Thursday, July 28, 2016

Worried About Reading

Photo: Luzinterruptus
We are worried about reading. Parents and grandparents, librarians, pediatricians, teachers, school boards, college administrators, employers, museum educators, and avid readers, are worried about children being ready to read at earlier and earlier ages. We worry about the word gap becoming a reading gap becoming a stubbornly persistent achievement gap. We worry about the presence of reading material in homes and about boys not connecting with books. Each summer we worry about summer reading loss. Around 3rd and 4th grade we worry about the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. Every year there’s worry about reading test scores and grade-level reading at the end of 3rd grade and graduation rates. We worry about children, youth, and adults wanting to read. We worry about reading in short bursts on small devices. In museums we worry about visitors reading text panels and way-finding signs

Given what we know about the far-reaching impacts of reading on success in school and throughout life, this concern is not misdirected nor is it exaggerated. Every important social issue is affected by low literacy: poverty, education, employment, social justice. More than merely a single set of skills for sounding out letters and printed words, reading is intimately related to writing, listening, speaking, and thinking. It is through sounds, words, stories, books, and ideas that we explore, understand, and navigate the world starting in infancy. Limited early experiences with language, interactions with others, and access to books can change the life-long trajectory.

Moreover, reading is pleasurable and empowering–something everyone deserves to enjoy.

Our worry about reading is expressed in many and varied ways and at different scales and is clearly not only the domain of schools. Because early language development is early literacy development, campaigns like TalkingIsTeaching, Providence Talks, and the Thirty Million Words initiative are spreading through communities across the country as programs, billboards, and bus sides. Basic literacy is one of the 21stcentury skills highlighted by IMLS. Libraries, schools, community centers, and homeless shelters offer programs and camps to slow summer reading slide and build reading skills. Newspaper articles offer parent tips on encouraging teen reading year round. There are apps for reading, rhyming, and spelling.

How do museums fit into addressing this pervasive challenge? Museums don’t teach reading. It’s hard to find an interactive experience that attempts to explore punctuation, spelling, or transitive and intransitive verbs. Museums, however, do share information and tell stories. As places where people gather and connect and explore objects, artwork, ideas, and fascinating slices of the world, museums combine the conditions that encourage language and literacy development, build an interest in words, and inspire readers of all ages.

As they greet visitors, sell a membership, lead a tour, answer a question, write label copy, museums can, and do, deliberately and actively engage children and adults in speaking, listening, reading and writing; in thinking and making connections, and in deepening enjoyment with ideas and interests. In the exhibits they develop, text they compose, programs they offer, resource centers they house, partnerships they form, authors they present, and in the book clubs they host, museums have a vital role to play in our becoming a nation of readers. Some of the ways this is happening are highighted in the following posts.
The connections between literacy and learning are strong and striking. These interconnections underscore the impact of literacy on learning throughout life, not just in the early years. When museums shape experiences for learning, they also have opportunities to shape experiences that engage and enhance language skills.

Museums are settings rich with fascinating objects, tools, processes, and materials to explore, describe, point to, and play with. They are also social settings explored with family and school groups, people to talk with and listen to. This combination of talk and play is the foundation for literacy. 

Playing with the sound, shape and meaning of words is an important part of how children learn language and learn to read and play. From knock-knock jokes, to Pig Latin and riddles, playing with words and language, sounds and meaning stretch their language skills. Joyful experimentation doesn’t stop with childhood; adults are often eager punsters, rhymers, and neologists.

Imaginatively decorated, Little Free Libraries dot lawns, parks, and stores responsive to a passerby’s sudden urge to read or find a bedtime book. In museums, book nooks and reading areas in galleries and exhibitions make it easy for visitors to relax and dig deeper into a topic. Even branch libraries serve visitors in museums.

Books children and adults love and remember, whether childhood favorites or world classics, carry information about the world, stimulate conversation, and offer wide access to literacy tools. Whether walking into a book’s illustrations or acting out a story, children and adults immerse themselves in books through active exploration, sharing favorite parts, engaging in pretend play, and inventing stories.

Reading may not be strictly required in book arts, but the expressive possibilities of the book form inspire and empower both new and accomplished readers. Book arts integrate aspects of literacy–letter shapes, words, images, and layout. Experimenting with these elements involves direct experience with the book and its parts and invites constructing new meaning from them.  

