Tuesday, December 6, 2016

21st Century Skills in the Wild



Everyday we encounter evidence of how the next generation’s success hinges on not only what they know, but also on their ability to think, act creatively, and connect with others. These are often referred to as 21st century skills and are necessary for navigating increasingly complex life and work environments and succeeding in work, life, and citizenship.

Museums are, in many ways, well positioned to cultivate 21st century skills. Rich learning environments with fascinating objects and filled with people, we create experiences to engage visitors’ interests, fire their curiosity, inspire creativity, and invite critical viewing. Furthermore, museums have mission-related interests in these skills as well as view themselves as offering learning value.

While these are critical attributes for cultivating 21st century skills in museum learners, they are, relatively speaking, the easier conditions to put in place. Just as some conditions for building skills must be present, others must not interfere. Alignment of our understanding of 21st century skills with learning and active, learner-centered experiences is critical to having the right conditions in place.     

What view of learners and learning informs the experiences we create? What sources of information shape our ideas of what these skills look like? How are we supporting the practice of these skills through self-directed learning in our informal learning environments? We might think about these questions from the perspectives of agency and emergent skills of competent learners.

Agency for Museum Learners 
Increasingly, I have been wondering how we actually view and provide for agency for learners in the museum experiences we create. In an earlier post I asked: How do museums create experiences that allow visitors to complete the experience by directing it and changing it? 

Agency is very much at the heart of that question. When we view museum visitors as curious, motivated to try an activity, making choices, and engaged in conversation, we recognize them as learners with agency. We see them as active in directing their learning, shaping their experience, and making sense of their world.

Agency may be intrinsic to learning, but it is not assured. In a recent blog post, early childhood educator Tom Bedard reflected on the agency children have and he has as a teacher in the classroom. Children’s agency, he observes, is intertwined with his agency as a teacher. Neither something he has nor children have, agency emerges in the space between the materials, the children, and him.

This is true for museums as well. In museums, valuing agency means leaving room in the experiences we create for learners, for multiple solutions and uses of resources we never imagined. Learners, as active agents, can make connections with each other that we have not planned for them; they can discover possibilities and construct pathways to new understandings that are relevant to them. Drawing on our creativity and imagination to create experiences, present objects, or set challenges for museum learners, we can encourage them to explore and develop skills with opportunities to make, think, question, and imagine.

Conversely, the experiences we create can circumscribe learners’ opportunities to practice and stretch the very skills we hope to encourage. By driving the process of creating learning experiences and feeling accountable to outcomes and funders, we risk limiting learners to our learning objectives and what we have conceptually constructed for them. Without realizing it, we may be inculcating our way of thinking in them or influencing them to think what we want them to think. In confining their agency, we also limit the related agency of the museum, its designers, educators, and interpreters.

We don’t know what sense visitors will make of their experiences and what they will take away. We need them and their agency, however. They engage and enrich our learning, learning that is essential to our increasing the value of the experiences we deliver. Ultimately, a museum learner’s meaning making empowers them and makes possible our realizing our goal to inspire life-long learning.  

Ideas about teaching and learning weave through the concept of agency. Learning actively serves the interests of agency as Loris Malaguzzi, co-creator of the Reggio philosophy, notes. He observes that, "… between learning and teaching, we honor the first. It is not that we ostracize teaching, but we tell it, ‘Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.’” A recent museum blog post, on the other hand, illustrates how teaching steps in before learning, “Every educator is in a position to teach students how to gather information, evaluate it, screen out distractions and think for themselves.”

When we insist on teaching skills rather than observing and understanding them and when we direct activities rather than trust learners’ capabilities, we eclipse agency.

Finding Skills In The Wild
I once heard Blake Ward, Museums Program Manager at Minnesota Children’s Museum, observe that 21st century skills are skills children have naturally and in abundance; I was delighted. We tend to think we’ve discovered skills and abilities when, in fact, we are overlooking their ample presence in children as well as in youth and adults. It’s as if valuable skills aren’t present unless we have decided they exist. In deciding to focus on particular skills we assume we are fostering them; we think we are directing them. We may be curtailing them.

Where do we get our idea of what the 21st century skills are and what they look like? The multiple taxonomies of 21st century skills are geared to skills that “students” need, “student outcomes,” and the context of school settings geared to measurement and testing. If we are interested in cultivating skills sturdy enough to meet the challenges of our rapidly changing century, we can’t limit ourselves to skills contained in classroom activities or museum exhibits.

