Friday, February 15, 2013

Museum Notes From the Road

Recently, I have been traveling a lot, even more than usual. In just under two weeks, I visited museums in 4 states from coast to coast. Along the way, I spent time in 7 museums in different roles, attended a national project advisors' meeting, and walked New York City's High Line, something I have long wanted to do. I was headed for three more museums and a planning meeting before deciding to make a quick exit ahead of last week’s East coast storm. I sure am glad I did.

Observing the vitality and listening to what’s happening in so many museums–large and small, in towns and cities, across the country–and in quick succession is quite amazing. The variety and intensity alone require many deep breaths, time to thumb through notes and photos, and moments to recall, reflect, and share. Before too much fades away and with a reminder or two about where to explore more, here are some notes from the road.

Partners in Play
Three Seattle area children’s museums have been conducting exploratory research to look at how parents and caregivers see their children’s activities as play and their own role in extending and supporting it. Last fall, Lorrie Beaumont of Evergreene Research and Evaluation, and I interviewed caregivers and trained interviewers at the Children’s Museum of Tacoma, Imagine Children’s Museum, and KidsQuest Children’s Museum to conduct interviews. I wrote about some of my early impressions on an earlier post, Parent Voices, New Insights. Now, using the results of nearly 100 interviews, the three museums are beginning a new round of research. Three action research projects are ramping up and exploring questions that emerged from the exploratory study. Action research is an iterative, reflective process looking for improvements, or action, around everyday, real situations. More often used in school settings, it is well suited for museums and other informal learning environments. It's a great approach for exploring questions related to practice or emerging from research and is an excellent professional development tool. Look for a future post on action research as well as for dissemination of this work by the museums at conferences and on-line.

Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), Seattle
When I hear someone propose developing a scavenger hunt for a museum, I am drawn to the idea. I like to imagine pairs of children or family groups combing through a gallery, alert for possible clues, furrowing brows about another way to read this clue, and exchanging ideas. I also tuck it away, wondering how well it will actually work in the bustling museum setting and for whom. I was pleasantly surprised on my visit to MOHAI to be paralleling the trail of two 8-ish year old boys enthusiastically scavengering their way through the museum with a set of cards. I noticed their intensity, listened to their conversation, and rejoiced in their sense of accomplishment when they yipped, “Yay! We built a railroad” after pounding in spikes. A few exhibits later, I heard one say to the other, “We have to ask questions.” The other replied, “Yeah! Gotta have questions.” The imperative captured my attention and that of others around us. This is precisely the enthusiasm and immersion we hope for and, in this case, in somewhat older children. While only a sample of 1 (or maybe 2), their enthusiasm reassures me of the potential for children to be actively engaged and excited in searching and discovering.   

Children’s Museum of Boston
It’s been more than 30 years since my fist visit to Boston Children’s Museum and I have been many times since. On this visit, I was impressed by how much the Museum has stayed the same even as it has changed. Approaching on foot from the T’s South Station, I navigated the streets by feel and was delighted to see the big white “Hood” Milk Bottle from across the channel, welcoming and guiding me. Changes in the neighborhood and on the Museum’s plaza made the milk bottle seem different and the same, a dynamic that persisted throughout my visit. A new entry experience flows into a familiar hive of activity around the four-story climber. Legacy exhibits including Construction Zone, Japanese House, PlaySpace connected by a wide corridor of activities for Chinese New Year. Bubbles and Raceways enjoy a new context in Science Playground. One thing that had not changed was the number of highly engaged parents in PlaySpace, including dads, many comfortably occupying the resource room; I noticed they do seem younger than 30 years ago. This mix of enduring and new BCM experiences is fitting for a museum celebrating its 100 birthday.

