Monday, September 7, 2020

Navigating Professional Reading in a Pandemic Moment

Origami by Peter Keller

Are you reading more and enjoying it less these days? Are you reading less and enjoying it more? For me, it could be one or the other depending on the day. Often, it is both. Consequently, I am selective with my reading which involves trying to figure out what that means.

On the one hand, given the tumultuous times we are going through, we can’t retreat and avoid facing the challenging realities surrounding the museum field and its future. On the other hand, we are trying to see into a future that can’t be seen. Nevertheless I navigate this territory by thinking how do we make sense out of where we are, think about how to move forward in a meaningful way and, at the same time, make room for what we don’t know might happen?  


Consequently, I scan the articles, blogs, on-line journals, and videos looking for ones by thinkers and writers interested in the big picture, bold questions, and new opportunities that will create movement and change—and hope. I've dubbed this intriguing terrain between planning and chance. And since what we are facing is so enormous, I think about it as three questions.

§  What do we understand about our current situation and the dynamic context of our community in the pandemic and post-pandemic world?

§   What matters long-term to our organization and community that must be valued, preserved, and protected?

§  What’s possible? What new opportunities do we want to be poised for?


These questions are intentionally big and roomy and demand courage to address them honestly. They insist on people from across a museum engaging, listening, thinking together, building on one another’s ideas, and assuming a shared good-faith interest in the museum’s future. While set out as if in sequence, these questions do not follow a linear, step-by-step sequence. Instead they are more like a large spiraling conversation that is carried out in the tentative tense, reflecting uncertainties, helpfully expressed as would, could, let’s, maybe, perhaps, what if?


Each question generates more questions that prompt thinking, listening, and reframing. They are enriched by varied perspectives within and beyond the museum. They connect to resources, create openings for more thinking, and support change.


#1 What do we understand?

This question is about developing a current, realistic picture of the museum, its strengths and challenges, the community it serves, and the context in which it operates. The challenge of addressing this question is to be honest and realistic, to be neither too granular nor too self-congratulatory. For developing a shared understanding, these sets of questions and relevant resources might be helpful.


§  What resources are we working with? Consider people, skills, knowledge, leadership organizational culture; visitors; relationships, community position, and reputation; public space—indoors and out— and facility management; and time–immediate and long term.

§  What new limitations are we facing with our resources, business model, staff, audience, safety?

§  How can we understand and view more of our resources as assets?

§  What possible trends could impact the museum: financial, health, employment, local educational?

§  What accomplishments do we have—areas where we have a solid, impressive track record—that we can build on and leverage?

§  What don’t we understand that we really need to? What additional information do we need; how and where will we get it?

§  What are we learning that we can share with others internally, with partners, across the community, and in the field?


Resources that might be relevant and interesting:

§  AAM’s Center for the Future of Museums by Elizabeth Merritt

§  Nonprofit Lifecycles: Stage-based Wisdom for Nonprofit Capacity by Susan Kenny Stevens

§  Managing in Times of Transition on Paul Orselli’s Museum FAQ YouTube interview with Christian Greer

§  Quantifying Our Museum’s Social Impact: How the Oakland Museum of California is using data science to measure impact by Johanna Jones



#2 What Matters?

This question calls us to think about what matters in the long-term to the organization and community that must be valued, preserved, and protected. In exploring this question, the challenge is to be clear about the museum’s enduring purpose and deep values without being limited by cherished beliefs. To develop a shared understanding around what matters, the museum can explore these sets of questions and relevant resources.


§  What is fundamental to who we are, based on our vision, mission, and values and audience?

§  What are our community’s assets, needs, and priorities that engage with our purpose?

§  How can we frame what we want to be as we move past the pandemic preserving what is essential? Is it, for example, to survive and re-open; rebound; be more human-centered; occupy a larger position on the local learning landscape; be part of the regional well-being infrastructure; or become a smaller, more nimble museum?

§  What high potential future do we want for our museum and community?

