Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Places of Laughter and Understanding

What goes “ha-ha-thud?” A man laughing his head off. Get it? Ha-ha-thud. When I was about 7 years old, I used to laugh my head off every time my sister told that joke. It still makes me laugh. Ha-ha-thud.

You, however, may find it perplexing that this joke is funny to me. And you may find it a bit worrisome that, with a sense of humor like that, I am writing about humor.

But that’s humor. Some things are funny. Sometimes. To some people. But we all love a good laugh. We love to tell jokes, repeat riddles, sneak in a pun or two, read the comics section before the rest of the newspaper, play practical jokes and just try to make others laugh. Even people who can’t tell a joke to save their lives appreciate humor.

As important as humor is, however, we tend to think of it in a narrow category, distant from learning. School is for learning. Humor is for after hours. Who does not remember a teacher’s challenge, “Is that a joke you would like to share with the rest of us?” “Serious” books are referred to in hushed, respectful tones, while comic books are dismissed, concealed, forbidden and enjoyed.

Informal learning settings such as museums, and perhaps children’s museums especially, are wonderful exceptions to this dubious dichotomy. People construct their own meanings and museums are places where learning experiences are driven by the learner. Along with the cognitive, intellectual, part of experience, museums also try to tap into the affective, feeling, dimension of experiences. Affective goals increasingly guide exhibit and program projects. Exhibits and programs sometimes tap into the humor visitors bring with them to museums.

Children’s museum settings are well-suited for humor. Because they invite learning at its broadest, they are natural places for the full range of children’s emotional lives, their senses of humor, laughter, and the learning that accompanies them.

Too Funny for Words
Humor and laughter are zesty tonics for living. They release built-up tensions, allow expression of ideas and thoughts otherwise difficult to express, facilitate coping with trying circumstances and bond people with a shared experience.

Like many of the rich, complex, interesting phenomenon such as creativity or play, humor is hard to define. It includes puns, humorous comments, comic verse, riddles and physical comedy. While we are certain we recognize humor when we see it, humor is hard to define or even categorize. In fact, we frequently confuse it with or mistake it for other familiar, humorous situations such as play, a baby’s laughter or an animal’s antics.

For instance, humor is often part of the fun and the pleasure of play. In play, however, humor and laughter are secondary to the pursuit of the activity itself. A baby’s face first blossoming into a smile around 4 to 8 weeks is more than gas. But it’s not humor. It’s a milestone towards ensuring she will have the love and attention of her parent, but it’s not about entertaining them.

Finally, though we find other animals’ lolling, scratching, climbing and tailchasing to be funny, we do not share a good laugh with them. Humor and jokes are pretty much the exclusive domain of humans, although it seems that language-using apes demonstrate a sense of humor remarkably similar to that of a preschooler. The laughing hyena notwithstanding, the purely physiological act of laughing is unique to humans.

Humor is human. It begins at home and it begins early in life. It is, in fact, a kind of “nervous laughter.” The capacity for humor is built into the nervous systems of humans and is one of those mental activities that serves to maintain an optimal level of stimulation that keeps humans alert and active in the world. Too little stimulation and the world is bo-ring; too much and it’s a mental meltdown.

A  study conducted in the UK determined that a shared environment rather than shared genes accounts for a similar sense of humor among family members. Not every family is funny, but family members are funny – or not funny – in similar ways. You’ve seen it before: a gaggle of look-alike-siblings giggling together at the oddest things. And most likely they think the same about you and your siblings.

At the risk of defining the undefinable, reducing the rich variety of humor to one type and taking all the fun out of it, we can simplify humor a bit. In a theory proposed by Paul E. McGhee (1979), much of humor – and, in particular, humor for children – relies on a few critical conditions. First, humor comes from incongruity and from what is perceived as wrong or oddly juxtaposed. Something unexpected, inappropriate, unreasonable, illogical or exaggerated must be present for laughter to roll.

