Monday, March 14, 2011

Learning Frameworks

Learning frameworks have become my tool of choice for getting at the convergence of a museum’s strategic and learning interests. Where and how these interests intersect intrigues me as has finding ways to open up that territory to explore with people and perspectives from across a museum.

Often a museum’s public value, or the positive change it hopes to be recognized for contributing to its community, is tied up in its learning value. Regardless of how it defines learning, a museum needs clarity on what learning means for its community, for its audience and internally for itself and where it will concentrate its resources for intended impact. 

A learning framework consolidates a museum’s most important ideas about its learning interests and its potential to create value, in particular, learning value for its visitors and the community.

A framework’s strong set of foundational ideas is aligned with a museum’s mission, vision, and values. In a framework these ideas engage to form a sturdy platform that supports planning and evaluation efforts across all of a museum’s learning services: exhibits, programs, collections, film and multi-media, research, a school or nature center, and on-site, off-site, and on the web.

Basic framework parts: Community, learners, learning, and experience
Four components of a learning framework are basic, though specific elements can and do vary.
• Community context highlights priorities related to learning. A community’s priorities might be related to a readiness gap for young children; a fall-off in reading skills among fourth graders; available out-of-school time for middle schoolers and teens; 21st century skills; graduation rates for non-majority students; or workforce capacity. A synthesis of these issues, whether presented as highlights or an in-depth exploration, becomes the learning backdrop to which a learning framework responds.
View of the learner focuses on the museum’s audience in ways that are relevant to their learning and to the community’s priorities. Learner groups can be clustered using age-related development, identity-related motivations, a family-learning model, or a museum’s own audience segmentation. With a focus on its audience as learners, a museum can identify impacts or outcomes it will focus on and support with relevant programmatic options and learning strategies.
Learning focus highlights the learning territory a museum occupies. Typically informed by a pedagogy, educational theory, or research, a museum’s learning focus usually covers one or more content areas such as STEM, history, or art; related processes such as inquiry, or Visual Thinking Strategies; or an approach such as interdisciplinary, family learning, or play. 
Experience explores learners’ first-hand engagement with real objects and phenomena, in real time in a museum’s rich, varied learning settings. Those experiential qualities that a museum chooses to highlight distinguish it from other venues that serve a similar audience, whether it is another art museum, a nature center, a creative bookstore, or Rainforest Café. The experience component of a learning framework connects qualities of an informal, or free-choice, learning environment or a museum’s brand experience with learning opportunities.

A learning framework’s value emerges from exploring driving ideas and doing so through a lively, open, and interactive process that engages perspectives from across the museum. The process will take many forms, involve different groups of staff, and extend over weeks or months to suit each museum’s culture and timeframe. But it is through dialogue among thinkers, learners, and practitioners that a museum creates shared meaning around significant ideas. What does life-long learning mean for our community and in our museum? How does inquiry look for 3-5 year olds? for children 5-7,  7-10 and 10-14 years old? What does an interdisciplinary approach accomplish for our learners that multi-disciplinary connections does not?

Collectively exploring ideas, examining subtleties of meaning, and tracking how ideas connect and work with one another deepens everyone’s understanding of them. The process moves away from a sprawling collection of attractive ideas to which some people adhere and others less so. It moves towards a working set of shared ideas with clarity about the relationships among them to forge a more capable tool. The process strengthens the group of people who have created the framework, who find their ideas and passions central to the museum’s work, and who work together to accomplish a greater good for the community. It is this rich kind of exchange and exploration that builds powerful, influential pedagogies like those in Reggio Emilia.

The benefits of a learning framework accrue to a museum and its stakeholders. Developing a learning framework takes considerable time and hard work that could otherwise be put to many good uses in a museum. Consequently a return on this investment is essential.

The framework team at the new Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota
For the museum, the framework externalizes and makes plain what it values. A tool for getting everyone on the same page, a learning framework points to where contributions of staff, trustees, volunteers, partners, sponsors, and funders are needed and where resources will be allocated for greatest impact. For museum educators, developing a learning framework is an opportunity to take a visible leadership role in increasing the public value of a museum. For trustees, a learning framework provides confidence that the museum is intent on building public value. A framework can also invigorate their messages about the museum’s public good that is crucial for cultivating support for a capital campaign and during tough economic times. For an emerging museum, a learning framework shows community leaders the museum intends to step up and contribute.  A community benefits when a museum understands and acts on local priorities.

Developing a learning framework can tackle organization issues. Typically a process clarifies what a museum’s multiple learning platforms (exhibits, programs, a planetarium, nature center, or a preschool) share that can be obscured by their different attributes. It highlights what each accomplishes for the museum that is distinct and necessary. This can resolve tensions around learning platforms by assuring that all are valued, complementary resources. A  framework shared across the museum encourages a set of practices shared among education, curatorial, audience development, visitor services, and communication staff.

Flexibility is just one of the qualities that makes learning frameworks valuable. I have developed frameworks in a variety of settings: in museums as well as libraries; with museums starting up, expanding, and reinventing themselves; and with very small and very large museums. Frameworks are adaptable as well. A learning framework can include learner impacts, a research agenda, learning goals, and a stakeholder map as part of its original manifestation. These or other elements can be added later to reflect the framework’s evolution, shifts in organizational emphasis, or emerging community priorities.

Frameworks do not require a high level of detail. Rather, they rely on clarity and alignment of critical ideas. This, along with a participatory process with multiple reviews and revisions, means staff internalize a framework relatively easily. Frameworks tend not to sit on shelves.

A learning framework guides planning and evaluation for all of a museum’s learning services or resources. The direction it sets helps balance priorities. Are we offering enough for this age group? Should we offer more math and science experiences? Are we making it easy for parents to connect with other parents? In a similar way, a framework can also help assess new opportunities whether it is a strategic partnership, a grant opportunity, or a choice on how to use outdoor space. A learning framework is equally useful in identifying impacts for an initiative as it is in assessing the impact of the museum, a program, or an exhibit on targeted learner groups.

The most common application of a learning framework tends to be developing an exhibit plan. This is helpful when an emerging museum conceives of its first round of exhibits, when a museum is expanding, or when it is fundamentally rethinking its exhibits. In a similar way, a museum can use a framework to remediate a teacher institute, or develop a multi-partner project aimed at impacting citizen behaviors.

A learning framework is a use-dependent tool. The more it is read, discussed, referred to, tested, or applied, the stronger a framework becomes. Use clarifies ideas and gives them new and deeper meaning across a wider range of contexts. Successes and challenges, shifts in audience, community trends, changes in staff, and new research bring new information and perspectives to the framework and point to new, applications, questions, and practices.

Please share how the learning interests of your museum, or museums you know well, are being clarified.
  • How has your museum worked at consolidating its learning interests?
  • Where did the impetus to do so come from?
  • Who has been engaged in this process? 
  • How has this effort engaged and been shared with people across the museum?
  • What changes have you noticed in your museum as the result of having a shared learning framework?
  • How has the framework changed with use?

Thanks to several colleagues, in particular, who have listened, thought about, and shared ideas that have helped me shape learning frameworks over the years: Jim Roe; John Jacobsen, White Oak Associates; Rhonda Kiest, Stepping Stones Museum for Children; Andrea Fox Jensen

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