Rather, we need to look into places and situations that share a high correspondence with the real world where these skills are applied, tested, and truly matter. Because our goal is for people to succeed in life, not get better at museum exhibits, we need to understand skills in contexts with varied materials, shifting conditions, human interactions, and real-life consequences.

What do versions of 21st century skills that are meaningful to museum learners–from babies to elders–look like? Beyond the museum walls are myriads of real life experiences, activities, and contexts in which people think critically, respond with empathy, communicate clearly, and collaborate with others. If we focus on people engaged by their choice, guiding their own experiences, using their selected strategies, and making their own decisions, we can both grow and refine our sense of what these skills are. We will have greater clarity about what they look like in work and life situations if we observe them in the wild.

Imagine how we might deepen our understanding of 21st century–and other valued–skills by following learners as they hike, trim tree branches, fix a bike, or prepare a meal. What 21st century skills are at play as someone throws a pot, builds a fort, repairs a broken zipper, starts a fire, or learns to juggle? When someone plays a guitar, figures out a bus route, coaches a co-worker, or plays with the wind at the shore.

Focusing on these everyday moments we will undoubtedly glimpse learners’ existing capabilities and appreciate the emergent skills they possess and are honing. We may discern a prior question they are exploring or something that matters to them. Given thoughtful attention, we may notice how learners approach a situation, perhaps back up and rethink a step. We may discover some of the ways they enlist the help of others, adapt tools and materials to suit their purpose, and how they come up with ideas or moves we have not seen nor imagined. Their faces, gestures, and words will give us greater insights about the role agency plays and how feelings of accomplishment empower. As we further reflect, we can imagine how these behaviors and those strategies could be applied in other situations, in museum exhibits and programs. We can begin to envision museum experiences that are responsive to the learner’s agency and support skills that correspond to real life situations and many contexts.

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If we are serious about cultivating 21st century skills–or any other skills, for that matter–in museum learners, we need to value agency as well as the capacity of experiences to support it. We are going to be in the 21st century for a very long time. We need to do our part to ensure museum learners experience agency and want more.

Photo credit: NASA

Monday, November 21, 2016

Gratitude 2016: The Value of “And”





"Poetic thought does not separate the imaginative from the cognitive, emotion from the rational, empathy from deep investigation. It lights up all the senses and perceptions and cultivates an intense relationship with what is all around us.  It constructs thoughts that are not conformist. And this creates two important elements: solidarity and participation, both of which are the foundation of democracy."  
Vea Vecchi

Last week the above quote arrived in an email from the Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota announcing the study group’s next book. (Thank you very much, Lani.) Art and Creativity in Reggio Emilia is by Vea Vecchi, one of the original, and much revered, atelieristas of the schools in Reggio.

I was drawn to this brief quote, reading it once, then twice, and then for a third time. My thinking is reliably lifted and moved by something from Vea. Then the opening, “Poetic thought,…” brought to mind how the Poetry and Precision of the language of Reggio inspires and challenges me. On the third reading, the phrase, does not separate, leapt out. Working on connection in knowledge, being and becoming, it opens possibilities we don’t often explore, shining a light on the value of and.

With Vea’s invitation, we remove the limits on imagination and the cognitive working together to express, create, and innovate. We free emotion and the rational to engage and build new understanding and insight. We step back to allow empathy and deep investigation to reveal and guide choices and decisions. We are not restricted to either one–emotion–or the other–the rational in exploring and unfolding our ideas and our potential.

Grammatically, and is a conjunction that connects words, sentences, phrases, or clauses. A cognitive tool, it creates new combinations, balances incompatibilities, links unlikely pairs, and juxtaposes apparent opposites. Doing and knowing; play and learning; the individual and the group; big and small; idealist and realist; nice and necessary; past, present and future.

Science and humanities opens a third door for exploring, uncovering new insights about science, and solving complex problems. An interdisciplinary philosophy like that of the Exploratorium’s science and humanities and human perception brims with and.   

The relationships museums value and cultivate with their stakeholders, members, friends, and partners, rest solidly on a belief in the power of and. Museums and their partners take on big projects that can strengthen families and help communities manage, if not solve, community challenges.

Vital to building bridges among people and creating cohesion, and connects people inside and outside of our institutions, bringing them together, sharing and co-creating. In times of dramatic or uneasy change, like now, and helps rewrite the conversation of conflict, politics, and exclusion. It advances “solidarity and participation” which Vea writes about, as "the foundation of democracy."