Second, an understanding of how things should be is a prerequisite for humor. There must be a clear enough expectation of how a situation should be or how things should work in order to recognize when an incongruous event has been substituted for the expected one. We know that from birth on, infants try to master the basics of what does and does not belong together in their world. This constant sorting out prepares them from the get-go for enjoying humor. Drawn to investigating the world and parsing the new until it becomes familiar, children are building knowledge. Repetition, whether looking at a mother’s face, dropping handfuls of oatmeal on the floor or bouncing on the dog, helps children grasp basic understandings about events, objects and ideas.

A third condition for humor is a state of playfulness, a readiness for fun. The same joke told after a tire blows out rather than during happy hour at the bowling alley probably won’t get any laughs. Finally, for children, at least, there must be an ability to engage in fantasy. In make-believe play the child explores what happens when inappropriate objects or events are inserted into different situations. The endless possibilities of creating odd combinations such as “putting your mother on the ceiling” produce a fascination with fantasy activity.

Kidding Around
Just like the story of The Three Bears, the effort required to “get” the joke has to be “just right.” Too much mental effort takes the fun out of funny. But, jokes that are too easy to figure out also aren’t funny because we get the point immediately. While puns are not always funny to older adolescents and adults because they are too simple, they are a hoot to 5 and 6 year olds who have recently mastered language. Laughter and smiles are the rewards for the effort required to reconcile the double meaning of “hoppy birthday” on a birthday card.

The onset of humor in babies appears to be surprisingly young. A child’s earliest experiences with humor may be as early as 10 months. These are typically private moments with humor because the child hasn’t yet developed the language facilities for sharing the experience. But like a silent movie, the film’s rolling. The baby conjures up a memory of an image of an object, as a baby about 12 months is able to do, and creates a discrepancy between what is usual. Simply bringing the “wrong” image to bear on a given object, like holding a shoe to the ear as if it were a phone, a child suspends the usual rules. Escaping laughter and giggles attest to the fact that the child “gets” it.

In a baby’s first year, experiences with certain games such as peek-a-boo and chasing have many of the conditions of humor. Resolution of there/not there and running away provide the unexpectedness or incongruity that tickle little funny bones. The accompanying smiles and laughter indicate a likely appreciation for the humor of the situation. 

Hardly has the child grasped with certainty which objects belong together and which don’t when he starts to mix them up, enjoying nonsense words, mismatched objects and events. Maybe you’ve noticed. Did you ever put your shoes on your hands or mittens on your feet to entertain a toddler? Even as young as two years old, children recognize – and laugh over – the inappropriateness of an action directed toward an object.

Young children not only have their own sense of humor, but they also actually produce humor at an astonishingly early age and rate. In a study by Lori Moglia (1981), children 15 to 45 months old produced a joke about every eight minutes. Looks, facial expressions and giggles accompanied all jokes making it clear to others that humor, not misunderstanding, was involved. For instance, a child might say, “The dog is saying ‘meow’” and laugh or might say, “This is a poison cookie” and giggle.

While there are widespread individual differences among children on the humor front, patterns through stages are pronounced. During the earliest stage, a toddler will treat a toy or object as if it were something else. For instance, at about 2 years old, one of Piaget’s children picked up a leaf and held it up to her ear and talked as if the leaf were a telephone. As a child’s language develops, incongruous labeling of objects and events becomes the source of humor. Word mastery allows the child to playfully change the names of objects, substitute the word cat for dog, repeat rhyming words or use nonsense words for the correct word.

When the child realizes that words actually refer to a class of objects and certain characteristics, they find humor in mixing-and-matching characteristics, often based on the incongruous appearance of things. A cat with elephant ears, barking and wearing a skirt is funny to a 4-year old. The first step towards adult humor occurs as a child becomes aware that something has 2 meanings, one based in normal circumstances and one based in a set of incongruous circumstances. Riddles such as “When is it time to go to the dentist?” (Two-thirty) appeal to 7-year olds who proudly choose the joking answer.

