Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Raising Citizens

Last year I wrote about Customers, Learners, Citizens. I often write about children. In the broader culture, we are doing quite well in raising customers. In museums, schools, and homes, we work hard at raising learners. How do we raise citizens?

We talk about children and youth becoming global citizens and citizens of the world. Civic literacy is one of five 21st Century Themes in Museums and Libraries, and 21stCentury Skills.  Schools and colleges, churches and synagogues set requirements for children and youth to complete community service requirements. Kindergarten and first grade study units typically include getting to know the community and community helpers.

In many children’s museums, a city or streetscape with shops, bus, fire truck and streetlight are extensive settings. The expectation seems clear that young children should be learning about the community from play in settings with civic associations–dressing as a fire fighter, passing the town square on the way to the grocery store, delivering mail, or climbing aboard the bus. Although these settings  facilitate valuable social negotiation, rich language, and drawing on previous experience, I am unaware of evidence that shows  they are also helping to grow citizens. Perhaps when a group of children organize themselves around a sequence of putting out a fire and saving a cat in Our Town, they are engaged in a civic narrative of assistance and responsibility. I'm not sure that's adequate.

How do we grow citizens and what role can museums play?
The answer to this question is not, I repeat–not–an adult framed and delivered civics lesson, not even an innovative civics instruction about voting, the Constitution, or volunteering. It is not a screed against partisan sniping or voter apathy, nor is it an argument for giving children the vote. Raising citizens is about shifting our perspectives on children to…
•                  See them as citizens today
•                  Recognize their capabilities
•                  Strengthen relationships between the child and the community

Citizens Today
When we gravely refer to children as future citizens, our voices become thick and low; this is serious. Putting future between children and citizens, however, suggests otherwise by postponing a decade or two of opportunities for children to actually be citizens. If children are to be future citizens, why ignore early and middle childhood and the teens? 

Carlina Rinaldi of the Municipal Infant Toddler Centers and Preschools of Reggio Emilia (Italy) frames the alternative: "The child is not in the future, the future is his work. The child is now, he is a citizen since the day he is born and has rights." Children are citizens today. Now. This moment.

I suspect we don’t think of children as citizens now because we focus on what they can’t do by using as a measure what we think they will be able to do in the future. A three year old can’t read yet and can’t ride a two-wheeler. A seven-year old is not an abstract thinker and doesn’t think using multiple variables. In this deficit-based view, a three-year old simply turns into an inadequate five-year old rather than a competent, accomplished three-year old who will become an equally capable five-year old in just two years. In this respect, I believe, we are not taking children seriously at all.

Capable Children
In a view of children as citizens now, however, their capabilities and strengths become the focus. This includes the presence of empathy and appreciation in toddlers. Last year, four colleagues in a Twin Cities school district gave themselves the task of focusing on helping behaviors and acts of kindness among toddlers and preschoolers in their classrooms. This was a shift from a perceived focus on problem and negative behaviors. Their focused observations noticed, for instance, a child desiring a particularly beautiful bead that another child had and receiving a promise of one similarly beautiful bead being found for her or being given that one. A classmate spent time finding another beautiful bead. After regularly noticing unprompted acts of kindness among young children during play, this group now sees these behaviors as the norm in the classroom. Acts of kindness and generosity, they have decided, are generative. This project, described more fully in Tomsensori’s blog, includes videos that capture moments of kindness and appreciation.

Children’s capacity to be citizens is widespread and not rare. Citizen-relevant capacities unfold continuously throughout early and middle childhood and beyond. Around eight years, children respond to stories concerning fairness and justice; they are interested in topics related to interdependence. Soon after, their ability to deal with multiple variables emerges. Around eleven years, children’s capacity to de-center and see the world from various perspectives increases; they are able and willing to see both sides of an argument.

Such developmental changes are occurring in children who are born researchers, discovering and navigating this moment and the next. Nourished by a joy of questioning, children are growing a sense of possibility and efficacy; they are intent on fully knowing and inhabiting their world. A child who searches everyday for the reasons for things, who searches to understand something, and who draws out meaning is constructing his world, a world that is rapidly changing and, day by day, becoming the future.

