Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Updating Learning Frameworks

Completing a learning framework is a heady, almost triumphant, feeling of accomplishment and relief. At this point, a museum has explored the convergence of its strategic and learning interests, consolidated its most important ideas about learning, and clarified its potential to create learning value for its visitors and community. A museum team has brought together, organized, and made explicit a set of powerful, attractive, and tacitly-held ideas and assumptions about children and adults learning in informal settings, and specifically in their setting.

A framework externalizes and makes plain what a museum values. Exchanges among thinkers, learners, and practitioners create shared meaning around significant ideas to put everyone on the same page. Through lively discussion and diligence, the team resolves areas of persistent ambiguity or tension. For instance, is the museum’s focus the history of science or science and history? This considerable work shapes a tool that supports planning and evaluation efforts across all of a museum’s learning services: exhibits, programs, collections, film and multi-media, research, a school or nature center, and its on-site, off-site, and web presence.

Yet, as much as finishing a learning framework (or an educational or interpretive framework which all consolidate and organize learning interests and approaches) feels like an ending, it is truly a beginning. Applying the framework to do good and useful work that advances a museum as a recognized and valued community resource is the true purpose and what justifies the hard work of developing it.

Updating a Learning Framework is Inevitable
In 3, 5, or 8 years, a framework should be more useful in some ways and less useful in others than when it was freshly minted. Museum accomplishments, economic challenges, audience composition, emergent community trends, changes in staff, and new research all spotlight shifting information and perspectives relevant to the framework and its tasks. They point to new questions, practices, and opportunities and to inevitable changes to the framework.

Museums exist in environments that are dynamic both externally and internally. Shifts in a region’s population, community priorities, and funder focus bring new perspectives to a museum’s learning interests. Recent findings in neuroscience and executive brain function, landmark studies in youth development, applications of new technologies, and changes in the discourse across the museum field prompt changes to the framework to maintain its relevance. Organizational priorities realign perhaps to serve new audience groups, build on better information about their interests and expectations, and target ways to engage them more deliberately. 

No less important are the changes that come from regular, and hopefully vigorous, use of the framework itself. Application of the framework by multiple users doing the museum’s everyday work over time tests, changes, and ultimately grows its capacity to be tough enough for day-to-day realities. As staff read, discuss, refer to, and apply the framework, they give it meaning, find new meaning, and discover where to hone meaning. A great insight or connection while developing a framework initially serves as a shared touchstone; it then generates new insights and subsequently points to the value of finer distinctions which were not initially apparent. Staff might agree that learning rather than educating better characterizes people as active agents in constructing knowledge rather than as passive recipients receiving information. With time and use, this distinction may lead staff to new insights about learners and to other ways of shaping experiences and considering impacts.
Framework limitations as well as strengths are revealed through use by varied groups, across a range of contexts–exhibits, programs, collections, audience initiatives–and from pre-planning through evaluation. Experience criteria that work for programs may not work equally well for exhibits. Framing criteria to work for both, however, can yoke these two complementary and valued experience modes together rather than separate and silo them. Situating outcomes to work for public programs as well as school programs and for both programs and exhibits may take repeated efforts. It’s worth it. Getting to a shared set of outcomes increases the possibility of the museum having greater impact. Registering both the alignment and the disparities across functional areas are important; both provide useful clues for future updates.

Revise, Add, Delete
Like a building’s framework that may be modernized or expanded at some future time, a learning framework can be updated with revisions, additions, and deletions. With time and active use, all three are likely to occur, through informal and formal updates, by individuals or a team.

Revisions, or minor changes to an existing framework, are common and helpful. They capture and incorporate results of regular use of the framework to keep it current and precise. Definitions matter because differing terms undermine efforts. Moreover, the meaning of words changes with use; new words and terms surface. During complex projects, grant and report writing, and decision-making, the benefit of distinguishing between terms like thinking and learning or defining roles of parents and caregivers become apparent and perhaps a regular practice. A glossary of terms (an “initiative is…”, “learning at our museum is understood as…”) makes the most of these accomplishments.

Updates assure that the most current and relevant information is assembled in a single guiding document. The names of current programs and initiatives, results of the museum’s projects and studies, references to curriculum standards, white papers in the appendix, and articles in the references are in one place.