A Climate of Gentle Humor, A Climate for Learning
Children’s museums almost effortlessly offer a climate for both humor and learning. They are places where children feel safe, take risks and combine the familiar and the novel. Sensory and object-rich settings invite exploration, imitation and fantasy play. And experiences within a wide developmental range allow children to practice and master emerging skills and concepts. While we readily know these as conditions that encourage learning, they also invite humor. The surprise and delight that humor brings keeps us awake for other possibilities, like learning something.

Humor requires a friendly setting, especially for the very young. Putting a flower-pot hat on your head in the costume area, quacking like a duck or playing Twister® with 50 other people isn’t as easy as it looks for all children. If a setting is too unfamiliar, a child may feel anxious rather than excited about transforming objects, being confident of her ability to discern incongruity, or possibly being the source of someone else’s humor. Allowing a child to watch, join when ready or participate from the sidelines can squeeze giggles out of caution.

Because children’s exploration is directed by their senses, their humor is often inspired by appearances or sounds. This is a fine match with the multi-sensory and multi-dimensional settings of children’s museums rich in sights, sounds and textures. More than silliness is at play as a child replays his voice as though he were singing opera in a canyon or a shower; looks at himself in a concave or convex mirror; or plays with a pig puppet that has wings.

Puppets, props and costumes, tools and giant toys fuel a child’s imagination and humor. A child pretends a toy car is something absurd, like a bug-mobile. A child delights at the great visual humor of a mix-and-match animal with the tail of a fish, the torso of a zebra and the head of a bird. Children of all ages enjoy the situational humor of playing “air” guitar in front of the green screen showing an underwater or hospital scene.

The Funny Things that Make Me Think
Pittsburgh Children's Museum (Wired)
As well suited as children’s museums are for humor, actually transforming humor into a tool for learning is as hard as telling a joke really well. Museums must carefully hit the mark with humor, knowing when, how, and how much humor to present, using it purposefully––but not too purposefully. Humor commanded is humor killed.

Children’s museums can’t make everything funny and they can’t tell all the jokes. They can make room for humor in the building, exhibits, programs, performances, and greetings. But they must then step aside and allow visitors to construct their own meanings from experiences and engage in the give-and-take with families and other visitors to generate laughter and understanding.

Just as important as matching the intellectual effort for “getting” a joke, is finding the right tone for humor. Humor’s value is cancelled when it is over child’s heads, in poor taste or mean. Too raw and parents may be put off; too sanitized and it’s babyish. Finally, humor can’t be a substitute for being honest and straightforward with children about what’s happening. It must hew the line between being a motivator for learning and a sugar-coated disguise for learning.

The trick in using humor as a tool for learning is for the riddle or cartoon to be purposeful. Humor must serve a larger goal and directly connect to the concept being presented. There is no lack of good jokes, cartoons, riddles or visual puns. But as with any activity in an exhibit, matching a joke to a concept is both is essential and challenging.

Riddles in exhibit text can help make connections in funny ways. What has a mouth but can not talk? could be a riddle in an exhibit on geography. What has a tongue but can’t speak? might be in an exhibit on shoes. Not only can the content of jokes reinforce learning, but so can their forms. Jokes help preschoolers practice the question-answer format that is part of emerging literacy. Even if a three-year old’s attempt at a riddle isn’t funny to his audience now, he’s practicing the structure for a joke that some day will win a laugh.

Especially for older children, jokes and cartoons invite problem solving. Jokes require attention to all of the available information, depend on logic, and require seeing things in more than one way, but make their point through humor. What ‘s the difference between a dog and a marine biologist? might teach a thing or two about a marine biologist as well as teach about attributes, differences and homonyms. (*Answer at the end.)

With so much humor based in incongruity and understanding things in more than one way, jokes and riddles provide children with tremendous opportunities to see something from different perspectives. Sometimes the shift is between real and make-believe; between probability and possibility; and between two meanings of the same word. “Humor, fundamentally, is a game of double perspective, and helping children take new perspectives is an important part of their intellectual development,” George Forman, Professor of Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst has observed.