Seeing and Being Seen By the City
Children have considerable capacity to be citizens now and in the future. Opportunities and experiences, however, can’t be limited to recreated cities or fenced in playgrounds where children play among themselves and peek through a fence at a larger world. To flourish, children need real encounters in the places they live, play, and go to school; in their neighborhood, town, or city; and with family, friends, and new faces. Meaningful ways for them to make sense of their civic world come from opportunities and experiences to participate that are grounded in a spectrum of the community’s vitality, complexities, and realities.

The community serves as a fund of knowledge, providing resources and revealing relationships embedded in community, neighborhood, and home. As children experience the city directly, the abstract concept of community dissolves. When children move around and through the city, when they walk, take busses, ride bikes, and travel by car, they come to know the city. When they photograph the river, follow the railroad tracks, or study their city, the parts, people, and relationships that make up the community become visible. The possible ways of taking care of one another and of valued places come into focus. Real life, in-community experiences activate and strengthen connections and a sense of belonging essential to helping children find their way and their place.

When children meet an expert potter, write with a local poet, visit the waterworks department, interview a community gardener, or gather data in a ladybug count with scientists, they engage in meaningful opportunities to think, learn, decide, and lead. As children actively engage in and with their community, they become visible and remembered by the community. Just as children need to see the city, the city needs to see, remember, and value their children.

The Habits of a Community
Children grow into our expectations of them. They follow our examples of being civil or uncivil in voice, tone, gesture, and action. They watch as parents, neighbors, and grandparents actively participate in their community, vote, reach out to others, listen to voices they disagree with, take them seriously–or not.

The habits of a community develop the habits of children. In serving their communities and as parts of their communities, museums have roles to play in developing those habits and raising citizens. Museums can recognize children as citizens now, see and build on their strengths and competencies, and engage them in real experiences. 

In museums we can notice acts of kindness and helping behaviors among children. We can draw on their questions and understandings of their streets, bridges, sewers, buildings, and parks. We can invite them to explore the real workings of the city and open the museum to their ideas and discoveries. We can pair them with artists, tinkerers, chefs, inventors, and writers. We can involve them in community-based projects of today, for tomorrow. In an effort to raise citizens, we can grow the ways in which  we see children as citizens and expand the roles museums play (and play well) to help raise citizens.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Pocketful of Planning Quotes

A planner likes to be prepared whether it is digging into a project, going into a work session, or pulling it all together. While every situation–museum and process–is different, a planner has some preferred gear for what needs to be done: to have a possible end state in mind, a set of questions that invite consideration of attractive alternatives, a broad agenda, post-its, big paper, markers, a camera, a few stories, and a pocketful of quotes.

A well-timed quote can make a point, introduce a perspective, or ease the atmosphere and do so eloquently. The quote can serve as a reminder for me, reinvigorate a discussion, reassure a struggling team, or illuminate possibilities for staff or a board working across multiple contexts. As I pull the quotes out of my pocket, I notice that, generally speaking, they are not from planners. Instead, they are insights from solid thinkers in literature, education, arts, and business. 

Go as far as you can see. When you get there, you’ll be able to see farther. A light bulb went on for me when I first heard this quote and I enjoy being able to turn a light on for others. Attributed to both Thomas Carlyle and to J. P. Morgan, these words capture the planning landscape that stretches near and far. They highlight the importance of perspective, hold a promise that moving forward will reveal more, and clearly imply there's new ground that must be covered.

Making things explicit is a best practice in itself. When I came across this in a Harvard Business Review article about 10 years ago, it more than spoke to me; it shouted. I’ve searched, without success, for the writer who managed to distill the on-going need for clarity of thinking and shared understanding among co-workers into one brief statement. I work with many groups who use the same key words–like strategic  intuitively interactive, learning, developmentally appropriate–but have very different definitions. Investing time in defining ideas, terms, or practices, allows a group to think, explore, and get on to doing important work together rather than spinning wheels and backtracking.  

…breakthrough results come about by a series of good decisions, diligently executed and accumulated on top of another. Reading this in Jim Collin’s Good To Great, reminded me of the hard work of doing good work. Dreams open up possibilities, passion adds fuel, and both are needed. Often the most useful contribution a planner makes is encouraging a group to focus, sustain their efforts at making small changes that add up to big changes for children, youth, families, and a community.

