Thursday, September 24, 2015

Museum Schools ...and Museum Preschools

RMSC Preschool (Photo credit: RMSC)
The Center for the Future of Museums followed up on its popular session on the future of education at the annual meeting in Atlanta with a pair of blog posts on museum schools. In Trending Now: Museum Schools Laney Tillner, graduate student at Middle Tennessee State University, wrote about the rise in museum schools and their variety drawing on her thesis research and experience at the John Early Museum Magnet Middle Prep in Nashville (TN).

There are more than 30 museum preschools at history, art, science and children’s museums, zoos and nature centers across the US which contribute to the bigger picture of museum schools and the current and future learning landscape. Museum preschools:
are both well established and growing;
• have a relatively easy alignment between informal learning and formal learning methods;
• fit into the larger educational ecosystem of their communities; and
• are part of the early learning field that is increasingly viewed as critical to closing the achievement gap

In museum preschools, children spend their days in an extraordinarily rich and remarkable learning environment: the museum. Located at the museum itself children enjoy easy, usually daily, access to hands-on exhibits, immersive environments, dioramas, collections, program carts, gardens, nature areas, and sometimes a discovery room or a planetarium. Naturally curious and with a propensity for learning all the time, young children explore interactive models and objects from collections. They look at art, do observational drawings in exhibits, and measure dinosaurs using standard and non-standard units of measurement. They visit multiple museums in SEEC (Smithsonian Early Enrichment Program), use outdoor nature areas, and work with artists. Museum educators and docents are content specialists and facilitate guided inquiry with objects.
Opal School (Photo credit: Opal School)

In the US, museum preschools are both well established and expanding. The Museum School at Fort Worth Museum of Nature and History (TX) has been operating for more than 60 years; the John Michael Kohler Arts Center Preschool has operated for almost 50 years; and the RMSC Preschool at the Rochester Museum and Science Center has operated for 40 years. Well-integrated into the museums, these preschools help deliver missions to grow science learners, nature explorers, and art lovers; they are often a response to community priorities around literacy and school readiness. Frequently they support a museum’s strategy for learning across the lifespan. Along with other preschools, pre-K and childcare progarsm, they are part of the early childhood infrastructure in their communities. At the same time, museum preschools are growing. Perhaps 10 more preschools have opened in the last 5 years and no doubt, more are being planned.

While there is no standard model for a museum preschool, most share several characteristics. They enroll children two-to-five years of age and sometimes children from six weeks through eight years. They are distinct from most preschool classes, workshops, and programs many museums offer to young children accompanied by adults. Rather children attend these half-day and full day programs by themselves following a regular schedule.

Museum preschools share much with their non-museum counterparts. They serve as a preschool option by both accommodating family childcare needs as well as by providing enriching play and learning experiences that focus on the child’s social, emotional, physical, cognitive and language development. Some preschool classrooms are age-based and others are mixed age. Some follow a preschool tradition of part-day sessions (2 or 2–1/2 hours) and part-week schedules (Monday-Wednesday-Friday or Tuesday-Thursday). Others are full day, full-week, and year round. Museum preschools typically have licensed and certified teachers, successfully meet local and state licensure, and often carry the added distinction of being accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC).
Lincoln Nursery School at deCordova Museum and Sculpture Park (Photo Credit LNS)

Museum preschools follow, borrow, and are inspired by current and popular early learning philosophies, principles, and practices. They may select from and combine Montessori philosophy, Reggio-inspired practice, the High Scope Curriculum, or the project approach. Some also incorporate their museum’s learning interests such as inquiry or family learning. As in preschool programs of all kinds, teachers and assistants plan activities and projects around themes and topics that children explore in small groups, through stories, building and making, in dramatic play, and free play, and on field trips to the museum and library.