The laughter that accompanies humor is also a tool for learning. When incongruity results from phenomenon behaving unpredictably, a gleeful tee-hee might be the “ah-ha” indicating that the child understands something is awry. Watching a ball roll up an incline might produce a guffaw that suggests the child “gets” the problem––but not the solution. Listening to laughter can be a tool for staff, offering insights in how to extend an activity into an understanding.

Humor walks in the door everyday with visitors and will continue to as long as the conditions are ripe. Rich settings with lots of objects inspire a child to play and transform things from how they should be to how they could be. They inspire a new knock-knock joke; someone to toss a hat on the Bernoulli Blower; or build the “apple tower,”––that’s a seven-year old’s New York version of the Eiffel Tower with an apple on top.

What’s So Funny?
When we see humor in action in exhibits and programs, in text, and on the faces of visitors and staff, we see the power and potential of humor to invite delight and spark learning.

Years ago the Bay Area Discovery Museum (CA) had an exhibit on insects. At one station visitors could pick up a small set of bug boxes, hold them to their ears and listen to the sounds of different insects. One box invited visitors to hear the sound of beetles and played a Beatles tune.

“The Far Side of Science,” an exhibit by the California Academy of Sciences took on the popular cartoonist, Gary Larson. Visitors could be examined under a giant microscope. When they did, they saw a big hairy eyeball over head, peering down at them.

At The Boston Children’s Museum (BCM), fake poop in the toilet got a smile and a laugh. Independently of the popular theme of bodily fluids as a source of humor, discovering the unexpected in a public setting – and a museum, no less – jiggles a giggle from even the most adult visitors.

Also at BCM, the giant fish in the bathtub and a bird photographing a married couple in the dollhouse raise giggles. Even for the very young child, this unlikely scene playfully disrupts a few operating instructions even young children have mastered. Do you have a fish in your bathtub?

The Children’s Museum of Maine (Portland) explored humor in their exhibit, HA! HA! HA! – Laughter Around the World. Visitors could deposit or withdraw jokes at the Laughter Bank, measure the frequency and range of a laugh at the Laugh-O-Meter, or create their own comedy at “Le Petit Comedy Club”, complete with a microphone, studio audience, canned laughter and a real comedian’s script.

In the ZoomRoom at the Creative Discovery Museum (Chattanooga) and in other ZoomRooms, the ZoomVid offers kid-tested riddles that knock kids’ funny-bones. What does a pig put on his sunburn? Oinkment.

What’s so funny at your museum? Think of the giggles emanating from your visitors, the humor that walks in the door with everyone of them. Pick up a few new funny ideas to add to the mix. Visitors will love, laugh and learn from it.

Answer: (A dog wags its tail. A marine biologist tags a whale.)

Related Posts

Book Notes

  • McGhee, Paul E. Humor: its origin and development. 1979. WH Freeman and Co. San Francisco, CA 1979.
  • Moglia, L.A. Stage Development of incongruity humor and the use of play cues in the play of preschool children. (Unpublished Honors Thesis) Bucknell University. .PA. 1981.

This post first appeared in Hand to Hand (Fall 2000, Volume 14, Number 3), a quarterly publication of the Association of Children’s Museums. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. To learn how to obtain the full publication, visit www.ChildrensMuseums.org.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Kidspace Physics Forest

On a recent Saturday afternoon in January, the Galvin Physics Forest at Kidspace Children’s Museum (Pasadena, CA) was full of families with children of all ages, from babies in backpacks and strollers to “big” kids 9 or 10 years; in adult-child pairs; with grandmas and grandpas; and in families of families.

I’ve made several observations in the Physics Forest on two visits to Kidspace, on both a weekday and a weekend, in fall and in winter. Every time I have observed and listened, I have heard laughter, lots of laughter. Even belly laughs float across the site. Shouts of delight, like, ”I did it!” and “This is so cool!” also come through loud and clear over the chatter.