Chaos is the beginning. Simplicity is the end. I love the primordial ooze at the beginning of projects or enterprises (Perhaps the Dutch artist, M.C. Escher, did as well.) This is the phase when potential is enormous but fuzzy; possibilities bump, mingle and merge with one another. Within this chaos there are ideas to wrestle with, open up, sort out, test for their power, and discover a working order. Not everyone on a team enjoys this murky phase, but virtually everyone enjoys finding a home for their dream when the chaos subsides.

What quotes provide guidance and inspiration as you plan?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Strategic, Not Strategic

Once I saw a simple children’s television cartoon illustrating a basic concept of wind. First came a simple drawing of a child whose hair stood straight up when squiggly lines vibrated along with a whoosh sound; a voice from nowhere said, “wind.” Next a frame showed the same child with neat, tidy hair. No squiggly lines  vibrated, there was no whoosh; the voice said, “no wind.” Several "wind", "no wind" repetitions followed. This clear, simple demonstration of a concept and its opposite delighted me. I promised to find ways to use it to illustrate elusive concepts.


Not windy
One application of this elegant method that is helpful to me and to museum staff and boards I work with is to contrast strategic and non-strategic. In museums and during planning work, strategic, and its parent word, strategy, are often tossed about freely and often in casual ways. Considering how frequently the words are used, it's surprising how little they are clarified for the context they are used. Strategy is used in military as well as business, academic, education, healthcare, and non-profit context. It is used to mean plan, positioning, ploy, pattern, and perspective.

Should you be in a planning session, an interview, or budget discussion, don’t pick your favorite definition of strategic and cross your fingers. A situation that happened repeatedly in one museum suggests why not. An executive director would tell her senior managers to “be strategic” in developing a platform or an initiative. Several weeks later when they presented their work, she felt they hadn’t really been strategic and repossessed the assignment. I’ve wondered what she thought strategic meant and what her managers thought it meant given that dynamic.

It’s not easy to define these words and recent checks–on-line, in planning books and journals, and in my notes and files–re-confirm this. A few paltry definitions exist like, “…of or relating to strategy.” There’s an abundance of military definitions and references to strategy. Strategic describes innumerable efforts such as strategic planning, thinking, awareness, management, and communications. 

Not surprisingly, these words feel big, impressive, intimidating. Being strategic is frequently confused with an interest in big ideas, being bold or intellectual; the overlap is not automatic. Equally often, being strategic is buzz. The result often is staff pursuing small, unconnected actions or boards captivated by big fuzzy ideas. 

A Working Definition for Strategic
After gathering, sifting, and distilling definitions of strategic, here’s my working definition for strategic in a museum context. It’s not a big, fancy, conceptual idea, and that’s the point. Strategic is:
An integrated perspective that ties explicitly to a larger intended effect.

Integrated means spanning the museum’s functional (or departmental) areas and serving both internal (organizational) and external (community) interests. This is a systems perspective of the organization as a whole with interconnecting parts. Furthermore, what goes on outside the museum–the community’s vitality, other culturals, even the weather–impacts the museum.

                • Larger, intended effect might mean achieving the mission, vision, sustainability, or a competitive position. It involves stepping back and viewing things from a broader vantage point. Concern is more with the gap between today’s reality and intent for the future than with today’s reality.

A few implications follow from this working definition. First, a strategic perspective differs from an operational, or tactical, perspective. Focusing on things running more smoothly or efficiently, operational concerns might involve extending a best practice, integrating software systems, or updated safety training for staff. Being strategic is not better than being operational; but it is better to know the difference, use each as appropriate, and coordinate them.

Second, being strategic is an ongoing perspective applied to everyday decisions. It is not just confined to a strategic planning process every five years. Knowing the overarching reasons for what a museum is trying to accomplish is necessary and front-and-center. There’s no reason a working definition of strategic shouldn’t be developed and shared plainly, broadly and frequently within a museum. Critical to where every museum is headed, strategic is integral to discussions and decisions about everything from shaping goals, developing budgets, setting targets, allocating staffing, deciding on outsourcing, working with partners, and cultivating funders.

Finally, a perspective that encompasses a broader, longer view and takes into account the interaction of contexts is more likely to create material change. This potential, rather than incremental progress, is the value of being strategic. Admittedly, being strategic involves being concerned with and taking action in a context of uncertainty.

