I was delighted when Robin Meisner and Suzy Letourneau of Providence Children’s Museum asked me to join their session at InterActivity 2015 to deepen the exploration of making learning through play visible. This session was a response to interest from last year’s session and focus on why understanding a institution’s view of learning is important to making learning visible.
In thinking about how to frame the presentations by Janella Watson from NYSC, Amy Eisenmann from Bay Area Discovery Museum and Robin and Suzy, I wanted to do two things. First, I wanted to find out how typical a practice having a shared understanding about learning is and how this compares to other museum areas.
I began by asking how many of the approximately 80 participants had an institutional view of learning at their museum? About 12 people raised their hands. When asked whether that institutional definition of learning was written, 12 hands remained. About 6 hands remained when I probed whether this definition was part of a larger document on learning.
The results were quite different when I asked whether their museums had a financial plan, a marketing plan, a development plan, or an exhibit plan. Virtually every hand was raised for every plan. This generated some murmuring! Why don’t museums have a broadly shared understanding about learning as they do about marketing, finance, development? Why isn’t a shared understanding about learning woven into a museum’s fabric? Made visible as accomplishments are in those other areas?
My second hope in framing the session was to share the hard-won experiences of museums that have developed learning frameworks. A learning framework consolidates a museum’s most important ideas about learning and learners, and where a museum will focus its resources, distinguish itself, and deliver learning value. It seems, if not obvious, then extremely helpful, for a museum to articulate the important ideas at the convergence of its strategic and learning interests. Frameworks can focus on global awareness, creativity, inquiry, play, or early language development.
For the last 20 years learning frameworks have been my tool of choice for strengthening and making visible the learning value museums offer in their exhibits and programs and through staff and volunteer interactions with learners. Regardless of museum size or focus or whether it a museum is on its first framework or third update, 10 observations are worth sharing.
1. People who work together and who use the same terms–learning, play, creativity, global awareness–do not necessarily mean the same thing by those same words. These important ideas require a shared and deep understanding about how people who work together understand them.
2. A museum’s most important ideas about learning, creativity, or play must be defined by people in that museum, for that museum, for its audience, and taking its community. into account
3. Identifying key ideas, defining them together, collaborating on a written framework, and distributing it makes these understandings and intentions open and public. They are available for others to examine, discuss, challenge, revisit, reflect on, and change as needed.
4. Clarifying the meaning of learning, inquiry, play, or creativity is a negotiation. It brings together various interpretations and perspectives. Dialogue among colleagues makes the ideas and their meaning clearer, stronger, and shared. Wholesale adoption of a particular pedagogy or model defeats the purpose. One person’s passion cannot dominate. There’s a higher value than having your idea triumph. It’s having the right ideas clarified.
5. As important as it is to be clear about individual ideas, it’s critical to understand how they relate with one another. What is the relationship of play and learning? Fully understanding the meaning of an idea includes clarity about how it engages with other muscular ideas. Connect the dots.
6. Whether or not we’re trained as educators or our position descriptions say we are educators, we all are engaged in some way in providing rich learning experiences for children and adults–no matter how we define learning. Everyone has a role to play and must play it well.
7. A framework around learning–or inquiry, play, creativity–is a framework for the entire museum. It’s not just for educators. A framework is an expression of how a museum values and views learning and learners; how it sees its value to its community; and how it sees itself as a learning organization.
8. A learning framework pushes well beyond an intention to contribute to positive changes for children, adults, and staff. It is a working tool for finding ways to make the learning that is occurring visible to learners staff and trustees, and to museum supporters.
9. This is hard work and demands rigor. Every museum may not be ready to make learning visible to children, parents and staff. But every museum can clarify and connect its most important ideas about learning that are embedded in its mission, related to its audience, and in service to its community.
10. A framework is a use-dependent tool. The more it’s used, the more it generates new insights and gives clearer direction for where the museum can accomplish more.
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