§  In what new ways can the museum matter, or matter more, to its visitors, partners, and community? What must we preserve for that to happen?

§  What might be a game changer for the museum, something that would affect what matters?

§  What are we learning that we can share with others internally, with partners, across the community, and the field?


Resources for thinking about what matters.

§  Templates for Change on Ann Ackerson’s Take 5

§  Where to Now, Museums? on Ed Rodley’s Thinking about Museums 

§  Running Museums as Businesses: An Interview with Gary Hoover on Paul Orselli’s ExhibiTricks blog 

§  Challenge Your Thinking, Change Your Museum on Museum Notes



#3 What’s Possible?

This question is about developing a shared understanding around the kind of new opportunities for which the museum wants to be poised. Preparation and the nature of chance itself drives the challenges for addressing this question. They involve expanding a view of what is possible without losing sight of what’s essential. The following sets of questions and relevant resources are intended to help in thinking together about possible futures for the museum.


§  Where might new or unexpected opportunities emerge? Given how we’ve framed what matters, what areas of possibility or opportunity have the greatest potential to move us forward?

§  How can we re-imagine the ways in which our assets–our track record, capacities, relationships–could link together and respond to these opportunities?  

§  Of the possibilities that energize individuals and the museum collectively, how can we build consent around those most promising to our future?

§  Thinking about these opportunities, what do they allow us to accomplish that we couldn’t otherwise accomplish that works towards a greater good?

§  Are they very likely, somewhat likely or very unlikely to occur? Are they temporary or long-term change? Who will be affected by the actions we take?  

§  What do we understand about these possibilities and what they require of us? How can we use available time to grow needed capacity and the conditions for success? How can we be alert, selective, and nimble in responding to unanticipated change and opportunities?

§  What are we learning that we can share with others internally, with partners, across the community, and in the field?


Resources to inspire thinking about possibilities include:

§  Our Story by Amanda Schochtet on Micro

§  Calling All Phoenixes on Nina Simon’s Medium

§  Creating a Better World Means Asking Better Questions by Hildy Gottlieb in Stanford Social Innovation Review

§  The Power of Being an Experiment on Creating the Future

Good luck on the road ahead!

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Between Planning and Chance

The world was a very different place in April 2015 when I wrote the following post about the necessity of planning and then the reality—and opportunity—of chance intervening. Museums, libraries, schools, millions of lives, and the world were different too. But the essence of navigating between planning and chance has not changed. If anything, the need to be thinking about it is even more critical than ever.


Planning prepares us for what might come. We look back at what has happened; we look out at what is changing around us; and we look forward at our enduring purpose and how we might be more helpful in the future.


So, when a set of nearly-unimaginable events converge—like a pandemic, economic hardship, and social unrest—we can draw on and update our understandings and prepare to move forward in new, responsive ways. It would be utterly foolish to suggest this is easy. But returning to recent planning or using the time a museum is closed now for planning makes movement possible and puts a museum on a path to deliberate action that could not have been recognized before.

You plan and you plan and then you just have to acknowledge that some things will be left to chance.

This plannerism is one I keep in mind especially when deeply involved in a planning project that is winding down and moving towards implementation. What comes after planning? Opening a museum, launching a strategic plan, activating a learning framework, or unveiling an exhibition is much like the moment of taking off the training wheels and riding. What happens next?

This moment of transition from planning to action characterizes many aspects of museum work as well as teaching, planning a trip, finding a job, or, for that matter, life. For conferences, board retreats, organizational budgets, visitor panels, exhibition planning, or a strategic partnership, we can get the right people together, gather the needed information, meet with stakeholders, check-off the steps, develop a critical path, and have the right people in place. 

I suspect that, even when we have planned well, what we really want is an extraordinary version of our plan to play out, delivered by remarkable opportunities and chance.

We may be poised for opportunities, but we never know until the very moment whether we will recognize them or be able to act on them. Chance is not necessarily the unexpected popular guest arriving with impeccable timing. Sometimes chance shows up as back-to back blizzards, illness, or road construction. While we don't know just what chance will deliver or when, chance will play a role. 

