Friday, June 12, 2015

Building a Learning Framework from Three Ideas

When Janella Watson, Director of Early Childhood Education and Family Learning at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI), talked about NYSCI’s learning framework at InterActivity 2015 she summed it up in three words: Design. Make. Play. She then unpacked these constructs grounded in NYSCI’s museum-wide maker focus. With slides and an engaging voice over, Janella’s examples highlighted the important processes and skills, connections to learning, and the value of each.

Design. Emphasizes problem solving, intentionality, and divergent solutions that help in seeing the possibilities in the world.

Make. Thinks with the hands; tinkers with materials, tools and processes; and nurtures development of science process skills and confidence.

Play. Privileges delight; promotes intrinsic motivations; and leads to deep engagement. 

This approach is simple, or, if not simple, then straightforward. Actually, once these rich and roomy constructs are explored and described, they reveal valuable complexity. Museums can leverage this complexity in shaping, creating, and facilitating experiences. Having an accessible and practical starting point, however, is a decided advantage in starting and developing a framework. Interested in museum’s having and using learning frameworks, I’ve been looking for approaches that encourage more museums to start and stick with these tools. Janella’s approach puts into action an idea I have been exploring: building a museum’s learning framework around 3 solid complementary, relevant learning ideas, or constructs.

Typically, a museum’s learning framework is the convergence of constructs reflecting its over-arching purpose and long-term learning interests. Museums need a level of complexity in their learning ideas. They serve a broad range of visitors who are engaged in a wide variety of experiences including the complex process of learning. Bringing together 3 robust and compatible learning ideas creates a strong foundation for understanding and planning for learning and learners in an informal learning setting. It’s unlikely that a single learning construct could accommodate the social, cognitive, physical, and personal dimensions of the many ways of learning in museums.

What's a Big Idea?
Add to NYSCI’s 3 ideas, 3 others that I’ve been noodling on (relationships, materials, and play), and several others at work in museum learning frameworks, and the range and nature of these big ideas become apparent. Change, community engagement, connections, creativity, critical thinking, design, global awareness, innovation, inquiry, making, materials, place, play, relationships, resilience, and sustainability. Certainly, every likely construct is not on this list, but the variety and focus are instructive. Absent are STEM, art, history, health-and-well-being, literacy, math, the environment, and other content areas and discipline. Basic life-long literacies, these are areas of interest that attract enthusiasts and are typically where exhibit topics are located. They are primarily cognitive and lack the active, experiential visitor-focus typical of the learning constructs above. 

What’s So Special About 3?
Too many ideas are unwieldy. They make a framework unnecessarily complicated and cumbersome to develop and use. Because ideas, or focus areas, interact with one another, 3 ideas generate more related areas of interest and possibility. Where all 3 ideas overlap and meet is the sweet spot that helps establish a priority interest for the museum. What is at the center is what is valued, what deserves attention, and what receives resources.

Working with 3 ideas helps create a balanced, complementary focus capable of supporting a wide range of learning experiences. Each area contributes something distinct and desirable for a rich mix. Design involves a structured process and aesthetics; Make involves physical engagement, small motor manipulation, and experience with tools; and Play is motivating and open-ended. Together Design, Make, and Play encompass critical thinking, thinking with the hands, and imaginative thinking. They invite planning, evaluation, and reflection. Three ideas radiate over a surprising amount of useful territory.

What Makes Ideas Right?
Of course, not just any set of 3 ideas will do. Constructs that are grandiose, overly specific, too similar, or mismatched in magnitude cause problems. For instance, critical thinking and resilience–adapting well and becoming strong in the face of adversity–may both be important to a museum. One, however, is highly conceptual and complex; the other is more behavioral. Critical thinking might be better suited as a supporting strategy than an equal partner with resilience. Considering all 3 ideas and how they work together helps form a good working set.

Other qualities of learning ideas are helpful to take consider and many are found in NYSCI’s 3 big ideas. Big ideas are: 
• Grounded in theory and research;
• Suited to an informal learning environment like museums; 
• Inherently active, inviting wondering, doing, arranging, testing, and making connections;
• Well suited to a wide range of ages and learners;
• Naturally interdisciplinary, connecting several disciplines and content areas;
• Capable of carrying content while not content driven;
• Not merely buzzwords or slogans; and
• Being discussed, shared, and challenged across the museum.

How Do 3 Ideas Start to Shine?
A set of learning ideas has to fit a museum. Even though two museums may have the same set of 3 ideas, their learning frameworks won’t be the same. Developing the 3 ideas and building them into learning framework tailors it to a museum. Ideas emerge from each mission. They are understood and defined in ways particular to a museum, reflecting its community, and consistent with its contribution among other organizations. A museum’s stage of organizational development and whether it has been working with some or all of these ideas previously influences the course of development.

Building a learning framework from 3 big ideas connects with other elements of a museum’s learning interests, whether implicit or explicit: how the museum views its learners, the specific learning strategies and processes it uses, its learning assets. Using the framework, reflecting on it and revising makes it more and more specific to and makes it shine. 

Start with 3 big ideas.   

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