Skip to main content
BlogBooksEveryday InnovationFuture of SchoolingScienceSTEM, GreenSTEM & STEAMTechnology in Schools

Trend Spotting: The Evolving Role of Museums in Education

By June 22, 2012June 14th, 201616 Comments

HUbbel blogOn the Horizon, an international journal that explores emerging issues as technology  changes the nature of education and learning, has released a concept paper titled, Museums and the Future of Education. Co-authored by Scott Kratz, vice president for education at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., and Elizabeth Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, the paper explores the vibrant role that museums could play should education experience a profound shift from  traditional teacher- and school-centered models to more informal, personalized, “passion-based” models.

There are several signals that indicate this shift is a very real possibility. The unprecedented interest in open-source education resources such as MIT’s OpenCourseWare and the Khan Academy signify the public’s growing willingness to explore learning outside of a formal classroom. The emergence of cheap (or free) and easy-to-use publication and dissemination tools such as Apple’s iBooks Author means that everyone, not only textbook companies, now has the power to create high quality educational resources. Even the growing trend of “unconferences,” where participants gather for spontaneous informal learning sessions, often with topics agreed upon by the group, indicates a desire for professionals and life-long learners to create informal learning networks for their professional development.

What I found most intriguing about the ideas in this concept paper was how closely they paralleled the future educational landscape that McREL described in 2011 when we wrote, The Future of Schooling: Educating America in 2020. In some of the scenarios described in the book, education was no longer depicted as an institution of age-grouping, grades, and school buildings, but had morphed into systems that relied on inexpensive online resources, informal networks of learners and teachers, and local educational institutions (primarily museums) to provide differentiated instruction for learners of all ages.

What would this shift mean for today’s educators, and how close are we, really, to such a reality? Schools such as the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia and those in Adams County, Colorado already offer alternatives to a traditional model of school. A more informal model of schooling would mean new opportunities, but also new threats for those currently in America’s education system. Consider your current role in your school, district, or organization and complete a SWOT analysis to help you think about the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats that an informal learning
environment would have.

Access a free copy of the concept paper and watch a recording of Elizabeth Merritt’s May 24th webinar presentation on Steve Hargadon’s website.

Written by Elizabeth Ross Hubbell, co-author of Classroom Instruction that Works, 2nd edition (ASCD, 2012).

McREL is a non-profit, non-partisan education research and development organization that since 1966 has turned knowledge about what works in education into practical, effective guidance and training for teachers and education leaders across the U.S. and around the world.


  • Elizabeth, Thanks so much for sharing this! This really supports my own vision for the direction that education needs to go –but wonder how we can take the next leap forward. The major roadblocks we face seem to be at the state level. Age-level grouping and seat time that support the industrial model of education need to go. Do you think Colorado is ready for that? CoLearning will investigate a webinar featuring Adams 50 – I would really like to get a better idea of how they were able to put that program in place and what kind of results they are seeing!

  • Good thoughts, Nancy. If Clay Christensen is right, it will be less about the current system preparing for this future…more about students opting for alternatives for education and giving the Industrial Age model little choice than to evolve or lose their “client base.”
    Those systems who HAVE figured out how to think differently – Adams 50 and SLA being among them – offer a more attractive future (at least to me) and give hope that a 150-year-old industry can indeed change with the times. I think to do that successfully, all the “cogs” in the wheel, from national, state, local, and university levels, are going to have to stop thinking about how to prepare students for the next step in an old system and instead start thinking as museums are doing – “How can we remain relevant once the majority of students have other options for their education?”
    I still love David Warlick’s quote: “No generation in history has ever been so thoroughly prepared for the industrial age.”
    I look forward to attending the CoLearning webinar.

  • Noemi Trevino says:

    this is exciting uncharted territory. with high staff turn over we will need to have a major overhaul of staff development. it will require a shift in mind set and practice. the question is how to make that transition in an effective and efficient manner.

  • Sally Wherry says:

    Another consideration will be the response of vendors in this 21st Century system…and how we resolve the ongoing issues of regulation, standards, grassroots innovation, and teacher licensure.

  • Mary Jenatscheck says:

    We are just scratching the surface. Is it that we’re so entrenched or that we continue to need to understand how the ‘museums’ fit into our schools structure; or whether or not the structures require changes? Schools don’t easily address the questions.

  • James says:

    Interesting article. The idea of ‘museums’ as options for differentiation is an great idea, but you are talking about disrupting a lot of infrastructure that already exists within the U.S. In addition, how do teachers fit into this context? Countless research studies show that the most effective part of the learning process is the teacher and how they present, challenge, inspire, motivate students. Will this new concept of schools still allow teachers the opportunity to do such things?

  • Kathy says:

    Love the idea of being able to bring a museum into a classroom with out having to leave my classroom. In todays society schools are struggling financially and some of the first things to go are field trips. Art museums in particular are able to bring in pieces that may never come close enough to a museum within my area and for kids to have the potential to see and learn from the masters is just amazing.

  • Travis Schipper says:

    I believe this concept is a very real scenario and we are seeing more of it in education all of the time. I guess my concern is that this would increase the learning gap between the haves and have nots of our society. I think it is great for the families that encourage education and want their children to excel in school, but I run into so many parents and students that don’t value education as much as others and my concern would be how do we get those families involved in this education process. In conjunction with that, do we see those families that don’t value education being the ones that stay in the traditional educational setting and we see the others blossom and move forward.

  • Pat says:

    I questions whether there is a substitute for direct/teacher lead instruction in learning the basics – reading, writing, mathematics, study/learning strategies. With those basics in place, I believe there is no limit to when, where, and how learning will take place.

  • Heather says:

    The article is very intriguing and supports a lot of educators emerging views on changing educational structure. Although I see the benefit of the informal aspects of learning, I am concerned by the accessibility of museums and other informal learning groups in areas other than the urban/suburban setting. However, implementing a different educational structure than the current educational structure, I believe, will come sooner rather than later. I am curious to see the statistics and implementation of these structures (if there are any) versus the traditional educational structure.

  • Thanks for a great article. I do entirely agree with the points you describe here. Some changes have to be operated in order to respond to our modern and wide open high-tech life.

  • Education means much i nthe moefrn life. I think tht the more changes the system can experince, the better the results are.

  • amy says:

    This is a really interesting concept, and as a ardent museum fan (in the traditional sense of a museum), the idea really excited me. This is essentially the way that adults learn beyond their time in a traditional school structure. My concern about the building of resources beyond traditional publishing means, is that the academic standard of sources could be compromised. The internet is already so rife with misinformation.

  • Angela Muscat says:

    As a previous museum educator I’ve seen the enormous value in providing students with experiential learning outside a classroom setting. I’ve recently moved back into teaching Science in a secondary school and designed a program that incorporated visits to the city Museum and Science Centre. Student’s engagement with their learning was greatly enhanced and many enjoyed working with museum experts.

  • Don Laurence says:

    Museums have untold potential in enriching classroom practice or in some cases even become the major deliverer of set topics.the danger is to what extent museums have to sensationalise/popularise collections etc to create interest. In australia perhaps too often curriculum offerings are set around special exhibitions.I think museums could make more of what they have to offer.(and more so in a local sense) They have a great opportunity to make lessons come alive and satisfying for the students that use the facility.

  • ruby says:

    interesting. I am a big supporter of such idea, however, students educate under a peronalise model will impose a big challenge to the evaluation of learning outcome.

Leave a Reply