Reflecting current best practices in early learning, the curriculum ranges from play-based to emergent to academic. Yet, even though some museum preschools are more structured and more academic than others, museum preschools enjoy a relatively easy mix of informal and formal learning approaches and environments. The social, object-based exploration, and contextualized learning that characterizes informal learning environments and experiences is well suited to how young children learn. It is typical of learning environments and classrooms planned with children in mind. If early childhood education programs are not generally under the radar of accountability pressures of testing and standards, they are frequently deliberate ways of sidestepping those pressures making more room for informal and potentially innovative learning approaches.

Museum preschools also fit into the larger educational ecosystem of their communities. They are STEM, STEAM and even SHTEAM focused; language and literacy based; and often interdisciplinary. Some like the Hundred Acre School at the Heritage Museum and Gardens (Sandwich, MA) are in partnership with the local school district. Opal School of the Portland Children’s Museum is both a beginning school for children ages 3–6 and a public charter school of the Portland Public Schools for grades K–5. My Nature Preschool at Tamarack Nature Center (White Bear Lake, MN) is a partnership of the county park system, the local school district, and a local preschool. Many preschools are providing valuable field learning experiences for preservice teachers at area colleges and universities.
There is strong evidence that high-quality early childhood programs help develop children’s language, critical thinking, and social skills and are part of the solution to our nation’s opportunity gap. The object rich, language rich, social environments of museum preschools can and do serve as models for high-quality early childhood education. Many of them are serving children from wide-ranging backgrounds and providing scholarship support.

Stepping Stones Museum for Children’s and its partners Literacy How, Norwalk Community College, and Norwalk Housing Authority have developed a language- and literacy-based preschool to help close the achievement gap in Connecticut. Now in its fourth year, the Early Language and Literacy Initiative (ELLI) Lab School and Pre-Kindergarten Model Classrooms is a comprehensive program serving children 3 – 5 years and their families. It applies research to successful programmatic and classroom practices and integrates it into the professional training of early childhood educators across Southwestern Connecticut.

Like museum schools, museum preschools offer new opportunities for learning in museums, sometimes contributing and sometimes changing their local learning landscapes. The broad range of institutions that offer preschools, the recent growth spurt, and even the long-standing tradition of museum preschools, provide a strong platform for growth and change. Expanded partnerships, research, innovative learning strategies, and a fresh look at the relationship between informal and formal learning are just some of the possible contributions museum preschools seem to be ready to make. 

Museum Preschools  
Children’s Museums
Discovery Kids Preschool at Discovery Center of the Southern Tier (Binghamton, NY) 
Early Childhood Institute at Miami Children’s Museum (Miami, FL)
Early Explorations Preschool at Great Explorations (St Petersburg, FL)  
ELLI (Early Language and Literacy Initiative) Lab School and ELLI Pre-Kindergarten Model Classrooms at Stepping Stones Museum for Children (Norwalk, CT) 
Eureka! Nursery at Eureka! National Children’s Museum (Halifax, UK)
Hands On Preschool at Hands On Children’s Museum (Olympia, WA)
Museum Explorers’ Preschool at the Children’s Museum of Skagit County (Burlington, WA) 
Museum Preschool at Young At Art ( Davies, FL)
Opal School of the Portland Children’s Museum (Portland, OR)
Preschool Alternative at The Family Museum (Bettendorf, IA)
Preschool Powered by Play at the Children’s Museum of Tacoma (Tacoma, WA)
The Children’s Museum Preschool at The Children’s Museum (Indianapolis, IN)
The New Children’s Museum Preschool at The New Children’s Museum (West Hartford, CT)
The Preschool at A.C. Gilbert Discovery Village (Salem, OR)
The Thinkery at The San Louis Obispo Children’s Museum (San Louis Obispo, CA)
Woodbury School at The Strong, National Museum of Play  (Rochester, NY)

History and Nature
Museum School at Fort Worth Museum of Nature and History (Fort Worth, TX)
Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (SEEC) at The Smithsonian  (Washington, D.C.)    
Tallahassee Museum Preschool at the Tallahassee Museum (Tallahassee, FL)
The Hundred Acre School at the Heritage Museum and Gardens (Sandwich, MA)