Physics experiments are not unusual in children's museums where children explore the forces and motion that shape our world. Active learners and enthusiastic players, children are interested in making things fly, bounce, spin, and roll. They are intrigued by what they can do to pop a ball, get more lift to a rocket, or blast the bottle. Physics experiments make children’s ideas and efforts visible to both them and to adults.  
In fact, many of the experiments in the Physics Forest are just like ones in many children’s museums. Several features, however, distinguish the Kidspace Physics Forest from physics exhibits in children’s museums as well as many science centers. It’s big, it’s outdoors, and it calls attention to how bottle rockets and tennis ball launchers, pulleys and air cannons are physics. Having a physics exhibit makes sense for Kidspace with the California Institute of Technology as a neighbor and Caltech astrophysicist Dr. Mike Brown as a KCM board member. (Check out an interview with him in Hand To Hand.

The Cool Fan as a merry-go-round
Designed by Hands On! Inc., the Physics Forest opened in summer 2012 with 13 physics experiments on a 26,600 square foot site. The 12 stations are: Bottle Rocket, Tennis Ball Launcher, Ball Bounce, Pulley’s, Wheel Roll, Magic Mirror, Roller Coaster, Ball Range, Pendulum, Air Cannon, Giant Lever, and Cool Fan. Sun Splitter, a 13th experiment, was recently removed because it required multiple adjustments by staff daily. Generally, two staff were present in the Physics Forest. One moved around the site. The other was stationed at the Cool Fan, the experiment that seemed to invite the most creative use from children.   

The arroyo-inspired landscape is a natural site for exploring. Experiments are planted among native plants
Bridge across the dry creek
and substantial trees. Winding paths both define and connect the experiments sometimes crossing dry steam beds with immense slabs of wood. These same slabs provide generous seating around the site. Smaller play spaces with related activities, like building and sound makers, are scattered among the experiments and sunshade covered. Pasadena’s 70º sunshine completes the splendid outdoor conditions for exploring physics.

Multiple entrances to the Physics Forest allow children to start anywhere and easy visual access across the site makes it easy to navigate and be visually oriented. Pathways invite children and families to wander and follow their interests. Some children find and stick with one activity; others try a couple of experiments before discovering one that really engages their attention. Children call out to one another, “Abby, this is fun. Come to the Tennis Ball Launcher.”

While some experiments seem more popular than others and some seem easier to use, I was impressed overall by how engaged children and adults were in exploring, trying, talking, observing, and helping. Three qualities associated with engaging museum experience and learning come through in what I heard and observed.
• Everyone gets into the act
• Extended explorations
• More than physics in play

Everyone Gets into the Act
Children work together sometimes calling out suggestions to others, as a boy at the Giant Fan did, “Get some friends to help.” Getting into the act is made easier with multiple positions that most of the experiments offer: 3 inclines on the Wheel Roll and 3 seats at Pulleys; 2 stations at the Ball Bounce and 2 Giant Levers. An experiment like the Cool Fan requires extra pairs of hands and the combined efforts of several children. The generous space around each experiment accommodates several people to gather

When the ball escaped the Tennis Ball Launcher, one whole family worked together to get it back in the basket. The 2-year old cried, “Oh no!” The 4-year old asked her dad to lift her up and throw the ball in; “Too low” she observed. The 6-year old chased the ball and tossed it into the basket several times but missed. In the end the grandmother made the basket, and the experiment resumed.

A father's Air Cannon tips to his daughter
Adults who often hang back and watch children explore definitely were part of the action. One child called out, “Mom, help me,” when she wanted to be hoisted up at Pulleys. But parents also drew their child’s attention to an experiment with, for instance, “Look at the wheels you can roll over there.” Adults served as physics coaches for their children. At the Giant Lever, a father advised his 4 year-old daughter, “Use all your weight. Look where you are putting your feet.” At the Air Cannon, a father pointed out to his daughter not only how it worked, but some variations she might try. 

