Monday, July 16, 2012

Learning + Literacy

Several years ago, as part of developing the master plan for the Minneapolis Central Library’s Children’s Library, I researched and summarized connections between learning and literacy. I wasn’t surprised to find connections, but seeing how closely learning and literacy map onto one another was striking.

While I developed this for a library, the close connections between museums and libraries and the relationship between learning and literacy also brought the public value of museums into sharper focus. The same life-long, active, social, meaning-making process that characterizes both learning and literacy is very much at the foundation of what museums do that matters. Engaging with objects, art, artifacts, in family, school, and community groups are the active ingredients of learning and literacy. These activities and experiences are fundamental to the 21st century learning of museum-goers as well as to the long-term priorities of communities. Every day in museums, millions of people look, point, talk, remember, imagine, and question; they listen, observe, notice, wonder, compare, investigate, reflect, build, and create. In these countless moments are the opportunities for museums to build and strengthen the life-long arc of learning for a five-year old in Cranston, a 12-year old in Norwalk, a family in Bozeman, grandparents in Madison, and couple in Los Angeles.

The interactions between literacy and learning in museums are more than just interesting. They point to where we need to pay close attention, understand and follow the connection, and deliberately shape experiences that invite, encourage, support, extend, and document moments of learning and the span of  learning across a lifetime.

The early years last a lifetime. From birth to five, children rapidly develop foundational capabilities on which later development builds.i. Research on early brain development indicates that organic changes in the brain and environmental effects work together.ii The neural system is activity-dependent, affected by smell, touch, movement, social interaction, talking, singing, cooing, and reading. The adults providing nurturance and support, security, predictability and encouragement are essential for infant learning.iii
Early experiences with language lay the foundation for later literacy iv. Children take their first critical steps towards reading and writing very early in life.v From birth, babies are learning: developing knowledge about spoken language from the sounds they hear, hearing their names repeatedly and listening to simple songs. The sounds and touch that go with speaking and reading to infants and toddlers expand neural connections that are used in reading and writing years later.

Learning begins at home. Long before children arrive at school, the foundation for learning and reading is established. In asking and answering questions, taking children to libraries and museums, spending time on homework, parents convey the value of learning. Dispositions, the tendency to exhibit frequently and voluntarily a pattern of behavior, are more likely to be acquired through modeling by the people around children than by didactic
Parents play a key role in raising readers. From early interactions with their parents, children hear sounds, use words, identify letters, and process letter-sound relations–all before entering school. The young child who hears and enjoys many stories is also beginning to read, from learning how to hold a book, to knowing where to begin to read the text, to developing early concepts about print, to understanding narratives.vii

Learning is an active process. Learning is not the passive acceptance of knowledge that is out there but involves the learner in engaging with the world. Learners use sensory input to construct meaning.viii
Literacy skills develop through active exploration in settings rich with images, words, objects, views, and people to talk with.ix  Wider access to books, and objects, exploring spaces that are engaging, varied and sensory rich, and using authentic props and materials that extend engagement encourage children’s language.x

We learn to learn as we learn. Learning is both building meaning and building systems of meaning. For instance, learning a chronology of dates of historical events also teaches the meaning of a chronology.xi
The more we hear and read, the more we know. Hearing more language and richer language, enhances children’s language development xii. Talking to and reading to children increase their language development xiii  that in turn encourages reading and talking.

Constructing meaning is mental. Making meaning happens in the mind. Hands-on learning and other physical activities may be necessary for learning, especially for children. But learning must engage the mind as well as the hands.xiv
Language is essential for making meaning.
Language gives order to thought. Many types of talk help the child to make connections between the meanings and language forms of text and his actual experiences, including the use of language in other familiar contexts.xv

Learning involves language. Language and learning are inextricably enmeshed; language does not just express thoughts but actually helps form thoughts. Learning is mediated by language, socio-cultural context, artifacts, and people.xvi
Talking, reading, and writing build literacy skills and broader understandings. Being read to introduces young children to the parts of a book, to new people and places, ideas, and possibilities. Reading and playing engage children with spoken and written language in a constant back and forth between thought and word.xvii

Learning is a social activity. Learning does not occur in a vacuum but in a social realm in which ideas are shared and shaped through expression and discussion.xviii From the very start, children’s social relationships affect their learning.
Positive social interactions related to reading create a disposition to read. Language, the foundation of reading, is by nature a social activity.xix Parents talking to their infants; a young child being read to in a parent’s lap; a new reader reading aloud to a grandparent; and readers of all ages talking about stories and characters develop and strengthen the habit of reading.

