A new activity guide in our ongoing collaboration with USA TODAY is back, just in time for school! Explore, Discover, Learn: Back to School with the Smithsonian is a guide for generations of lifelong learners, featuring memorable milestones in education, an array of activities, and ties to today.
Science has shown that under the right circumstances, every young person has the potential to learn and thrive. It has also shown that due to the individualized nature of brains, genetics, and life experiences, there is no “average” learner. Every young person learns differently in their own way. And yet, 20th century public education was not set up for every child to succeed. Rather, it was structured for standardization, rote memorization, and politicization of who gets to receive the best kind of education.
Milestones in Education
The state of education looks different today than it did fifty years ago–even five years ago before the COVID-19 pandemic. While there has been progress to close the inequities in education, it has sometimes felt like two steps forward and one step back.
For example, the landmark case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 ruled that racial segregation in U.S. public schools were inherently unconstitutional. The fight for fair education didn’t end there for many because just three years later when the Little Rock Nine tried to integrate at Little Rock Central High School, the nine African American students were met with protest and abuse. The harassment from the community became so bad, most of the Little Rock Nine left to complete their high school careers elsewhere.
Another landmark case was Title IX (1972) which brought equal opportunity regardless of gender. In addition to education, it unintentionally opened the field of sports, once male-dominated. The fight for fair play continues today in many ways. In 2021, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team won their legal case against the U.S. Soccer Federation for equal pay. Presently, hundreds of Title IX cases are under investigation at schools.
For many families, the fight to ensure educational equity starts with our youngest learners from birth to age five. The Head Start program began to break the cycle of poverty by supporting early learning and development for families from disadvantaged backgrounds. Today, the Smithsonian collaborates with the National Head Start Association to bring the vast collection of resources from across the Institution to classrooms nationwide.
While there have been milestones in creating fairer opportunities with impact we continue to experience today, the COVID-19 pandemic reminded many that educational inequities still exist. For some, it looks like resources and funding. For others, it looks like legislative policies showing up in the curriculum.
But the pandemic also reminded the world of the importance of educators. In addition to being teachers, they are often caregivers, confidantes, advocates, artists, storytellers, coaches, resource providers, and professional sneaker lace tyers.
Similarly, the team who supported the creation of this guide are Smithsonian educators with backgrounds in teaching, curriculum and instructional design, anthropology, natural history, art and art history, educational technology, psychology, communications, sociology, and research.
Beyond the Classroom
As teachers head back to their classrooms to prepare for the new year, the guide reminds readers some of the best school-based learning doesn’t actually happen in classrooms. Field trips are filled with excitement and offer an opportunity to learn new things and ask questions around topics that pique students’ curiosity. The guide offers Smithsonian-proven strategies to use the next time they encounter an artwork, photograph, object, or living thing to spark inquiry. These experiences are not limited to places you have to get to by a yellow school bus. This kind of learning can happen anywhere, anytime, for as long as you live. Breaking up a school day or workday to get fresh air, to contemplate a work of art, to move your body, or to connect with nature is critical for cognitive health.
Because learning continues our whole lives, it can happen among people of all ages. When it comes to teaching and learning there are no rules about who teaches whom, because everyone has different expertise. Smithsonian educators see intergenerational learning happen in every mix imaginable. Grandparents will make connections to their lived experiences with their grandchildren, and young people will show off their knowledge to their parents. In every case, though, the unique perspectives of different aged people enrich and deepen the learning experience for all.
And although they must teach to a narrow age range in their classrooms, the best school teachers recognize they are not the only experts in their room. Each of their students has unique expertise and something to teach.
Interdisciplinary and Student-Led Learning
The Smithsonian’s educators—working at the museums, zoos, archives, libraries, research centers and gardens—are experts in creating informal learning experiences for their audiences. Without the constraints of class schedules, tests, grades, and grade levels, we are free to look at the world and at learners a little differently. The guide celebrates the strengths that this approach could bring to traditional classrooms. First, because we aren’t limited to working within the silos of traditional school subjects, informal educators get to design learning experiences that mix the disciplines, which makes learning more fun, expands learners’ brains and helps them think in new ways–a critical skill for tackling tough societal, health, and environmental challenges. A National Museum of the American Indian activity explores math through the Maya culture. The National Museum of Natural History uses art—illustration, dance, and puppetry—to observe and investigate ocean creatures. And the National Museum of American History uses sports-style brackets (starting with thought-provoking questions like: Who changed America more, Motorola or Prince?) to inspire debate and the practice of civic discourse.
The other great benefit of an interdisciplinary approach is how it can help learners think of themselves, their interests, and their strengths in more expansive ways. We hear students say all the time “I’m not a science person” or “I don’t like history.” But if educators can build mixed discipline pathways that start from their students’ interests, cultures, or personalities, those students may find themselves doing science or engaged in history without even realizing it. Reinforcing this student-centered approach in the guide is a soft skills quiz that asks the reader to answer questions about themselves to find out what successful person they most resemble: Do they have a strong voice for change like disability rights advocate Judith Heumann; are they a passionate creator like fashion designer Willi Smith; are they a fearless and optimistic leader like Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch; a determined science explorer like astronaut Ellen Ochoa; or are they most like the encouraging and fun-loving sports coach Yogi Berra?
Of course, there have always been teachers who know how to identify and boost the individual strengths and ambitions of their students, a skill that is particularly critical these days. The guide is bookended by special recognition of the crucial role of teachers in all of our lives—firsthand accounts of influential teachers who shaped the lives of Smithsonian staff and friends, as well as nods to famous teachers and coaches whose influence earned them recognition in the Smithsonian’s collections and archives.
“She encouraged me to immerse myself in foreign languages, and travel, and develop an appreciation of cultures different from my own, and be open to understanding other people. Teachers have the power to open your mind to new ideas so you can grow and make a positive contribution to society.”
– Baasil Wilder, Librarian at Smithsonian Libraries and Archives
The team who put this guide together had a blast diving into the Smithsonian’s archives, collections, and resources. At the Smithsonian, we believe that there is no limit to learning–we are all lifelong learners–which is why for a guide about education created by educators with a passion for learning, it was difficult keeping to the 12-page limit. Continue to learn and grow with the Smithsonian, no matter your age, your occupation, or your location.
The "Explore, Discover, Learn: Back to School with the Smithsonian" guide is now available online for viewing and download, alongside additional digital resources that are featured throughout its pages. These digital resources include tips for conducting oral histories across generations, an activity from the National Museum of Natural History on making art and science connections with scientific illustration, and suggested questions from the Smithsonian American Art Museum to ask when looking closely at an artwork, like Jacob Lawrence's "The Library."