Monday, February 13, 2017

Museums as Learners

Photo: Bethlehem Museum of the Mind

“We are a learning organization.” I’ve come across that statement in countless strategic plans and learning frameworks. Executive Directors often describe their museum in this way in recruiting new staff or updating the board. This phrase appears in countless capacity building grants too. While pleased by this statement, I am also curious about what a museum means and how it acts on that pledge.

All organizations learn; some are more intentional and strategic in learning and in channeling knowledge into being a better organization. How is your museum as a learner?

In The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization MIT professor Peter Senge describes 5 characteristics, or disciplines, that need to work together as an ensemble for building companies into learning organizations. A prominent management fad in the early 1990’s, approaches to learning organizations have spread to other enterprises and have been updated. Related ideas have emerged as learning cities, learning communities, communities of practice, and learning circles.

Business management trends may come and go, but learning as a long-term interest persists in and defines museums. At all stages of their development and regardless of size, museums promote life-long learning for visitors, generate new knowledge through research, share and learn from peers and partners, and develop new skills and strategies for navigating a complex, dynamic environment. How are museums able to do well for themselves and for their visitors and communities without being learners themselves?

David A. Garvin and Amy Edmonson, professors at Harvard Business School, note that learning organizations are skilled at two things. They are skilled at creating, acquiring, interpreting, transferring, and retaining knowledge. They also act purposefully, modifying their behavior in response to new knowledge and insights they’ve acquired. Within a learning organization, 3 conditions must be present: specific practices that support learning processes; an environment that encourages learning; and leadership that values learning.

What kind of place is your museum for organizational learning and cultural? Is your museum a place that learns continuously and strategically? That integrates learning into its work? That responds to change and challenge by learning together? Is your museum’s leadership continually looking for opportunities to learn? Does learning cross team and department boundaries and create a sense of community?

Some guiding questions and related examples may provide useful pieces for advancing your museum as a learning organization.

Does your museum have a learning agenda?  A learning agenda designates and communicates areas that are a priority for the entire museum and that overlay professional development topics for a department or team. Learning areas might be community engagement, adult learning, play, green practices, social media, or inclusion. The focus may emerge from the strategic plan, the learning framework, collaborations, weak organizational performance, or a city issue.

A collective commitment that could stretch over months or a year, a learning agenda may seek to deepen current knowledge, build a shared understanding in an area of emerging importance, or develop new skills. Besides providing clarity and direction, having a learning agenda demonstrates that staff, trustee, and volunteer learning is valued by and valuable to the museum.

For instance...
• A museum that included being a learning organization in its commitment statements in its planning framework also identified 4 related commitments: evidence-based practice, many kinds of teachers, knowledge shared with others; and revisiting and challenging assumptions. 

• In reporting on his trip to Berlin with Hüttinger Interactive Exhibits (Nürmberg, Germany) Paul Orselli described the coordinated staff training and learning excursion he participated in and how he saw it expressing a commitment to staff learning and capacity. 

What supports for organizational learning are in place? A selected topic can be explored in various ways. A museum may commission a study of best practices, form study groups, develop a training program and schedule, or form a task force. It may identify a question to study together as a staff: how has community engagement changed us as an institution? Or what does it mean to be a thought leader? Whatever the approach–and often multiple approaches are selected–dialogue and inquiry flow through the process.

Regardless of particular methods, it is critical to allocate time in schedules; span teams, departments, and hierarchies;designate shared practices; and introduce systems to capture and share knowledge. Without tangible and intangible supports for constructing knowledge collaboratively, organizational learning is a struggle.  

For instance...
• In active practice, a team member brings an activity or program to engage the group in discussing how it supports an innovation strategy, engages participants, or supports family learning. With the group’s input, the activity is aligned and strengthened.

• Minnesota Children’s Museum has a Video Volunteer who is responsible for capturing museum staff development efforts through digital video and sound. Videos are for training new staff members on museum philosophies and practices.

• Inspired by Reggio pedagogy and guided by research agendas and learning frameworks, museums including the Exploratorium, Providence Children’s Museum, Columbus Art Museum, and Portland Children's Museum (OR) are following practices for making learning visible.