Even with a firm a belief in the value of planning and the preparation it provides, how can we leave room for chance? Will we be ready when the ideal site is available long before we planned to start a site search? Can we take advantage of a special granting opportunity when we don’t have all the right people in place? We cannot predict, schedule or invoke opportunity or a lucky break. But we can find ways to make space for chance in planning and in living the plan.

Intentionality and Thinking in Time
From a strategic agenda to a conference agenda, from facility design to exhibition design, planning is being deliberate about accomplishing something significant for a museum, its visitors, and community. We identify the steps along the way and the means for accomplishing them–time, space, prepared staff, funds, and partners. As well as knowing what we want to achieve and encourage, we must also know what we are not after; we need to be alert to signals and precursors of opportunity and wrong turns that might lie on our path.

The larger a planning intention is, the more comprehensive planning will be. Yet, planning is not having everything figured out and tied with a bow. Rather than a script for the future, planning, at its best, develops a shared clarity about what is important and what we hope will happen. Because the future is necessarily uncertain, planning is as much a way of thinking and preparing for possible opportunities as having a detailed plan. Both strategic thinking and design thinking activate a static plan document or rendered exhibition design by the everyday thinking that continues long after the plan is officially complete.

When staff continues to focus on a plan's or project's purpose and intent, they are able to generate relevant insights that allow the museum to be nimble in a dynamic context. Thinking in time and making an integrated set of choices help optimize opportunities and navigate challenges whether the project is opening a satellite facility, launching a professional development center, creating a nature area, adding a maker space, or incorporating dialogue into interactions with visitors. This is living the plan.

Near and Far Horizons
Fast forward. A plan has been launched. A strategy team is meeting for the first time. The exhibit has opened and visitors are streaming through the gallery doors. The creativity framework is being shared across museum departments.

On the heels of completing a plan a critical but subtle shift occurs: merging day-to-day choices with overarching purpose. Living the letter of a plan is, on the one hand, artificial and rigid. Plans, frameworks, and exhibit designs are, necessarily, idealized versions of what we think should happen. In contrast, implementation is immersion in immediate, practical circumstances constantly in flux. Focusing completely on the everyday at the exclusion of the big picture can lead down rabbit holes and obscure opportunities and new possibilities.

Living in both the plan’s far and near time frames is vital. Active dialogue between them and alertness to approaching opportunities is facilitated by frequent discussions that easily shift between; they link the big picture with current choices. As decision points approach, we revisit past decisions in light of current information. We adjust our view to look at the big picture with a broader or narrower perspective. Reassessing the situation sometimes requires letting go and starting a new path. Challenging assumptions, noticing information that doesn’t fit, and being wary of confirmation bias help bring developing conditions into focus.

J. P. Morgan noted, in planning as in life, we go as far as we can see. When we get there, we can see farther. What was invisible or out of view earlier is now visible and apparent.

Awake and Alert to the Moment
A plan isn’t going to send up flares to announce an approaching opportunity. Being alert and awake to the moment is the only remedy; it is, however, not as simple as it seems. An unlikely combination of concentration and responsiveness, it requires keeping a steady focus on what is to be accomplished, an openness to alternatives, and readiness for an adaptive response.

Difficult to put into in words, it is equally challenging to pull off in the moment. The image of a dowser holding a divining rod lightly in order to sense the tug of water far below suggests a readiness for the unexpected.

In the municipal infant-toddler centers and preschools in Reggio Emilia (IT), one expression of planning is a well-developed structure and thoughtful organization that support teachers in guiding children’s explorations. A clear, but broad, agenda and preparation inform teachers’ choices as children pursue interests and follow bigger ideas. Extensive explorations, often spreading over weeks and even months, emerge from a focus on a well-planned activity, reflection on what’s occurring, and a responsiveness to children’s interests and questions.

