Monday, November 28, 2011

Executive Function in Museums

Stroop Test: The automatic behavior–word reading–has to be inhibited in favor of a less practiced task –naming the ink color.

“I’m the baby, so I have to cry.”

You might not think that this is music to a future employer’s ears, but it is. This statement, typical for a young child engaged in make-believe play, reflects early evidence of executive brain functions, a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to exert control over our thoughts, manage our attention, and restrain impulses in order to reach our goals. 

Executive functions are located in the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, an area that keeps track of goals, engages in abstract problem-solving, and moderates appropriate behavior. Referred to variously as cognitive functions, self-regulation, and cognitive control, executive functions are characterized as orchestrating, weaving, mediating, and integrating other functions. Neuroscientists, scholars, psychologists, educators, and parents have helped increase awareness of executive brain functions, moving discussion from child development textbooks and Young Children to The New York Times and Wall Street Journal.

A deep internal mechanism facilitates children and adults engaging in thoughtful, goal-directed behavior. There are two aspects to these functions: stop and go. On the one hand, self-regulation is the capacity to exert control over thoughts and impulses and, when necessary, to interrupt doing something. On the other, self-regulation involves the capacity to engage in another behavior because it’s needed, even if it’s less attractive. In the pretend play example above, the child is subordinating behaviors she would like to engage in–perhaps pretending to eat a lollipop–and is substituting a behavior she would rather not engage in–crying because she sees herself as well passed the age of crying. For an adult executive brain functions means not relying on habits of perception while forcing the brain to use its power of observation; in the graphic above, it is reading the word red when it is written in green.

Focus, Switch, Resist, Think
The human need for complex, flexible regulatory systems that can cope with a wide array of environmental conditions means that the development of self-regulation begins early, takes place over an extended period of time, and requires substantial external support. (Berk, Mann, and Ogan. 2006)

Executive brain functions develop early–appearing around 7-12 months–and rapidly during the preschool years through dynamic interactions between brain activity and experience. Development of language plays a key role in the strengthening of these cognitive controls supported by hints and cues from adults, support from the environment, and play. Some executive functions improve during adolescence becoming more efficient and effective with increased mastery over thinking, emotions, and behavior. During the 20’s, executive function skills are at their peak. In later adulthood, these skills begin to decline, some having earlier, and others later, onset of impairment.

Different models for executive functions break down and describe them with some variations. In her recent book, Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Skills Every Child Needs, Ellen Galinsky identifies and exlpores 5 executive functions that work together in various combinations of skills such a perspective taking, making connections, and problem solving.

Focus is being alert and paying attention. Focusing on something allows you to use what you already know and maximize getting information from it.
Cognitive flexibility is being able to flexibly switch perspectives, change the focus of attention, or adjust behavioral responses as conditions or context change.
Working memory is actively holding information in your mind while manipulating it: relating one idea to another; relating what you’re listening to now to what you just heard; and relating what you are learning now that you learned earlier.
Inhibitory control is controlling attention, emotions, and behavior to achieve a goal; being able to resist a distraction, an impulse, or an attractive stimulus.
Reflection is stepping back, considering alternatives and then acting, thinking about someone else’s thinking, or the goal you want to accomplish.

Everyday Executive Functions
Our world of abundant distractions and novel situations makes executive brain functions valuable, if not essential, as 21st century skills. They help us to be alert, orient to a task, and focus; keep relevant details in mind and concentrate for an extended period of time. With the help of executive functions, we exert self-control and override responses to attractive stimuli. We resist the urge to answer a cell phone or text message while reflecting on a painting. We pass up an extra chocolate because it conflicts with another goal–the diet. We don’t check email or Facebook every 5 minutes because we need to finish a report.

Self-regulation is also thought to be heavily involved in navigating novel, dangerous or technically difficult situations. Functions like planning or decision-making; error correction or troubleshooting are needed when responses are not well-rehearsed, novel sequences of action are required, or strong habitual response must be subordinated.