Wind, No Wind…Strategic, Not Strategic                                                                                
Using the wind, no wind method, here’s a pass at some actions museums take. Some are strategic; others are not strategic; often something leans into being strategic just as there can be some wind, but not much.

•  Interested in increasing attendance? Many museums are. A typical goals is to get more visitors to the museum; alone, that is not strategic. Focusing on getting more of the right visitors to the museum is strategic. Who the right visitors are relates to the museum’s larger interests and its mission. Increase the number of visitors in a target audience group, underserved members of the community, family groups, or a mix of visitors who can pay full price and those who can’t also helps the museum reach other goals. Getting more of the right visitors relies on marketing, education, exhibits, and visitor services all working together.

• Even when budget trimming is essential, cutting the budget 10% across the board is not strategic. It may seem bold and  carry the aura of being more strategic than it is. Slicing 10% everywhere makes no distinction about where services affect visitors most, where resources are accomplishing more (or less), in what areas the museum is over-extended or off-mission, where risk accompanies cuts, or where cuts hobble efforts to grow income. Finding cuts amounting to 10% of the budget is strategic when they factor these considerations and serve the highest priority, the long-term health of the organization.

•  Expanding the museum’s physical footprint is not strategic; it might just be a case of building envy or ambition. Creating a larger community footprint, however, is strategic. A bigger building may be necessary to accommodate a museum’s increased and established community leadership role; a new function like a science preschool; or increased access to parts of its collection relevant to the community’s past.

•  A digital dashboard of indicators looks cool. If it’s an exercise in counting attendance and membership, it's not strategic. On the other hand, it is strategic if the metrics are counting what counts. Meaningful metrics track a museum’s performance across key areas; they are monitored, shared, factored into decisions, and inform new goals that make progress towards larger goals such as sustainability, community engagement, or being a recognized and valued resource.

•  Reorganizing staff happens often and in small ways. Adding an assistant position to development, increasing hours in guest services, or combining marketing and public relations can be efficient, enhance communication, or serve visitors better; this is not strategic. Restructuring staff based on results of a MAP (Museum Assessment Program) report or to implement a strategic plan is moving towards strategic. Realigning staff to act on the museum’s mission of life-long learning to provide a continuum of experiences across the life span is strategic.

•  Prototyping is a best practice; building capacity to prototype in-house to test and redesign exhibit components leans into being strategic. Connecting prototyping to a long-term museum or learning interest becomes strategic. When an in-house prototyping team develops expertise in extending visitor engagement, actively involving parents, or increasing conversation in family groups, documents it, and recycles it into exhibit development and design–now that’s strategic.

• Strategic is not always big. Small experiments can be strategic. Interest in better serving or growing the upper end of the age range in a children’s museum can, for instance, be explored in a series of steps as a strategic experiment. Such work might: observe exhibit areas where this age group already has a greater presence and spends more time; interview them about what they like about the activity or area and why; develop and add similar layers in other areas of the museum; observe for changes in the presence of this age group in those areas. Repeat for another area of the museum. Monitor for changes in the presence of this age group in the museum. 

A Change In Outlook
Wind, no wind. Strategic, not strategic. These simple illustrations shift the possibility of seeing things differently: seeing the organization in a long view; noticing the interconnections between parts; and following how individual actions feed into a larger system or story. While nothing, in fact, really changes, looking at things differently, strategically, leads to making different choices. Making different choices, strategic choices, creates change. 

It’s not as simple as turning on the fan, but it’s a start. 


Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Light Table Explorations

It may be the short days and long dark nights of winter, especially in the northern tier of states that make me think about light tables. I am always attracted to them, but now, especially, I love the pool of light spilling out from it  and illuminating the faces and hands of children and adults.

A light table typically has a translucent top illuminated from below and is often used for making tracings, examining color transparencies, back-lighting–except when it’s not. These tables are used in architect’s offices, design studios,  for home crafts, in museums and preschools. When they are in exhibits, art studios or preschools, they might be covered with sand or salt, doilies, blocks, or x-rays.

Light tables have found their way to museums and preschools from several sources. One is the pioneering work of Victor D’Amico, the first director of education (1937 - 1969) of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). His philosophy of creative teaching placed children at the center and connected creativity to innovation for preparing children to live in a democratic society. One of the motivational objects D’Amico designed for MoMA’s studio classes first called the Young People’s Gallery was a table-top light box where children could mix colors to create new ones using colored Plexiglas shapes.