While there’s a high level of engagement, not everyone is focusing on the experiments. One small girl delightedly plowed through the bark mulch on her belly near the Tennis Ball Launcher. At the Roller Coaster a 4-year old boy was far more interested in accumulating balls than constructing or testing a coaster. Oblivious to the physics focus, an older girl used the wooden planks across the dry creek bed as a balance beam.

Extended Explorations
Designed as platforms for open-ended science learning through play, the experiments encourage self- guided exploration. Children and adults talk, ask questions, investigate with levers and ropes; they watch balls pop up and roll down. Noticing the effects of what they do, they share tips, refer to the text, talk some more, building intuitive understandings about how things work.

In the Physics Forest, related physics content is near, clear and accessible. These bold, can’t-miss, two-sided graphic panels stand at every experiment. Their 4-part message–Try It!, Play With It!, It’s Physics, More at Home–follows a typical exploratory process.
Persistence and ingenuity at the Roller Coaster

Clear accessible text, however, has a hard time competing with active exploration as a source of information about what’s happening. Having other players to watch and talk with, loose parts to combine in multiple ways, and satisfying visual effects extend even casual explorations. This was most apparent at the Roller Coaster. Always filled with activity, 15-20 adults and children working in 3-4 family groups while more watched from the benches was not uncommon. Children shouted out ideas like, “Let’s try this curvy one,” upon discovery of a rounded piece of track. A 4-year old’s joyful, “I know, I know, I know” was followed by a flurry of extending track and testing the run. Children were impressed with longer runs after following performance tips about the height of the entrance. One girl’s persistence paid off with new strategies for starting the ball at higher and higher points. Another rolled a ball, watched it, fetched it, and asked, “What happened?” only to try again. Steady and extended activity was punctuated by, “That was amazing!”

More Than Physics in Play
Play and science learning assume many forms and reflect developmental differences among children, whether it is impatience waiting for a turn, making and revising predictions, or taking a systematic approach. 

Predictions and revisions at the Bottle Rocket
Three children at the Bottle Rocket filled the bottle with water to different levels, launched it, and watched it fly. The 4-year old boy suddenly waved his arms and announced that he knew that the full bottle would fly the highest. His 9-year old sister set about systematically testing 3 conditions. She hit the button to fill the bottle to a low level; the bottle flew up part way. The boy was very pleased with that. As the older sister prepared to fill the bottle halfway, their 2-year old sister dashed in and hit the full button. The full bottle flew up, rising only part way. The third bottle, filled halfway, shot to an impressive height compared to the other bottles, thrilling the boy. Pumping his fist, he shouted, "I knew the half-filled bottle would go the highest. I knew it!" Like a typical 4-year old, he was happy to revise his original prediction in order to be right.

The large-scale, highly interactive experiments are platforms for exploring how the world works, but they support many kinds of learning as well. Along with children making predictions, and engaging in trial and error, they are taking turns and asserting increasing independence as a 4-year old did with, “I don’t want any help” to dismiss his parent’s offer of assistance. Children engage in friendly competition announcing, “We won!” and express their sense of accomplishment with, “I did it!”

The Physics Forest also supports possibilities that designers and physicists are unlikely to have imagined. As a 3-year old peered into the Mirror Maze, his father asked, “What do you see? Does it look weird?” After a pause, the child replied, “Maybe I can see the sunset.”

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Driving for Learning Frameworks

Photo: Washington Post
Imagine a museum that is developing its budget. A group of senior managers meet. “Our treasurer”, the executive director starts out, “would like us to challenge ourselves to get more new visitors”. She writes down an attendance figure for the budget. The membership manager mentions that she knows of several museums of about the same size that have 4,000 members and suggests that for membership. Another manager announces that a local foundation is interested in funding outreach and usually gives grants of about $25,000; he writes down $25,000. The head of programs announces they have lots of ideas for school programs and will be adding some. The discussion continues with figures and sometimes dollar amounts for income and expenses added to the page.

