination most students have with maps. In addition to helping first-time visitors find their way around the museum or gallery, it initiates a discussion of the rationale for arranging a collection in a particular way.

ON THE MAP: Distribute individual copies of the museum’s floor plan on which certain artifacts or paintings have been marked. Have students locate the items by following the map. After all the items have been located, have students discuss the ways in which small objects were indicated on the floor plan. For example, how did you know this was the third painting on the west wall? After students are familiar with the floor plan and some mapping techniques, ask each student to find an artifact or painting they feel could be better exhibited in another location. Place an “O ” (for original position) on the present location of an artifact or painting on their copy of the plan. Then, have them “move “the object to another location marked with an “N” (for new position). Have students exchange plans, locate the object and its new position, and try to “guess” the rationale for the move. An interesting follow-up to this activity would be a discussion with a museum curator to explain the museum’s reasons for placing certain objects together. Another purpose of the treasure hunt worksheet may be to help children learn to gather and record information. A technique, used in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in a teacher resource booklet entitled Drawing in Museums, seems to be more meaningful than the typical treasure hunt. While serving as a way of collecting data, this activity also helps children learn to isolate particular elements of exhibits, an exercise in classifying information.

LITTLE BOXES: Students divide a sheet of paper into 4 or 8squares. Then, they select a pattern or motif to “collect.” They draw an example of the same type Of pattern or motif in each of the boxes. For example, they might select a geometric shape and record its various interpretations found in carvings, textiles, ceramics, etc.

Although worksheets traditionally ask for factual information and convergent thinking, they can provide a starting point for creative, or divergent, thinking. In the following activity, for example, some of the answers come from direct observation of a museum object. Most of the answers, however, are “created ” from a student’s imagination. Writing a story based on someone else’s imagined answers adds another layer of interest to this activity that begins with a simple worksheet.

WHAT A CHARACTER! In an art museum or historic home where people are depicted in the art collection, have students select a person from one of the paintings and answer questions (name, age, occupation, social standing, etc/) describing the character The final question: “What is this person’s secret?”

Exchange papers and have students write a short story about the character they ‘ve been given.

How, then, should worksheet activities be developed to ensure that they serve a sound educational purpose, rather then being merely a way to keep children occupied? A number of considerations can help produce meaningful worksheets.

  • Establish the purpose of the worksheet activity and keep it in mind while you are preparing the worksheet. The overriding purpose of every activity should be, of course, to actively involve children in learning. If the goal is tactical rather than educational, it’s time to rethink the worksheet process!
  • Write the worksheet activity on a reading level appropriate for the intended age group. Ask a classroom teacher to read your completed worksheet.
  • Consider the restrictions and limitations of your institution. Some institutions don’t allow children to take pencils into the galleries; some would frown on having children move around the museum or historic site without supervision.
  • “Test drive” the complete activity. Do it yourself. “Borrow ” a child and see if he or she can complete the activity with minimal assistance.
  • Always provide docent supervision for children completing worksheets. The docent should be a resource to help with reading and understanding the directions, with locating specific artifacts or paintings, and with suggestions and encouragement if they are needed.

Poorly prepared worksheets are merely “busy work. ” In many school classrooms, they keep one group of children occupied while the teacher works with another group. A museum’s biggest advantage over the traditional classroom — we have the “real stuff ” to work with — will be lost Students at the British Museum take a closer look as they complete worksheets. if “fill-in-the-blank” worksheets substitute for a child’s interaction with artifacts, paintings, zoo animals, and nature center specimens. Care in developing worksheet activities can, however, ensure that they enhance the museum experience.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “More than Busy Work,” The Docent Educator 8.2 (Winter 1998-99): 17+.

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