How do you make new knowledge into institutional knowledge? Everyday, each of us has numerous opportunities to rethink, learn, and discover some piece of information, assumption, or idea. Some encounters are incidental and some are central to a museum’s learning interests. We learn about a membership structure a museum is implementing, hear about a study on curiosity, go to a workshop on inclusion, or read the task force’s report on digital technologies.

For organizational learning to make a difference, a museum needs practices for sharing information, reflecting on and consolidating new knowledge, determining the relevance of information, and getting information and ideas to stick. With time and dedicated practice a museum will develop its own approach to learning as a group.   

For instance...
• Lisa Marcinkowski June describes in her 2013 post, Is Your Museum a LearningOrganization?," a process similar to After Action Reviews from the U.S. Army that captures the lessons learned from past successes and failures, with the goal of improving future performance. The exercise uses 4 questions: What did we set out to do? What actually happened? Why did it happen? What are we going to do next time?

• Recognizing that all museum staff and volunteers interact with visitors in some way, The Wild Center has developed a set of training opportunities so all staff and volunteers have a shared language and understanding of The Center’s interpretive practices.

How do you use new knowledge to create change? Putting new knowledge to work to make a difference is a critical moment in emerging from a one-time learning project to creating an on-going learning culture. At this point, a museum starts to use data to inform decision-making. It discovers whether its strategies are, in fact, able to move performance indicators, and whether its feedback loops relay meaningful information to the necessary people.

Throughout the process, a museum also needs to be open to stumbling on and capturing unexpected  connections and insights which may be as, or more, valuable than intended outcomes. Before hitting the pause button on a project, a museum needs to ask what it will do differently as a result of this work and what it has learned from this learning project to improve the next.

For instance...
• After implementing the museum-wide training program, The Wild Center saw an increase in membership, an improved visitor satisfaction, and fewer visitors reporting they did not interact with staff. Results have been sustained and improved over 5 years. 


Along with along with the signature, position, organization, telephone numbers, fax, and address on an email I received recently from an executive director, was, “I am currently reading The Lean Start Up by Eric Ries. What book or journal would you include that you are reading? What book would your colleagues name?  

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Snow Shoveling as Community Building

In Minnesota, we take our snow shoveling seriously. It’s not just the annual average of 45 inches of snow in Minneapolis or the occasional snowstorm like the great 1991 Halloween blizzard that dropped 31 inches on the Twin Cities. We have an average of 100 days each year with at least 1 inch of snow on the ground; and that’s just the “southern” part of the state. Prepared with a muscular snow blower, a collection of shovels, ice choppers, and supplies of sand and de-icer, snow shoveling goes beyond removing ice and snow from sidewalks and steps. Snow shoveling is community building across neighborhoods in cities and towns.

On my residential street 2 miles from downtown Minneapolis, snow shoveling goes something like this. Our renter shovels our walks and steps while I shovel the walk and steps for our 85 year-old neighbor, Lily. This includes clearing a short path between our houses for Amanda the postal carrier to use; she always makes time for a quick, friendly chat with Lily that is reassuring to all of us. Several neighbors take turns shoveling the steps and walk of a neighbor, now in assisted living, making it easier for her daughter who’s away at school and for the mail carrier to navigate. The neighbor across the alley clears in front of our garages. Lads from a group home down the street clear sidewalks on both sides of the street with a snow blower; being good neighbors is one of the house rules. At least once each winter, they receive a gift of cookies from an appreciative neighbor.

So the sidewalks get cleared for all of us including dog walkers from surrounding streets. The postal carrier has an easier time getting through in snow, wind and sleet. Lily is checked on. And the lads make a contribution appreciated by many.

This is not just on my street. Friends in other parts of the Twin Cities share similar versions of snow shoveling as community building on their streets. I have no doubt that variations on our cold weather community building exist in cities, towns, and neighborhoods across the country. Very likely they are also small, personal, and very daily gestures. Yet, taken together they take care of people, create connections, and contribute to cohesion and community. 

Could snow shoveling as a metaphor for community building extend to museums, libraries, arts organizations, and other community resources?

The neighborhood might be the sidewalk around the museum; the block, cultural corridor or warehouse district where the museum is located; the west side, uptown, old town, north loop, or urban landscape that resonates for the museum. Neighbors might be in the houses or apartments across the street or around the corner. They might be regular or occasional passersby, friendly and familiar strangers waiting for the bus, dog walkers, storeowners, or shoppers returning from the market. Staff and residents at a nearby restaurant or shelter, the mail carrier, office workers, museum vendors, or the chatty barista around the corner are neighbors that introduce vitality and potential connections daily to the museum neighborhood to foster social well being.  

