As I began to write this, I received word that my favorite elementary school teacher had died. Forty years after he taught me, Ron and I were still in touch. He was the guy who caught me just in time, when I was a nine year old kid in danger of sliding academically into irrelevance. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was… mischievous. I wasn’t responding well to authority, and teachers who simply yelled at me (and in some instances, beat me with a shoe) had little effect.
Then there was Ron. He knew what to do. He reached me as an individual, instead of simply feeling exasperated that I wasn’t going along with what everyone else was doing. He sized me up, took me aside many times, and calmly explained that he knew what I was doing was unhelpful – and that I knew it too. He knew that I knew. I was disappointing him. There were punishments – including many detentions – but he also made me think. Was this the choice I wanted to make for myself? He had plenty of other kids to teach, whereas I only had one life. I felt empowered to make my own choices, whether good or bad, instead of feeling the need to rebel against anything I was told. It was precisely what I needed. That year was the last bad year I ever had at school.
The news of his death arrived as I began collating these thoughts about working in the non-profit world, and what I like most about it. I am sure that none of the ideas I’m about to share are original… they are thoughts I have distilled along the way from conversations with colleagues and peers, articles I have read, conferences I have been to, watching, and listening. It’s part of the life-long learning process I am on.
So how is the death of a favorite teacher, and thinking about non-profit work, connected?
I’ve worked mostly in museums and other cultural institutions, and I have noticed that many of them assume they should be educating visitors. It’s important, right? So, they think – let’s hire teachers and have them tell visitors about what we have here. And that’s the beginning and end of it. They never seem to stop and think why they should be doing so. The nebulous concept of “educating people” is considered to be enough. But the why needs to be the driving force, not the what.
When I was in elementary school, many of my teachers assumed I’d consider my personal education a goal I’d want for myself, and responded with exasperation and occasional violence when I found the role of troublemaker more interesting. I eventually considered many of them to be adversaries. Ron persuaded me to look at all the choices, instead of assuming I already understood. In the same way, it’s all too easy in any cultural institution devoted to a specialist area to assume the general public will automatically share your enthusiasm about it and want to be filled with facts. Often, they won’t. For example, steam trains, cars, and passenger jets may have revolutionized how we travel the world. But one hour, maximum, on how a steam train works, and I’m done. Any more, and that nine-year-old kid in me will be looking for the exit. I’ve seen enthusiasts, all too often, kill any interest the public has stone cold dead by trying to overshare what they love. I’ve been to talks where people have bored me rigid lecturing about subjects that I already love.
So, how do you engage the public, including mischievous kids like me? The answer will be different for every venue. But overall, encouraging critical thinking about whatever the institution focuses on is much more important than sharing facts. Facts, and objects that are important to preserve, are great, it’s true. Most traditional museums wouldn’t be worth visiting if they didn’t have objects in them. But interpretation is the key to making them truly come alive. Relationships between objects, and the deeper meaning of what they may represent, comes from assisting visitors of all ages to interpret. Interpretation is not about communicating facts. Facts are easy to find, especially in a museum. Ways of inspiring confidence and curiosity may not be so obvious to uncover. But if you can help your audience find them, they seep into the mind, and spark unexpected connections long after the initial visit. And if there is one thing I love about the non-profit world, it is witnessing those unexpected connections happening.
Ideally, this begins early in life – and museums can’t be the sole source. Cultural institutions need to be just one part of a large web of learning experiences. Schools, libraries, and families are all the most prominent elements of a much wider pattern. In this way, kids learn about persistence, problem solving, and self-direction. They question things. They can only truly learn these skills collaboratively with others, and in doing so they learn effective communication and teamwork. Their reading will probably improve, because they will often be reading and writing with a specific goal in mind – it becomes a relevant skill to them, if it wasn’t already. As these skills build, the true fun begins – they apply them to new situations. Critical thinking, let’s face it, is a life skill. Authentic experiences stick with us for life.
Even if these students never set foot in a museum ever again, having those skills will greatly improve their lives. If, however, museums also become part of their cultural lives, and the museums offer learning opportunities for all ages, thinking skills may continue developing even further.
As I learned – the hard way – education is not a distraction. Students need to be resilient: but not in constantly challenging authority like I did. Instead, they need to learn to be able to cope with, and overcome, adversity. Teachers should not be the adversaries – they must be the mentors to help students learn how to deal with adversity. Education, when done correctly, gives students the tools and strength to do that. Their self-perception changes. They see that learning is not about school – it is, instead, a frame of mind. Meaningful participation gives kids a sense of purpose. Kids like me needed to find their own meaning for it to be meaningful – you can’t just tell them. Many museum staff may think they are communicating, when in fact they are not; they may just be sharing things with an audience who does not care. If visitors don’t remember a single fact or figure about your museum collection, but instead gain a lifelong love of learning, you’ll have succeeded.
I don’t remember every day I ever spent in a classroom in school. But I do remember every field trip. Try and do the same for the people you engage. Be memorable for the right reasons. One teacher pretty much changed my life forever by helping me to think.
And don’t beat them with a shoe. They won’t remember you fondly for it.