More recently, light tables have found a place in museums inspired by the innovative pedagogy practiced in the preschools and infant-toddler centers of the city of Reggio Emilia (Italy). In these centers, there is great respect for the child as a capable learner and recognition of the environment as teacher and source of beauty. Teachers observe, listen, and record learning about children’s thinking. Light is considered a material, a language, and a way for children to create new languages and possibilities.

Dialogues With Light
Light is something you can touch and yet, not really touch. This and the power of illumination invite small hands, roomy imaginations, artists’ sensibilities, and scientists’ observations to engage in playful and serious explorations. It’s not unusual to see children and adults encountering light tables in immediate sensory, physical, and emotional ways.

A light infused building platform
Investigations may start with mixing colors, stacking and overlapping colored Plexi paddles, tissue paper, or colored cellophane paper to see what happens and to make new colors. From a basket a child may select everything green and arrange a landscape. This landscape may dissolve into patterns of shells and buttons or a collage made with plastic caps, sea glass, or pom-poms.

Papel Picado  patterns in En Mi Familia

Sorting and arranging objects and materials on the light table, one child might notice that light shines through some objects a lot, others a little, and some not at all. Another child is interested in the patterns of light and dark from paper doilies, perforated designs of papel picado, holes punched in paper, and mesh. Why does light pass through the acrylic prism one way and pass through differently if the prism is turned around? Light invites spoken and unspoken questions ? What does this object look like when filled with light? Where are the shadows when light comes form below?

Illuminating bones at Explora
Placing a book and small figures at the light table or paper puppets or paper dolls, children tell and retell stories to themselves, friends, and parents. They explore the form and feel of letter and number shapes swirling yarn or bending wire or glow sticks; they make squiggles in the sand, or trace shapes with a pen on transparencies. The vocabulary of light, its properties, and effects emerges and grows from these explorations: bright, glisten, glow, glimmer, shimmer, soft, shine, sparkly, shadowy, luminous.
Clearing the way for light, small hands plow sand
The light table makes it easier to see what can otherwise be difficult to see. A face glows as someone leans across the light with a new question, shares a crumpled candy wrapper, or points to the pool of light on the ceiling. Light tables illuminate x-rays and reveal the insides of snakes; the light shows the delicate details of a flower petal, feathers or a butterfly wing, enlarged under a magnifier.

There isn’t any subject matter area that the naturally interdisciplinary light table and its vast array of companion materials can’t cover in open-ended ways. To these rich possibilities, children and adults bring their interests, their many ways of exploring and knowing, and what is beautiful to them about the light.

Bringing Good Things to Light
I am impressed with the capacity of light tables–in their many variations in school, exhibit, and studio settings–to engage both children and adults. Light tables seem to have physical, social, and cognitive dimensions that work together as if as a single dimension. In a semi-darkened area, light connects people and establishes a sense of place, often in an evocative and beautiful way. Within this place, it is possible to explore the physical and expressive qualities of light.   

I am also drawn to how easy it is to be competent and creative at light tables at every age. Intent and absorbed as they explore light tables, infants and toddlers will pull themselves up on and crawl over light tables; with each movement they notice how light interacts with and changes different materials and objects, including their hands. Light tables also capture the attention and interest of adults as children’s companions, engaging their questions and ideas. But they are not just for children or for adults who are with children. Perhaps you remember the u-tube video of Kseniya Simonova, a Ukrainian artist who combined music and her sand painting skills to depict Germany's invasion and occupation of Ukraine during WWII.  

Changing the set-up or setting of a light table–even just slightly–generates intriguing new possibilities. Place mirrors along the side, at the end, or overhead to reflect children’s activity to the child as well as to the adult. Shift from a flat to angled surface or from white to colored lights. Place a tub with bubble solution on top of the light table; spread the table with sand; put the light table inside a small tent; or add an overhead projector to project colors, shapes on the wall. Any of these variations launch new explorations.

Museum of Science, London     Light wall in Reggio Emilia

Follow The Light
• The same mylar light box step-by-step: http://makeprojects.com/Project/Mylar-Light-Box/153/1
• Science Museum of London’s light table: www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/objects/interactives/launchpad/light_table.aspx