While in a classroom, not a museum and in a pedagogical rather than a strategic frame, teachers concerned with larger goals are also attuned to what is happening as children express fascination and ask questions. Teachers are alert to what is happening, what might happen, and are ready to capitalize on an unanticipated twist or happy accident when chance comes to the classroom.

Reflection and Action
Along with intentionality and thinking in time, embracing near and far time horizons, and being alert and awake in the moment, reflection and action inhabit the time and space between planning and chance.

Practiced individually or as a group, reflection introduces important qualities not readily available and decidedly different from what task-driven action and decision-making pressures yield. In stepping away from the everyday, even if briefly, reflection creates a space for paying critical attention, making sense of what has occurred, and consolidating learning. Through reflection we may backtrack through choices, ask new questions, re-sort information, and reassess progress. We may integrate intention with actual experience, synthesize opposing ideas, and connect knowledge from prior experience to current options and choices. A new continuity emerges from hundreds of separate steps and actions.  

Reflection generates new ways of seeing. By reprocessing information, we may understand differently what has or hasn’t happened–or what could have happened. We may see something that wasn’t apparent before or see it in a new light. Bringing a new viewpoint to a situation can re-frame a problem, discover an ally, find a fertile a crack between two obstacles, or reveal ways to restructure work and move forward.

Insights from reflection often offer a glimpse of the possible, an imagination of what might happen. It might put us on a path to deliberate action that we couldn’t have appreciated before; open a door we didn’t know was there. We may recognize an opening for action.

Even if the space between planning and chance is different from what we sometimes wish it were, it is, nevertheless, roomy, rich, and often unexplored territory. Sometimes it delivers the results of hard work rather than a free sample. Sometimes it produces a generous shift rather than an ordered gift. But under a few right conditions, the space between planning and chance delivers.

Chance favors the prepared mind.
Attributed to Louis Pasteur

Friday, July 17, 2020

It's a Great Time for Making Forts

Photo Credit: Boston Globe

At the same time that Clovid19 has closed down restaurants, gyms, shops, and museums, it seems to have opened up the world of children’s fort making.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed a lot about fort making lately—inside, outside, under tables or beds, in closets or corners. I’ve also heard from parents that the forts their children are making are impressive. I gather from examples here, here, and here that others are noticing this as well.


We shouldn’t be surprised. Fort making is what children do and need to do. They find forts, make forts, and play in forts, indoors and out, in the spaces where they live and spend time. Fort making is an enduring expression of childhood. It is something I did as a child, my sisters and brothers did, and, it is likely, you probably did too.


While some people see fort building now as a result of boredom from spending many and long days at home during the pandemic, I see it as what children finally get to do with time, space, and freedom courtesy of the pandemic.


As children spend more time at home and explore their home environments, they have an opportunity to know familiar spaces more deeply and discover the fort-making potential of rooms, alcoves, in between and out-of-the-way spaces. Children have time–more time, down time, time with fewer distractions and interruptions. Stretches of time and time over several days allow them to return to a project or work with ideas from one day mulled over and put into action the next day and the next. Many children are enjoying a rare freedom from structured activities and close parental monitoring. In fact, parents and caregivers working from home, homeschooling, and trying to create good family times together are less available for structuring or directing children’s activities, including fort building. And it’s not such a bad thing, actually.


What’s in a Fort?

At their most basic, forts are small spaces-within-spaces created by children from available materials where children can be alone or with someone else in a world of their making.


When we think about children’s fort making, we tend to think first about the structures themselves, constructions that cover a wide and interesting range of structures and spaces. Typically, these are original, one-of-a-kind structures indoors or out referred to as caves, cubby holes, cozy spaces, huts, dens, and forts. They might be tucked into an alcove, under the stairs, between chairs, under the desk, or in bed. Made of blankets, sheets, cushions, crates, cardboard tubes and boxes, duct tape or furniture, as well as leaves, snow, and branches, they come in all shapes, sizes, materials, and conditions. Sometimes appearing messy and unassuming, they might look like a huddle of furniture or a pile of laundry.