Resilience for individuals, institutions, and communities relies on surviving, adapting and thriving in the face of social, economic, and physical challenges. To navigate these challenges we need to manage competing demands: conserve and grow; oil and water; certainty and uncertainty. And assists us in pushing beyond the apparent limits of knowing, thinking, doing, risking.

A good use of and is not just a longer string of ands. Rather, it reveals (unseen) connections, recognizes complexity, awakens possibilities, crosses boundaries, and alerts us to promising overlaps. And brings elasticity to our thinking and makes our world richer. It is collaborative, inclusive, reciprocal, and expansive.

And for all of this, and more, I am grateful.


Monday, November 7, 2016

When Play’s the Thing ... 27+ Things You Can Be Doing at Your Museum


The Beach at The National Building Museum (Photo: Noah Kalina)

Museums are among the few public institutions where play is not only tolerated, but is encouraged. Play has a presence across museums and it is not strictly for children. At The Strong, National Museum of Play, it is the focus of the entire museum. Sometimes the topic of an exhibit, or a strategy for exploration in programs, play might also be the inspiration for reimagining exhibit experiences as the National Building Museum did at The Beach. Games are used to enhance learning in museums just as role-play is used to bring history to life. Science museum exhibits are designed to create playful learning experiences. Increasingly, museums are adding nature play experiences as the Museum of Life and Science has with Hideaway Woods. Play is sometimes a question explored as it was at a Toledo Museum of Art installation.

Concern with learning, well-being, and 21st century skills has given a boost across museums to better understanding how play intersects with creativity, language development, learning, health, and social-emotional development. Not surprisingly, this positions play as a driving idea in many museum learning frameworks.

But how do we understand play? As pervasive as it is, understanding play is no simple matter. Play is complex and multi-faceted with multiple theories of play, various play taxonomies, and different types of play. Because it is familiar and we already know about it, we often assume that play is self-explanatory. Play is at the intersection of multiple disciplines but not an established academic discipline itself; it is unlikely that staff with degrees in play studies will guide a museum’s exploration of play. Yet, like any cornerstone idea for any museum, having a shared understanding of play is invaluable.

Are you and your museum grounded in play? What aspects of play are important at your museum? What is its role in the museum? How does it relate to other priorities and how does it contribute value? Answering these questions is not quick and easy, nor is digging deeper to be more grounded in an understanding of play. There are, however, ways to go about answering them. 

Get started by jumping in anywhere in the activities below. Proceed in no particular order.
  1. Play. Play yourself. Play with blocks, bubbles, pieces of fabric, sticks, large pieces of fabric, cardboard boxes, tape, stones.  
  2. Read about play: articles, journals, blogs, reports, and books.  
  3. Invite and collect childhood play memories from staff and board.
  4. Compile collected play memories, combing through them for threads and themes. Incorporate
    What are staff play memories?
    some into the annual report, the museum’s website, grant proposals.
  5. Develop a definition of play for your museum with your colleagues.
  6. Compare your museum’s definition of play with those from 2-3 other museums.
  7. Gather 5 definitions of play from researchers and theorists.
  8. Add more loose parts to exhibits, programs, outdoor spaces, increasing the variety and quantity.
  9. Think about and explain how those loose parts will inspire and extend play; incorporate these ideas into staff training.
  10. Hire people who are OK with loose parts that are varied and that migrate among exhibits.
  11. Observe play in your museum: families at play, couples at play, children at play.
  12. Record observations about play in your museum. What kinds of play are you seeing? What does it look like? 
  13. How do families play together?

  14. From your observations, identify 3 examples of how visitors appear to be learning through play.
  15. Talk with other staff about play. How does it look in different exhibits; among children of different ages, for children with different needs and abilities; for teens and adults?
  16. Practice distinguishing among different types of play: dramatic play, constructive play, exploratory play.
  17. Carefully read graphic panels in your galleries. What do they convey about the museum's interest 
    in play? 
  18. Dig into the differences among pretend play, imaginative play, and dramatic play. Are there any? Is one better suited to your museum? Why?
  19. Observe play in different settings outside the museum: on playgrounds, in parks, in stores, on street corners, and in natural settings.
  20. Talk with parents about play: how do they see their child’s activity at the museum in relation to play? How do they see their role in facilitating it? How do they see play connecting with learning?
  21. Talk with teens and with adults about play and how they see themselves playing.
    Play with staff (Photo credit: Fantastic Norway)