 Science Centers and Museums
RMSC Preschool at Rochester Museum and Science Center (Rochester, NY)
SCI Preschool at Science Center of Iowa (Des Moines, IA) 

Art Museums
ArtStart at the Parkersburg Art Center (Parkersburg, WV) 
Art, Nature, and Me at Stamford Museum and Nature Center (Stamford, CT)
John Michael Kohler Arts Center Preschool at the Kohler Art Center (Sheboygan, WI)
Lincoln Nursery School at deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum (Lincoln, MA)

Nature Centers
My Nature School at Tamarack Nature Center (White Bear Lake, MN)
Nature Preschools at Massachusetts Audubon (Arcadia, MA; Boston Nature Center, MA & Drumm Farm, MA)

Preschool at the Buffalo Zoo (Buffalo, NY)
St. Louis Zoo Preschool at The St. Louise Zoo (St. Louis, MO)
Toledo School Preschool at the Toledo Zoo (Toledo, OH)

Related Museum Notes Posts 
Connecting Contexts for Early Learning 
Children in Museums
The Dance: Informal and Formal Learning

This post borrowed from a 2011 article, Science at Play Museum Preschools, in Hand To Hand

Saturday, September 12, 2015

What Do We Do with This Learning Framework?

ArtZeum - Telfair Museums

Recently I worked with the learning innovation team at a museum to develop their first learning framework. With a newly minted strategic plan, midway in celebrating their centennial anniversary, and on the threshold of their 2nd century, the museum and its learning team were well positioned to look back and forward and consolidate their most important learning interests. Over the course of 3 workshops I observed growing clarity about the core ideas, increasing congruence among them, and occasional references and connections between framework elements. Discussion around key ideas became more extensive in ways I imagined it would be as the group applied a framework.

In the final workshop, a participant who had been very engaged in discussions and provided thoughtful feedback asked about the ways to use the framework. I was pleased the question of use arose. It conveyed a view of the framework as a working tool in the learning life of the museum.

The question made me pause. Highlighting use of the framework had been a priority all along. Workshop-by-workshop, with pre-work and off-line assignments, I was laying the foundation for using the framework in planning and evaluating programs, events, and exhibitions. In introducing each framework element, I had described what it was and what it contributed to the framework. To be certain I’d cover the essentials, I followed my written notes closely. I chose examples of how a part might be applied; for instance how learner impacts help in developing exhibition goals. Along the way, I’d asked them about how they thought a part of the framework might be used.

Pivoting from Creation to Implementation
The question also alerted me that a pivotal point in the creation of any framework or plan had arrived. There is a moment when the focus shifts from developing and building to providing for use and application. Elaborating and detailing yield to developing familiarity; possibility yields to reality; and intention yields to action.

Explanations, definitions, examples, exercises, discussions, and repetition along the way are essential. They help in previewing the process and framework parts, generating content, and assuring parts engage firmly. The building process brings the group along. Initially, developing the substance of a framework is the main task. Ultimately, ownership and usability must take the lead.

Navigating the transition from developing a robust plan or framework to using it everyday means shifting perspective from co-creation to ownership. Focus moves to the users, context, and practices. What are the everyday ways this group can work with the framework? How do they work together as a team? What do they need to interface with the rest of the museum? What is attractive and to whom in using the framework? Where will they encounter the biggest challenges?
Becoming Routine 
How does a framework become used routinely among team members, accessed regularly, and part of the collective mindset? The cumulative effects of actual everyday, repeated and on-going use exercise, test and strengthen a plan or framework. Often it isn’t possible for a facilitator or consultant to stay involved during the early phase of implementation or be on-the-spot for coaching. Constructing the implementation piece with a group can, however, bridge development and daily use. A team’s or department’s internal knowledge and deep familiarity with the everyday context connect implementation steps with existing practices, routines, schedules (and idiosyncrasies) for easier use.

