Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Engaging the Child’s Potential

Few words are roomier or more full of optimism than potential. It is the wide-open territory of what is possible but not readily visible. We apply it liberally in many contexts, as an adjective, “potential funder,” and as a noun, “a possibility something might exist in the future.” Potential allows us to anticipate what might happen in economic growth, businesses, medicine, media, politics, and education. When it comes to specifics, however, things get vague. Potential sinks into easy clichés, often about the general unrealized ability of the individual as if mentioning it activates it. Potential is one of those words, it seems, that gets by on the optimism it exudes rather than on the clarity and specifics it offers.

If we value potential and believe, in particular, in the child's potential, we need ways to engage it readily and easily. We can do this through relationships, interactions, experiences, and environments, indoors and out; in museums, zoos, libraries, schools, afterschool programs and clubs. Without taking a closer look at the child’s potential to first understand it, we will invent and apply strategies with little avail.

Believing in children’s potential relies, above all, on taking them seriously–not casually or superficially–but fully taking into account their remarkable capabilities in making sense of the world. Being impressed with children’s strengths and resourcefulness is not at all difficult. Be unhurried and listen to children at the store, on the bus, in the back seat, at the park, or at the museum. They ask questions, find patterns, make new connections, and express fascination with what they see, hear, touch, and smell. Notice as a child lets a butterfly rest on her fist, talks with the butterfly, and follows it as it flits away. Follow a child’s joy in testing a hunch and expressing a discovery. Pay attention to the empathy contained in small gestures even young children display towards others.

The more we pay thoughtful attention to children, the more we discover extraordinary strengths and capabilities, rather than finding weaknesses and limitations.
…there is strong evidence that children, when they have accumulated substantial knowledge, have the ability to abstract well beyond what is ordinarily observed. Indeed, the striking feature of modern research is that it describes unexpected competencies in young children, key features of which appear to be universal. (National Research Council. Eager to Learn: Educating Our Preschoolers)
Many Potentials
We refer to the child’s potential as if it were a single, undifferentiated realm. Even an individual child’s potential is a complex network of promise and possibilities, capabilities, innate interests, and talents. The concept of The Hundred Languages advances a view of potential that is not confined just to one language or way of learning. Potential is expressed through playing, speaking, listening, dancing, imagining, and thinking; to symbols, images, colors, movements, and sounds. Clearly potential crosses domains of a child’s  social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. We can also think of various potentials such as play potential, creative potential, or relationship potential. A museum’s learning framework might also highlight aspects of the child’s potential of particular interest. 

Potential is not only elusive when we view it as one large undifferentiated quality, but is also difficult to engage as a large positive mass. Vygotsky’s, zone of proximal development (ZPD) provides one glimpse of engaging the child’s potential. ZPD is the distance between the levels of capacities expressed by children and their levels of potential development that are achievable with the assistance of someone who is more competent in those areas. The help provided goes just slightly beyond the child’s current competencies to what is possible, but not yet fully actual. An adult or a more advanced peer can provide that nearby competence to allow the child to stretch a bit farther.

A child’s potential does not exist in a vacuum nor does it spring forth without an intriguing invitation. Rather, potential unfolds over time in response to a wide range of opportunities children can follow as far as their motivation, agency, and resourcefulness will take them, which is undeniably far. If we are interested in engaging children’s potential, we must be open to recognizing additional capabilities and resources in children than we expect to see or we risk never glimpsing what the potential might be. We must not only hold an image of the child as curious, capable, competent, and rich in resources, but also not allow ourselves to be limited by a view of the child as needy, incomplete, and inadequate. We must listen and observe with active and open minds and hearts, and avoid assuming we understand too quickly. 

Alive and Responsive to the Child’s Potential 
Besides a better understanding of the child’s potential, something we must continuously work to evolve and deepen, we need to sharpen our awareness of opportunities to support and engage it. In museums–as well as schools, libraries, playgrounds, zoos, afterschool programs, etc.–we have abundant opportunities to create experiences that respond to the unknown but fresh questions, interesting ideas, and lively imaginations children bring to any encounter.

