Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Early Learners Becoming Lifelong Learners: New IMLS Report

Portland Children's Museum (OR)
I very much hope you have seen the latest policy report from the Institute for Museums and Library Services Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners.

Developed and published in partnership with the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, the project involved representatives from libraries and museums along with policy makers, practitioners, experts, civic leaders and public and private funders who have made early learning a priority. The report brings into focus the capacity of museums and libraries to reach and serve young children and highlights where they are filling gaps and expanding early learning opportunities in their communities.

From A Call To Action at the beginning to Recommendations for Action at the end, the report looks at young children’s potential, museums’ and libraries' capacities, and community priorities through research, policy, and strategic filters. In building a case for a greater role that libraries and museums can play in early learning, the report:
  • Explores museums and libraries as community anchors, connectors, innovative learning specialists, stewards, and digital hubs.
  • Grounds the urgency for young children, particularly those living in poverty, to access the resources of museums and libraries in time-sensitive early cognitive as well as social-emotional development that is critical for later academic performance, mental health, and sound relationships.
PlayWorks at CMOM
  • Plays out the implications of a changing learning landscape that increasingly requires learners to be self-directed and engaged. Critical to becoming engaged and self-directed learners are foundational skills that children develop before ever entering school. Without these skills and dispositions, children continue to fall behind and the opportunity gap between poor children and affluent children widens.
  • Locates the challenge for realizing positive outcomes for children and families in broad-based, community-wide cross-sector efforts that include museums and libraries as essential community partners.
  • Lists ten ways museums and libraries support community efforts, addressing the multiple reinforcing factors that are critical to effective early learning efforts: supporting development of executive function and “deeper learning” skills; engaging and supporting families as children’s first teacher; and creating seamless links across early learning and the early grades.
  • Draws on and profiles museums and libraries across the country to illustrate the roles they play, how they support community efforts, and their contributions as key partners in community early learning efforts.
  • The report concludes with More To Be Done and Recommendations for Action that focus on the roles that need to be filled at every level: federal, state, and local; and across stakeholder groups: schools, districts, and early learning programs; museums and libraries; parents and grandparents; and funders.

 Being Essential, Becoming Visible
A great fan of both museums and libraries in my personal and professional life, I have looked forward to this report since I heard about it from Marsha Semmel, until recently Director of IMLS Office of Strategic Partnerships and Julia Bland, former IMLS board member and Executive Director at Louisiana Children’s Museum. When I saw the announcement on AAM’s weekly update and Museum magazine, I was very pleased. To be completely honest, I felt appreciation tinged with frustration about what took so long? Young children are, again, the last audience group to be considered.

Little, if any, new content is presented in the report, which is not problematic. I see Growing Young Minds as less about content and more about a larger platform from a new voice to a broader audience. Coming from the Institute for Museum and Library Services and Campaign for Grade Level Reading, the report is a call to action beyond a circle of committed early childhood specialists and dedicated museum and library professionals. The report highlights key elements: young children, the role of families, the capacities and track records of museums and libraries, and the need for cross-sector collaborative efforts.

In particular, the report emphasizes vulnerable children who experience multiple risk factors. The disparity of access to learning resources for children from low-income and more affluent families is a reminder that poverty is also a poverty of experience. These disparities in access and varied experience are a source of the readiness gap that becomes a knowledge gap and an opportunity gap.

Museums, libraries, zoos, aquaria, and botanical gardens do create an extensive, diverse infrastructure of informal learning. To realize community level change for young children and families, however, this network must also be connected and aligned with collaborative, cross-sector efforts with a common agenda, mutually reinforcing activities, and shared outcomes. Moreover, museums and libraries, their local, state, and national associations, alliances, and agencies must be bold in acting on their implicit and explicit commitments to young children and families. They must be prepared to lead as they shape their strategic and research agendas and be creative in recognizing, leveraging, and optimizing existing and new resources.

Minneapolis Central Library
To the factors the report rightly highlights, I would add or emphasize, a few others. 
• Meaningful change unequivocally relies on sustained effort. Long-term, committed vision must be paired with on-going support capable of producing lasting results. 
• Our very best efforts are limited when we view children (and their parents) through a lens of deficiencies: what they can’t do, should be doing, or will hopefully do in the future. On the contrary, there is enormous benefit to children in our seeing them as capable, competent, active agents in their own learning. 
• Finally, very little will change without radically new ways of engaging parents; support is not enough. Serving the family as a robust, on-going learning group must also be integrated into these strategies.

If we value young children and a vibrant future for them–as we so often say we do–then we must go well beyond compelling rhetoric and good intentions and do whatever it takes to create dramatically different early experiences and life outcomes for significantly more children.

IMLS Director Susan Hildreth’s introduction to the report ends with, “With this report IMLS is deepening and expanding its commitment to the youngest and most at-risk children in the United States.” I applaud that and look forward to seeing it play out. 
Go Figure! Library Exhibit on Tour


  1. Can't wait for "our" library to reopen!

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