In imaginary play, children use objects to help manage impulses  and  their  behavior
But self-regulation is not just for high tech levels of distraction or high-test situations and it's not primarily for adults. Significantly, self-regulation is thought to have an especially important role in school performance and beyond. Young children translate plentiful everyday cues from people and the environment into information to regulate behaviors and emotional tension. Early on, they learn to calm themselves, inhibit the urge to grab, wait for their turns, remember rules, and persist in challenging tasks. Active, intentional self-regulation develops during early childhood through language, make-believe play, and older children and adults demonstrating appropriate behavior and offering hints and cues.

Children’s intentional self-regulation predicts school success and may actually account for a greater variation in early academic progress than intelligence. In a well-known 1972 study by Walter Mischel of how self-control interacts with knowledge, four-year olds were offered a marshmallow. If the child could resist eating the marshmallow, the child was promised two marshmallows instead of one. The ability of a four-year old to resist the temptation of a second marshmallow turned out to be a better predictor of future academic success than his or her IQ score.

Executive function skills are relatively malleable and can be improved. Just how malleable and by what means, however, are not well established. Still, research that is underway is gradually indicating how we might take advantage of these capacities to help children and adults develop skills for school, for social situations, and for life.

One well-known program is Tools of the Mind, a research-based early childhood program that promotes children’s intentional and self-regulated learning to build strong foundations for school success in preschool and kindergarten children. The program uses several strategies critical for supporting children’s development of self-regulation: scaffolding, reflective thinking, self-regulation activities, and mature dramatic play. Other evidence that self-regulation can be taught in the classroom emerges from Blair and Razza’s study of low-income pre-school children which indicates that curricula designed to encourage children’s self-regulation skills can promote early academic progress. Adele Diamond’s research has shown that diverse activities can benefit children’s executive functions. Among other things, her lab studies facilitative factors such as bilingualism and school programs, and, the role of dance, storytelling, and physical activity. Practice also helps. Repeatedly performing basic exercises in cognitive self-regulation boosts executive functions for children or adults, although these results have not been as impressive outside of the lab.

Executive Brain Functions In Museums
Before I dug into reading about self-regulation, I had a general impression that their significance was primarily to young children and during early childhood. There’s no doubt that the early years are critical for development of executive brain functions, but that’s a limited view. Likewise, the classroom is not the only setting for promoting executive functions.

Robust executive brain functions play a critical role for all us across the life span and across life settings, including museums. Weaving together social, emotional, and intellectual capacities, executive functions are active in the highly social, strongly evocative, sensory and information rich environments of museums. Furthermore, strong executive brain functions for children and adults engage with the strategic, learning, financial, and community interests of museums. Skills used in social interactions (emotional self-regulation) as well as in thinking (cognitive self-regulation) are valuable and relevant to museums across a range of interests and activities. A few, just a few, are highlighted below noting some the related executive brain functions involved

Taking the perspective of life on board a canal boat at the National Canal Museum
•   Museums value the active, extended engagement of visitors in exhibits and programs. Spending more time  or getting more involved with an object, phenomena, or activity, and trying a variety of activities maximize the information learners draw from it. Persistence plays a role, whether following an activity to its natural conclusion or persisting in the face of challenges and is supported by paying attention (focus) and sticking with something after a failure (inhibitory control).

•  Museum experiences often involve learners in taking another perspective. Children and adults explore another culture, are immersed in an historic context or time period, or adopt a perspective of being the dog or a pirate in a play sequence. This involves inhibiting one’s own thoughts or feelings (inhibitory control) and considering those of others as well as seeing a situation in a different way (cognitive flexibility). Taking another perspective can also apply to museum staff viewing the interests of the intended audience in a different way.

•  Making connections is a goal established for many museum experiences. An exhibit or program highlights practical application to learners’ everyday lives, interprets features of objects in the collection, creates the conditions for building structures, invites exploration of how something works, and encourages creativity. Making connections is critical to making sense of a situation and relies on recognizing similarities and differences (cognitive fluency), using rules (working memory)–from simple to increasingly complex–and applying and recombining elements in various and inventive ways (cognitive fluency).

