Sunday, April 26, 2015

Hacking the Gold Museum

Hacking Museums

“Sir, we have no reservation, no guide available, and school visits must be approved weeks in advance, and only after teachers have come for orientation beforehand.”  We had just transported a busload of Mr. David Sexsmith’s third graders through Bogota traffic promising them a museum full of Muisca, Tairona, Quimbaya, Tumaco, and Zenu symbolic artifacts - all gold!  I looked at the class outside, lined up along the glass windows, bouncing with excitement.  David caught my worry, “What’s wrong?” he mouthed through the glass.  The museum was packed, school groups filing in and out, tourists everywhere.  No, I told myself, this can be fixed - time to improv and hack the experience.  After some subservient pleading with the director of the museum, we got permission to enter, so we gathered the students in a quiet area and invented “the rules of the game”.  

Gamifying the Museum

  • Each adult took a group of five students through the museum.  
  • In each room they explored for five minutes, then each student picked one piece for deep observation.  
  • For deep observation, students huddled around one piece and the group had to observe silently for a whole minute (third grade eternity), no talking, with the only instruction being to try and observe as much detail as possible without interpreting its meaning.  
  • Open discussions then began as I held my iPhone up to each student recording their thoughts.  
  • This is the first step in the “see - think - wonder” from Project Zero’s “Making Thinking Visible”.  I tried not to prompt too much but used some socratic questioning to get them to “zoom in” and “step back” in their observations.  An hour and fifteen minutes later we had visited eight rooms and made eight close observations, all recorded in audio, the "see", while the "think" and "wonder" would be reviewed back in the classroom.  

Child and Curriculum

Students have a Dewey sense, they know that when they are being recorded, it’s important, as if knowing we are connecting their spontaneous learning out in the real world to school curriculum.  In Essays on Creativity and Intelligence, Dewey described each learning “experience” as a potential future self.  Similarly, the Reggio Emilia strategy, to record student thinking in the field and revisit the "artifact" back in the classroom, curates and focuses on the best thinking.  We had gamified this museum visit, leveraging the museum experience, tweaking the “rules”, in order to maximize close observation, and launch deeper investigation back in the classroom.

Jazz Standards and Improv

Rebeca Donoso, veteran teacher from Chile and administrator at our school, Colegio Nueva Granada, communicates metaphorically.  I don’t think Pablo Neruda could dramatize narratives about education like she does.  When our ex-principal left we all gathered on a balcony near Usaquen (Bogota) and said our goodbyes through a series of toasts.  Rebeca pulled out a ten page manuscript reflecting on her journey with her soon to be ex-boss.  There were Homeric references to the Odyssey and quotes of the Sword of Damocles.  She likened a school to a well trained symphony.  And right there she lost me.  I’m all about musical references to education, have often taught writing with guitar in hand, but outside of curriculum and structure of standards, schools are not orquestras where the slightest error ruins the experience, schools are jazz ensembles.

Risk analyst, Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines “anti-fragile” systems as able to incorporate stress and improve as opposed to systems that resists and therefore weaken from stress.  Mitch Resnick insists that schools should be on the verge of chaos in order for student imagination to be prepared for a world of constant change.  Stefon Harris, jazz musician, hits us with a profound truth, “Many actions are perceived as mistakes only because we don't react to them appropriately.”  Teaching and learning should reflect the principle of improv, of having clear “standards”, well practiced scales, and the ability to react, think, and change course in the moment if necessary.  The best conversations are tangential, the best road trips stray from the path, and we don't just read aloud to students, we think aloud and socially construct via critical dialogue - not so unlike the way a jazz ensemble knows more or less how things begin and end, but what happens in between depends on improvisational creativity. Everything can be made into a learning “experience”, whether it is on an unguided museum visit or bus trip through chaotic traffic.

Documenting the Experience

Every field trip should have a definite before, during, and after plan. Bookending the museum experience we were all in the bus, usually the best or worst part of a field trip depending on what perspective you take, child or teacher.  So again, we hacked it.  We don’t often get to the ancient greek root of the word assess, ass─ôssus, to be seated beside (a judge), so we used the unexpected environment to probe student thinking.  School is such a scientifically prompted environment, do we think kids don’t know that?  The bus, the traffic, the chaos all served as tools here for our designed learning outcome - get David’s students to crowdsource two argumentative essays, one side for the use of symbols as a superior symbolic form for communication, one for words.  They’re on a bus, strapped in, nowhere to run, and as far as they know we are playing a game, as the bus inched up and down hills, bumper to bumper.  I sat beside each pair of students and challenged them to take sides and debate each other.  The result was a collection of enough strong arguments to dictate into a giant T-chart back in class.  Excluding window washers, flower sellers, and hippie jugglers from Argentina, we may be the first to use a failed traffic system to our advantage, as a stepping stone in a learning process (see my TEDex Talk - Hacking Traffic:  On the Road to Learning).

Field Experiences

Recently our podcasting crew spoke with Ron Berger from Expeditionary Learning Schools and I asked him about field experiences and when was the best moment in the learning process to organize them.   I was expecting a formulated answer, a method mastered from his 20 plus years as a classroom teacher. But it seems there is no perfected time, what matters is that there is a clear purpose, and a definite reflection and connection to that purpose.  In our experiences arranging classroom video conference interviews with professionals and students we have followed some basic rules of brainstorming and curating inquiries, defining what it is we want to know, but have found that too much structure in the planning can stilt the conversational improvisation.  Having a basic road map and reference points to the professional's work is critical, but documenting the process, and having a reflection and final published artifact have brought out the most meaning to these experiences.

We follow the same structure for our out of classroom adventures, be it through video conferencing, or taking students into the field.  Grounding a learning trajectory in student schemata and a collective inquiry from shared authentic experience, means creating documentation of these experiences and constructing meaning from the artifacts.

Browse other posts in the blog for references to the Gold Museum visit.


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Berger, R. (2012, December 08). Critique and Feedback - The Story of Austin's Butterfly. Retrieved April 12, 2015, from

Davis, C. (2015, April 13). David Sexsmith's third graders' debate: Symbols vs Words. Retrieved September 13, 2015, from

Davis, C., Lopez, D., Leon, N., & Palmieri, L. (2015, March 06). Journeys in Podcasting 5: Student Critiques. Retrieved April 12, 2015, from

Harris, S. (2011, November). There are No Mistakes on the Bandstand. Retrieved April 12, 2015, from

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