Words and language help illuminate ideas, deepen a visitor’s understanding, and broaden a view of the world. This is precisely what museums do, do well, and can do more of.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

How Can Museums Become Places Alive With Questions?

Photo credit: Robert Stadler
Years ago at a small conference for teacher resource centers, I sat down with my co-worker Cathy at breakfast across from Bena and Heidi. Conversation during the course of our breakfast covered a lot of territory. It seemed like we were talking a lot about our work at The Teacher’s Workshop in Madison. When breakfast was over and it was time to move to the first session there was an awkward moment. Bena and Heidi then shared that they were doing a small experiment. They decided to ask us questions and see how long it would take for us to ask them questions. I am chagrined to admit that we hadn’t asked them a single question.

There are countless reasons why asking questions is important. Valued as tools for thinking and engaging socially, questions are critical to learning, innovation, success, and even to happiness. We ask questions to help resolve uncertainty; to fill the gaps between what we know and don’t know; to direct our attention; to explore alternative points of view; to find relationships among ideas, objects, and situations; to open up to possibilities we can’t yet fully imagine; and to probe discrepancies.  

There are abundant resources and ideas about questions and inquiry. Models for the inquiry process surface on education, business, and arts websites. One model says, “The first step in the inquiry process is the art of asking Good Questions.” Another lists what makes good questions: avoid questions with a yes/no answer; don’t ask a question you know the answer to; ask one question at a time; don’t fish for the answer you want. Along with lists of ways to ask better questions, there are lists of questions to develop skills at different levels of thinking. Author Daniel H. Pink talks about the “art of asking questions” and extending the power of questions beyond science.

The reality is, questions are ubiquitous. Tests are full of them as are applications for passports, on-line security (what is your mother’s maiden name?), and tax forms. We are asked at the grocery check-out line if we found everything we were looking for. Parents quiz their children about what they did at school and teachers ask questions in the classroom.

Nevertheless, questions are often not very productive, not asked of the right person, courageous enough, or well timed. I know. While I deeply believe in the power of questions, I often frame a question only when I get stuck and have nothing else to try. I have written blog posts about questions, imagining that by doing so readers might ask more and better questions. It’s as if knowing how to ask good questions means we will do so; as if having an exercise routine means we will work out; or knowing arugula is healthy means we will eat lots.

Increasingly, I wonder more about why we don’t ask more–and better–questions in museums and less about what a good question is and how questions can be useful in our work.

How Can Museums Become Places Rich With Questions?
If questions are critical to learning, innovation, success, and even to happiness, then shouldn’t museums be full of questions? 

How, though, does a museum cultivate an inquisitive spirit collectively, purposefully, and over time? Models and lists may be useful tools for framing questions. Good intentions may be essential for advancing questions. Even together, however, they are limited in how they can infuse a museum’s life with questions. It’s not enough for a few enthusiasts in a museum to advocate for questions and inquiry, to have a single inquiry-based program, or to bring questions to a major decision occasionally. As places where people engage in daily practices to develop engaging experiences around a larger purpose to generate greater public value, museums must encourage and advance questions wholeheartedly, actively, in each of those ways: through people, practices, purpose and culture.

A Disposition to Ask Questions. Do you know someone who readily asks good questions? Someone who is curious? Likes the challenge of a chewy question?

Hire that person; cultivate that trustee; recruit that volunteer. Those people have a disposition to ask questions. A disposition is a habit or behavior displayed frequently and in the appropriate context. An inclination or a tendency to act in particular way, dispositions are voluntary. They are also environmentally sensitive; they are acquired, supported, or weakened by the conditions of the surrounding environment, by the interactive experiences in settings and engagement with significant adults and peers.

People inclined to ask questions raise them at staff or board meetings, in an interview, on a project team. They test assumptions, share a question they have been mulling over, structure a wandering discussion with questions, and search for answers. When a strategic plan is being framed, a capital project is discussed, or the budget is reviewed, they introduce questions to dig deeper, engage other perspectives, and explore misconceptions. What are we not thinking about? Do we have the necessary capacity to do this? Are these projections too rosy? What’s our plan B? They ask whether the museum is comfortable with the input on content funders expect to make.