Even small gizmos build on multiple executive functions
•  In working on an experiment in a hands-on lab, building a wind tube at garage studio, or operating an electric crane in a building area, learners move through a sequence of steps in a process and keep on track to reach a goal through planning. Creating a marble-run, building a castle, or creating paper medallions relies on sustained attention (focus); keeping a number of things in mind at once (working memory); making corrections as the mind watches itself (reflection); and resisting the impulse to skip steps in the interest of a larger goal (inhibitory control)

Executive brain function can even support fundraising goals. Patty Belmonte, Executive Director at Hands On! Children’s Museum (Olympia, WA) has shared how she took the children’s museum’s case for play to the business community as part of the museum’s capital campaign. Initially, the response was less than Patty hoped. When she reframed it, however, to relate play’s role in developing executive brain functions, business leaders heard her. They immediately recognized the skills and functions they needed in their employees from her description of self-regulation: attentional focus, perspective taking, making connections, following rules, and persistence in the face of challenges.

How to incorporate executive brain functions into planning visitor and learning experiences may not be immediately obvious. Nevertheless, museums currently use many strategies to develop experiences that encourage self-regulation. Museums prepare the environment, engage visitors, prepare staff and volunteers to give cues and hints; encourage social interactions among visitors; and invite extensive physical and cognitive interactions with objects and phenomena. These approaches, and more, point towards the abundant and varied opportunities museums have to act on their missions, benefit their audience, and serve their communities by deliberately taking advantage of the capacities executive brain functions offer. 

What are you doing in your museum to strengthen executive functions and the skills they use?

References and Resources
•  Berk, L. E., Mann, T. D. and Ogan, A. T. (2006). Make-believe play: Wellspring for development of self-regulation. In Dorothy G. Singer, Michnick Golinkoff, and Hirsh-Pasek, K. (eds.) Play = Learning: How play motivates and enhances children’s cognitive and social-emotional growth. Oxford University Press: New York.
• Galinsky, E. (2010). Mind in the making: The seven essential life skills every child needs. Harper Studio: New York.
• Zimmerman, B. J. (1994). “Dimensions of academic self-regulation: A conceptual framework for education.” In Self-Regulation of Learning and Performance: Issues and Educational Applications, eds. D.H. Schunk & B.J. Zimmerman, 3–24. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
• Mischel, W., Shoda, Y. and Rodriguez, M. L. (1989). Delay of gratification in children. Science. New series. Vol. 244 No. 4907 (may 26).  933-938.
• Blair, C. and Razza, R.P. (2007). Relating effortful control, executive function, and false belief understanding to emerging math and literacy ability in kindergarten. Child Development, Vol 78, Issue 2. (The Pennsylvania State University).
•  Diamond, A. and Lee, K.. (2011). Interventions shown to aid executive function development in children 4 to 12 Years Old. Science 19 August. Vol. 333 no. 6045 pp. 959-964.
• Diamond, A. and Barnette, W. S., Thomas, J. and Munro, S. (2007). Preschool program improves cognitive controls. Science 30 November. 

Tough, P. Can the right kind of pay teach self-control? New York Times. Sept. 27, 2009.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Play Propositions: Alfie Kohn’s & Mine

People who care deeply about play’s critical importance in children’s lives will enjoy Alfie Kohn’s November 16, 2011 article in the Washington PostLocal, "How Children's Play is Being Sneakily Redefined." The article firmly reinforces the value of play. It invites an enthusiastic fist pump with statements like, “The typical American kindergarten now resembles a really bad first-grade classroom.” And it shakes a satisfying finger at institutional barriers to children playing simply for the delight of playing.

Kohn offers two familiar propositions about the presence of play in children’s lives.
  Children should have plenty of opportunities to play. 
  Even young children have too few opportunities these days, particularly in school settings. 

He then sets out five solid propositions that cover less well-worn paths around play.
• “Play” is being sneakily redefined. 
  Younger and older children ought to have the chance to play together. 
  Play isn’t just for children. 
  The point of play is that it has no point. 
  Play isn’t the only alternative to “work.”

Kohn examines these propositions reflecting on his own thinking and drawing on various perspectives, from Ed Miller, to G.K Chesterton, Deborah Meier, and John Dewey. His propositions prompted me to reflect on what I do, might do, or might do less of to advance a play agenda. I am working on four personal play propositions to channel my concern about the lack of play in the lives of children without trampling on the spirit of play. 

• Build on the solid foundation of others that brings together traditional values, current concerns, and forward thinking about play.

• Push beyond intense feeling and frequent repetition of play messages; this can create the illusion of actually changing opportunities for play.