Everyday children reveal their remarkable capacities in countless ways in the varied experiences, rich environments, inviting exhibits, and supportive interactions and relationships we offer. As we plan program activities, design exhibits, wander through galleries, observe and evaluate projects, and interact with children, we should be wondering and asking ourselves about how we are engaging children’s potential. For instance:
City Museum, St Louis MO
  •   How does the sky-high climber build on the child’s confidence and allow them to set–and reset–their own challenges?
  • How does the light lab support and extend the child’s taking her ideas further, and in unlikely ways? Provide clues for about her capabilities?   
  • How do materials in the studio allow children to express and represent ideas they are grappling with? Do these materials change in response to their investigations? Do they make processes visible?
  • How does the grocery store or market reflect back to her insights about who she is? Widen the range of interactions with other children?
  • How does the ball coaster allow children to seek out novelty and newness? Invite questions? Test, try, and revise ideas? See evidence of their resourcefulness?
  • How does the animation station allow the child to plan? Follow interests? Make choices? Become absorbed in noticing and wondering?
  • How does a staff person’s pausing, observing, and engaging with a child allow that child to stretch a bit further? Accomplish something until now only imagined? Allow her to accomplish something?
There are countless considerations in creating experiences and interactions that engage the child’s potential. Whether the child is making, building, climbing, digging, blowing bubbles, reading, drawing, or dancing, we are more likely to engage their potential when we:
  •  Allow time for children to approach, explore, and become absorbed in activities and spaces. Building, unbuilding, and rebuilding take time. Doing and understanding take time. Growing capacities takes time.
Photo: Tom Bedard
  • View children in a future context as well as the present moment. Rather than offering activities to keep children busy now, shape experiences that grow a sense of possibility and efficacy.
  • Are nimble in making possibilities available. We must pay attention; be open and responsive to children’s strategies for exploring; rejigger the experience; step out of their way; and let them follow their agency and resourcefulness to some place we have not imagined for them.
  • Engage our own potential. In order to create a mindset of possibility for children, we must be open and ready to learn from them and reach our currently unrealized abilities.
Related Posts

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Polishing the Mission

There are many museum trends to watch and I certainly don’t track them all, or even most, of them. Nevertheless, I have a pretty strong sense that museum mission statements are generally getting more robust. Admittedly, this is based on an informal sample of museum mission statements. But it feels solid enough to explore it aloud.

I come across fewer mission statements that link predictable and well-worn phrases together and that could be interchanged with any number of similar museums. Fewer missions rely on simply stating that a museum “collects, preserves, and interprets” or “creates hands-on exhibits” for their audiences. Conversely, I see more attention to the serious business of describing the difference for a community a museum is marshaling its varied resources to make.  

A few possible reasons for stronger missions occur to me based on my museum planning work, professional reading, and observations. Museums are learning organizations; no doubt some have learned from the shortcomings of their latest missions or have been impressed by what a solid, hard working mission has accomplished for a peer institution. I am also guessing that museums have realized that the same type of mission that works for large corporations does not work for smaller non-profits with a learning at its core. Museum specialists like Randi Korn & Associates have focused on impact planning, often in relation to a museum’s mission. Finally, tough times can be good teachers. Navigating increasingly complex environments, often with declining resources while also demonstrating impact, has, I think, pushed museums to probe what being both nice and necessary means. This process involves clearly expressing a museum’s intention to be indispensable to its community in its mission. A harder working mission is a power tool in this effort.

Mission 101
Stated simply, a museum’s mission expresses its enduring purpose. Along with a vision that addresses the future and values that are beliefs guiding a museum’s actions, a mission centers a museum’s driving principles. This threesome gives meaningful direction to where a museum is headed, how it will act, and its intended impact. Among the driving principles, however, mission is the leader. Everything else–strategy, policy, practice, and program–directly or indirectly, is an extension of the mission.

Mission statements are aspirational about what a museum wants to accomplish, even if it will take decades; and meaningful change will take decades to accomplish. A mission statement answers what the museum does, for whom, how and why in a way that distinguishes the museum from other organizations that serve a similar audience in a similar way. These four elements–what, for whom, how, and whymust be aligned and work together powerfully, be relevant to the community, and position a museum to act.
What the museum does, expressed more in terms of a vital necessity than a list or activities.
For whom identifies who the museum must serve in order to fulfill its purpose in a meaningful way. For instance, “families of all backgrounds” designates more intentional beneficiaries than “the public.”
• How points to the meaningful change a museum believes it can help accomplish.
Why this is important relates the museum’s intended impact to community priorities

Because museums and their communities change, missions change. At its origination a museum needs to create a mission. Momentous as this step at the start of a museum’s life is–and setting a thoughtful course is momentous–this mission will be revisited and rethought multiple times. If museums are useful and relevant, they will evolve. Their missions must also evolve to reflect this change and bring greater clarity to serving the community more effectively.

