Publication Date

March 1, 2004

Initiatives to improve American history teaching, such as the Teaching American History program of the U.S. Department of Education, are increasingly dependent upon partnership programs designed to bridge the traditional divide between the world of academic historians and the K–12 classroom. Such collaborative programs seek to build upon the interactive contributions of the various participants—academic historians sharing their knowledge of the subject, for example, and K–12 teachers providing insights into the best methods for conveying complex historical concepts to young learners. These partnership programs can become even more enriching and useful if they actively involve the history museum, which occupies the middle ground where history content and classroom pedagogy necessarily intersect.

The "Third Partner"

From our experience, we have found that a strong—literally central—role for the museum resolves the most problematic aspects of partnerships between schools and higher education institutions. Strengthening the role of this "third partner" can facilitate the transfer of knowledge from the academy to the school, while also contributing to changes in teaching and learning in the K–12 classroom.

A key characteristic of a regional history museum such as Memorial Hall museum in Deerfield, Massachusetts, is its inherent "localness."1 It is nearby, and it is a place where teachers and students can feel they “belong.”

Public historians at a museum are interested in making their collections and their expertise available to schools; indeed, it is part of their mission. For professional development, teachers may find a museum more easily accessible, therefore, than the college or university campus, which can be perceived as far-removed, both literally and figuratively.

Academic scholars also feel at home in the museum, and enjoy collegial relations with the public historians there. The regional museum, as a place where teachers and historians are equally comfortable, is thus a natural locus for the formation of a professional learning community. The perspectives a local history museum offers can be extremely appealing to history teachers. Some come to the museum because they are required to teach American history and need to increase their understanding of the subject. Teachers with a "hands-on" orientation especially gravitate toward the objects and documents there. Most agree that local history holds the promise of making history "more real" and "more interesting" for students (and for themselves, as well). Field trips and other education programs also provide valuable opportunities for museum educators to model history teaching using material culture and inquiry-based activities.

Lessons in a Teacup

The museum staff, like many visiting scholars, regard local, national, and global history as inextricably linked. Sustained dialogue with museum educators and scholars underscores this point for teachers, and shifts their thinking about the role and usefulness of local history. In the early years of our partnership, in fending off would-be detractors devaluing local history in favor of core knowledge, the museum advocated an archetypal "Teacup Lesson," adaptable to any grade. A single porcelain teacup belonging to a local individual in the 1700s can be used to reveal a great deal about trade (Where did the teacup come from?), technology (How was it made?), and culture (In what ways did the China trade identify and cater to European tastes? What social and political messages has tea drinking conveyed through the years?). There is no end to the connections that can be made, once teachers start using the material culture of daily life, past and present, to illuminate history. Teachers speak variously of discovering that local history is a "window" or a "doorway" for their students into American history. Helping teachers make these connections is a persistent element of the museum-school partnership. The value of this approach is acknowledged in the Massachusetts state standards, which stipulate that students even in the 3rd grade should be expected to observe and describe local or regional historic artifacts and sites and generate questions about their function, construction, and significance.2 This approach succeeds in reconciling the seemingly contradictory demands for breadth and depth that previously frustrated teachers. It transforms local history from a marginalized “optional” piece into a powerful tool for delivering engaging, content-rich curricula that promote historical thinking.

Partnership Features

What are the prerequisites of a partnership committed to cultivating a middle ground where educators from the different worlds of higher education, the history museum, and the K–12 classroom can work together to improve history education?

Starting small, a museum-school partnership can have an immediate impact while putting the pieces in place for long-range and far-reaching changes. Establishing a modus operandi that crosses the boundaries between school and museum by bringing the school into the museum and the museum into the school on a routine basis sets in motion a process that immediately begins to fill in the gap between guest lectures by the academic historians and the K–12 classroom. Museum educators help teachers “metabolize” content received from visiting scholars. Field trips and classroom visits similarly use objects and documents to underscore historical concepts and themes introduced in seminars and workshops by scholars and museum staff. Essential to the model is the role the museum shares as an equal partner in leadership, and in responsibility for the teachers’ professional development.

