nps2Have you heard the National Park Service (NPS) turns 100 next year? It’s a pretty big deal in my world since I’ve built my career around understanding how to provide transformative experiences through informal learning in national parks. I am passionate about national parks because they preserve the habitat of our heritage and hold the potential to inspire us to build a more just, global society.

As all careers do, mine contains some twists and turns, and somehow I’ve found myself increasingly embedded in the world of online learning. After working with an English professor on flipping her ENG 232 class, I realized that the two worlds of NPS learning and higher education learning aren’t all that different.

In 1991, when I began studying the impacts of NPS interpretation (a.k.a. informal education or free choice learning), park rangers were trained to develop themes, goals, and objectives for their programs and products. In a successful program, visitors would walk away with a takeaway message, typically a condensed version of the theme statement that supports the park’s management goals.

npsThat model isn’t any different than the sage on the stage model of teaching, which has pervaded higher education for a very long time. If the lecturer wasn’t wearing an NPS uniform and the chairs had desks for taking notes, this image could easily be from a university classroom instead of the Valley Forge visitor center.

As my research continued, I worked more and more with the NPS training community. I read about the shift museums were making to constructivism (e.g., George Hein, Eileen Hooper Greenhill, Lisa Roberts) and watched that shift impact the NPS. Interpretation in the NPS moved away from themes towards the cohesive development of a relevant idea. This approach emphasized that the relevance of a park visit or heritage site was connected to a visitor’s personal perspective. In our curriculum training discussions, trying to decipher the difference between a theme statement and the cohesive development of a relevant idea wasn’t always easy, but it was clear that the park ranger was moving away from center stage.

In 2007, Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams, and then Salman Khan, gave the sage a big push off the K-12 stage. Almost a decade later, many professors have started to leave the stage in order to become guides on the side. Not surprisingly, park rangers are doing the same. Increasingly, park resources offer opportunities for visitors to engage in meaningful conversations, not only with park rangers, but with resource experts.

nps3Professors and park rangers alike realize that learners need to be actively engaged in learning opportunities. Today’s NPS park rangers develop programs in terms of facilitated dialog and essential questions instead of takeaway messages. They’ve flipped the campfire talk from a passive listening experience to an opportunity for reflection and civic discourse.

Flipping a campfire talk has challenges. Like all informal educators, rangers can’t assign pre-visit work to their audiences. Instead, they develop effective social media strategies to touch base with visitors before they arrive. Most importantly, they use a variety of techniques to develop a shared, personally relevant experience for their audience while conveying the rich significance of the resources these national parks preserve.

All images via the National Park Service 

About The Author

Beth Barrie conducts research on the impact of National Park Service (NPS) interpretation and education. Her research interests brought her into the field of competency based training and online education when she embraced the role of instructional designer for an NPS interpretation and education curriculum revision team. The team designed a blended learning curriculum for the more than 70,000 people offering interpretation and education services in the national parks. Currently she is a Director of the UNLV Office of Online Education.