Ten Biggest Mistakes Organizations Make When Designing Classroom Materials

Almost all museums dedicate a corner of their website to “educator resources” and almost universally, these pages make me grit my teeth with frustration.

The instinct to provide K-12 educators with resources that they can use in their classrooms—regardless of whether or not they actually visit the physical space—is a good one. In fact, that instinct is one of the reasons why we founded Wondrus: to help museums and other mission-driven organizations share their wonders with the world through thoughtfully designed learning experiences that don’t require an in-person visit. Nothing excites me more than thinking about the possibility of a world where teachers can seamlessly and consistently leverage the assets of museums to deepen student understanding. And, as we’ve written about previously, we believe that becoming part of the fabric of classroom and family life is a key strategy for how museums and cultural institutions will stay relevant in the future.

Alas, the current state of educator resources is often aimless at best and harmful at worst. Truly becoming part of the classroom will take time and require innovative partnerships between museums, curricular providers, ed-tech companies, and school districts (in short, will require museums proactively enter the ecosystem of formal K-12 education). However, there is still relatively low-hanging fruit that museums can pick off in order to vastly improve the educator experience of using their resources and begin the process of building trust between museums and classroom teachers. Below are the ten most common mistakes we see organizations making in their efforts to design classroom materials.

10. Not standards-aligned. Most museum education teams understand that teachers are held accountable for teaching the state standards for their grade and subject area, so it’s rare that I see classroom materials from museums that are completely devoid of standards. In fact, the opposite often seems to be true: I routinely encounter museum teaching materials so chock-full of the different standards that they supposedly address, to the point that it raises major red flags. Experienced teachers understand that addressing just one learning standard is complex and designing materials that are truly aligned to a single standard takes time, experience, and a lot of thought. So, when teachers see lots of standards listed on materials, it’s an immediate signal that something isn’t right. There’s no “golden” rule about the number of standards any one activity or lesson plan can address, but whenever I see more than two, my personal warning bell starts ringing.

9. Claiming to address standards across multiple grades. The mistake mentioned above is about addressing too many standards within one grade. But an equally pervasive and more troubling trend I see is museum materials that claim to address standards across a wide span of grades. It doesn’t take a trained educator to understand that there is a big difference between a fourth grader and an eighth grader, so why do so many materials from museums claim to be suitable for both at the same time? When I see “Grades 4-8” or, worse, “Grades K-12” (yes! I see it all the time!) listed on lesson plans and activities, it’s a signal that the creators don’t understand the nuances of learning and children at those different levels and as a result, that I will have to do extra work to tune them for the particular ages in my classroom. Far better to focus on one grade—or, if you must, one grade-band—and really home in on addressing those standards appropriately. That way, even if a teacher in a younger or older grade wants to use it, they understand where they are starting from and can take measures to level it up or down.

8. Unclear use-case. This issue also often comes from an instinct to design materials that can be all things to all people. Whole-class 60-minute lesson plan? Yes. Five-week unit of study? Yes. 10-minute warm up activity? Yes. Student-managed asynchronous activity? Yes.

No. No. No. Please, no.

Materials that aren’t designed with a specific, ideal “story” in mind for how students and teachers will use them become diluted and hard to use, and it shows. Similar to trying to claim coverage of too many standards, a use-case that is vague or broad isn’t actually useful to anyone. When you design materials with a clear use-case in mind (i.e. “This is self-paced research project for 6th graders.”), you provide clarity. True, you are also designing something that won’t be immediately useful to, say, the teacher looking for a 12th-grade classroom activity, but by providing clarity, you allow those for whom it is not designed to make the smart decisions: “Maybe I shouldn’t use this,” or “This is a longer term research project designed for 6th grade and I’m a 12th-grade teacher looking for a classroom activity, so while this isn’t for me, I can use some of the texts included here for my struggling readers to differentiate my primary source activity.”

7. Not attending to social emotional learning. Social emotional learning is the process by which students learn to manage emotions, develop healthy identities, and achieve personal and collective goals. While a big part of a K-12 teacher’s role has always been to support social emotional learning, the last five years (especially 2020 and 2021 given the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on students) have seen a wide recognition that instructional materials like curriculum, books, and activities need to build in opportunities for students to practice and develop social emotional competencies such as self-awareness, self management, decision-making, relationship skills, and social awareness. Teachers increasingly look for and select materials that explicitly attend to the social emotional but too often, museum materials are missing it.

6. Not student-ready. Far too often, museum resources are more like directions for assembling a toy: frustratingly vague, requiring skills or tools you don’t have, and demanding an unreasonable amount of time for the payoff. If you’ve ever found yourself sitting on the floor at two in the morning on Christmas Eve, surrounded by nuts, bolts, and half of a glider bike, you’ll probably know what I mean.

Directions for assembling a child's bike.