There are many ways to develop a budget, but this isn’t one. This is, however, how many museums develop a museum framework for learning or interpretation. Interests and ideas about learning and audiences come from staff, board and funders in conversations and brainstorming sessions. As a grant deadline approaches, the list migrates to the development office and is enshrined somewhere between the museum’s mission and the project goals. Such an informal list might include creativity, STEM, and more 7-10 year olds. These are likely to be worthwhile ideas, but they don’t serve as a robust framework for planning exhibits, developing programs, conducting evaluations, or demonstrating the museum’s value as an informal learning resource for the community.

Looking for Learning Frameworks in the Museum Field 
My museum planning work and professional service with various types of museums across the country suggests that the list approach is wide-spread in small and large, new and established museums. I used to think it was much more typical in children’s museums. Without a discipline base to guide (as well as limit) their focus of learning, children’s museums work on a relatively blank canvas. Several big ideas, often starting with play, serve as a working draft of a learning framework. Still, I know of about a dozen children’s museums with learning frameworks, including a few start-ups and several who update theirs regularly; I know of just 2 science museums that have one. Recently. I asked the program director from a large, established science museum if her museum had a learning framework or the equivalent. She said that currently it did not, but the education division was starting one–and so was the exhibits division.  

The lure of lists with attractive ideas and categories is also strong in an art, science, natural history–and any–museum defined by a subject matter area. Content areas often serve as proxies for a museum’s learning approach. A commitment to STEM, on one hand, establishes a focus on content, but poses dozens of questions on the other: Are science, technology, engineering, and math areas of comparable significance? Individually or in an interdisciplinary mix? What role do the arts play? How do skills, behaviors, or attitudes fit in? What STEM processes does the museum want to encourage? Why? How does STEM learning look different across the lifespan?

In spite of establishing that education is central to museums’ public service in the Association of American Museum’s Excellence and Equity (1992), there has been an absence of clear statements and guides about the value of education and interpretation planning in museums. Others have noted this as well, including Marianna Adams in her article, “Where Do We Need to Go Next?” in the Journal of Museum Education (Summer 2012).

AAM’s 2008 National Standards and Best Practices Standards for U.S. Museums includes a list of 8 standards related to education and interpretation. Elizabeth Merritt’s commentary first notes that, “Considering that education and interpretation are the core of all museums’ activities, it may seem a bit surprising that there is little in the way of detailed standards, beyond the above Characteristics, elaborating on what museums must do to fulfill their basic obliga­tions in this area of operation.” (p. 59) She then suggests that museums are pretty good at education and interpretation. She also notes there’s no consensus on what constitutes “good education” or “good interpretation” in museums.

The Association of Children’s Museum’s updated Standards for Professional Practice in Children’s Museums (2012) lists 11 Standards for Exhibits and Programs. Several mention that children’s museums have expertise in learning theories and “bodies of knowledge are incorporated.” None, however, promotes a museum's intentional development of a shared framework to consolidate its most important ideas about learning. The Association of Science-Technology Centers website has information on science standards, but not on science center standards related to learning.

A few field-wide frameworks or components related to learning in museums exist. Learning Science in Informal Environments (LSIE) provides a framework on learning science in non-school settings. Grounded in research and centered on the learner, it focuses on the distinct capabilities of informal learning environments to promote science learning. A set of recommendations is explicitly designated as starting points for practice.

Many art museums use Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS) as a component of their education programs. With a focus on thinking and learning through discussions of visual arts, teacher-facilitated discussions encourage learners to develop aesthetic and language literacy and critical thinking skills. Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills (2009) published by IMLS offers a framework for museums. Presented as a self-assessment and high-level planning tool, it outlines a role for museums in learning, a set of four skill areas and five 21st century themes.  

In actuality, LSIE, VTS, and 21st Century Skills are not fundamentally different from casual lists; they are just better ones grounded in research and thoughtfully organized. Along with other lists and taxonomies, these frameworks and strategies are starting points––good starting points, but still starting points. Whether a museum commits to or borrows from one of these, or has its own set of learning areas, it must explore, apply and adapt, and make it meaningful in the particular context of its community, its purpose, and its audience.