Math Core
As an advisor for Math Core for Museums, an NSF-funded project of the Science Museum of Minnesota (SMM), I participated in the project meeting at the Museum of Science (Boston). This project has an interesting focus and structure. Its four museums (SMM, Museum of Science, North Carolina Museum of Life and Science, Durham, and Explora, Albuquerque) have been developing a set of interactive exhibits that engage learners, especially middle school students, in experiencing and understanding ratio and proportion physically as well as cognitively. The project has an interest in long-term math environments and repeat visits. Selinda Research Associates is conducting a longitudinal evaluation of the project and at the meeting, Deborah Perry provided an overview of the evaluation that is underway.
Like past advisors’ meetings, this gathering of evaluators, exhibit developers, researchers, and advisors generated  lively discussion, valuable observations, and questions about the project and about museum practice and learning experiences more generally. Why, for instance, has repeat visitation been studied so little? Children’s tendency to build towers and houses with blocks before and often instead of focusing on the intended math activity was noted several times. The thoughtful, succinct, and quotable Paul Tatter observed that, “Learning is not an event,” yet we plan and evaluate learning as if it were. The idea of designing for persistence was thrown out inviting thoughts about what that might look like. Conversations from the advisors’ meeting are continuing.

Children’s Museum of the Arts
This New York children’s museum is not as well known as its New York peers, but deserves to be. It’s a fresh iteration of the Children’s Museum of the Arts I last visited about 20 years ago. Reopening in October 2012 after a relocation and expansion in a new SoHo location, it’s a smart hybrid of a children’s museum and art museum with a thoughtfully playful and seriously arty style infused into both its experiences and design. I am impressed. Still compact at 10,000 square feet, CMA uses its children’s art collection, artist-in-residence programs, artist-led programs, hands-on explorations of art materials and exhibits, and extensive outreach programs to children from a wide range of backgrounds. It’s committed to highly facilitated experiences by artists in its art labs, media lab, clay bar, and video-making and animation station. I especially loved the giant, highly utilitarian, octopus-like sink-and-water station in the center of the art lab that is inviting and visible from the street.

New York Historical Society/Jon Wallen
New York Historical Society
This was my first visit to the New-York Historical Society Museum and Library (NYHS) across the street from the American Museum of Natural History and Central Park. The set of interactive touchscreens in the newly designed Robert H. and Clarice Smith New York Gallery of American History were fascinating and as elegant as the gallery itself. Fortunately I had been alerted to the new DiMenna Children’s History Museum in the Jan-Feb 2013 issue of Museum. History exhibits for children are challenging and, until recently, there have been few, if any child-centered, interactive exhibits. As this recent NYHS exhibit, Chicago History Museum’s Sensing Chicago, and Minnesota Historical Society’s Then, Now, Wow! seem to indicate, the moment for children’s history exhibits has arrived. Since I plan to write soon on history exhibits for children that I have seen, I’ll leave that until later.

Loving the High Line
A public park built on an historic freight rail line elevated above the streets on Manhattan’s West Side, the High Line might be prettier and softer when green and warmed by sunshine than in the bleak mid-winter. It could not, however, be any less amazing as a brilliant found opportunity to open up the city and rediscover public space. Meandering through the 1-1/2 mile park high above the street, following old tracks, moving between plantings, and walking along paths punctuated by art is a novel, joyful feeling. Openings between buildings afford amazing views to the Hudson River. On the High Line, the city does not just close in up above and over head. It also spreads out down below and far into the distance.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

A Disposition to…

In the world of learning, whether in museums or schools, we often hear about skills, knowledge, and proficiencies. We seldom, however, hear much about dispositions. Disposition might be a bit of an old-fashioned word and doesn’t enjoy great use. Perhaps that is because disposition lacks the crisp currency of skill with its sharp edges that lend it to being tested and measured.

Disposition, however, is a useful and underutilized concept, especially in museums with an interest in inviting thinking, engaging learners, and supporting life-long learning.

A disposition is a habit, an inclination, or a tendency to act in particular way.  With a focus on frequent and voluntary patterns of a behavior or activity, dispositions differ significantly from skills and knowledge. Acquiring a specific skill or knowledge on a particular subject does not guarantee it will be used or applied. A disposition makes use of that skill or knowledge more likely. We might say someone has a disposition to be curious if she typically and frequently responds to the setting by exploring, investigating, and asking questions about it. Simply having the skills to ask questions, however, does not assure that she will do so.

Lillian Katz who has been writing and talking about the role of dispositions in children’s learning for 30 years defines disposition as a “pattern of behavior exhibited frequently . . . in the absence of coercion . . . constituting a habit of mind under some conscious and voluntary control . . . intentional and oriented to broad goals.” In Cultivating a Culture of Thinking in Museums, Ron Ritchhart of Harvard University’s Project Zero refers to a dispositional perspective on thinking as not only the ability to think but also the disposition to think. Patterns of thinking not only can be used, but also are used.

