Photo credit: Vergeront
Rebecca Shulman, Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum’s Director, shared their newly completed learning framework with me recently. She also mentioned how the museum has been able to reinvent what it does in a timeframe that would have previously been unimaginable. In reviewing their at-home offerings and aligning them with their framework, Rebecca wrote, the “Framework has been invaluable.”
In a time that is in great motion, museums of every size and type have had to be resourceful, courageous, and nimble. These qualities are being tested again and again, month after month as museums move from closing, to planning, re-opening, to rebuilding and recovery.
Perhaps unaware at the time, museums have been preparing for times like this. They have developed foundational documents like strategic plans to guide long-term thinking; grown staff capacity, fostered relationships and goodwill with the community and partners, and deepened understanding of their potential to do well and to do good. In responding to new and unexpected opportunities and learning from successes and missteps, museums have been preparing for moments like this by investing in themselves.
Whether a museum is in a quiet phase, planning to re-open, thinking about rebuilding—or all of these at once—the challenge is not just getting through this time, but navigating well and coming through the pandemic crisis stronger and more essential than ever.
Learning Frameworks for a Time Like This
Those investments, the strategic plan, facility plan, marketing plan, staff development plan, and the learning framework are valuable resources for the process of uncovering the museum’s next and better version of itself.
A learning framework transforms a museum’s instincts about learners, learning, and its learning experiences into a set of shared understandings that can be acted on in a collaborative way and over time.
If a learning framework hasn’t seen much use, it’s time to get reacquainted. Why? Because here is a working tool grounded in a museum’s vision, mission, and values; focused on learning experiences; and intent on building learning value. As a kind of magnetic north for a museum’s learning interests, it is essential for staying true to the core purpose and pedagogy, serving audiences, and being agile in adapting to new situations, challenges, and opportunities.
Even if a framework has enjoyed active use, the context in which it is now being applied is in flux. These shifts are also openings for where the museum can be active, responsive, and innovative. Moreover, these frameworks by their nature have some attributes that make them especially helpful at times like this. They:
· Distill what is most important about a museum’s learning experiences
|Photo credit: Capital Group|
· Are both firm and flexible
· Keep the learner at the center
· Help in reimagining what’s possible
· Are tools for learning
Frameworks distill what is most important about a museum’s learning experiences; they serve as an anchor in times of change.
A learning framework articulates a museum’s foundational ideas about how children and adults engage and learn in the museum’s experiences within its spaces, online, and at other locations. By highlighting its view of learning* and connecting with theory and research in its learning principles*, a framework helps a museum stay true to what is core and where it believes it can be effective.
This is helpful because, when a museum closes temporarily, rethinks its experiential offerings, or serves new visitors in new ways, a firm connection to what’s core is critical. That connection also allows it to build on its strengths; use time, money, and staff expertise wisely; and be nimble.
If a museum is reaching its audience at home on social media, through distributed play packs, or at the re-opened museum; if learners are alone, in a camp, or in a family group, a framework can be helpful in exploring and thinking about what is central to the museum’s learning experiences. For instance:
- The nature of the expectations that learners have for these new learning experience encounters
- How the museum’s learning experiences are much more than just the activities it presents
- What aspects of its view of learning are especially relevant to engaging learners in contexts such as the at-home museum or post-COVID museum environments
- How it might promote social-emotional learning and contribute to a sense of well-being and security during an uncertain and difficult time
Frameworks are both firm and flexible; they provide focus, adapt to various contexts, and offer relevant choices.
A framework makes a museum’s critical elements of learning experiences, their functions, and the relationships among them clearer and visible. Shared and fairly stable over time, a framework allows a museum to revisit and thoughtfully explore these elements and the many possible ways they might come together in learning experiences for families, school groups, or toddlers. Yet, a framework is not prescriptive; it allows for interpretation and adapting to various conditions and groups.
This is helpful because, when conditions change—as they have recently—when new needs become visible, and when priorities shift, a museum can have confidence in the tested elements and ideas it is working with while using them in new circumstances.
In developing on-line programs, a museum may adapt an existing program, develop a new one, import another museum’s activities, or do all three. For any of these, its framework helps maintain a focus on its primary interests, its learners, and areas of expertise considering the context of a new situation. A museum might find it’s helpful to reflect on and explore:
- Where it has a solid track record related to particular audience or age groups; experiences in indoor or outdoor settings; facilitation strategies; or particular content or skills
- How it can adapt and update past camps for a new format, settings, and expectations
- How social media and digital learning fit into its framework and how it understands its learning experiences. Is digital learning a long-term learning experience platform* like exhibits and environments or community engagement? Is it a short-term, on-line programmatic strategy?
Frameworks keep the learner at the center; they focus on individuals engaged in the process of learning
How a museum views its learners—whether they are children, adults, parents, caregivers, educators, experts, or staff—influences how it shapes experiences for them. A view of the museum’s learners* gives priority to the characteristics of learners that a museum intends to engage and support through varied experiences on site, on line, or across the community. One museum may view its learners as active, inquisitive, and caring; another may view its learners as empathetic, thoughtful, and social.
The learner at the center of the framework is important because, what is at the center is valued. Placing the learner there places their capabilities, potentials, and interests at the heart of learning experience planning. And while a museum’s view of its learners is unlikely to change with a shifting context, those qualities might assume new meaning, be expressed differently, or be engaged differently.
