Wednesday, June 24, 2015

DIY Research Agenda

Skyline at Chicago Children's Museum
Do you have questions about learning in your museum? How conversations support and reveal learning in family groups? About making as a learning process? Whether your visitors are environmentally literate? Do you want to go beyond knowing program satisfaction? Would you like to know more about the value your museum offers your community?

Do you often develop goals and evaluation questions on the fly, primarily as part of a grant proposal? Have you completed an evaluation study or exploratory research project and you hope to do more? Do you have a folder of museum studies that you refer to for guidance and inspiration? Are notes for a literature review collecting dust on a shelf? Do you wonder if you have the right mix of theory or practice to guide planning around engagement and learning?

If any of these resonate, your museum might be poised to develop a DIY research agenda.

Roadmap for Research
A research agenda is a roadmap or a framework for research that identifies and prioritizes what a museum or group of museums is most interested in knowing about the learning, engagement, and experiences it offers. It focuses on the impact the museum has on the lives of the children, families, and communities it serves. Development of museum research agendas reflect a shift from a belief in the inherent value of museums to a recognized need for a collective, evidence-based body of knowledge about museums that can be used across institutions to build theories of learning, improve practice, and demonstrate museums’ distinct value. 

Reflecting a growing maturity in the museum field museum groups have been developing research frameworks over the last decade. While initiated for different purposes, these research frameworks share an intention to grow the capacity of individuals, institutions, and the field. They express a common desire to improve practice, build theories of learning, and demonstrate the distinct value of museums while encouraging research and evaluation across the museum. Typically the frameworks include both basic research and evaluation, because evaluation studies have provided much of what is currently known about learning in the museum field.

Work on the AZA Framework for Zoo and Aquarium Social Science Research has been evolving since it was first introduced in 2011. The Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) introduced its Practice-and-Research Initiative in 2014. In 2015 the Association of Children’s Museum released its Learning Value of Children’s Museums. 

These frameworks provide a context for individual museums to conduct research, evaluate projects, and collaborate on multiple-museum research initiatives. They also provide a context where museums can situate their own research agendas. Ideally a museum’s research agenda emerges from its learning or interpretive framework. A learning framework, however, can also be built around a museum’s long-term learning interests expressed in its research agenda.

You might be thinking that you will develop a research agenda some day, when … your museum is bigger or more established; when you have finished the evaluation project or the learning framework you have been developing; when you have greater capacity, the right tools, or a new director of learning.

Don’t let that idea roost for too long because it will slow you down, if not stop you in your tracks.

Start Now
Start where you are and grow from there. Use whatever internal capacity you have and access professional connections and networks. Start with what you like to do most or where you feel most confident. Gleaned from reading through the research agendas and my experience with museums and their research agendas, practical, but not necessarily linear, steps for starting your research agenda.  
Frame questions. What broad questions about your museum’s learning value and its community service purpose most interest staff across your museum? How do these relate to areas of impact–where your museum believes positive change is possible for its learners and its community? Look at the studies completed over the years at your museum to identify areas of continuing importance. Helpful here is Elee Wood’s article, “Defining the Scope of Your Evaluation” in Journal of Museum Education “Empowering Museum Educators to Evaluate” (March 2015).
Sort and refine. Cluster questions in various ways. How do questions align with research agendas in the field; with the research and evaluation done in museums in these areas; and with areas of funder interest? Some questions are sub-questions, important to keep, but not overarching research questions. Group the questions into 2-4 areas of interest; or select one question to start with. Before going too far, make sure your museum has a current policy on research and evaluation.
Familiarize. Wherever you are in the process, check out resources such as:
- “Empowering Museum Educators to Evaluate”, Journal of Museum Education (March 2015) 
- The CAISE Informal Science Education Resource
- ACM’s soon-to-be-relaunched Research Exchange 
- The White Oak Associates' John Jacobsen’s 2010 “A Research Vision for Museums”
Access capacity. Consider everyone and everywhere as a possible source for related expertise needed to advance your research. Capacity undoubtedly exists in your museum in design, education, marketing, and/or development. Consider creating an internship for a trained intern with evaluation and/or research experience to work under supervision. Tap into a local evaluation network or a regional museum with an internal evaluator. Get to know researchers at area colleges and universities. When you do work with an outside evaluator or researcher, select one interested in building capacity in your museum through engaging staff in the research and coaching.
Connect and collaborate. There’s a good reason large groups of museums develop and take on a research agenda collectively. Answering big questions is too much for any single museum. Take advantage of the field-wide nature of research agendas and look for opportunities to collaborate. Working together takes many forms from collaborative projects with museums with shared research interests, to joining a multiple-institutional research project, to sharing methodologies and shared evaluation metrics.
Divide and conquer. Making progress on your research agenda requires a meaningful effort over time. Rather than be intimidated, break the work down into manageable pieces you can grapple with and that are achievable. Identify a variety of studies to be conducted across your museum over several years. Structure projects and initiatives around your research questions and sub-questions. Build in opportunities on those projects to work with researchers and evaluators, engage staff, grow internal capacity, and build new knowledge–one study at a time.
Engage and share. Engage often with staff in your museum, in other museums and across the field to learn together and to answer shared questions. Standardize definitions; be generous with research tools and evaluation models; share results with partners, collaborators, and online research exchange.

Prepare for the Benefits
However modest a museum’s research agenda might be, it nevertheless enables it to advance itself and serve its community more fully. Having and working on your own research agenda:
• Shifts from research and evaluation as an afterthought to a backbone for planning and driving change;
• Creates a closer fit between intention and achievement in areas of impact and value;
• Builds a more active and enduring internal culture of inquiry and learning;
• Grows capacity among museum educators, developers, designers, evaluators, and marketers;
• Communicates to supporters, stakeholders, and potential partners the museum’s interest in building knowledge, improving experiences, and increasing value; 
• Demonstrates to others outside museums how museums serve as an integral learning resource;
• Builds a stronger case for your museum’s worth;
• Develops new strategies based on research to advance the mission, improve the quality of experiences, and increase impact;
• Contributes to a larger body of knowledge about learning and change in informal learning settings.
A DIY research agenda is win-win-win. Placing your museum’s work as part of that larger collective effort advances the field, your museum, and your community.

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