• Search for contrary thinking, outsider perspectives, and new voices; effectively shifting the broad public discourse on play’s presence in kindergarten and in children’s lives requires new approaches.

• Guard against adult seriousness draining the sweet juice out of children’s play.  

I hope you enjoy Kohn's article and, as you read it, think about what  your play propositions might be – and share if you will.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Rounding Out A Year

It’s been just about a year since I started posting weekly entries on Museum Notes. Even though I am a planner, I didn’t plan to write a blog. A few right steps arrived in quick succession. I must have been willing, curious, and/or susceptible.

In September 2010, Paul Orselli posted an interview with me on his terrific ExhibitTricks blog. Looking at his previous interviews took me into a deeper, but casual, exploration of blogs, and museum blogs in particular. Reshuffling the stack of stickies on my desk with notes, quotes, and anecdotes, possible topics to write about took shape. At about the same time, I was writing Planning To Plan to share with clients who were starting a major planning effort to give some concrete steps for the journey ahead. Maybe something like this could be blog-worthy.

Setting up the blog could be a stumbling block, but wasn’t with templates and some just-in-time tips from Mr. Orselli. Planning To Plan became the first post and a happy experiment began. I was somewhat astonished to hear myself telling people to check out Museum Notes, setting an expectation they’d be finding something to read there in the future.

Trying something new and figuring it out as I go along has been a trick, a treat, and a great experiment. Not so long ago, I didn’t know what a blog was and just a year ago, I rarely read blogs, and, certainly not regularly. Over the past year, however, I’ve been reading more and more blogs for interest, ideas, and information. I am astounded at the many blogs out there and am intrigued by how bloggers present fresh views and friendly provocations; I marvel at how prolific some bloggers are and appreciate finding news and current happenings. 
A Library of Ideas
Every day, I catch a few of the humming ideas and loose thoughts that flit across my desk, my screen, the page, or just through the air: educational reform, brain development research, demographic trends, audience research, participation, play. These form a library of ideas for me. Some are captured on stickies, others are penned on any available scrap of paper, and a few actually are printed and clipped together.

I am on the look-out for big ideas I can unpack, relate to museums, and to their relevance and value. I want to gather fragments and consolidate loose ideas about planning, museum practices; play, thinking and learning; experience and environments that have been sloshing about in my head. I am interested in reframing ideas to offer new perspectives and converting ideas and information into tools and practices that museum educators, designers, leaders, evaluators will find useful. I want to inspire, and some times exhort-just a little-to act, experiment, and try things another way.

Writing a blog has become a kind of practice for gathering, viewing, and developing information and ideas. When an idea or topic forms, it feels like spring and a new beginning. Perhaps only a phrase holds it together at first, but it’s enough to carry around with me, almost like a stone, fingering it, rolling it around in my hand, getting a feel for its shape and sheen. I dig out favorite articles and dig into recent studies, google and scan and think roundly about the ideas. What does this really mean? Is really it important? Why? Where can it be put to good use? Who really knows about this? I follow that growing cluster of thoughts to see where they might go. I am often surprised.

The Wrench of Writing
The gap between a thought in my head and how it comes out on paper is always staggeringly larger than I expected. I am apparently a slow learner since this happens again and again. Projecting what’s in my head with what’s on the paper is wrenching, but fortunately interspersed with occasional moments of joy. A word or two or even a sentence is not so hard. But when two or more sentences need to be hooked together in a clear and useful way, the struggle starts.

I search for a small, slim thread of a working idea and follow it.  Soon I am stuck; I stare, I squint, I back up and come at the page from a slightly different angle. Then I rewrite. My husband’s sympathy extends to reminding me that E.B. White said, “The best writing is rewriting.”

Writing is inevitably a discovery process, disciplined, but discovery of what I am thinking that is worth others’ time to read. An idea’s impact is compromised if expressed in a flat or fuzzy way. Sometimes in trying to reveal an elusive point, I lay down a few new words crossing my fingers they will resonate more with my purpose and point in a more productive direction. The idea I am after inevitably lies deeper in the center of the block of stone I have chosen to attack. I must push my thinking harder and further to write, and I suppose that is a good thing.