Ease of use is critical because a framework or plan is a use-dependent tool. The more it’s used, the better it is understood and the more it is able to support connections and generate new insights. Contributions from teams about making a framework a well and regularly used tool and guide typically cluster into four areas: developing familiarity with the framework, building internal capacity, integration with the museum’s work, and growing the framework. These four areas provide a structure for selecting and organizing activities that are relevant, span short and long-term interests, and accommodate multiple approaches.

• Broaden awareness of the framework includes practices and activities that familiarize staff, volunteers and the entire organization with the framework, its purpose, content, and applications; that introduce it to partners and funders; and that celebrate framework accomplishments and successes. 
• Develop internal capacity includes practices and activities that incorporate the framework into professional development plans; orient staff and volunteers to the framework, its purpose and use; share and explore related books, studies and articles; and build expertise in key areas.
• Integrate the framework into museum processes includes practices and activities that incorporate the framework into team, department, and organizational schedules, procedures, and practices such as position descriptions, experience planning and evaluation, and budgeting; and that make the framework the foundation of the museum’s interpretive plan.
• Grow the framework includes practices and activities that explore and test the framework; develop supporting tools and fill gaps revealed by use; and that adapt and update the framework with lessons from its application and based on changes in the museum and community.

Two areas I have found are helpful to add to these four are getting started and leadership. 
• Getting Started focuses on taking the very first steps to assure an easier, stronger start on the framework or plan. Working with activities in all four implementation areas, identifying those that can and should be worked on first, and sequencing these activities across the first year sets priorities and makes way for later activities. 
• Leadership and advocacy. Support and leadership related to the plan or framework must be visible and active and come from the head of the team, department, and museum. Leadership is also informal, taking the form of advocacy for the plan or framework, referring to it and bringing it into discussions. Enthusiasts, the curious, and early adopters are natural candidates for advocacy. 

By the way, I would certainly invite that workshop participant who asked about using the framework to be just such an advocate.

Related Museum Notes

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Consolidating the Gains: After the Museum Doors Open

Minnesota Children's Museum 1995. (Photo credit: Jeffrey P. Grosscup)
The ribbon has been cut and the doors to the new museum swing wide open welcoming friends, members, supporters, neighbors, and the curious.  

Opening day festivities are well attended. The new spaces are awe-inspiring; the exhibitions sparkle. Fundraising is virtually complete and the punch list has been pared to a manageable length. Systems have been tested and tweaked. Media campaigns have drawn the hoped-for attention. Donor and member events have been great successes. The rounds and rounds of prototyping caught the bugs early. The community discussions that inspired the vision for the big museum project still feel inspiring. Years of planning now seem like a blur.

Twenty years after opening day at the “new” Minnesota Children’s Museum ( on September 16, 1995 these impressions are still with me along with the many lessons I was fortunate to learn about planning and opening a museum. Yet, as memorable as the opening was, the following year and the lessons learned navigating it were even more enduring.

The Big Lesson 
Those lessons cluster around a single message. No matter how resounding a success everyone thinks and says the opening and new museum are and how amazingly well the first months go, the critical task is to retain and consolidate the gains made through the expansion and over the first months of operations.

This challenge also comes to mind now as I read and hear about recent openings at the Do-Zeum, San Antonio’s Museum for Kids; Austin’s Thinkery; The Broad Museum in Los Angeles; the Mid-America Science Museum (Hot Springs, AR); the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County; the new wing at the Columbus Museum of Art; and the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota.

Whether doubling the physical footprint, building a wing for exhibitions, converting space for events, adding a large-screen theater or opening an extensive outdoor area, a large capital project has changed the museum. The transition from planning to opening to running a new institution is one of both planned and unexpected challenges that can make consolidating the gains more challenging than might seem.   

Every new such venture is originally fueled by enormous passion. Working with a shared vision of a building, a fresh visitor experience, new amenities, and stronger exhibit experience makes coordination and alignment of the museum’s efforts relatively easy. Once that milestone has passed, however, the view ahead is fuzzier. The territory in which a museum now finds itself is new. Familiar signposts, patterns and benchmarks from the past are either irrelevant or in serious need of updating. The temptation is great to feel the museum has arrived and that efforts getting there have the momentum to surge forward. The first months or even year after opening, known as the benefit period, won’t last forever and can disappear unexpectedly.