No two frameworks have the same parts, but four components are basic and have worked with many museums: community context, learners, learning focus, and museum and learning experience. Sometimes an addition or two to one of more of these parts is a better solution than smaller revisions.
A museum might bring a deeper, more systematic approach to identifying and distinguishing among stakeholders in the community context as part of understanding a city’s or region’s priorities related to learning.
• Additions might strengthen the framework’s focus on the learner and play out the implications of a learner-centered framework by: adding information about learner groups and identifying more targeted strategies for engaging specific audience groups–such as families, youth, experts, or teachers.
• In the framework’s learning focus that describes the learning territory a museum is interested in occupying, add conceptual frameworks for situating a museum’s learning interests. Other additions might include clarifying the museum’s valued and complementary learning assets.

Ultimately, a learning framework can’t anticipate every eventuality. It should, however, be flexible and adaptable enough to respond to small tweaks and large modifications that arise from the learning life of a dynamic institution. Along with absorbing changes within components, a framework can have portals to new components. Like the other components, new components are aligned with the framework’s foundational ideas and build on its focus. Every component does so in ways that stretch with and support a museum’s growing interests and the field’s changing practices.

A portal to a new component links firmly with and is anticipated in the museum’s mission or learning purpose such as being a multi-dimensional learning resource, or a center for creativity. As a museum conducts exhibit and program evaluations, fields visitor research, follows research in specific areas, and responds to a results-oriented approach to funding, research and evaluation may justify being a separate framework component. Some reshuffling is involved in creating a research and evaluation agenda. Bringing together relevant conceptual frameworks and outcomes and developing a logic model shape a focus on what success looks like and how visitors will benefit from various museum and learning experiences, as Marianna Adams suggests in “Where do We Need to Go Next?” in a recent issue of the Journal of Museum Education.

Eventually some parts of a learning framework need to be deleted whether due to the life cycle of projects, new priorities, or a clearer vision of the museum's learning value. 

Evolving Frameworks
A strong vital framework is not only aligned with museum priorities and informed by evidence, it also reflects current practice and keeps pace with staff growth and reorganization. Often master planning, a major expansion, or a move is an opportunity to tune up a learning framework. Examples from three museums illustrate typical circumstances and the nature of framework updates.
The Bakken Museum, a one-of-a-kind science museum in Minneapolis, has a humanistic focus that integrates science, history, and the arts. In 2009, parallel planning processes involved both strategic planning and development of a learning framework that subsequently guided development of an exhibit master plan. The learning framework clarified the museum’s learning focus and involved unpacking and hammering hard on the meaning of key phrases like, for social good and people of science. Eventually, the learning focus expressed the richness of the museum’s learning interests as four layers: content, perspective, process, and approach. The framework served as a tool 3 years later when the Bakken developed a proposal to a major agency to produce one of the exhibits in its master plan. The evaluation plan for the grant grew from a logic model that used the framework and the audience groups and outcome areas identified. That process also revealed how much the museum had continued to update, refine and make its learning focus richer and more precise.

• In response to its first decade of growth, Stepping Stones Museum for Children in Norwalk, CT began preparing for a significant capital expansion in 2009. To guide planning of new galleries and programs and strengthen the connection between learning intentions and impact, the museum chose to update and further develop its 2003 learning framework. Over 5 years, the framework had enjoyed regular use with occasional additions such as background information on learning theory. Five years also offered significant practical experience with the framework to yield lessons and point to areas for development. In updating the framework, the museum shaped a more learner-centered tool informed by research and theory. A set of four learning principles grounded the framework in current research and theory. The audience profile became a learner profile that framed a view of the learner and identified learner groups with related experience goals and supporting adult roles. The original learning approach shifted from being primarily content focused to a package of learning strategies, an interdisciplinary approach, and a set of discovery tools. Finally, learner outcomes and related indicators were identified to help channel the museum’s work towards specific impacts.

• For 12 years, the Creative Discovery Museum (CDM) in Chattanooga, TN has been guided by a learning framework developed in 2000 as part of its first exhibit master planning process just 5 years after opening. The museum has been engaged over the last two years in a round of organizational planning. Updating its learning framework is integrated into that extended process. CDM fielded a strategic plan in 2011 and conducted a facilities master plan in 2012. In preparation for the exhibit master plan scheduled for early 2013, CDM is reviewing and updating its 2000 learning framework. A museum team of core and specialist staff is reviewing the framework to identify how framework components have been used; how they have been helpful; which parts should be carried forward; and what changes to the framework will make it more relevant and robust. Some modifications to the framework will be accomplished by the framework team such as developing essential experiences and articulation of a museum experience. A museum-wide workshop will revisit the learning focus and explore a new area like impacts and indicators.

A growing number of museums seem to be developing and updating learning frameworks and museum-wide interpretive plans. An extensive and well-documented process is that of the Dallas Museum of Art's Framework for Engaging With Art. Please share examples at your museum or others that you know of.

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