A hallmark of childhood, children’s fort making begins around 4 years, increases through 7 years, and continues until around 12 or 13 years. Active,

curious, and resourceful as fort makers, children gather, collect, and arrange materials and objects, dragging chairs, stacking cushions, or draping sheets, towels, or blankets over chairs. They define their space, make a pleasing arrangement, and embellish it with cherished objects. Working alone and sometimes with others, they draw on a wide range of capabilities and skills, create a small world for themselves, make up and act out stories, read, or pretend to be invisible.

Fort making is not a linear step-by-step activity packaged in a kit. Rather, it emerges from a dynamic, relatively seamless, back-and-forth stream of processes and activities. Through play, building, and exploration and offering discovery and change, children carve out and shape space for themselves in the world. Like play, fort making is directed by the child, propelled by an idea or inspiration, and intrinsically satisfying. Part exploration, fort making involves an investigation of materials, objects, and environments and their properties using their senses and a range of skills. Children’s fort making transforms space, reveals new perspectives, encourages capabilities, and expands possibilities.


These brief descriptions of forts, fort makers, and the process of building hardly begin to uncover how fort making is a rich, productive, and satisfying experience for children. To explore more how these elements engage in the messy, sprawling, open-ended, joyful fort making for children, throughout and across childhoods, I’ve framed five constructs. They are informed by literature, observation, photos, drawings of forts, and adults’ memories and stories of fort building. In real-life fort making, these constructs easily overlap and constantly interact with one another. Looked at individually, however, each shines a light on an experience or opportunity that is compelling to the child, memorable for adults, and supportive of the development and learning in the years between.  

      When it comes to fort making, children are in charge.

      Fort making stands a little outside of ordinary time and space and transforms it.

      In fort making, children make sense of others, themselves, and the world.

      In fort making, children create a 3-D version of their imagination that they can inhabit.

      Fort making is opportunistic.



Five Constructs on the Nature of Fort Making                    

When it comes to fort making, children are in charge.

In houses, apartments, garages, sheds, and yards, children interact with space and materials and make something happen. They decide what to build, where to build and how to build. Drawing on their knowledge of physical space, they start by selecting a promising place for a fort. They choose furniture and objects, gather coverings, and they combine them in particular ways to create a structure that suits them. As they order their physical surroundings and embellish spaces with their belongings and selected objects that appeal to them, they follow their ideas and interests, encounter new ones, and weigh new choices.


The opportunity to do this—to be in charge of an activity and influence what happens in a small corner of their world—is something that is all too rare for most children. In their fort, children have the freedom to explore space, investigate objects, cultivate friendships, and engage with the imaginary. In deciding whether the walls should be two or three cushions high; whether the fort is a starship, a library, or a cave; and which story ideas will be acted out, children are exercising control in ways that matter to them. Of no small significance is children’s control of the boundary between inside and out, where their space ends, who or what comes in—or doesn’t.  

Fort making stands a little outside of ordinary time and space and transforms it.

Forts originate in the physical and imaginative space and time of homes, families, and daily schedules.

In the physical world, the child looks around a very familiar home space with new eyes. They scout seemingly empty spaces, small spaces, out-of-the-way places, and openings where they can fit and build in spaces often overlooked by others. When interesting as well as available space is found under the stairs, in a closet, or even in a bathtub, the child appropriates that space. When it comes to claiming space for their purposes, being under the table is being under the radar for children; being out of the way opens a door.


Time is a critical dimension in fort making and it’s not ordinary time. Squeezed in between family routines and scheduled activities, fort time is incidental. As children slip in-and-out of the space, they move between recurring themes, alternate worlds, and multiple time frames. Typical rules about time don’t necessarily apply. Instead, real- and imaginary-time mix. Children imagine that they are some place else and they pretend it is real. The view out the window is a part of the backdrop and becomes part of the story. Movement from day to night can happen in a flash. Or no time at all is specified.


In fort making, children make sense of others, themselves, and the world.