Good Partners and Good Neighbors
In addition to engaging in many intentional partnerships, collaborations, and networks, museums can also be valued neighbors. They can generate goodwill and strengthen community in multiple small, informal, spontaneous interactions right outside their doors, down the street, and around the corner. From the cashier to the facilities manager, from the groundskeeper to educators and director, museum staff and volunteers can make the most of even brief encounters by being friendly, building relationships, going a little out of the way, sharing, acting on good intentions, and playing good will forward. 

Be friendly. A visible, friendly presence towards neighbors and regular passersby is reassuring and welcoming. Wave and nod to them. Introduce yourself. Learn names and, when you can, greet others by name. When possible introduce one neighbor to another. Gradually you’ll get to know who they are, what they do, their interests, and their connection to the community.  

Connect and build relationships. Casual interactions offer possible connection with another person. A connection may begin in a nod, a smile, a hello, or a few words. Following-up and building on previous, even if brief, conversations, build relationships with people, a place, and ideas–the foundation for relationships that are critical for a sense of safety, trust, and understanding.

Go a little out of your way. Make a bit of extra time to be helpful. Watch children crossing the street, stop in at the local market or restaurant, or attend the annual National Night Out block party. Keep an eye out for the older couple on their daily stroll. Staff out for a walk over the lunch hour can pick up trash to make the museum and the neighborhood look better. Being proactively helpful speaks volumes.

Share. Sharing, whether space, expertise, or connections, matters. And it goes in both directions. A resident’s local knowledge about the neighborhood’s history can be fascinating and helpful to the museum in building and deepening its understanding of the community. Share produce from your garden, let the neighborhood association meet at the museum, or loan your snow shovel.

Act on good intentions. Don’t just think about engaging the community in the life of the museum. Invite familiar faces and new acquaintances to participate and join in actively. Listen to new friends as part of a focus group, benefit new perspectives during prototyping, or bring neighbors together to contribute to a project. Thank them heartily for their participation. And invite them back.

Play it forward. If someone picks up on your wondering about community artists, return the favor of helpful information. The museum’s expertise in social media or green practices could be valuable to a small non-profit or a group of neighborhood artists. Add books to the Little Free Library down the street or set one up in front of your museum, filling it with books and engaging with those who take and leave books.

Neighborly shoveling doesn’t replace the need for each person to clear walks or for snowplows to clear streets and alleys. Similarly, small acts of community building do not replace well-planned partnerships and collaborations. In both cases, being a good neighbor fosters connections and good will in ways other activities can not.

Start with thinking and talking about what being a good neighbor means for your museum, in your neighborhood, and how you can be helpful. Appreciate both the tangible and intangible benefits that emerge from daily interactions, concern for familiar faces, and a welcoming presence. Small gestures can change the way people relate to each other; enrich museum perspectives; build bridges between people unlikely to meet otherwise; advance local and specific neighborhood needs and interests; and infuse a culture of welcome, inclusion, and belonging throughout your museum. Let well-being, connection, and community start at the museum’s front door, move out along its sidewalk, and spread throughout its neighborhood, reaching neighbors, friends, and acquaintances.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Making Learning Visible. What Does it Mean?

Image: Reggio Children
Have you heard yourself or a colleague say, “I wish our visitors could tell us what they are thinking and learning”? That musing might continue with, “Are they trying strategies we never imagined? How are they figuring out why something happened? We’d have an idea of how they reason, how we might extend their exploration, and if they got a glimpse into their thinking.

Museum visitors and learners can give us an idea of what they are thinking and learning. They do, all the time, if we are interested, paying attention, and prepared to help make learning visible. Small gestures and facial expressions; conversations in which someone explains what she did and why and what he thought would happen; structures and gizmos built; choices made and materials used and “misused” share clues about learning.

Making Sense of Experience
“Making learning visible” emerged from decades of work among educators in the Municipal Schools in Reggio (IT) and was chosen as the title of a book written collaboratively by Project Zero at Harvard University and Reggio Children. A powerful and intriguing idea, this phrase has, not surprisingly, attracted great interest. Migrating from the schools of Reggio Emilia to schools and museums in the U.S. and other countries, it has generated multiple meanings and inspired various applications.

