Thursday, September 1, 2016

Question-Powered Learning Frameworks

Strandbeest: stille strand Apodiacula 2 by Theo Jansen
Every museum has a de facto learning framework. Ideas and assumptions about learning have some degree of presence across the museum. They are enlisted during exhibit and program planning and in setting project goals, sometimes incidentally. There is, however, little assurance that these ideas are well understood, shared across the museum, thoughtfully connected, build on one another, are applied intentionally, and reflected on.

The difference for a museum between a de facto learning framework and one that is deliberately developed is significant. An explicit learning framework shows staff where they can contribute their enthusiasm and expertise to create stronger learning experiences and serve visitors. It allows a museum to align messages about learning and its learning interests internally to staff and board and externally to stakeholders and partners.

But getting started on a learning framework can feel overwhelming, especially the first time. Figuring out where to start, imagining what the midst of the process will feel like, and wondering if it will be worth the effort are just some of the thoughts that surface. I sense this when colleagues who are thinking about developing a learning framework for their museum talk about it. Both interest and hesitation are present.

For first-timers, the challenge may be how to describe the learning framework to others or bringing along reluctant colleagues. From experience, I know of several ways to ease into projects including Planning to Plan and adapting one museum’s process to a different museum. Another approach, even better suited to developing a learning framework, is working with a set of questions that addresses key ideas and probes important understanding. Eight questions have been helpful to me and to several museums in this process.

1. How does this museum view learning? How a museum views learning is related to how it sees its role with its visitors and in its community. Learning frameworks explore and consolidate a museum’s learning interests: what’s important about learning to the museum, for its visitors, and how it delivers learning experiences and value. Introducing this question early in the process helps create a shared view of learning, one that very likely draws on research, considers the nature informal learning setting, and focuses on the learner. While composing this view of learning may require a couple of passes, it helps to anchor other framework discussions and decisions.

2. What principles about learning grounded in research and theory support the museum’s view of learning? Exploring and describing a museum’s view of learning surfaces beliefs and assumptions about learning, learners, and the role of context in learning. By taking time to track down 5 - 7 principles from theory and research that are consistent with its view of learning, a museum is both strengthening its understanding of learning and underlining what it feels is of importance. This step also facilitates making these underpinnings accessible to staff during training and demonstrates its seriousness about learning to supporters and funders. Addressing this question recognizes the connection between research and practice and creates an opening for the museum to engage in research itself.

3. How does the museum view its learners? How a museum views its visitors influences how it plans for them. If it sees them as learners–as active learners starting at birth and learners throughout life–it will serve them as learners. While there is tremendous variety among visitors, they also share some similarities as learners that are worthwhile to note. Significantly, they have found their way through the museum doors, logged onto its website, or participated in programs and events. In considering the qualities of learners that it wants to engage in particular, whether it is curiosity, persistence, or empathy, a museum is reinforcing its view of learning, setting a course for learning experiences, and pointing to likely learner impacts across the museum.

4. What experiential and learning platforms allow the museum to deliver learning value? A museum has multiple valued and complementary resources through which it delivers learning experiences and value. In addition to its exhibits and programs, it may have collections, a school, planetarium or digital theater, nature area, library, research center, or historic building. These  are learning assets or platforms. This question is an opportunity to identify them, describe the attributes that make each platform distinct and valuable, and identify the related activities and the learner groups they serve. Addressing this question assists a museum in assessing and building the capacity of each platform to make an impact on or for learners, the organization, or the community.

5. In what areas should the museum focus its expertise and resources to build learning value and to distinguish itself from other groups serving a similar audience? A museum’s mission, audience, community priorities, and collections help inform its primary areas of focus. Drawn from a museum’s strengths, a few selected focus areas such as creativity, STE(A)M, well-being, play, or global  awareness, set priorities for developing learning experiences. Focus areas help locate themes and topics for exhibitions and initiatives; they serve as multiple contact and access points to the collection, assist in being more intentional about developing and delivering experiences, and guide staff and volunteer training. Too many focus areas, however, disperse a museum’s efforts, while areas of disproportionate magnitudes create inequalities. Related learning approaches–conversation, making, design thinking, inquiry–that actively engage learners and are used consistently and well support and advance the focus areas.

6. In what areas does the museum intend to make learning impacts? Identifying learner impacts is where a museum’s aspirations for its learners intersect with its internal capacities and the nature of learning. This is often a challenge. Important clues about what it hopes will happen for the learner are implanted in the other framework parts, its view of learning, image of the learner, focus areas and approaches, and learning experience platforms. Does it hope learners will construct meaning from their experiences? Develop new attitudes? Change perspectives? Make a personal connection? Develop a new skill or skills? A technical skill? A thinking skill? How does each possible outcome relate to the focus areas and learning approaches? What might an outcome look like for a learner? How does the museum think it can encourage it?  

7. What criteria assist in selecting, shaping, assessing, and strengthening learning experiences across the museum? This question identifies the characteristics that all learning experiences share across all learning platforms to achieve quality, consistency, and greater or consistent learning value. Criteria aligned with the view of learning and learning principles guide development of new activities, programs, events, and exhibits. Clarity about what “socially engaging,” “active participation,” or “multiple points of view” mean cultivates fluency with them, greatly assisting in assessment and improvement. Familiarity with these criteria across learning platforms helps in eliminating less promising choices and facilitates finding successful examples of how criteria have been applied. The deeper the familiarity with the learning experience criteria, the more staff is able to engage in innovative thinking that creates and strengthens learning experiences. 

8. What experiential qualities unify the museum’s experiences across platforms? Every museum has an experiential brand embedded in its learning experiences. Regardless of its size, particular experiential learning assets, or its awareness of it, a style comes through that supports–or undermines–a museum’s learning intentions. Exhibit activities, programs for different audiences, graphics, an on-line presence, and thousands of interactions with visitors broadcast a museum’s experiential brand. It is echoed in its public spaces, color and material palette, and the care of wear-and-tear. Articulating the set of experiential qualities that connect and unify these experiences expresses the museum’s essence. Once captured, a museum can work those criteria deliberately, consistently, and confidently distinguish itself from other settings serving a similar audience.

True, even a stellar set of questions doesn’t eliminate the need for a collaborative group, good thinking, persistence, or the necessary time. Thinking over these questions, however, will suggest who needs to be part of this exercise and the information and documents needed for engaging in lively discussion. The questions help guide the process, inspire thinking, and shine a light on what parts of a framework contribute and how they connect with one another. More than a standard list of plan parts or a table of contents might, questions ensure that each museum’s learning framework will serve its mission, reflect its community, and build on its existing learning interests.

When colleagues engage with these questions and with one another, they are likely to transform a de facto learning framework into a shared understanding of the museum’s most important ideas about learning and learners and its role in serving them. They are also very likely to find more questions that will power more learning.  


  1. Jeanne, this is a wonderful armature of provocative questions for thinking through a framework. I plan to draw on this extensively in faciltating some development conversations with my leadership team. Thank you, as always, for sharing your thoughtful, expert and insightful perspective!! Sarah Brenkert

  2. Sarah, I'm so glad you find this set of questions both provocative and useful. Your intention to draw on these questions is a good example of how each museum can customize these questions to its process or learning framework scope. I'd love to hear about where your conversations lead. Good luck, have fun.