Professional Learning Communities: Survey Results and Implications

By Tina Nolan
Fall, 2009

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Abstract: A recent survey of professional practice among museum educators suggests that a clearly defined set of best practices in museum educator professional development is needed to aid in the professionalization of the field. Further, the leaders of museum educators must be better prepared to foster professional learning communities among the educators in their department(s). Survey results are summarized and recommendations for the field are considered.

What began as an earnest call to action for museums to increase their public value has led to an identity crisis for museum educators. In 1992 the Education Committee of the American Association of Museums released a groundbreaking report calling for museums of every size and type to “place education in the broadest sense of the word at the center of their public service role.” (Excellence and Equity, 1992) Excellence and Equity: Education and the Public Dimension of Museums recommended that educational purpose be embedded within the mission and action of every museum, every department, every staff member, and every board member. With a new charge museums began re-shaping their missions, restructuring their departments, and re-examining their services, programs and exhibits in light of newly defined standards. And in the process, many museum educators were left behind. In the summer 2009 edition of the Journal of Museum Education, I described the impact of Excellence and Equity on museum educators this way:

Instead of playing a leadership role in building the capacity of others to do this work, the job of the average museum educator became blurred with customer service. They often became front-line staff instead of highly valued resources in achieving a new public dimension for their museums. In larger institutions, museum educators handed over the responsibility for collecting data on visitor learning to other departments or outside consultants – further marginalizing themselves in the process. We are left with well-intentioned museum educators who feel undervalued, unclear of where they fit within the larger museum context, and who come and go from our institutions. (Nolan, 2009)

There is newly emerging research into the dispositions, practice and pedagogy of museum educators which shows that the profession is in the midst of an identity crisis. Christine Castle provided a baseline for this argument in 2001 when she examined the nature and experience of teaching among museum educators. (Castle 2001) Her research in museums, galleries and nature centers in Ontario yielded this conclusion:

“Museum teachers would benefit by a more concerted and thoughtful approach to their training and continuing professional education. This curriculum could strive to bridge the gap between formal theories of the disciplines, museology, education, and what Schon (1981) calls the “phenomenology of practice” (Schon p. 322) through reflection upon and analysis of museum teaching. At the same time, however, training and professional development must respect the current constraints facing museums, galleries, and nature centres.” (Castle, 2001)

Elsa Bailey expanded upon Castle’s work in 2006 when she researched the driving factors that led science museum educators to choose museum education as an occupation and those factors that sustain them in their work. Bailey also examined how museum educators perceive of their role and the knowledge, skills and attitudes museum educators believe are most critical to their work. (Bailey, 2006) Building upon this research, Lynn Tran and Heather King examined the practice of science museum educators who teach lessons to school students on field trips. Their findings concluded that museum educators in such institutions have no common set of practices, knowledge or language, which has inhibited the field of museum education from becoming a recognized profession. (Tran & King 2007)

The last ten years has yielded impassioned recommendations from practicing museum education leaders on directions the field must take to carve-out a new future; from improving the preparation of practitioners in the field to expanding community partnerships, (Blackmon, 1999) to leading the way toward restructuring the museum as education center, (Munley 1999) to expanding the role of museum educator to include contributing to civic engagement. (Henry 2006)

While the majority of this research is qualitative in its methodology or entirely theoretical, there are some researchers who have attempted to quantify certain aspects of the field of museum education. In a recent survey conducted by the Museum Research Associates group examining the impact of museum recessionary layoffs on staff, Ron Kley reported that as much as 60% of the museum staff positions cut in the 2009 American recession came from the ranks of museum education. (Kley, 2009) What does this statistic say about museum education as a profession? Do museum presidents and CEO’s believe that their educators are expendable?

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