In the Reggio schools context, making learning visible reflects a strong interest in understanding and communicating children’s learning, thinking, and discoveries. An important focus of this work is understanding children as individual and group learners in school settings. In extended projects and explorations, children use multiple languages–drawing, movement, materials, and words–to represent, communicate, and express their ideas in varied media and symbol systems. Documentation, a cycle of inquiry and a shared process among educators, parents and children, has evolved as a robust tool for capturing, sharing, and studying children’s thinking and learning. As a research tool, documentation gives value to and makes apparent and accessible the nature of children’s and adults’ learning processes.

The collaborative work of Project Zero and Reggio Children has served as a bridge to U.S. schools and museums. With time, this idea has been adapted to various museum contexts such as school-based programs, exhibits, and maker spaces, and to approaches like thinking routines.  The Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio uses “visible thinking” routines from Harvard’s Project Zero to emphasize certain aspects of the tinkering and thinking processes. Inspired by Reggio pedagogy and guided by research agendas and learning frameworks, interest in making learning visible and audible is present in museums including Providence Children’s Museum, Columbus Art Museum, and Portland Children’s Museum (OR).

Museums know that understanding learning and thinking in museum contexts is important for delivering and growing learning value. Consequently they look for ways to adapt processes that make learning (and thinking and experience) visible for all learners, not only children. While an attractive phrase, making learning visible, is a complex concept, one that requires time and effort to understand and practice. Not cartoon thought bubbles filling with text that explain a visitor’s thinking, it does, however, offer great potential for capturing meaningful clues about learning processes and how museum learners make sense of their experiences.  

Different museums naturally have different definitions of what this phrase means as well as different ideas about its application. Museums, for instance, can and do solicit visitor feedback; they post signs that effectively say, “Learning is happening here.” These and similar abbreviated approaches overlook the nature of learning, its complexity, and the conditions that support learners in developing ideas, expressing hunches, understanding materials, and working around obstacles. These methods stop far short of shaping experiences and environments that make room for thinking and learning, extend exploration, encourage engagement and conversation among learners, and offer different media and methods for exposing thinking and learning.

In Museums
Given the nature of learning and museum environments, both opportunities and challenges to make learning visible are at play and sometimes at odds. In the visitor-centered, social settings that characterize museums, learners follow their interests, pursue questions, and engage in conversation with others. They use their senses and multiple symbol systems to gather and organize information. As active agents in their own learning, they make connections among objects, materials, stories, phenomena, and art that museums present. They pause, muse, and make sense of these experiences in ways that are significant to them.

Museum teams of designers, educators, developers, and evaluators are charged with creating engaging learning experiences and environments in galleries, programs, labs, and studios. Following their interest in sharing subject matter, developing skills, and delivering messages, they select learning strategies, choose materials and objects, invite exploration, and plan discovery to support these intentions. Throughout an extensive experience planning process and beyond, museums conduct evaluations, assess, and carry out research; these are processes and practices with interests in common with documentation.

Conversely, museums encounter challenges in creating the conditions that help make learning visible. Exhibits are often planned to be self-guided, determined by a visitor’s agenda, personal pace, or time constraints. The difference between one visit and another is striking because of a visitor’s age, interest, and reason for visiting. The nature of learning itself–a personal process requiring time and occurring over time–also poses obstacles for museums. Visits are relatively brief, especially considering the other activities also taking place during a museum visit. Dwell times at an exhibit or artwork are relatively short. Single visits are more common than multiple visits. Visitors leave the museum at the end of the visit, perhaps returning and perhaps not.

A Language of Thinking and Learning
While every museum is challenged to find ways to demonstrate its learning value, it also has a remarkable advantage in making learning visible. At the very heart of what it does, a museum makes substantial investments in talent, time, resources, and expertise to create engaging learning experiences and environments for learners of all ages. A great asset, this in fact contains two other opportunities for making learning visible.  

The experience development process itself, from concept to remediation, supports thinking, learning, exploration, reflection, and documentation. In experience planning, developers, designers, curators, educators, interpreters, and evaluators are learners themselves working together to develop learning experiences for other learners–visitors. Furthermore, opportunities for learning in museums are not limited to self-guided exhibits and one-time programs. Museums also offer camps with multiple sessions, guided tours, professional development institutes, community engagement projects, and maker spaces. Ripe for learning about learning they invite, support, and extend participants’ engagement with materials and media facilitated by prepared staff.