Learning takes time. Over time, meaning is built up layer upon layer, bringing greater depth to understanding.xx  Revisiting an idea; pondering it, playing it out and connecting it with other ideas; testing, reflecting and putting ideas to use take time.
Early, regular, and on-going exposure to language and books builds literacy. Even with very young children, reading a story takes time: time to read, talk about the story, letting the child hold the book.xxi

Motivation is essential to learning. Learning is associated with movement toward an optimal level of neural stimulation.xxii Rewarding activity, a balance between challenge and success and an understanding how knowledge can be used help encourage the effort required to learn.
Personal interests motivate people to find out what they want or need to know.xxiii Interests in hobbies, sports, vehicles, crafts, arts, music, or travel are starting points for reading, finding books, asking questions, and looking up references.xxiv An otherwise reluctant reader may be motivated to read to learn about flight, look up amazing facts, or read about a sports champion.
 Now What?
After you have looked over these learning and literacy connections, consider what you might do as you: develop an exhibit, write the annual report, greet a visitor, talk to your board, set materials out for an activity, sell a membership, hire staff, write a proposal, speak at a school board meeting, orient new staff, cultivate an organization to partner with, write job descriptions, introduce an activity in a program, evaluate staff performance, write label copy, develop the budget, update the museum’s FaceBook page, plan a donor event, answer a parent’s question, develop project goals, revise membership benefits, orient interns and volunteers, work with faculty at a college or university, evaluate an initiative, talk to the Chamber of Commerce, convene advisors, or visit your state representative or town councilor. 

i Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. (Eds.). (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early child development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
ii Shonkoff, J. P., & Phillips, D. (Eds.). (2000). From neurons to neighborhoods: The science of early child development. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.
iii Vygtosky, L.N. (1962) Thought and Language. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA. (As cited in Hein, George. (1992). Proceedings from ICOM/CECA Annual Conference, 1991. ICOM.)
iv Neuman, Susan B. and Donna Celano, (2010). Every Child Ready to Read. Public Library Association., American Library Association: Chicago, IL.
v Zero To Three: Early Literacy. (2003).
vi Katz, Lillian G. Dispositions as Educational Goals. ERIC Digest. 1993.
vii International Reading Association and The National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1998). Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children. Young Children. Young Children. Washington DC.
viii Hein, George. (1992). Proceedings from ICOM/CECA Annual Conference, 1991. ICOM.
ix Roskos, Kathleen and James Christie. (2001). “On Not Pushing Too Hard: A Few Cautionary Remarks About Linking Literacy and Play.” Young Children: 56:64-66.
x Roskos, K., & Neuman, S. B. (2001). Environment and its influences for early literacy teaching and learning. In S. B. Neuman & D. Dickinson (Eds.), Handbook of early literacy research (Vol. Volume I, pp. 281-294). New York: Guilford.
xi Hein, George. (1992). Proceedings from ICOM/CECA Annual Conference, 1991. ICOM.
xii Hart, B., & Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful differences. Baltimore, MD: Brookes.
xiii Huck, Charolotte S, Susan Hepler, and Janet Hickman. (1989). Children’s Literature in the Elementary School. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers. New York.
xiv Hein, George. (1992). Proceedings from ICOM/CECA Annual Conference, 1991. ICOM.
xv Wells, Gordon. (2003) Children Talk Their Way Into Literacy. In J.R. García (Ed.) Enseñar a escribir sin prisas…pero con sentido. Sevilla, Spain: Publicaciones M.C.E.P.
xvi Lee, C. D. and P. Smagorinsky (Eds.), (2000). Vygostkian Perspectives on Literacy Research. New York: Cambridge University Press.
xvii Forman, George E. (1992). Research on Early Science Education. In Seefeldt, Carol (Ed.) The Early Childhood Education Curriculum. Teachers College Press. New York.
xviii Lally, J. Ronald. (1998). Brain Research, Infant Learning and Child Care Curriculum. Child Care Information Exchange. 5/98. Redmond WA.
xix Zero To Three: Early Literacy. (2003).
xx Hein, George. (1992). Proceedings from ICOM/CECA Annual Conference, 1991. ICOM.
xxi Huck, Charolotte S, Susan Hepler, and Janet Hickman. (1989). Children’s Literature in the Elementary School. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers. New York.
xxii Huck, Charolotte S, Susan Hepler, and Janet Hickman. (1989). Children’s Literature in the Elementary School. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers. New York.
xxiii Falk, John H. and Lynn D. Dierking. (2002). Lessons Without Limits. Altamira Press: Walnut Creek, CA.

1 comment:

  1. My apologies to those of you who were sent to a blank page when you clicked on a footnote. I believe I have corrected this.