Leaders ask questions whether they are board or staff leaders, thought leaders, or leaders advocating for inclusion, quality, or change.

Because dispositions are affected by the surrounding social and intellectual environment, the presence of colleagues, trustees, and volunteers who ask questions makes a difference in a work environment. I imagine others have noticed that each post on Rebecca Herz’s blog, Museum Questions, is a question such as, “What is the role of museums in educational change?” Colleagues asking questions seek others to share questions with; they engage others in inquiry. In doing so they help grow the disposition and skills in others to ask and pursue questions. These may be questions that engage various perspectives and bring in fresh ideas; express an interest in other people, what they think, say and who they are. Questions set a tone that people matter, that new ideas and all kinds of learning matters.

Daily Practice with Questions.Museums do use questions as part of daily practice across many areas. Questions are fundamental to the inquiry process, an approach to learning familiar in science centers and museums and across various settings. Q?rious is a science education program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History that, along with question-driven inquiries, invites students to ask questions of scientists.

Some museums use practices, like Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), as a programmatic approach for tours. VTS is a question-based methodology used in art and other museums and nature centers to explore selected works of art or the natural world. An educator, docent, curator, or naturalist facilitates discussion of 3 open-ended questions with a group: What's going on (in this picture)? What do you see that makes you say that? What more can we find?

“Questioning and posing problems” is one of a set of 16 Habits of Mind (HoM), also considered dispositions. Some museums’ learning frameworks are built around HoM and some around inquiry. The framework’s key ideas inform program and exhibit planning and evaluation. (Interestingly, Bena mentioned in the opening story happens to be the co-author with Art Costa of the 16 Habits of Mind.) In fact, what is evaluation but a response to a question, how well and in what ways did we accomplish what we hoped we would? Prototyping asks questions iteratively about whether the visitor gets the idea or understands what’s happening in an exhibit.

Presumably, the more questioning strategies a museum integrates into its daily practices, the greater the benefit from the power of questions it is likely to enjoy. It’s not, however, simply that a museum uses VTS, prototypes, has an inquiry model, or uses all three. A commitment to asking questions is often confined to the education department. Questions may be geared towards getting others to think about our interests. Even chewy, engaging, and open-ended questions tend to be limited episodes when they are not intentionally related to larger intentions.

For impact, these practices and approaches must be played out in the context of strategic, pedagogical, experiential, audience, and financial goals that serve the museum’s enduring interests.

An Internal Culture that Values Questions.In a speech to graduates at The California Institute of Technology, surgeon, researcher, and author Atul Gawande distinguished truth seeking and truth: pursuing ideas with curiosity, inquisitiveness, openness, and discipline as part of a larger group. Gawande’s distinction is also useful in characterizing a museum that, collectively and explicitly, places a value on asking questions, searching for answers, having impact, and learning together.

Does your museum have an expressed commitment to constructing knowledge, growing, and taking action through questions, dialogue, listening, observation, disagreement, and challenge? In what ways is this reflected in its vision, mission, and values? How does your museum live this value or set of values daily? How does it infuse its internal culture with an organizational disposition to question? How does it integrate and make room for supportive practices across the museum? Committing to an institutional value around questioning inevitably creates multiple shifts from individual advocates and isolated practices to teams of people engaged in cross-functional mission and question driven practices.   

A museum’s questions reveal much about what it holds in high regard. Do you explore such questions: What do we care most about being really good at? What do access and inclusion look like in our museum and for our community? Do we push on being more relevant for more people and for more people who are different from us? How much risk are we willing to take? How might we mitigate this risk? Are we asking questions about the source of funding and the strings attached to a particular gift from a funder?

A museum that is awake to its own curiosity asks tough questions and pays attention to the responses. Is your museum’s strategic planning process question driven or framed by assertions about quality, being a premier regional resource? When you ask questions do you pay attention to the answers or are they ignored when inconvenient? Has your museum been in a situation when someone raised the question that no one has been willing to ask? For instance, “Do we really need a building this big? Will we be able to sustain operations? Be a thriving museum with this big of a building?” Do you question the easy answers? “Yes, we have an emergency plan, but have we tested it?”

Questions make us all learners.  If your museum considers itself a learning organization, how does it learn?