Contrast this experience with that of the toy that arrives assembled. When Christmas Eve rolls around and all you need to do is lift it out of the box and set it under the tree. You don’t need special tools, skills, and most importantly, lots of time-- it’s just ready to go. Student-ready learning materials work the same way- they prioritize the learner experience by providing everything needed. The teacher doesn’t need to do heavy lifting in order to deliver or assign the materials- saving them time and mental energy. And, an added bonus of this approach is that it tends to smooth out some of the bumps in the learning process. For example, rather than a lesson plan that says, “Explain what carbon dating is,” a student-ready experience would provide a student-friendly definition in student-facing content (a set of slides, a short video, a handout, an article, even scripted talking points for the teacher). This ensures that students receive accurate, clear information and sets them up for success later in the learning.

5. Not teacher-ready. It follows that materials that aren’t student-ready are rarely teacher-ready. The flip side of the same coin, teacher-ready materials are those that allow a teacher to be their best self and eliminate the guess-work involved when selecting and using materials—from the practical (“How long should this part of the activity take?”) to the aspirational (“What might I do to support a student who is ready to go deeper?”) to the crucial (“What are the answers to the questions I’m asking?”).

4. Not customizable. Teachers rarely take something off-the-shelf and use it exactly as is. Adjusting and adapting lesson materials to suit the needs of their learners is not a sign that the materials aren’t well-designed; it’s a sign of a strong teacher who understands that each class has different needs and their job is to attend to those needs. The lesson to draw here isn’t that materials don’t matter since teachers will change them anyway. The opposite is true, in fact: the materials you create should provide the strongest possible foundation on which educators can iterate and adjust for the unique learners in their class. One of the best ways to support teachers in that practice and to signal that you understand and value their work is to provide materials in a format that makes such customization easier. Of course, the format should also support the intended use-case (see #8), but as a general rule, we steer our clients towards user-friendly, widely available tools (think: Google Slides and Documents) and away from bespoke, institution-specific platforms or unfriendly, “locked” formats (think: PDFs).

3. Unrealistic bite size. In most cases, when an educator turns to a museum for instructional materials, they’re looking for content in addition to the “core curriculum” that they’re responsible for teaching. It’s critical, therefore, that museum-created materials are realistic in this context. While there will always be the lucky teacher who is empowered by their district or school to make all instructional decisions, this is the exception and not the rule in most American schools today. (I’ll note here that this type of decision making power often increases at higher-grade levels and “non-core” subjects. So, high school art teachers are far more likely to have leeway than K-5 classroom teachers.) Museums who want to reach the vast majority of classrooms need to tailor their materials to work for teachers who have perhaps one 45-minute window every other month, or a 15-minute block of time to fill while students arrive in the morning. Too often, we see museums investing precious staff time in developing detailed, thoughtful plans for a five-week unit of study that is impractical and improbable for the average K-12 teacher. Close attention to use-case will also support keeping the guardrails on bite-size.

2. Lacking context or connective tissue. To be fair, this common mistake, along with my next and final one, is not necessarily an issue with the instructional materials, but rather the context in which they are situated—typically, as I mentioned, a tab or menu option on the website called “Educator resources” or “Classroom materials.” Helpful headings for browsing, but useless for any context.

Very often, these pages provide no guidance or support to teachers in understanding the purpose of the materials. This is particularly challenging when the use-case is not self-explanatory. For example, 3D renderings of objects are great, but how might a third-grade teacher use them? What about a 12th-grade teacher? Or are they really best for sixth-graders studying ancient civilizations? Interactive timelines and maps can help students gain valuable background knowledge and context for events they are studying in class, but what’s the best way to support them in navigating and connecting the material to the broader course objectives?

1. Hard to find what you’re looking for. While it’s not usually the case that educator resources are hard to locate on museum websites in general, it is true that once you start parsing those resources, finding what you, as a teacher of a specific subject with specific learners, need, can be a big challenge. One issue is organization – too often, there is no discernible organization or the organizing principle serves the institution (think: “Lesson plans related to our latest exhibit.”) and not the needs of a teacher (think: “How can I help my students understand a non-white experience of the Great Depression?” “I need to hook students before I start this new unit;” or “I need a worthwhile homework assignment!”). Another issue is consistency –with limited sign-posting to contextualize the materials and how to use them (see #2) and a wide range of material types and resources developed over the last few decades, navigating materials often becomes a “grab bag” where you’re never sure exactly what you will find. This depletes teacher goodwill before they even land on a resource. And of course, we can’t talk about this particular issue without mentioning that one of the biggest challenges to museums trying to reach classrooms is that they simply aren’t on teachers’ radars at all. One teacher I recently spoke with nicely summed up this challenge when he said, “Look, I love the idea of museum materials, but if I don’t know they’re there or, then they are no good to me.”

None of these issues are unsolvable and investing in solutions can open doors to classrooms- and impact- like never before.