Dispositions can be social. Someone may have a disposition to be friendly, helpful, or cooperative. Other dispositions are intellectual such as a disposition to ask questions, to read, to gather information, to observe, to weigh evidence. Not all dispositions are positive. Consider a disposition to be bossy or complain.

Dispositions can be developed and are more likely to be developed when other people, such as parents, grandparents, teachers, siblings, peers, model them. Even so, developing a disposition requires time, time for it to be enculcated, practiced and strengthened. Environmentally sensitive, dispositions are acquired, supported, or weakened by the conditions of the environment, the interactive experiences in settings with significant adults and peers.

Unpacking Dispositions
The qualities characterizing dispositions set them up as a good fit for museums in creating experiences for children and adults. Dispositions can be modeled. Museum educators, floor staff, facilitators can be (and often are) trained to model certain behaviors: asking questions, noticing patterns, or checking assumptions. As museums prepare environments and exhibits with particular objects and activities to invite and encourage learners to use skills and draw on understandings, they can also encourage certain dispositions. Many dispositions relate precisely to the kind of behaviors and actions we want learners to engage in: to notice, to try, to ask questions, to gather information, to be creative. Some dispositions relate strongly to certain areas, like science.

Three related aspects of dispositions make them even more useful in museum settings. First, focusing on dispositions reinforces a learner-centered focus. The learner is the subject, the agent, the person likely to try, to read, or to ask a question. Second, planning that encourages certain positive dispositions builds on strengths and puts abilities into play. Someone is likely to do this; a parent wants to answer a child’s question. Finally, dispositions are associated with action and doing. They lend themselves to active engagement; and this aligns with museum interests. Considering what people are likely to do in an exhibit or at a component based on the conditions created (or that can be created) becomes a worthwhile exercise, reinforcing museums as places to exercise choice and preference. Discussion shifts from learner outcomes and what a child or adult will do or will learn, to what a child or adult can do or is encouraged to do.

Dispositions in Museums
The experiences and environments museums create are powerful mediators of thinking, doing, and learning. Bringing a dispositional perspective to planning these experiences alters the focus from skills and content to learners, and to framing experiences that encourage dispositions relevant to broad project goals. I have been reading, searching the Internet, checking old files, and talking with colleagues to find out how a dispositional approach to providing experiences is being used in museums. I found several references to and examples of dispositions being used in museums.

Dispositions are sometimes mentioned along with skills, knowledge, and attitudes as foundations for science learning in museums as they are In Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Ron Ritchhart, mentioned above has been exploring and writing about a dispositional approach to thinking in schools and bringing that approach to museums as places for nurturing students’ awareness of and inclination for thinking. Boston Children’s Museum has brought a dispositional approach to interpretation in Science Playground. Graphic panels invite children to "Notice, wonder, question, play” throughout the exhibit’s three areas. Habits of Mind call out basic dispositions and their relevance to learning about the world.

The Exploratorium deliberately uses and supports the concept on disposition in the Tinkering Studio. Cultivating a “tinkering disposition” is the Tinkering Studio’s approach to engaging visitors in using their hands to investigate phenomena, materials, and tools. In this case, a tinkering disposition is “a proclivity for seeing the word as something that can be acted upon and building confidence in one’s ability to do so”. The Tinkering Studio focuses on space, activity, and facilitation as the conditions that encourage tinkering. A welcoming studio space anticipates and provides for interactions, access to materials and tools, and for tinkerers’ comfort and concentration. Activities are thoughtfully designed to support tinkerability, emphasizing, for instance, hand-made materials, making processes visible, and revealing easy entry points. Facilitators are prepared to be alert, helpful, and unobtrusive in encouraging tinkering.

These examples are varied and interesting but are too few. The people I have talked to about dispositions, while unfamiliar with them, recognized the promise this approach has in museums. If you know of work being done in this area, please share it. If using a dispositional approach to creating museum experiences inspires or interests you, I hope you will get going and get in touch. In any case, please spread the word.