Along with the sense of enormous pride and accomplishment among staff, volunteers, and trustees on opening is relief and deep exhaustion. And yet, during any long-term project, a museum has cultivated partnerships, shared its aspirations broadly, actively invited the public into its life, and deliberately stepped into the limelight. The action is just beginning.

Retaining the Gains
Just what are the gains that need to be consolidated? During the course of planning, a museum has assessed the need to expand or renovate, made a case for support, cultivated community good will, projected attendance, raised funds, planned exhibits, developed new programs, brought on additional staff, set up new systems, and trained staff. From a new physical footprint to a new community footprint, it has quantified intended gains in areas across the museum and that the museum itself will have on the community. It has set new attendance targets and identified new audiences to reach. It has projected growth in expenses as well as income; set development goals; structured admission and membership; added new earned income activities; and calculated economic impact. New exhibits with new themes, topics, and learner impacts fill galleries and require on-going maintenance and repairs.

Consolidating gains typically means capturing the lessons learned; stabilizing financially and operationally; determining where to work harder to improve on what works; shoring up areas that lag behind; making the most of available momentum; and recognizing new opportunities. The museum shifts from promises and projections to targets and tracking. In this period of time, the museum has an opportunity to operate and serve from a higher platform. To do so, it needs to meet some consolidation challenges.

Consolidation Challenges 
Consolidation Challenge. Develop new baselines for benchmarking performance in key areas. In a new, larger, or renovated building, old benchmarks don’t work. Because square footage, attendance, and admission fees change, ratios for tracking key financial indicators and performance change. To know how the museum is doing and how it can do better, new data is needed, as is the time for collecting data, observing seasonality shifts and multiple cycles, and comparing actuals with projections.

Consolidation Challenge. Retain and support staff, especially key staff. With the expansion, the museum has added staff with new expertise while existing staff carry important organizational knowledge. Through training, the museum has invested in staff across the museum. The focus now is to retain and grow this expanded capacity during a period of transition. After a major project, people leave for various reasons. Temporary staff and contractors leave as work is completed. Permanent staff may be ready to move on, find a new challenge or change of pace. The same goes for trustees. Be kind.

Consolidation Challenge. Engage the audience and community at a higher level and in targeted ways. Many, if not most, projects begin with community input to assess the need for expansion, generate programmatic ideas, and prototype exhibits and programs. During the long process that follows, however, there’s little feedback from audiences. Upon opening, a flood of audience feedback, good and bad, pours forth. At this point, a museum needs to make the most of this feedback; be responsive and connect with visitors; and reinvigorate its community engagement strategies.

Consolidation Challenge. Focus on new opportunities to grow impact. Greater museum visibility, a sense of optimism, and increased capacity combine to catalyze new and larger opportunities for greater impact. A museum may enjoy a new position on the learning and cultural landscape, have a new seat at the table, or be able to set a new table around its priority interests. With an eye on delivering significant long-term impact, a museum should build on the strongest partnerships, work in areas of emerging expertise, and develop larger initiatives that align with community priorities.

Consolidation Challenge. Become the new museum. Expansion has changed the museum. It is a new institution with a new identity created through multiple changes starting with its building, possibly a new location or name, and on-line presence. A new logo, brand, and perhaps name have been unveiled, differentiating the museum from its former self and other venues. Now is the time to fully inhabit the promise of the museum through guest and learner experiences, text panels, the tone and spirit of interactions with staff and volunteers, and everyday moments.

Consolidation Challenge. Plan for a new future. The big museum project has been all about a new future for the museum, a future that has arrived and is already quickly receding. It’s time to rethink the museum’s future and get out in front of what’s coming next. Through strategic planning, a museum can reinvigorate its vision, look ahead, and build on the gains to generate new ways to better serve the community.

Related Museum Notes 
Growing Site By Site
Vision, Process and Position for the Big Museum Project
Starting on a Higher Rung