Rethinking a mission is likely when a museum engages in institutional planning, applies for accreditation, or decides on mission level change: a change in the audience, being free, or expressing a clear intention to contribute to the common good. Often museums need a mission check using the context of their current reality and strategic ambitions. More of a thoughtful review and less than an overhaul, the outcome of a mission check is an affirmation or adjustment that adds or strengthens parts.   

Burnishing and Buffing
Polished wood (Colossal)
Whether a museum is shaping its mission for the first time, rethinking it for a major expansion, or revisiting it through strategic planning, polishing the mission is an important, often overlooked step. This kind of polishing is less about shine and sparkle and more about deep honing. As with any quality material–brass, stone, wood, or silver–buffing and burnishing bring out highlights, reveal important contours, capture light, and add luster. For missions too.
Polished marble chips

I’ve seen museums including the Kidspace Children’s Museum (Pasadena) polish their missions. Following a thoughtful, extended, and inclusive process of revisiting its mission during its master planning, the Museum took time for one more step. Polishing involved additional internal discussions, several informal reviews by museum colleagues and friends, and an explication of each key part of the mission statement.
In reworking its mission, Kidspace moved from a statement that expressed a broad concern with education, a generic reference to the audience, an all-purpose outcome, and a suggestion of how the change might occur. 
Our mission at Kidspace Children’s Museum is to promote education and enrich the lives of children, families, and the community through interactive experiences in science, art, and the humanities. (2012)
The Museum arrived at a mission that centered on children. It identified specific and meaningful outcomes for them, committed the Museum to serve all children, and assigned itself a concrete role in helping to accomplish this together with the community.
 “Kidspace provides opportunities for kid-driven experiences in order to build a community that nurtures all children’s potential.” (Late 2013)

By itself, this new mission elevated the Museum’s interest in impacting children’s lives with clearer direction for how it would distinguish itself from other groups. In polishing its mission, Kidspace chose to take more direct responsibility for engaging children’s potential, shifted its concern for children’s futures as joyful, active learners, and further focused on outdoor experiences–still keeping it concise. 
Kidspace nurtures the potential of all children through kid-driven outdoor experiences, inspiring them to become joyful, active learners. (Early 2014)

In getting to a crisper and more powerful mission statement which will serve it well in shaping strategic platforms, developing policies and practices, guiding discussions, and informing resource allocation Kidspace also:
• Strengthened and aligned the big ideas which shape its work
• Developed deeper understandings and shared appreciation
• Prepared for the next steps

Strengthening and aligning the big ideas. Big ideas must also be strong, durable ideas that are well aligned. The right-big ideas are ones that demand that a museum push beyond its current capabilities and aspirations in areas it has experience, expertise, and assets and consistently excels. In the territory where a museum has significant potential to deliver value and where its community has priorities, a museum will find a productive tension that advances it on multiple fronts.

During intense discussions of missions, forceful ideas can fly up and hijack dialogue, silencing new ideas and dismissing areas where a museum has long-term interests. While compelling ideas are important, they should also be challenged with question such as: Are these the right ideas? Why? Are they us? How do we know? Do we have a recognized track record? Do we have credibility in this area? Do solid ideas stand behind our bold language?

For Kidspace, kid-driven experiences emerges as a big idea. It is roomy and serves as a container for a set of related ambitious ideas around being child-centered, recognizing children’s competence, allowing them to act on choices, inviting children to explore their talents and interests, and encouraging them to leave their mark. Kid-driven experiences also distinguishes the Museum from other organizations serving this audience.

A mission statement is stronger when one big idea engages firmly and clearly with another big idea and connects parts of the mission: what, for whom, how, and why. Nurturing all children's potential connects to kid-driven experiences in several important ways. It further distinguishes the Museum’s kid-driven experiences, grounds them in long-term value in children’s lives, and emphasizes a commitment to all children regardless of background.

Developing deeper understandings and a shared appreciation. Whatever its mission, a museum’s fundamental challenge is practicing its mission and realizing it everyday. To meet that constant challenge, a mission’s meaning must be clear among its key internal stakeholders–staff and board–whether they have lots of history with the museum or are new to the organization.

Understanding the mission’s deep meaning comes from knowing not only its words, but also their sense, significance, and shades. After a mission has been composed, unpacking its language and parts thoughtfully and collaboratively builds agreement around what the museum does, for whom, why, and how. Explicating the ideas and language of the mission develops a shared appreciation for the words that have been chosen and an understanding about those that have been omitted. Time taken to make the mission transparent helps everyone internalize it, find ways to inhabit it through their role at the museum, believe in the mission, and practice it everyday.

