Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Following the Thread of Practice


Practice describes what we do everyday in our professional lives; what we do regularly and hope to do well. We refer to museum practice, follow best practice, and recognize promising practices. Familiar, well-used, and versatile, practice is also a vague and sometimes confusing term.  

Evidence that practice is of significant interest across our field comes through in multiple projects and initiatives that explore practice. At the same time, each project, study, and journal issue uses differing approaches and contexts. Sometimes practice is virtually interchangeable with standards. For instance, a set of practices is covered in a manual for professional standards for art museum curators. Similarly, EdCom’s Excellence in Practice: Museum Education Principles and Standards lays out broad ways in which principles and standards define practice in three areas. The July 2012 issue of the Journal of Museum Education focused on professionalizing practice as a way to explore recent professional history and better inform present practice. Initiatives like In Principle, In Practice have focused on connections between research, evaluation, and practice as a way of enhancing the value of informal learning. The National Association for Interpretation has developed standards and practices defining and distinguishing among good-better-best practices in dozens of areas.

This limited sampling reflects the great and undifferentiated territory between the broad umbrella of museum practice as a profession and a specific practice such as greet every visitor. Practice is applied as readily to the museum field as to a particular museum; to a 4,000 or 400,000 square foot museum. In one breath, practice encompasses how museum educators, exhibit designers, curators of community engagement, playworkers, and evaluators execute their duties and responsibilities everyday, and does so without really ever defining practice.

So what does practice actually cover? Practice might be the internalized professional knowledge that guides choices and behaviors and is applied consistently to a museum’s important work. Practice can also be the accumulated small gestures related to timing, space, materials, and relationships in which specific content is secondary. Practice is sometimes referred to as praxis, the “process through which theory, lesson, or skill is enacted, practiced, embodied, or realized; or engaging, applying, exercising, realizing, or practicing ideas”. 

Practice may not need to be defined precisely, but differences should be clear between a practice shared across the field, like reflecting a community’s diversity in staff and board and a museum-specific practice such as using materials and vendors within a 100-mile radius. Pursuing, comparing, replicating, or improving a practice is difficult when it is aspirational in one museum, a standard in another, and a policy in still another.

Viewing practice as doing is easy. It is also a limiting view. Without knowing and thinking, without connecting to a larger purpose, a practice lacks direction, leans into habit, and has a narrow impact.  

The value of practice, or a body of practice, expands when it is clarified,  connected to a museum’s larger purpose and philosophies, shared among colleagues, and revisited often and collectively.

Cracking Open Practice
Opal School at the Portland Children’s Museum has a practice of “cracking open words” to get at the worlds within words that each child, even the very youngest, has. Cracking open practice gets inside the sometimes dense assumptions, elements, and relationships that may be unrecognized, overlooked or taken for granted in pursuing practice. Unpacking shared and valued practices within a museum brings with it a deepening understanding of them; the opportunity to elaborate on, strengthen, and revise them; and the energy needed to sustain them.

Shared understanding. While practices may be implemented by individuals, they are stronger, with greater impact, and more likely to be sustained if the perspectives of many are engaged and their efforts are aligned. Developing a shared understanding might start by co-constructing a shared definition of practice, or an area of museum practice, in areas that members of a group are interested and invested. The group might also consider which practices are core (and why) and shared across the museum or which principles and practices defined by professional groups are valuable and to be adapted.

Connected to a larger set of ideas. Practices need to be connected. When too granular or isolated, they float, they lack heft and direction. Practices need to be tethered to something larger. It might be a museum’s purpose; a positive image of the community’s future; a view of learning; or an understanding of the learner. Practices also need to be related to other practices, to mutually support and strengthen one another. Asking open-ended questions, for instance, is a practice that benefits from a practice of careful listening to others, listening to thinking, in particular. A practice of listening is strengthened by a practice of reflection and bringing meaning to an experience.

Possibilities put into action. Practice is an expression of what we anticipate the difference a set of related actions might make when implemented. Ideas might be about how material, space, time, gesture, or guidance can extend exploration, increase interaction among family members, or encourage persistence. In this respect, practice is testing a hunch. Although often contrasted with theory, practice is, in fact, a temporary, or provisional theory, one put into everyday, real-world use. Carlina Rinaldi, President of Reggio Children says, “There is no theory except in practice. Practice is not real if it is not infused with and grounded in theory. They don’t exist without each other,

Reflected on and documented. Gaps between our hopes in enacting a practice and what actually happens when we do implement it are inevitable. Practice is a constant dynamic between what we want to do and are able to do, with each replication successively narrowing the gap. Reflection, a practice in itself, helps in seeing more clearly into the nature of the gaps and navigating them. Through reflection, engaging in lively dialogue, listening, and questioning–especially with others–practice deepens everyone’s understanding, generates new insights, and helps in developing new possibilities for practice.

What have you and your colleagues found when you cracked open practices, clarified, shared, applied, and revised them?

The Continuity of Practice
Practice is a thread that connects everyday actions and choices with what is of enduring importance. Reaching in many directions, the threads of practice run through aspirations for our communities, the interests of our museums, what we do to advance them, and even how we see ourselves as practitioners. In thoughtfully and deliberately exploring powerful ideas, in co-constructing meaning with colleagues, and in taking action, we are fully inhabiting our practice. Through this extended and on-going process, practice evolves, we grow as a community of learners, and we arrive at places of new perspective and possibility.

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