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 is an absence of well-defined standards for 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.