VSA: Why Teachers Visit Historic Sites

The April 2012 (15:1) issue of Visitor Studies, the semi-annual journal of the Visitor Studies Association, just arrived and it includes, “Motivating Participation in National Park Service Curriculum-Based Education Programs” by Marc Stern, Elizabeth Wright, and Robert Powell.  It’s a rare examination of the reasons why teachers visit (or don’t visit) historic sites.  For anyone that provides school programs, its findings provide some useful guidelines.

The study attempts to “understand why teachers at schools within the immediate vicinity of Great Smoky Mountains National Park attend, or don’t attend, the park’s curriculum-based programs.”  To discover the perceived benefits and disadvantages of participation, they conducted a preliminary focus group with teachers and then surveyed 400 teachers in fourteen schools and interviewed school administrators.  Although this study’s focus was on a national park’s programs for a middle and high school audience, there are some surprising findings that may cause you to question your assumptions even if you’re an historic site focusing on the elementary grade levels.  Here’s a quick summary:

  1. Administrators are most concerned about appropriateness (programs must directly address teachers’ curricula needs) and time constraints (field trips disrupt focus on state-mandated tests and other classes).  Money for admission or transportation was not a primary issue.
  2. On the other hand, teachers stated that the biggest barriers to participation were money (33%) and time (27%).  Much lower from their view were issues of alignment with their teaching (13%), planning logistics (10%), and state learning standards or testing (8%).  Less than five percent were worried about transporation, distance, or student behavior.
  3. Teachers’ awareness of park programming varied significantly depending on the subjects they taught:  science teachers were most aware (94%) and participated actively (68%) whereas history/social studies teachers were less aware (78%) and participated little (25%).  Perhaps the discrepancy is due to the type of programs offered by the park–the article doesn’t describe the curriculum but a cursory look at the park’s website suggests it strongly emphasizes science (soils, streams, rocks, snails, salamanders, lichens).  What puzzles me is the difference in awareness (teachers are notorious for their resourcefulness and awareness of opportunities).
  4. Teachers learned about park programs most frequently from other teachers (38%) and park brochures (24%).  Ranking near at the bottom were the park’s website (11%) and school administrators (4%!–are teachers not listening or administrators not sharing?).
  5. Teachers indicated that they were most likely to participate in the park’s educational programs if a park ranger visited the classroom and secondly if the park provided materials they could use in the classroom or if the park provided teacher training workshops.  The study went a bit further though by comparing the “very likely” and “not likely” rankings (the extremes of the scales) to identify the best predictors of teacher participation (you’ll need to read the article for a detailed description of the methodology).  That analysis suggested that, “programs that can demonstrate that they are relevant to teachers’ curricula, meet academic requirements, and are a fun learning experience for both teachers and students are most likely to generate interest.”

Just a reminder, the annual conference for the Visitor Studies Association will be in Raleigh, North Carolina from July 24-28, 2012.  Although most of the sessions are studies within zoos, natural history museums, science centers, and art museums, many of the techniques and findings can be easily applied to historic sites and history museums.  If I can make it there this year, I’ll share what I learn!