The Tufts Prison Symposium illuminated the role of education in the prison system. During the two-day program, former inmates described their interactions with correctional officers, clinicians, and educators. They advocated to end a dehumanizing system that perpetuates a hierarchy of power and hinders opportunity for both professional and educational advancement. In the final workshop, Tufts students’ reflected on their experiences tutoring at correctional facilities and their unique responsibility as educators.
Tutors described an educational approach that meets learners where they are, that cultivates a non-hierarchical relationship, that instills a sense of accomplishment, and that shares ownership over the learning process. Additionally, the tutors discussed the importance of valuing the whole learner and incorporating the learner’s experiences into the educational experience. They affirm that the learners’ ideas are valuable. For museum educators, their teaching experiences sounded extremely familiar. The tutors’ teaching methods parallel those in museums.
Emerging museum education philosophies advocate for shared-authority, encouraging learners to use prior experiences to derive personal meaning from the exhibited content. Gallery teaching focuses on skill development and relationship-building, rather than mastery of content. Teaching techniques such as Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) validate multiple perspectives and generate confidence. VTS uses images to inspire discussion and exploration; educators serve as facilitators, rather than content-providers. In this educational model, educators relinquish agendas and permit learners to direct the conversation.
VTS programs typically include a studio project, during which learners produce art that responds to the images they encountered. The art project serves as a tool to express both knowledge and experience. The general public rarely encounters inmates’ personal narratives. The three students who served on the panel recognized that the prison system purposefully segregates inmates from society, contributing to the dehumanization of prisoners. Museums have a responsibility to reflect the experiences of people in the community. The absence of inmates’ stories contributes to a dominant narrative that presents stories from the perspective of those in power.
Perhaps there is an overlooked opportunity for museums to partner with prisons. Such a partnership would provoke questions concerning complicity in the prison system and institutions of power, yet the initiative could create an educational environment that empowers the learner and expands the people we recognize as part of our community fabric.