The Limits of Lists 
Without standards or even a drumbeat from the profession for museums to develop a learning framework (or interpretive or education plan), lists of learning styles, taxonomies of play, guiding principles, or broad, field-wide frameworks will remain attractive alternatives to museums developing their own learning frameworks.

Lists, taxonomies, and principles alone say nothing beyond, “this is of interest to someone here at this time.” Revealing nothing about how it supports the mission, why it is important, under what circumstances, and for which part of the audience, the document is of limited value. It could apply to virtually any museum. There is no clarification of which ideas are of greater importance, whether one is a driving idea that others support, the relevance of ideas to this community and its priorities, or what practices the museum intends to follow. All opportunities look virtually the same when reviewed against 6 strands, a set of 21st century skills, or 12 exhibit criteria.

The more limited input is in identifying, sharing, and exploring ideas about the museum’s learning value, the more the set of ideas (generic framework or study) is essentially privileged information with a narrow base of support. It is likely to shift when new interests or trends arise or when a local organization is doing something well that is receiving attention. Ideas might be driven by an executive director or the whim of the education director after a conference on family learning. The nature of favored lists and taxonomies is to tacitly encourage a kind of personal advocacy rather than broad-based ownership.

The more informal the set of ideas, principles, or priorities remain, the less likely it is explored with any depth, against relevant data, or considered as a whole. Time and information are necessary for testing the possibility of serving more 7-10 year olds or more professionals and experts and determining whether they are potentially a "core" audience. Until a set of compelling ideas is considered together, there's no sense of whether they engage in powerful ways or if key pieces are missing. Where's the family? How does visitor identity fit in? How does our learning approach fit on the local learning landscape?

Lack of a shared framework simply makes planning harder during master planning, exhibit planning, or developing an initiative. Initial enthusiasm for an attractive idea like innovation often requires time to clarify its meaning(s) and relate it to other ideas and skills; creativity is important? What about critical thinking? This is time that could be better spent on capturing innovative ideas, surveying visitors, or learning from experts. Backing up and hammering out ideas inevitably comes at an inconvenient time.

Adapt, Activate, Apply 
If a museum intends to deliver learning value in exhibits, programs, and outreach, it needs a sound and shared understanding of what learning means for whom, how, and why it matters in this particular setting. 

A museum-wide interpretive plan, learning framework, or education plan are several options a museum has for consolidating its most important ideas about learning, learners, and where it will focus its resources, distinguish itself, and deliver learning value.

How a framework is put together matters a great deal to its long-term benefit and value. Many lists, or perspectives, are needed from many people on topics that intersect. Notes and titles that link to articles, articles that several staff have read and discussed, conceptual frameworks that relate, and studies from the field are needed to hammer a framework for learning that fits the museum.

This is guaranteed to be hard work. But ideas capable of assessing and supporting meaningful work and powerful experiences deserve to be explored, questioned, challenged, prioritized, imagined, and exposed to the strong light of mission, vision, values, and, ultimately, the value to children, families, and the community. Moreover, a framework will not come alive–or survive– without thinking, discussing, organizing, and sharing. It will not be understood by those wanting to contribute expertise and support where the museum’s work matters most, and will not be valued by the staff who implement it without their widespread involvement.

A framework of this caliber helps a museum assess and manage its opportunities, supports decision-making and allocating resources (which offerings to grow, keep or let go). It informs questions of practice, the focus for staff development, pursuit of a research agenda, and deepening its understanding of its audience. Pressed to demonstrate and communicate the value of their informal learning approach, as museums increasingly are, a framework for learning becomes an invaluable and essential organizational tool along with a strategic plan and budget or business plan.

With time, more museums will hopefully value and develop a learning framework in the same way they value learning for their visitors and view themselves as community of learners. And, as more museums do, perhaps the profession will recognize the practice of developing a learning or interpretive frameworks as a field-wide museum standard. Learning is, after all, the core of a museum's value to its community.