Okay. Not an actual air museum. That would have been so incredibly cool but . . . no. Sadly, my classroom was an air museum in the metaphorical sense.
A little background might help here.
I’ve had the opportunity over the last several months to spend time in Liberal, Kansas working with the 7-12 social studies team on the creation of aligned unit curriculum maps. Lots of great conversations about historical thinking skills and big ideas and instructional strategies and well . . . lots of cool social studies stuff.
But until recently, it’s been in and out, one day at a time. Earlier this month? Multiple days back to back. And I know you know what that means. That’s right.
Enough free time for a visit to the Mid-America Air Museum. During World War II, Liberal hosted one of the largest B-24 training bases in the US and rightfully takes great pride in that fact. A museum was started. Planes were donated and according to the propaganda, it’s the largest aviation museum in the state and fifth largest in the country. Over 100 planes on display. And not just any planes. Some very cool planes:
- B-25 Mitchell
- F4 Phantom
- F-4 Tomcat
- Bell Huey helicopter
- F8 Crusader
I love planes. Especially military planes. So I was a bit giddy at the chance to spend some time at the museum.
But I walked away a bit disappointed.
Not because of what planes the museum did or didn’t have. I walked away disappointed because of how the planes were displayed. I walked away because it could have been so much better.
There just doesn’t seem to be any organization. And though there are a few areas where planes of a particular period are grouped – the Korean War, for example – it seemed as if most planes are shoved in wherever there’s an open space.
A World War II B-25 sat beside a World War I biplane which was right across the aisle from a Vietnam War era Bell Huey helicopter. There was a lot of that.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m loving the planes. And because I know a few things about the planes, I can appreciate the B-25 and helicopter right next to each other because I already have a mental map of time, place, event, and purpose. I can separate the two and understand where they fit in.
I’m sure the museum staff is struggling for funds and volunteers. But there was very little interpretation or interactive elements in the displays. If I had come into the museum without any airplane or history background, the whole place would have simply been a bunch of stuff, scattered around, that means absolutely nothing to me.
Ask me some questions about the planes as I left the building and I could probably get 75% or better. Ask me the same questions a week or a month later, I’d be lucky to get 20% or 30%.
This sounding familiar yet?
This is why my classroom used to look like an air museum. Lots of data. Lots of stuff. Lots of things I wanted kids to learn. And it was even very cool stuff. But it was all over the place. No organization. No chunking of similar information. And presented out of context with very little real interpretation or interactive elements built into the process.
Most of my kids did okay on the Friday quizzes and even on the chapter tests. But long term? Nah. They walked out of my classroom feeling the same way I did when I walked out of the air museum. Overwhelmed by lots of specific knowledge that wasn’t really attached to anything.
I know now. I understand now that the brain learns by chunking stuff into patterns that make sense. By putting random data into context. By solving problems. By attaching emotion and meaning to foundational content.
But I think that sometimes we get so focused on how much content we deliver – on how many planes we can squeeze in – that we forget about how the brain processes data. We forget that many times, less is more.
So pick five or six great planes. Display them with enough room to walk around. Provide contextual information about the planes and present it in a way that helps kids organize the information into patterns. Give the museum visitors a chance to interact with the planes and let them solve some problems.
Don’t worry about whether you’re teaching everything.
Worry about whether the kids are learning the right thing.