Volume 13 (2)

Defining the Chaperone’s Role as Escort, Educator or Parent
Jim Kisiel and Rita Bell

In the debut edition of Reflections on Research and Evaluation, we consider on some of the ideas brought up by Elizabeth Wood in her November 2010 article Defining the Chaperone's Role as Escort, Educator or Parent in Visitor Studies as a starting point for discussion about field trip practice, research, and evaluation.  We discover that the focus on chaperones from the article brings us back to even more field trip issues related teachers, expectations, and the need for more evaluation of strategies for reaching this component of the museum audience.

Jim: Rita, I know Monterey Bay Aquarium has recently been looking at their school programs.  I wondered if you might say a little about what you’ve been doing, and how the article might relate to some of the things you are seeing.

Rita: In February 2009, we devoted two weeks of school programs to collecting data for a cross-comparative evaluation of our different school programs.  As part of the data collection, staff teams followed chaperone-led groups as they explored the exhibit galleries, timing and tracking the groups and trying to capture conversations among the students and chaperones.  Following (chasing) groups around the Aquarium gave all of us a new respect and better understanding of the job that chaperones do.  A couple of weeks after the students returned to class, we followed up with surveys of the chaperones to capture their impressions of the trip. 

After each data collecting episode, the staff would meet to debrief the day and work out any logistical snags in preparation for the next round of students.   In retrospect, the roles identified in the article – escort, educator and parent –describe a lot of what we observed informally.  Sometimes chaperones were very engaged and helped students in the learning process.  Other times they “stood guard” and then followed the kids as they moved to the next exhibit.   

In our attempt to understand why chaperones might behave in the way that they did, many of us reflected on our own experiences as chaperones and/or past classroom teachers trying to recruit chaperones for a school field trip.  We were reminded that often, the chaperones either don’t really know or have little rapport with the students in their group.  They may have never been a chaperone before and may have never been to the Aquarium (or any aquarium) before this trip. They may not even speak the same language as the students’. Or they may have been assigned the “rowdy” group.  And as mentioned in the article, teacher expectations, museum expectations and parent expectations are probably quite different, and rarely articulated.  

Jim: I think the issues you bring up are key.  It all comes back to communication—as these things often do.  Are we, as informal educators, providing the information that our visitors need.  In this case, we’re talking about chaperones, but I think teachers fall into this category as well.  Some of the research on teachers and field trips suggest that they may be unsure of their role during the field trip.  In many cases, it seems that teachers’ see their primary responsibilities in preparing students for the trip (including coordinating all of the logistics.)  Once they get to the field trip site, they may turn over teaching responsibilities to the authority of the museum site, sometimes leaving question as to just what their role should be during that time.  In cases where the teacher isn’t the ‘lead’ (coordinator, organizer, etc.), the uncertainty is even greater.  I’d say the categories of chaperones might even be a useful way to think about teacher roles. 

Rita: Teachers and chaperones have both asked for more support from us in preparation for the field trip experience.  Identifying the continuum of chaperone roles is a good place to start.  Sharing this information with teachers may help them clarify the role they want the parents to play.  Sharing the information with the chaperones may help them see that it’s OK for them to engage with students and help them learn and it’s OK for them to stand back and let the students initiate their own learning.  And sharing the information with staff and volunteer guides may help them see how and when they could intercede with school groups to provide a richer experience for the students.  

Jim: Most definitely!  I think providing such information may also help teachers to think more strategically about what they want to do when they get there.  It also forces museum staff (in a good way!) to reflect on their expectations for teachers and chaperones and really refocus on just what the field trip experience should be.  Mortensen and Smart recently looked at chaperone guides created to help them facilitate student activities during a visit to a natural history museum. They found that the guides, designed with Falk and Dierking’s Contextual Model of Learning (reminding us that museum learning consists of personal, sociocultural, and physical components), tended to increase curriculum-related conversations.  This would suggest, based on Wood’s categories in the article, an increase in chaperones taking the role as educator.

Of course, it still comes back to communication—how do you get that information out there? How do you make sure it gets to the teachers?  I’ve heard museum folk talk about teachers being ‘in their own world’—and in many ways, I’d have to agree with this.  Each school, in each district, has particular goals, particular ways of doing things, particular ways of communicating, particular materials or mechanisms in place that allow them to do what they do—teach.  Figuring out how to get the information to this audience also means learning about how communication works within that community.  The challenge is that there doesn’t seem to be uniformity across these different school communities—which makes it VERY difficult to figure out the best way to communicate.  What works for some schools may not work for others.

Rita: You’re right.  Every school group that visits is unique and teachers often don’t have time to review the planning materials that we send out and post on the web.  Even if the teachers are seasoned Aquarium visitors who have brought school groups in the past, they may not have had a chance to share their goals with the chaperones.

The time issue comes up again and again when you speak with teachers.  Yet some of the studies that I’ve done suggest that there are teachers who make the time.  They’ve made the fieldtrip an important part of the curriculum, or they recognize an educative value for their students, whether it’s connected to standards or not.  Can we give teachers more time?  How?  I’d suggest that teacher’s perspectives of these learning opportunities vary widely, and that their underlying understanding or awareness of the cultural institutions’ roles is an important part.  Time is an issue in part because the field trip experience is given a lower priority (by many teachers) in relation to all of the other things that are demanding attention within the curriculum.

But let’s get back to the museum.  From an institutional perspective, we are left with thinking about how best to serve our audience (teachers).  Does that involve training teachers to think differently about field trip destinations? Does it involve working with chaperones directly?  I’m thinking the answer may lie somewhere in between.  Providing teachers with different resources, for students and especially chaperones, and then helping them see how they might use them is an important start.  Seeing how they work, of course, needs to be part of that.

Rita: One of our programs, Ocean Explorers, starts with a presentation in the auditorium.  We’ve put together some chaperone/student guide booklets that build on the auditorium presentation and pose open-ended questions for the students and chaperones to consider when they move out to the Aquarium.  Our evaluation indicates that these groups explore the Aquarium differently than other school groups.  And according to chaperones, students also refer to guide booklets on their return trip to school and once they get home.   Of course, not all groups refer to the booklet once they leave the auditorium – although usage seems to have improved since we put the Aquarium map on the back page!

This year, we’re putting together guide sheets and booklets that teachers can download and give to chaperones for their self-guided groups.  It will be interesting to see how and if they’re used. 

Jim: That’s a great example of trying to address the needs of the chaperones (and teachers) and then figuring out how the support your provide changes the experience.  Of course, that’s one of the purposes of visitor studies!

We’ve pulled some other articles that might provide some additional perspectives on thinking about field trips, chaperones, and teachers.

Anderson, D., Kisiel, J., & Storksdieck, M. (2006). School field trip visits: Understanding the teacher’s world through the lens of three international studies. Curator, 49(3), 365 – 386.
DeWitt, J., & Storksdieck, M. (2008). A short review of school field trips: Key findings from the past and implications for the future. Visitor Studies, 11(2), 181 – 197.
Mortensen, M. & Smart, K. (2007).  Free-choice worksheets increase students’ exposure to curriculum during museum visits.  Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 44 (9), 1389-1414.
Tal, R., Bamberger, Y., & Morag, O. (2005). Guided school visits to Natural History museums in Israel: teachers' roles. Science Education, 89, 920-935

Rita Bell is the Manager of Education Programs at Monterey Bay Aquarium and Jim Kisiel is an Associate Professor of Science Education at California State University, Long Beach.