Active Learning in Museums

February 14, 2014
Students in Shari Tishman’s Active Learning in Museums course discuss the techniques that Corinne Zimmermann and Judy Murray shared at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Last month, students from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) met with Harvard Art Museums’ Senior Museum Educator Corinne Zimmermann and educator Judy Murray (who recently retired from the Harvard Art Museums) in the galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. As part of her course, Active Learning in Museums, Professor Shari Tishman had invited the educators to the session to share techniques on how to activate learning by looking closely at works of art.

Tishman, who is director of HGSE’s Project Zero and Lecturer on Education, uses museums as a context to explore contemporary learning theory, with a special emphasis on “active learning”—a process that encourages learners to use their own ideas, impressions, sensations, and reactions as a starting point for understanding complex ideas. “Museums are places that often present complex things and ideas,” Tishman said, “which makes them a great place to try to understand how we think about learning.” The active learning that happens in museums invites people to problem solve, to think critically and creatively, and to ask questions and make connections. This same approach is behind the Division of Academic and Public Programs’ efforts to support faculty at Harvard University—from those in the History of Art and Architecture department to those in Organismic Evolutionary Biology—in connecting their classrooms to our collections.

In the session, Zimmermann and Murray offered active learning techniques that they’ve used with medical professionals in museums. “Working together to find meaning in a complex work of art and noticing how the group works together provides a springboard for reflective discussions about important issues in medical education, such as improving multidisciplinary teamwork and communication,” Zimmermann notes.

Zimmermann and Murray asked students to gather around a large abstract sculpture and to note what they thought the object was. After circulating around the metallic object and writing down as many answers as possible, the students shared their observations, which were as diverse as “asteroid,” “caves,” “brain,” “triceratops,” and “a mirror of our dreams.” In this activity and those that followed, the educators discussed how museums can be generative environments where people can engage with art to hone their observation skills and to employ certain ways of thinking. They can learn how to move beyond first impressions, not rush to judgment, and entertain multiple perspectives—habits of mind that are essential for the field of medicine, as well as other disciplines.

Tishman was thrilled to collaborate with Zimmermann and Murray for this session. “They’re both gifted educators who have a strong active learning practice and know how to create powerful learning experiences,” Tishman said. She is eagerly awaiting the opportunity to bring her class to the Harvard Art Museums’ new facility next year—a site that will be filled with opportunities for active learning.