Those few moments when ideas snap together, useless words disappear, and the way ahead is clearer keep me going. The very tail end of writing, knocking off a few rough edges and polishing up some words, is the most satisfying. Twelve months of writing really hasn’t changed the highs-and-lows of writing. I am still surprised that everything finally comes together and am delighted when I hit the “publish” button.

Looking Ahead
Sharing ideas and resources with colleagues is a great delight as is linking like minds and distant museums, whether with a study or an article I have come across, a tool I have developed, or something I learned from a recent conversation. Museum Notes has allowed me to share more with more people. I never would have imagined that articles, books, tools, images, and links posted on Museum Notes would find their way around the world, yet one quarter of its readers come from 70+ countries around the world, from Argentina to Zimbabwe.

Year one has been an experiment. Year two will be an experiment as well, but hopefully one with more of your input and that of other readers.
•            I am thinking about revisiting several of the topics that have been read most: vision statements, stakeholders, questions, and children’s environments. What aspects of these topics are particularly interesting to you?
•            I really enjoy thinking and writing about materials exploration, loose parts, building, paper, light, mud. What would inspire your explorations?
•            I’ll continue to write about building on strengths–strong children, strong museums, and strong communities–and how this contributes to public value. What do you wish you knew more of in these areas?
•            I hope to continue converting ideas and practices into tools, such as the stakeholder maps, learning frameworks, learning assets, etc. If you have used any of the tools, how helpful have you found them? What other tools might be helpful?
•            Intriguing google searches, such as convergence of museums, show up on Museum Notes' analytics; That is an inviting image. What do you think the convergence of museums might mean? 
•            Are there topics you are interested in that you think are a good fit for Museum Notes? Would you like to see more reviews of exhibits? of museums?
•            And, just in general, what would you like to see more of? Less of?

Thank you for reading the posts, sharing your comments, contacting me with questions, engaging in new conversations, teaching me about our field, and showing me some of the possibilities ahead.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Can Museums Say That?

The US Census recently reported some good news about children and reading. Parents are reading more with their children than they did a decade ago. In fact, according to the report, low-income parents in particular are more involved in reading and talking with their young children. Summarized in the August 9, 2011 Education Week article, Census: Parents Reading More With Their Children this is encouraging news for children, parents, schools, employers, libraries, museums, and communities. Parents' time reading, playing, and talking with their children is considered “quality time” and can have a positive effect on children's developmental progress and success in school.

Some of the largest increases in reading together, playing, and having frequent conversations were for low-income parents of toddlers. This is important and promising for two reasons. First, by far (80%) the greatest variation in public school performance is from family effects, not from school effects. Second, a 1995 study by Betty Hart and Todd R. Risley showed that children of parents on welfare heard significantly less talking by age 3, than children of professional parents. Professional parents engaged their children significantly more in frequent, positive, elaborate verbal interactions that resulted in larger vocabularies before entering school.    

The article points to a convergence of efforts to make parents aware of how important their involvement, in general, and to reading with their children, in particular, is for children’s solid foundation for school. During the past decade, an explosion of programs intended to help parents engage with their children has taken place, from federal literacy initiatives to private non-profit book and literacy programs, including....

…  and children’s museums in particular. The young children and their parents mentioned in the article are the primary audience of children’s museums. They are the toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners and their families served on site in interactive exhibits and family programs; off-site at locations in the community; and through extensive partnerships with early childhood programs and agencies, including Head Start, other programs serving-low-income children, and libraries. Early literacy development is, and has been, a central piece of what children’s museums have been delivering in their role of being both nice and necessary.

A summer 2011 Early Literacy Survey conducted by the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) summarizing the literacy-based activity of museums that serve children reflects wide-spread activity in this area. Of the 75 museums that responded, 88% and 80% reported that they offer programs or exhibits, respectively, that encourage early literacy efforts and support children’s reading proficiency by the end of 3rd grade. Relevant and significant to the US Census report, over 69% of children’s museum respondents work with parents and caregivers to promote parental support for early literacy and reading. Nearly 80% of the programs are targeted to under-served audiences. Most of the programs, 92%, serve the same children and families multiple times. Evidence of measurable results is reported in the survey. Nearly 40% of responding museums report conducting evaluations using qualitative and quantitative measures. A small portion of the museums reported powerful educational outcomes.

