Monday, July 25, 2011

Learning Assets - Part 2

Lookout Cove: 2.5 acres of outdoor exploration at Bay Area Discovery Museum

In exploring museums' learning assets recently, I mentioned about 15 different substantial resources through which museums deliver experience and learning value to their visitors and communities. The list continues to grow through conversations and reading. But neither the precise list nor the number of items is really important. Instead it illustrates that museums have many learning assets. As you can see, most of them are quite familiar.
•           Exhibits, programs, collections, library, school or preschool, maker space, film and multi-media, historic structure, gardens, science park, the building, research center, outreach or mobile museum, recycle center, nature center, planetarium, aquarium, teacher resource center, theater, and hall of fame.

Every museum has learning assets. But not every museum knows what its learning assets are and why they are valuable. Museums do consider exhibits (or programs, teacher resource center, or aquarium) as financial assets and perhaps as strategic assets. But these assets are also critical resources for accomplishing broad strategic and learning goals. Making explicit how they contribute to a museum’s being a recognized convener for children’s well-being, supporting 21st century learners or workforce development, or activating civic engagement around urgent social or environmental issues–is necessary to activating their value

The Benefits of Learning Assets
Beyond a general sense that identifying learning assets might be helpful, what does clarity about learning assets accomplish?

Earlier this year, I wrote about a hard-working question I often use as a tool: what can this attractive option accomplish, that needs to be accomplished, that another attractive option cannot? That’s a good test for evaluating learning assets as well. There are two perspectives on this question to consider. First what does this help the museum accomplish for itself organizationally and second, what does it accomplish for the audience?

Internally, defining a set of learning assets:
•          Creates a shared strategic and organizational context for all learning assets. Each asset has a distinct and significant contribution to make to the organization’s strategic and learning interests. Aligning assets on one strategic platform assures they all focus on advancing those interests.  
•           Establishes a framework for accountability. Responsibility for delivering learning value follows the asset by: calibrating organizational impacts to each asset and its capacities and opportunities; organizing staff for work; and allocating and managing resources.
•           Strengthens interdependence and interaction among learning assets. Clarifying that there are, in fact, learning assets and what they are makes each more valuable. Defining the contribution of each asset positions all of them for interaction by pointing out ways they can work with, support, and enhance one another.  

A museum’s valued and complementary learning resources help:
•           Serve the full audience and age range. Every learning asset does not have to serve the full audience or age range. Certain assets can serve targeted audience and age segments well. Together all of the assets can serve the audience fully.
•           Serve the audience with choice. Multiple assets increase the number and range of activities to assist learners in customizing their visit to interests, time, visitor group, and relationship with the museum.
•           Assist learners in extending and deepening their learning and play experiences. Managing learning assets to afford specific opportunities makes it easier for learners to build on an experience, follow-up on an activity in greater depth, explore interesting content through a new format, or experience a different perspective.

Working Assets
Defining a museum’s learning assets is a good start, but knowing their qualities and contributions is important to putting assets to work. I find four reference points helpful to consider: context, comparability, complementarity, and capacity.

1830's Log Home at Madison Children's Museum
•    Context explores an asset relative to the museum’s strategic and learning interests and to other assets. Consider the garden in relation to exhibits. What does it accomplish that an indoor exhibit does not? How important is the garden in providing first-hand experiences with naturally occurring seasonal cycles and changes important to the museum’s mission?
•     Comparability refers to the relative size of the assets. There can be wide variability among assets. In one museum a theater might be a program space for weekly performances; in another it might have a full schedule of live theater and demonstrations that explore current issues through science with students and the general public. Size is not only physical space or audience numbers. An asset may have staff assigned to it, a strong identity among constituents, or a recognized expertise for the museum.
•      Complementarity is the usefully different aspect of each necessary and valued resource through which a museum delivers learning value. Push on distinctions to probe what’s distinct and how it serves the other assets; a museum school is an on-going learning community with a continuity among students and teachers that programs do not have. Research on inquiry learning conducted in the museum's research center can be delivered through the teacher institute or programs; research on collections can inform exhibit planning.
Science Park at New York Hall of Science
•     Capacity is the asset’s ability to make an impact on or for learners or the community. Impacts­–or positive changes the museum believes are possible–are not easy to define. Still it’s helpful to keep a broad view of learning, be clear about the nature of the impact, and relate it to the organization’s long-term, intended impacts. How will the teacher institute reduce the achievement (or readiness) gap among students?

There are more ways to work a museum’s assets. Recently I heard from a science museum and library that I worked with 2 years to develop a learning framework that described 4 learning assets: exhibits; programs; collections and library; and the house and grounds. We also developed an exhibit master plan. The museum is now completing a program plan that describes the audience, vision, strategies, results areas, and impacts for programs. A collections plan is in the queue for 2012 and will be followed by an updated building and grounds plan. In addition to developing a plan for each asset that looks at and explores these assets at close range, the museum is using the 4 assets for budgeting and funding requests.

Your Museum’s Learning Assets
Size up your museum’s learning assets. Look around the museum to get a sense of where and how the learning assets are coming through on your website, in the organizational structure, the budget, and vocabulary. Think about the following.
•           How does your museum look at and talk about its exhibits, programs, outreach, film and   multi-media program, or resource center?
•            What are your museum’s leaning assets?
•           How do you define exhibits at your museum as a learning asset? or programs as a learning asset?
•           How does this help internally to strengthen these areas and encourage collaboration?

•           How has it benefitted your audience? your community?

Related Museum Notes Posts

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