Thursday, August 16, 2012

Conceptual Frameworks: Thinking Out Loud


Three stickie notes with thought fragments scratched on them have been flipping across my desk over the last few weeks. They are the product of professional reading and preparation for a workshop, Bringing an Organizational Perspective to Evaluation that I presented at the Visitor Studies Conference in Raleigh. One stickie says: Conceptual framework: Ecologies of Parent Engagement (Barton, Drake, Perez, et al. 2004) Another says: Positive Youth Development (PYD). The third says: conceptual framework OR theoretical framework?



Conceptual frameworks haven’t been very much on my radar. I find references to a “conceptual framework” in evaluation studies where they are unpacked as context for situating a study’s results. While familiar and useful in the world of research and evaluation, conceptual frameworks have not yet migrated very far into other areas of museum practice.

Recently the three stickie notes have assembled a Ouiga board kind of message to suggest that conceptual frameworks might be used in other ways to advance a museum’s visitor, learning and experience interests. If we can use a conceptual framework to look at a study’s results, why not use it in planning the experiences that a study might, or hopefully, will eventually look at critically? 

Can museums, I wonder, use conceptual frameworks as something like a theory of action about how to change, improve, or strengthen themselves, the audiences they serve, and their community?

What IS a Conceptual Framework?
While not completely unfamiliar with conceptual frameworks, I am 
not nimble working with them. My fuzzy feel for what conceptual frameworks are isn’t adequate for defining them, so I have checked a few sources. It was easy to find that conceptual frameworks are of interest to research in academia, business, and social sciences. It was also easy to gather that current usage of the term is considered vague and imprecise. And while every source I found cites Miles and Huberman (1984) for a definition of conceptual frameworks, discussions about distinctions among variables, factors, and concepts are lively. Conceptual frameworks are variously described as:
• A set of assumptions that can help outline possible courses of action or a preferred approach to an idea or thought.
• An organized way of thinking about how and why a set of activities takes place and how we understand them.
A less developed form of a theory that links abstract concepts to empirical data.

The last description best fits with the ways I think museums could use conceptual frameworks: informed guidance in planning experiences to advance their mission and accomplish major goals. The link between theory and research is fundamental. An attractive but abstract concept like positive youth development becomes useful when backed up by evidence of, for example, increased positive developmental outcomes like confidence or caring or a reduction in specific negative behaviors. Viewed as a less developed form of a theory, a conceptual framework takes accommodates the lively, unpredictable, real-world conditions of museums serving thousands of people with varied expectations, exploring exhibits, looking at objects, and interacting with one another. 

This description also yokes theory, research, and practice together as valued and complementary ways to advance understanding in museum work everyday. As a theory with supporting research, a conceptual framework can focus work, frame choices, and inform the supporting practices about how to create the conditions–the spaces, activities, materials, labels, and facilitation–to help produce desired experiences for the children and adults who visit.

At its most basic, a conceptual framework is a useful tool if there is:
• a theory with research backing it up;
• relevance to a museum’s mission, strategic, and learning interests; and
• meaningful input from internal and externals stakeholders at appropriate points.

Museums are constantly unrolling the map of territory they are interested in–a theory. A conceptual framework, or several selected ones, provides a way of looking at or interpreting that territory. Museums then ask, what do we know about that territory? and go about finding out–research. In looking at what they have learned and how to use that new knowledge, museums modify their approaches–practices. In successive steps, they revisit and revise conceptual frameworks tailoring them to their purposes.

Working With a Conceptual Framework
I have a hunch that many museums or museum practitioners are already working with conceptual frameworks in creating visitor experiences without really thinking very much about it. This is better than having no navigational coordinates. It is not as helpful without the benefits of selecting, or acknowledging, a conceptual framework, and then applying it deliberately to see what it looks like in a particular museum.

A conceptual framework or a set of conceptual frameworks provides a museum with a touchstone, a common and a constant reference point for work by many people over time. When a group of people working together selects and uses a conceptual framework, they need to be explicit about what questions to address, how to go about addressing them, and explaining how effectively they actually are. A shared framework facilitates prioritizing, identifying which features of an experience to focus on, which factors count, and what to abandon. From one project to the next, a conceptual framework provides a shared interpretive perspective for looking at and understanding what is happening and how it can be changed as a museum tries to engage parents, increase conversation, or extend dwell-time at an exhibit.

Sometimes the assumptions underlying a conceptual framework or its situational focus may readily align with a museum. Just as likely, a framework won’t be easily transferable from one context to another. Perhaps it has been developed for school settings or libraries and is being considered for a museum. It can still be applicable, but its limitations should be noted and worked with. These gaps are probably where a museum will focus its efforts in tailoring the conceptual framework to more capably assist the museum in accomplishing its aims.

Some Conceptual Frameworks
A couple of conceptual frameworks for museums have been right before my eyes. There are others that are probably a launch point for a conceptual framework, and still more I haven't met yet. 

As the beginning list below suggests, conceptual frameworks are varied; they come from diverse contexts, can be tailored to a specific museum, applied to a project or may define an entire museum’s strategic stance. Some models and strategies like Habits of Mind or Visual Thinking Strategies that are familiar in museums have similarities to, but don’t appear to actually be, conceptual frameworks. 

What do you think about the list below and about bringing conceptual frameworks into the larger playing field of museum practice?

• Family Learning: Ellenbogen, Kirsten, Jessica Luke, and Lynn Dierking. (2004). “Family Learning Research in Museums: An Emerging Disciplinary Matrix?” Science Education. July 2004.
• Positive Youth Development (PYD). There are many sources two of which are:
Lerner, Richard M et al. “Positive Development of Youth, Participation in Community Youth Development Programs, and Community Contributions of Fifth-Grade Adolescents: Findings From the First Wave of the 4-H Study of Positive Youth Development”. Journal of Early Adolescence. Vol. 25 No. 1 Feb. 2005 17-71.
Catalano, Richard. M. Lisa Berglund, Jean A. M. Ryan, Heather Lonczak and J. David Hawkins. 2004. Positive Youth Development in the US: Research Findings on Evaluations of Positive Youth Development. ANALS, AAPSS, 591. January 2004.
• Ecologies of Parent Engagement in Urban Education. Barton, A. C., Drake, C., J. G. Perez, K. St. Louis, & M. George. 2004. Educational Researcher, 33(4), 3-12.
Every Child Ready to Read by the Public Library Association of the American Library Association used in Storyland: A Trip Through Childhood Favorites created by Minnesota Children’s Museum.
• A conceptual framework for the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute is discussed in, “The Place and Role of the Exploratorium’s Teacher Institute in Strengthening the Teaching of Science” (2006) by Judy Hirabayashi and Laura Stokes.

Thanks very much to Cheryl Kessler at Blue Scarf Consulting for talking out loud about conceptual frameworks with me.

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