Planning for program participants or virtual visitors as learners who are often reflective, curious, or social invites a museum to think about how to engage and support those qualities in at-home surroundings or in a re-designed post-COVID museum. In the context of its learning framework, a museum might explore:
- How being curious is expressed in a familiar environment (home) rather than unfamiliar environment (the museum); how being active as a learner at home varies from being active as a learner at the museum; ways of supporting learners being social while maintaining social distancing at the museum
- How it can support the learner’s agency when it is engaging them remotely in multiple at-home museum environments
- Ways to engage communication skills, research skills, organizational skills, and critical thinking skills in real-world, real-life contexts
Frameworks connect. They connect ideas; help connect learners with ideas, with the museum, and to the world.
In effect, learning frameworks deconstruct and re-construct a museum’s learning experiences in order to create learning connections. They identify and clarify major elements about learning experiences at the museum and highlight how these elements relate and work together to create rich, layered experiences for a wide range of learners across varied settings. Working with connections articulated in the framework, helps in engaging the learner and their interests. It facilitates connections with previous experiences and lays the groundwork for future connections.
This is helpful, especially now, as museums seek ways to reach out, connect with, and support their learners. In a time of social distancing, museums search for ways to promote social interaction. At a time when people are limiting their community activities, museums are looking for ways for people to meet, connect, and enjoy positive interactions. And at a time when museums are engaging their learners remotely, they are looking for ways their learners can make meaningful connections with personal interests, content, materials, and other activities.
As a museum reaches out, connects with its learners virtually, and tries to strengthen relationships with them, it might think about:
- What it already knows about extending learner engagement in the museum setting that can inform at-home museum experiences; how making drawings, photos, or videos and uploading them helps support connections
- How a family or siblings of multiple ages might get into the act and work together creatively and collaboratively
- In what ways experiences can help learners feel closer to their neighborhood, community, and to the museum
|Photo credit: Vergeront|
The physical environment is an essential dimension of the learning experiences museums create. The settings where exhibits, programs, co-created projects, and art installations take place allow museums to deliver learning value in ways distinct from other formal and informal learning settings. The pandemic’s wide-ranging impact on museum experiences has dramatically changed the museum’s primary place and engagement strategies*. The same, tried-and-true ways of developing and presenting learning experiences and spaces will not work as they have until only
recently. But these shifts are also opportunities for the museum to expand its thinking about environments and experiences.
This is helpful because a museum’s framework and repertoire of learning experiences are sources of creative thinking especially when old ways don’t work and nimbleness is needed. A wider range of learning experiences surfaces new insights, makes them more accessible and capable of being added to a fresh mix.
With a shift to virtual, low-contact or no contact spaces, appearing in living rooms across a city or region, the museum environment is experiencing dramatic change. More than ever, museums need to think about spaces, their features and affordances and explore questions as basic as, what is an on-line learning environment? And think about:
- Aspects of at-home learning settings that serve museum learners well: over which conditions in these settings a museum has, or doesn’t have, control; how various conditions support or interfere with exploration; how at-home museum activities can work together and build on one another to extend interest and build impact
- Whether virtual experiences are a new learning experience platform like exhibits or programs and should be developed as such or are an on-line format of museum programs
- Repurposing outdoor spaces to serve as learning experience platforms: the park next door or the big, relatively empty parking lot
- Putting the neighborhood in play or the city itself as a platform for a series of choreographed learning experiences
Frameworks are tools for learning; they are friendly to thinking, learning, and an experimental mindset.
Learning frameworks are multi-purpose tools that help in making choices, planning experiences, enhancing activities, setting goals, and evaluating impacts*. They help a museum understand where it is, where it can go, and what it is learning along the way. Regardless of how long a museum is closed, goes virtual, or re-opens with COVID adaptations, the learning experiences from this time period are now a part of who a museum is and is becoming.
This is important because, not only do frameworks support learning for visitors, they also support learning for the museum. Lessons and insights from these times emerge from what it has learned from its learners and what it has learned about itself; from insights and lessons it is aware of and from those that are not yet visible.
A museum that can ask itself new questions generates new inputs into its thinking and expands its understanding of possible new ways to support learning. Questions might not be resolved in short-order, nor ever be addressed fully. Discussions and related practice, however, can create movement and set the museum’s sights ahead. Questions, big and small, near and far may include:
- What is the museum talking about with and learning from its visitors now? What can it learn from learners’ perceptions of this time and its meaning for them?
- How is the museum bringing an equity, diversity, and inclusion lens to its new work?
- How can it benchmark programs and learning experiences for this period or phase? How does it intend to evaluate these new programs? Determine what a full schedule of virtual offerings looks like; and count participation/participants?
- How is the museum preparing now to look back and understand this time from the future? What traces or documentation is it collecting to be able to look back and reflect?
- What must the museum need to know to plan for what’s next?
Even if a museum is without a formal learning framework, it can explore these questions and situations in developing and designing, or redeveloping and redesigning, learning experiences. And, while it may not seem to be the optimal time to develop a learning framework, it could be if a team of staff is not actively engaged during shutdown. Museum Notes learning framework resources follow.
* Denotes some of the typical elements of learning frameworks