Faculty Profile: Christine Baron

Experts in the fields of art and science education have conducted extensive research about using museums as places for teacher professional development, but what do history educators learn when they visit a history museum and how can they incorporate that information into the classroom?

Dr. Christine Baron, the new Assistant Professor of Social Studies and Education at Teachers College, addresses these questions in her research using historic sites and objects to promote teacher development in history.

“The world is full of many, many things that are not traditional text and we make meaning of those materials every day,” says Dr. Baron. “How we use those materials to understand historical persons and events is little understood. That’s where my research comes in. What are we ‘reading’ when we ‘read’ buildings and objects versus documents?”

Christine Baron spends her summers as a sea kayak guide in Boston.

Her interest in museum education began when, after a cross-country move, Professor Baron accepted a short-term position at the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts. The museum, now closed, boasted 2,000 pieces of arms and armor, including 24 full suits of armor.

While there, it was clear that there was a divide between the methods and goals of the museum education and school education, with little bridge between them. Dr. Baron noticed museum staff leading students around for an introductory session to show the span of time different kinds of armor were used. As a high school teacher, she was concerned students would not be able to connect this new information effectively with what they were learning in school.  “Even though they covered nearly 1500 years, the dates all jumbled together for the students for lack of a simple timeline that would help students ground how and when each of these pieces was created,” says Dr. Baron.

The focus of her work became this intersection of teachers and museum education. She wondered how we could better use history museums, artifacts and images for developing knowle

dge and skills for both teachers and students.

Museum art and science education programs have proved effective and engaging, but very little research has been conducted on using historic sites and museums as learning environments for history lessons. “Over the last 25 years, museums and historic sites are one of the primary places where teachers go for professional development. However, there is very little empirical research on how or what they learn when they are at those sites,” says Dr. Baron.

“What we do know about museum learning generally comes from art or science museums. That work has created a solid foundation for understanding broad measures of learning in museums, but they pose fundamentally different disciplinary questions than history museums. So my interest is what exactly is it that history teachers learn when they go to these sites? What do they bring back to their classrooms?”

In 2005, Dr. Baron was the Director of Education at the Old North Church in Boston, the historic site where during the American Revolution, the signal lanterns were lit, sending Paul Revere on his famous ride to alert colonists of the British invasion. While hoping to update and enliven the museum’s tour and educational resources to translate them to a younger audience, Dr. Baron again found a missing component: the Old North Church archives had never been cataloged.

Interior of the Old North Church.

She assumed the daunting responsibility of overseeing the organization of the collection and getting experts. for the first time, to begin the research into 284 years worth of archival materials. Dr. Baron says in an article written on her research at Old North, “I am not a historian; nor am I an historical researcher. I am an educator. So, while it was amusing to hear the executive director call me the ‘world’s foremost expert’ on the content of the Old North’s archives, the fact that it was true … filled me with an exhilarating kind of terror.”

Scholars can access the full catalog of the archives of the Old North Church at the Massachusetts Historical Society, and educators can now visit the Old North website to find classroom activities and lessons based on those archival materials due to Dr. Baron’s work.

In addition to her work at the Old North, Dr. Baron has worked with some of the most notable historical sites in American history, including Boston’s Freedom Trail, Mystic Seaport and Museum and Historic New England.

Dr. Baron continues to work with Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello, in Virginia. “I helped them with their teacher professional development program and website, Sea of Liberty. We also worked on developing and researching the effectiveness of a visual coding system for use with historical documents.” Those interested can expect to see research on this published in the near future.

Just as Dr. Baron’s work focuses on using non-traditional contexts for learning, students should not expect to engage in ordinary lessons when taking her classes. “Expect to do things. Expect to be looking at disciplinary literacy very broadly to look at places and objects that go beyond traditional text,” says Dr. Baron of her classes.

“History is everywhere. It’s all around. You don’t need to go to a specific designated place to see it.”

What other relics will Dr. Baron uncover during her tenure at Teachers College?

Dr. Baron earned a Ed. D in Social Studies Education at Boston University, a M.S.Ed. in Moderate Special Needs at Simmons College and B.A. in History and Secondary Education at Marist College. Before accepting the position at Teachers College, she was a Clinical Assistant Professor at Boston University.

Dr. Baron spends summers at her home on the North Shore of Boston where she is a sea kayak guide.