Long, Deep and Wide
Literacy-based messages and activities have been integrated into virtually every aspect of children’s museum’s reaching back almost two decades. Literacy was the clear priority in establishing the Treehouse Museum (Ogden, UT), which opened in 1992, with a focus on family literacy and children’s literature. In the early 1990’s, Chicago Children’s Museum supported an extensive multi-year literacy initiative for children and their parents in the Robert Taylor Homes housing project on Chicago’s Southside. In 1994, Minnesota Children’s Museum began its long-term literacy initiative, Ready? Set. Read! that, like similar initiatives in other children’s museums, has served as an umbrella for exhibits, programs, and partnerships. In partnership with the American Library Association, the Museum developed Go Figure!, an interactive book-based math exhibit that began traveling in 2000 to more than 75 museums and libraries across the country.

Besides story times, children’s museums post parent messages about reading, train staff to facilitate interactions, develop and loan kits, distribute books, and incorporate parent tips in newsletters. Exhibits based on well-known children’s books such as Arthur, Curious George, En Mi Familia, Where The Wild Things Are, and The Magic School Bus have been in children’s museums and traveling cross country for 2 decades. Early language development was at the heart of Children’s Museum of Manhattan’s 2004 infant-toddler exhibit Wordplay. Libraries were incorporated into children’s museums beginning in 2000 when The Children's Museum (Indianapolis) created Infozone. Other museum libraries, like the Parent Resource Library at the Children’s Museum of Houston serve parents and other key adults in children’s lives. In the Houston museum, literacy efforts are supported by 2,000 FLIP kits in 35 libraries across Houston.

These and other literacy efforts have had support from the 1995 Museums and Library Services Act that merged museums and libraries at the federal level. A further boost to museums involvement with literacy-based experiences came from the 1995 Library of Congress Center for the Book conference in St. Paul (MN) where existing museum-library partnerships were shared and new possibilities for working together to bring story and literacy-based experiences to children and families were explored.

Here’s the Question
The increase in parent involvement nationally is encouraging and clearly part of an overall mix of partnerships and programs. While difficult to directly link broad increases in parents reading more to their children to specific interventions, I have been noodling about a question. To what extent can children’s museums associate their efforts to the broad increases highlighted in the Census Bureau data?

I am not able to answer to this question. There’s not enough information and I don’t want to invent data. But it's too good an opportunity to let get away. Children’s museums’ early literacy opportunities have been broad and far-reaching; they have been delivered through varied formats to toddlers, preschoolers, and kindergarteners and their parents at museums and in early childhood programs in towns and cities across the country. These efforts are part of a larger trend that could inform education researchers and policy makers. They have implications for children’s museums as recognized and valued assets in their communities as well. Here are 3 suggestions for how children’s museums could leverage the significant early literacy work they have already done.

•                  Build on the literacy work done over the last 2 decades, intentionally, explicitly, and with greater rigor. Carry on with early literacy as a priority or thoughtfully integrated into new initiatives, exhibits, programs, and partnerships. Allocate resources: time, expertise, and funds. Deepen familiarity with relevant studies like Hart & Risley’s; study effective interventions. Assess and improve existing strategies–programs, exhibits, kits, messages–using evidence-based practices. Develop a logic model; monitor indicators; track and share results.

•                  Use existing literacy work to build a better case to show museum supporters how they matter in a recognized area of need. A stronger case starts with looking closely at the data children's museums do have about the programs they have offered; drawing on ACM’s survey; and referencing the trends reported in the Census data. At a minimum, museums can say to their stakeholders–board, staff, volunteers, partners, funders, and policy makers, “There’s greater promise here. We’re actively engaged in a high priority area where evidence is mounting about positive change. We’re encouraged. Help us with this important work.” 
•                  Conduct a study survey so in 10 years when another Census report comes out, museums won’t be asking themselves whether they contributed to the change in parents reading more to their children or to more children reading at grade level. Thinking ahead is critical to showing impact. This would involve an extensive coordinated effort among many museums with a representative sample of families in communities served by children's museums across the country, looking at museum program participation, and exploring parent involvement in reading to their children and in their child’s education. 

I want to read this study.