Some of this exploration and discussion occurs through internal reviews by committees throughout the process, listening to new perspectives from across the entire museum or from museum friends, and thinking about how to present the mission statement. It is also an opportunity to highlight connections to a museum’s past, articulate its relevance to its community, and include language or supporting ideas not included in the mission statement proper. In recording its process and completing its master plan document, Kidspace expanded on four elements in its mission statement.
-        Nurture the potential of all children
-        Kid-driven experiences
-        Inspire joyful active learning
-        Relate to the community

A back-up document valuable for staff and board orientation, background for grants, and selection criteria for initiatives and projects, these write-ups can be updated with evolving insights and current examples. 

Preparing the museum for the next steps. A museum’s mission is a platform for all it does, how it organizes for work, who it hires, and how it engages with the community. Implications of a solid mission cascade across the museum, from revising documents in order to reflect the new mission; to prioritizing programs, activities, and partnerships; to considering new impacts and measures.

Inevitably, a museum must align its mission with its work. If the previous mission statement focused on tasks such as collecting, preserving, interpreting, the museum is likely to be organized for work and results around these tasks. The same task-oriented organizational structure, teams, and working groups–as familiar and comfortable as it is–will hamper the museum when it adopts a new audience-centered mission.

Polishing the mission assists in probing the opportunities and challenges a museum will face in wholeheartedly living its mission. Kidspace must challenge itself to probe deeply what children’s potential means and to present authentic  kid-driven experiences. It must become practiced in making subtle but meaningful distinctions among experiences that truly are kid-driven and those that are superficially so. It will also need to be prepared to advocate for kid-driven experiences in the face of adults discomfort with mess, risk, and failure.

Polished petrified wood (Photo: Fox Marble)
Growing internal capacity is essential to making any progress towards a new mission. Does this museum have the capacity to be a crossroad of culture and everyday life? to connect artists and individuals? to strengthen the bonds of community? Polishing the mission is an opportunity for a museum to recognize the critical areas in which it must build internal capacity by investing in staff, building new systems, and developing new practices.

Every museum has a mission statement and virtually all have received thoughtful input and discussion from people who believe in the museum’s purpose. Few missions, however, receive the full and final polish they deserve, a buffing and burnishing that illuminates the work ahead, and transforms the museum into a gem.

Related Museum Notes Posts

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Thousand Small Fires

When I think of the interest, energy, and excitement around Reggio-inspired thought the image of lighting a thousand small fires comes to mind.

Seeing a child translate knowledge into a drawing; entering learning spaces filled with beauty; challenging our assumptions about children’s capabilities through documentation; and encountering children’s presence in their city gives evidence, language and promise to engaging children’s potential.

The energy generated by the bold educational experiment in the municipal early childhood schools of Reggio Emilia is considerable and varied. Over decades, the Reggio approach has crossed national borders and cultural contexts as well as school and museum contexts. Early childhood educators, artists, higher ed. faculty and researchers, parents, museum designers and educators, and community members have been engaged and challenged by principles that promote a fundamental respect for young children in a meaningful community context. Inspired by Reggio ideas they have energized preschools and elementary schools; educational projects and community programs; research and community initiatives; vibrant formal and informal networks and self-forming groups; books, articles, and blogs; conferences, institutes, seminars, symposia, and study tours.

What is equally exciting is that there are also schools, groups, projects, and stories that are not, strictly speaking, Reggio inspired but are strongly and brilliantly in the spirit of Reggio. Children-friendly cities, schools in neighboring towns of Pistoia, mothers’ groups in the UK, arts projects, and museum archive are important to highlight too. Responsive to their local contexts, embracing children’s strengths and competence, and built on strong relationships, these experiments are among the thousand small fires that many hope will create stronger, better schools, museums, cities, and futures for young children.

These small fires are fed by connections between and among colleagues and friends through links, updates on project progress, sharing documentation, and generative partnerships. Following are some of the fires adding light to many journeys in schools and museums. Some are updates on the Reggio-inspired events I wrote about in April; others have been shared by curious and generous colleagues. In narrowing down a much longer list, I have considered variety, relevance to the museum context, and engagement with Reggio ideas that go beyond mere imitation. 

