Formal and Informal Educators: Can We All Get Along?

One of the ideas behind Teaching the Hudson Valley (THV) is that there’s a disconnect between K-12 teachers (formal educators) and the informal educators at our region’s many historical societies, museums, parks, galleries, historic sites, and so on. Informal educators, as we sometimes call them, have all this knowledge and all these amazing treasures that too few students get to glimpse.

We’re not Pollyanna &#8211 we know only too well that there are real barriers to getting kids out of the classroom and into their communities. In future posts, I hope to discuss ways to bridge the gap between formal and informal educators, but first I want to share some ideas for collaborating that were generated when we asked teachers and site staff what they wished the other knew about their worlds.

Let’s start with what they said they thought they could accomplish by working together:

Make education more meaningful. When students handle, measure, or experience actual objects and phenomena, learning becomes experiential/hands-on/authentic/inquiry- based and rooted in real-world understandings.

Connect place and community with learning.

Expand students’ capacity to make cogent arguments, connections, and observations- to ask questions and experiment- to use the scientific method- to engage in analytic thinking- and to experience awe and wonder.

Expand students’ boundaries.

Expose students to a broader range of styles, voices, and points of view and make it easier to address different kinds of learners.

Support learning standards because experience builds skills and knowledge.

Introduce students to more types of expertise along with a wider range of facilities, resources, and equipment.

Open new career possibilities for students because they see people doing other kinds of work.

Introduce more complex concepts &#8211such as appreciation, preservation, stewardship, community, environmental and historical literacy, and scientific and political awareness – and help to make them concrete.

Help students recognize that learning happens everywhere.

Encourage love of learning by showing that it can be fun and engaging.

Change the way students think about and experience learning especially when teachers discover and learn too.

Provide vivid references and jumping off points.

Next, here’s what formal educators told informal educators would help:

Develop consistency so we know what to expect when we visit or you visit us.

Be flexible. Make sure your staff is willing and able to respond to teachers’ needs, e.g., age, discipline, special needs.

Help students ask meaningful questions by sharing what you and your staff ask &#8212- or even debate &#8212- about your place and collections.

Tie programming to curriculum in creative ways. Surprise us. Or, if you’re stumped, ask us for ideas.

Consider sharing more than exhibits.

  • Take kids outside. Talk about landscape, architecture, plants, animals &#8212- your physical place
  • Share the knowledge, expertise, and point-of-view of your staff and volunteers
  • Show artifacts or things that aren’t normally on display
  • Tell us how you work and make decisions
  • Show us any special equipment you use

Extend the experience by sharing technology, documents, oral histories, and other resources we can take with us or access from school

Visit us &#8211 bring or loan documents, objects, artifacts, equipment, etc.

Equally revealing, here’s what informal educators recommended to teachers:
Prepare students and create a context for the visit. Use our pre- and post-visit materials, including evaluations, to extend student learning.

Integrate site experiences across disciplines.

Aim to make experiential learning an ongoing feature of your classroom. We can help.

Treat site visits as major learning opportunities not treats or rewards.

Continue, repeat, and extend experiences. For instance, use technology or repeat site activities at school, e.g., test water from a stream on school grounds, bring site staff to school, do journaling in the school yard instead of at desks.

Together, formal and informal educators agreed that taking the following steps could make their work together more productive for each and for kids:

Share your context and passion and try to understand that of your collaborator.

Communicate before and after the visit.

  • Discuss context, curriculum connections, and standards.
  • Agree on expectations, e.g., pre- and post-visit activities, evaluations, and/or surveys.
  • Exchange e-mail addresses and phone numbers.
  • Strive for multiple visits (both directions) and ongoing contact.

Encourage students to communicate directly with sites and informal educators.

Respect each other and your missions.

Identify and strive to meet mutual goals.

Involve and inform others, e.g., students, parents, boards, and administrators. Help your stakeholders understand the importance of schools and sites working together.

Photo: Students at Peebles Island (Courtesy Regional Alliance for Preservation). 

Debi Duke is coordinator of Teaching the Hudson Valley, a program of the Hudson River Valley National Heritage Area & Greenway, the National Park Service’s Roosevelt-Vanderbilt National Historic Sites, NYS DEC’s Hudson River Estuary Program, and the Hudson River Valley Institute at Marist College.

4 thoughts on “Formal and Informal Educators: Can We All Get Along?

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    The Fort La Presentation Association in Ogdensburg has a teacher-developed curriculum on the region’s French colonial history and the French and Indian War that is used by some local school districts. The payoff for the students is Living History Day when almost 300 4th and 7th graders go through about 20 stations with heritage interpreters presenting on a range of civilian and military activities related to the 18th century. The event is on Lighthouse Point adjacent to the archaeological remains of Fort de La Presentation.

    Michael Whittaker
    Fort La Presentation Association

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    When you move “Respect each other and your missions” to number one spot, I’m on board.

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    This comment has been removed by the author.

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Thanks for reading this post!

    Michael, students in your region sound fortunate. Please let us know if you have suggestions for the Hudson Valley.

    Addie, we see these items as interrelated and overlapping. No priority order was intended.


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