  22. Develop a perspective on games and gaming for your museum.
  23. Look at other “big ideas” at your museum like early literacy, creativity, inquiry, making, learning, exploring, executive function, etc. How does play connect with them? Draw, map, or explain the connections.
  24. Develop 3 questions you want to know more about play. Figure out how to go about answering them.
  25. Develop a perspective on the role of adults in children’s play at your museum.
  26. Locate responsibility for play in position descriptions.
  27. Set up play training for museum staff–all museum staff.
  28. Sign up for play training for yourself.
  29. Search for play taxonomies: Bob Hughes, Corinne Hutt, Mildred Parten, Dr. StuartBrown.
  30. Develop a logic model for play and its outcomes at your museum. 
  31. Play. Play with staff. 



Thursday, October 27, 2016

Taking Stock of Stakeholders


Photo credit: FreePik


In virtually every museum planning workshop I’m involved in these days, phrases like, ... collaboration is in our DNA, ... with our long-term strategic partners, ... connecting with diverse communities, and ... community engagement are part of the discussion and they are plentiful.

Whether in strategic planning, master planning, education planning, or transition planning for a museum starting up, expanding, or reinventing itself, words and phrases referencing stakeholders seem to have a noticeably higher profile. From one planning session to another, the particular community context and specific partners’ names do change. In some museums stakeholders are clearly identified and in others, actual recognition of groups as stakeholders has not yet come into full focus. Museums, however, are not only talking about their stakeholder more, but they are integrating them into planning more. 

Stakeholders are the people, groups, constituencies, and institutions who are likely to affect or be affected by a museum, its vision, plans, or projects; who invest in the museum and in whom the museum invests.

Every museum has stakeholders whether or not it recognizes them, serves them well, or engages them effectively. From my experience, museums’ awareness of and value on their stakeholders seems to be expanding. I sense a move from a rather generic view of undifferentiated groups as “the community” to a view of invested stakeholders deserving a more prominent and intentional role in partnership with the museum. With this shift, the likelihood of groups, individuals, and constituencies actually playing a more active and influential role in the life of the museum also increases.   

Several factors seem to be converging to give stakeholders greater prominence in museums’ planning and work. Museums are responding to voices inside and outside that view them as having a responsibility to serve their community fully. The expectation is of increasing access to resources and to the social benefits that help create a stronger community.


Viewing its position in and responsibility towards its community in new ways expands a museum’s perspective on relating to its stakeholders. No longer satisfied with casual connections, a museum looks to cultivating sustainable relationships with stakeholders that are long term, mutually satisfying, and negotiated. They recognize the assets of families, museum neighbors, school partners, members, and underrepresented communities, and marginalized groups.

These shifts generate new questions about what authentic engagement is from the stakeholder's perspective; new ways the museum might afford informal interactions around meeting others and learning; and the nature of connections built out into the community. A museum becomes more attuned to common interests, building a sense of shared identity around those interests, and framing mutually satisfying goals. These steps inevitably uncover new opportunities to bring groups and individuals into processes earlier, whether planning a new museum, developing an exhibition plan, or creating a community-based learning framework. Some tools and processes for engaging stakeholders explored in past Museum Notes focus on this work.

Stakeholder Mapping. Museums have and need stakeholders to accomplish their goals and serve their communities well. Stakeholder mapping is one tool that assists museums in knowing and understanding the individuals and groups who share and influence their interests.

StakeholderEngagement AuditMuseums can’t do well for themselves or their communities without investing in their stakeholders. A stakeholder engagement audit can convey how large and active the museum’s stakeholder base is; point to new stakeholder groups and ways to strengthen relationships with them; and reveal stakeholder activities that are not relevant.

Stakeholders +Engagement. Authentic engagement has the potential to add another meaning to “friending" the museum. Expectations are high for engagement that is frequent, accessible, customized, and satisfying. Every museum should have multiple answers to, “what are meaningful ways to engage our stakeholder groups?”

Significant work still needs to be done to further develop these and other tools and processes for engaging the diverse stakeholders every museum hopes to serve in meaningful ways. Preparation for engaging stakeholders necessarily starts long before a museum plans a program, holds an event, crafts its messages, or greets its friends at the door and continues long after a visit, an encounter, or a connection.