In any experience planning, a team draws on its understanding of learning and the conditions that support it. In bringing greater visibility to learning, a team views itself in a learning role, recognizing that its learning is inextricably tied to visitors’ learning. Teams consider concepts learners could explore, learning processes they might use, and where exploration might lead. They anticipate thinking skills learners might use, revisit these hunches later, and compare them with what they think actually happened. In existing environments and during prototyping, they observe learners, looking for evidence of what they do and think in their conversation and use of materials.

Team members are explorers themselves, as individuals and as a group. Together they visualize the learning process and frame questions to tell them something about learners they didn’t know as well as about their own thinking and learning. They engage collectively around where they see evidence of learning in an exhibit, program, or studio, and reflect on thought processes to explore what they learn from visitors and how they know. Photos, sketches, a wonder wall, and videos assist in visualizing learning. Throughout the process a team keeps track of what it thought and did, constructs what it thinks is happening in the team, and continually updates its understanding of relevant concepts and processes.

This work suggests where to go next and new tools. Over time, a focus on cognitive processes–their own and visitors’–sharpens their understanding of thinking and learning. A language of thinking and learning develops as does a fluency with these processes.  

Practice, Context, Visibility
Inevitably, as a team examines and deconstructs existing practices to make learning visible, it challenges familiar practices. By pushing its own thinking and searching for ways to capture and express its learning insights, it shapes new practices.

An important set of practices for making learning visible involves making time and space for thinking and learning in an exhibit, studio, workshop, or camp. Designing for encounters that extend exploration, increase dwell time, support making connections, or add steps expands opportunities for learners to engage, focus, and notice their thinking. Encouraging higher levels of engagement among visitors through conversation and cooperation invites and registers thinking. Incorporating learning provocations such as objects, text, or photos into an activity helps slow learners, gives them time to focus, and alerts them to their learning.

Thinking and visibility take many forms. Materials and media must be similarly varied and responsive to elicit thinking, capture actions, record thoughts, and facilitate learners sharing with others. Materials that are receptive to learners’ intentions and manipulations show imprints of use and traces of thinking and learning in words, diagrams, sounds, constructions, mind maps, and messages. Diverse materials and media: writing and drawing materials, tools for recording conversations, taking photos and making videos, and digital technologies extend the range of possibilities for representing emergent thoughts.

Integrating materials and media into experiences themselves is critical for capturing thinking during an activity or experience. Thinking and learning arrive not solely at the end of a process or project, but throughout, from concept to remediation for a team, and from entry to exit and beyond for visitors. How did she think her way to the end of that problem? What mental path is he taking? What do their comments suggest about the challenges of that construction? Visitors learn from and are stimulated by other’s thinking explorations. Staff interactions with visitors also generate insights, gestures like pointing, smiles or hesitations observed; narratives overheard; and activities filmed.

Valuable but Difficult to See 
Insights emerging from these explorations are unlikely to be precisely measured learning outcomes or specific results in subject areas. Very much like thinking and learning, giving visibility to these processes is complex. Work takes place at many levels and over time. A trade-off between certainty about specific learning outcomes and complexity about learning is inevitable.

Teams, individually and collectively, arrive at new questions, subsequent observations, or recognition of new learning strategies. What surprised us about the experience of the learners? What furthered our thinking? What connections can we make to broader issues of learning and thinking in a museum setting? What is the significance we attribute to the questions, problems and ideas within a certain event? Even a small event, short thinking sequence, or learning moment is treated seriously and valued.    

For learners in exhibits, studios, workshops, and programs the process and product of learning is something that is valuable but difficult to see–yet. It is emergent, newly present for looking at more closely and reflecting. The value is in expressing the meaning making rather than arriving at a precise lesson learned. Exhibit exploration, tinkering, and conversation offer new perspectives on building knowledge and learning skills.

True, there are no auto-fill thought bubbles, no prescribed steps, and no amazing materials that magically reveal the thinking that is occurring. In fact, making thinking and learning visible is hard, incremental, continuous work. Every museum is challenged to find ways of demonstrating its learning value. By making explicit, visible, and shareable our thinking and learning, we make it much easier to think and learn.