From the beginning, our partnership has held itself to a small number of recognized standards for educational partnerships. Chief among them was the recommendation issued in 1996 (the first year of our partnership) in What Matters Most, the report of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future—to flatten hierarchies and to organize to send resources directly to the front lines of teaching.3 The partners took this dual directive seriously; it established the tone and culture of the partnership, and directed our efforts. This prescription was as applicable when the partnership began with eight teachers as it is now in guiding a large and multifaceted partnership working with more than one hundred teachers in twelve rural districts.

Sustained dialogue between teachers and the museum educators achieves many objectives. It promotes teacher professionalism, as teachers collaborate with museum educators on new lessons of their own design. No longer simply a day out of school, a field trip now conveys content that is integrated into ongoing study. As regular visitors to the classroom, museum educators learn about the school environment, and develop realistic expectations of what can be taught in a 45-minute period or a long block. Two institutions thus permeate each other, changing the culture of each, in the direction of collaboration and inquiry. The partnership becomes the new "way we do things here.”

Boundary spanners thrive in an environment of flattened hierarchies, where mutual respect grows and genuine dialogue is possible. This is the atmosphere in which deep content learning occurs. A history of estrangement between different segments of the K–16 spectrum is overcome when school and university educators sit at the table and talk as equals. In our pilot project in 1996, some teachers asked for the “answer.” They were disoriented by the open-ended quality of seminar discussions. Now, new teachers very quickly learn that our dialogue is instead about framing the question.

K–12 teachers value the respect shown them by university teachers, who acknowledge that working with precollegiate educators enriches their own scholarship. These scholars report that the questions posed by K–12 teachers challenge them to clarify—for themselves, too—what they think as historians about certain issues, and help them to look at old historical problems from new angles.

And what of the experience of the "third partner"? In the case of Memorial Hall, systemic professional development work with K–12 teachers utterly transformed the museum's work culture. It rendered obsolete the old boundaries between museum departments of adult and youth programs, and drew the library and curatorial departments into work on a newly united educational staff team.

In the realm of administration also, the commitment to the notions of equal partnership and flattened hierarchy is manifested in the way in which the project is managed. Each actor is but one of many with a valuable role to play in achieving the goal of sending resources directly to the front lines of teaching. Shared responsibility and public accountability lead to regular appearances at the management table of people traditionally either behind the scenes or marginalized from project management—the business manager (budget person), the evaluator, the museum educator, the webmeister, and the teacher.4

The likely success of any professional development plan is greatly enhanced if those who are to implement it have a hand in its design. The importance of this oft-cited collaboration benchmark, most recently in the joint document produced by the AHA, OAH, and NCSS, cannot be overstated.5 Participation in our partnership is voluntary, on all levels. The school administrators’ role is to support teachers and to facilitate teacher initiative in taking part in partnership opportunities. Because participation is voluntary, and relies on teacher initiative, a variety of innovations have been tried; most have succeeded.

—Barbara A. Mathews is project director and Marilyn McArthur is the program evaluator of the Teaching American History project for Franklin County, Massachusetts,
located in the Memorial Hall Museum of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, Deerfield, Massachusetts.


1. Memorial Hall, the museum of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (PVMA), is home to a unique collection of New England antiquities and Native American artifacts gathered and preserved by PVMA. With generous support from the NEH, IMLS, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and other funders, and the active participation of local educators, PVMA has built an online museum and educational web site, American Centuries.View from New England at

2. Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework (Massachusetts Department of Education, August 2003), 19.

3. See also the commission's 2003 report, "No Dream Denied: A Pledge to America's Children." Our efforts in collaborative program design have been informed by the work of Linda Darling-Hammond, a principal author of the 1996 report, and Michael Fullen, whose classicChange Forces (Routledge Falmer, 1993) is a favorite of school administrators grappling with education reform.

4. Our TAH also has an "Educator Advisory Board" of teachers from each district who meet monthly, and from whom advice is sought on policy decisions and program design.

5. The American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, and the National Council for the Social Studies collaborated to produce "Benchmarks for Professional Development in Teaching of History as a Discipline" (2002).

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