While typically small, forts are packed with multi-sensory information. Constructing the fort, repeatedly moving in and out of it, or making room for a friend occurs through a constant dialogue between the child and physical space, its materials and their properties. Children are picking up sensory information about how their body fits into the fort, how the fort’s sides moved when bumped; how outside sounds come in.


Forts are social as well as physical spaces. They are made by children for themselves and, often, for friends. The fort's physical features, its size, enclosure,

and lighting influence whether this is a retreat for one or makes room for a friend; a space that invites imagining together, sharing secrets, playing games, and growing friendship.

In these special places, children find something of themselves that is difficult to find elsewhere. Choosing and arranging materials, they practice existing skills, explore new ones, and enjoy feelings of accomplishment and confidence. When children experience themselves as builders, makers, and creators, they have important evidence that they can have an impact on the world.


Forts are also where children can explore being themselves. These seemingly simple structures are an expression of self, intention, imagination, and competence. They offer solitude, separation from family, retreat, and independence. A fort can be a place to explore being someone else.


In fort making, children create a 3-D version of their imagination that they can inhabit.

Avid makers and doers, children make many things: drawings, collages, cardboard gizmos, clay bowls, dioramas. Very seldom, however, do they create something at a scale that allows them to crawl into, occupy, and experience the creation that has emerged from their imagination.


Forts may have a small physical footprint, but they likely have a large footprint in the child’s mind and imagination. In forts, children’s imaginations take on physical form, forms that they can occupy. As they enter this real and imagined space, the child is immersed in ideas made real through objects, materials, choices, skills, creativity, and persistence. Inside the child encounters a place that mirrors their imagination. They connect with feelings of being in another place, with the drama of a challenge, or the perspective of someone else.


Being inside small, personal, often unusually-shaped spaces exercises the connection between imagination and the body. In these spaces, children notice their bodies; they explore what they can do and how they move. With gestures, actions, and new positions, they move in ways that play out what is running through their imaginations and filling the fort.


Being inside that space shaped by the imagination gives a glimpse into the possible. The child sees how everything—materials, ideas, memories, songs—can be an opportunity for arranging and making; how parts of the world might be changed, and how the child is able to effect those changes.


Fort making is opportunistic.

This free style form of construction in incidental spaces with found, discarded, and random objects, not surprisingly, incorporates unusual features which make forts one-of-a-kind creations. Varied shapes, chance features, repurposed household goods can both inspire and drive a fort’s design.. Unlike the large numbers of regularly shaped blocks and bricks in building sets, fort-making materials come in unusual shapes and limited numbers without directions to follow.


Photo credit: 1,000 Awesome Things
Found and repurposed materials speak to the child of possibilities. Children notice, investigate, and exploit various features; they test their properties as they incorporate them into their structure. Using ingenuity and resourcefulness, children come up with ways to create a fort: drape blankets, wedge pillows into place; anchor sheets by tucking them into a drawer; place the hole in the blanket to be a window; put two chairs together. What is found is used and valued.   


Provisional, temporary, changing over time, and sometimes a permanent work-in-progress, the opportunistic nature of fort making means that forts are in perpetual beta. Based on failures and new finds, children develop, test, and revise their forts; they make substitutions when borrowed supplies must be returned to the closet or kitchen. Children themselves are changing, learning from their fort making, and bringing exposure to new ideas to their building.


It seems that, as the child works on the fort, the fort works on the child.



*   *   *   *   *

My thanks to Tom Bedard, Saki Iwamoto, Nina LeSaout, Aaron Sennitt, and Lani Shapiro

Monday, June 15, 2020

How Does Your Learning Framework Help Navigate Covid19?

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

·       Connect

·       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
Frameworks help reimagine what’s possible; they help speed up the process of reimagining.   

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.

Learning Frameworks:

• Question-powered Learning Frameworks

Ten Lessons from Learning Frameworks

Driving for Learning Frameworks 

Updating Learning Frameworks


* Denotes some of the typical elements of learning frameworks