Opal School’s Summer Symposium. Opal School is a Reggio-inspired tuition-based preschool and public charter elementary school operating in a museum context and located in a city park. The School’s teacher-researchers were joined by colleagues for 3 full days of synthesis, renewal, dialogue, materials exploration, and reflection. This year’s focus explored relationships with the natural world, a theme enhanced by Opal’s location in Washington Park and Outdoor Adventure, the Portland Children’s Museum’s new exhibit designed in response to observing Opal School children at play. Guest presenter, Louise Cadwell, shared her recent work in sustainability education. Follow the link to Opal’s 2014-15 Professional Development Guide.

Documentation to Engage the Community. Faculty and staff from Wheelock College (Boston) who were on the Museums Group study tour in Reggio (November 2013) chose to explore ways to document informal learning in museum settings at the Wheelock Doc Studio Institute co-hosted with DIG (Document Inquiry Group). The June 19 Institute brought together teacher educators and faculty from several Boston area colleges and staff from Boston Children's Museum; the De Cordova Museum and Sculpture Park and Lincoln Nursery School (Lincoln, MA). Stephanie Cox Suarez has compiled reflections,comments, and questions from the group that highlight both practical and philosophical issues in using documentation in a variety of learning contexts. Other Doc Studio blog posts are worth checking out as well.

Reggio-inspired Pre-conferences at InterActivity 2014, the Association of Children’s Museum’s annual conference in Phoenix (AZ). Children’s museums and the Reggio approach are well aligned around core ideas related to the child, parent engagement, the role of the environment in learning, and strong community connections. The rich, generous, well-articulated, and interconnected philosophy of Reggio is a great opportunity for children’s museums to improve themselves on behalf of children and their communities. Yet, as compelling as these connections are, authentic work with Reggio principles and practices in a children’s museum context is challenging. During these two half-day sessions almost 50 participants found insights, starting points, promising approaches, collegial connections, and inspiration for moving forward in navigating the Reggio-children’s museum connection. Participants expressed a strong interest in a network, webinars, a 2015 Reggio-inspired pre-conference, and a study tour to Reggio.

Photo: 5 x 5 x5 = creativity
5 x 5x 5 = creativity. An independent, arts-based action research organization in the UK, 5 x 5 x 5 = creativity supports children in their exploration and expression of ideas and develop creative capacities. The strong commitment to documentation and research is apparent in the many ways children and adults are researchers and co-learners. I enjoyed one of the case studies in particular, Making a Museum. It puts museum making in the hands of children and illustrates how children’s interests fire their creativity and learning.   

Coriandole House
Coriandoline. Many of the same principles embedded in Reggio pedagogy–curiosity, participation, listening to children, an amiable environment–are present in this project in a neighborhood in Correggio near Reggio and in Malaguzzi’s hometown. Following children and their ideas, seeing possibilities in the surroundings, imagining a new place, and adding a light poetic touch, in Correggio, the civic stance of Reggio is somewhat more domestic in new homes for girls and boys that made the neighborhood come alive.

Learning Stories. Tom Drummond’s examples draw on the practice of pedagogical narration, the work of Dr. Margaret Carr and Wendy Lee (New Zealand). This strategy emerged from an encouragement to document children's work with the child in mind. Learning stories, narrated by the teacher, follow and describe the child’s involvement in an activity, noticing the conditions and materials and constraints with accompanying images that document and share children’s learning–and serve as research tools.

Photo: Marla McClean
School Within School. An atelierista uses a variation of the documentation approach to explore her reflections on her work and projects with her preschool students. She interweaves reflections with observations of her young students and their words, explorations, and representations with materials.

Project-based Homeschooling. After running a Reggio-inspired school, this mother now uses the same ideas and practices in a home setting to homeschool her two children. Grounded in a clarity about the child as an agent in his own learning, her project-based learning approach engages an adolescent, well beyond the typical preschool age range where Reggio practice is usually applied.

Sand and Water Tables. A classroom teacher in St Paul (MN), Tom Bedard is a keen observer of children’s explorations at the sand and water (and corn and wood pellet) table which he shares in his spot-on Axioms of Sensorimotor Play. In an iterative 3-d documentation process, Tom’s blog shares how the children’s inventiveness and creativity inspire him in constructing apparatuses with boxes, tubes, and tape that further extend and inspire the children’s exploration.

Cadwell Collaborative. This team has deep and varied connections to Reggio schools in Italy and in the US. Cadwell Collaborative brings an interpretation of the Reggio Approach to its innovative work in and with schools placing it in an ever-expanding context of project based learning, professional development, school design, and sustainability education.

Related Museum Notes Posts

A special thanks to Lani Shapiro for sharing many links, sources, and resources over the years, including several in this post.