Tuesday, December 6, 2016

21st Century Skills in the Wild



Everyday we encounter evidence of how the next generation’s success hinges on not only what they know, but also on their ability to think, act creatively, and connect with others. These are often referred to as 21st century skills and are necessary for navigating increasingly complex life and work environments and succeeding in work, life, and citizenship.

Museums are, in many ways, well positioned to cultivate 21st century skills. Rich learning environments with fascinating objects and filled with people, we create experiences to engage visitors’ interests, fire their curiosity, inspire creativity, and invite critical viewing. Furthermore, museums have mission-related interests in these skills as well as view themselves as offering learning value.

While these are critical attributes for cultivating 21st century skills in museum learners, they are, relatively speaking, the easier conditions to put in place. Just as some conditions for building skills must be present, others must not interfere. Alignment of our understanding of 21st century skills with learning and active, learner-centered experiences is critical to having the right conditions in place.     

What view of learners and learning informs the experiences we create? What sources of information shape our ideas of what these skills look like? How are we supporting the practice of these skills through self-directed learning in our informal learning environments? We might think about these questions from the perspectives of agency and emergent skills of competent learners.

Agency for Museum Learners 
Increasingly, I have been wondering how we actually view and provide for agency for learners in the museum experiences we create. In an earlier post I asked: How do museums create experiences that allow visitors to complete the experience by directing it and changing it? 

Agency is very much at the heart of that question. When we view museum visitors as curious, motivated to try an activity, making choices, and engaged in conversation, we recognize them as learners with agency. We see them as active in directing their learning, shaping their experience, and making sense of their world.

Agency may be intrinsic to learning, but it is not assured. In a recent blog post, early childhood educator Tom Bedard reflected on the agency children have and he has as a teacher in the classroom. Children’s agency, he observes, is intertwined with his agency as a teacher. Neither something he has nor children have, agency emerges in the space between the materials, the children, and him.

This is true for museums as well. In museums, valuing agency means leaving room in the experiences we create for learners, for multiple solutions and uses of resources we never imagined. Learners, as active agents, can make connections with each other that we have not planned for them; they can discover possibilities and construct pathways to new understandings that are relevant to them. Drawing on our creativity and imagination to create experiences, present objects, or set challenges for museum learners, we can encourage them to explore and develop skills with opportunities to make, think, question, and imagine.

Conversely, the experiences we create can circumscribe learners’ opportunities to practice and stretch the very skills we hope to encourage. By driving the process of creating learning experiences and feeling accountable to outcomes and funders, we risk limiting learners to our learning objectives and what we have conceptually constructed for them. Without realizing it, we may be inculcating our way of thinking in them or influencing them to think what we want them to think. In confining their agency, we also limit the related agency of the museum, its designers, educators, and interpreters.

We don’t know what sense visitors will make of their experiences and what they will take away. We need them and their agency, however. They engage and enrich our learning, learning that is essential to our increasing the value of the experiences we deliver. Ultimately, a museum learner’s meaning making empowers them and makes possible our realizing our goal to inspire life-long learning.  

Ideas about teaching and learning weave through the concept of agency. Learning actively serves the interests of agency as Loris Malaguzzi, co-creator of the Reggio philosophy, notes. He observes that, "… between learning and teaching, we honor the first. It is not that we ostracize teaching, but we tell it, ‘Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning, observe carefully what children do, and then, if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.’” A recent museum blog post, on the other hand, illustrates how teaching steps in before learning, “Every educator is in a position to teach students how to gather information, evaluate it, screen out distractions and think for themselves.”

When we insist on teaching skills rather than observing and understanding them and when we direct activities rather than trust learners’ capabilities, we eclipse agency.

Finding Skills In The Wild
I once heard Blake Ward, Museums Program Manager at Minnesota Children’s Museum, observe that 21st century skills are skills children have naturally and in abundance; I was delighted. We tend to think we’ve discovered skills and abilities when, in fact, we are overlooking their ample presence in children as well as in youth and adults. It’s as if valuable skills aren’t present unless we have decided they exist. In deciding to focus on particular skills we assume we are fostering them; we think we are directing them. We may be curtailing them.

Where do we get our idea of what the 21st century skills are and what they look like? The multiple taxonomies of 21st century skills are geared to skills that “students” need, “student outcomes,” and the context of school settings geared to measurement and testing. If we are interested in cultivating skills sturdy enough to meet the challenges of our rapidly changing century, we can’t limit ourselves to skills contained in classroom activities or museum exhibits.

Rather, we need to look into places and situations that share a high correspondence with the real world where these skills are applied, tested, and truly matter. We need to fish where the fish are. Because our goal is for people to succeed in life, not get better at museum exhibits, we need to understand skills in contexts with varied materials, shifting conditions, human interactions, and real-life consequences.

What do versions of 21st century skills that are meaningful to museum learners–from babies to elders–look like? Beyond the museum walls are myriads of real life experiences, activities, and contexts in which people think critically, respond with empathy, communicate clearly, and collaborate with others. If we focus on people engaged by their choice, guiding their own experiences, using their selected strategies, and making their own decisions, we can both grow and refine our sense of what these skills are. We will have greater clarity about what they look like in work and life situations if we observe them in the wild.

Imagine how we might deepen our understanding of 21st century–and other valued–skills by following learners as they hike, trim tree branches, fix a bike, or prepare a meal. What 21st century skills are at play as someone throws a pot, builds a fort, repairs a broken zipper, starts a fire, or learns to juggle? When someone plays a guitar, figures out a bus route, coaches a co-worker, or plays with the wind at the shore.

Focusing on these everyday moments we will undoubtedly glimpse learners’ existing capabilities and appreciate the emergent skills they possess and are honing. We may discern a prior question they are exploring or something that matters to them. Given thoughtful attention, we may notice how learners approach a situation, perhaps back up and rethink a step. We may discover some of the ways they enlist the help of others, adapt tools and materials to suit their purpose, and how they come up with ideas or moves we have not seen nor imagined. Their faces, gestures, and words will give us greater insights about the role agency plays and how feelings of accomplishment empower. As we further reflect, we can imagine how these behaviors and those strategies could be applied in other situations, in museum exhibits and programs. We can begin to envision museum experiences that are responsive to the learner’s agency and support skills that correspond to real life situations and many contexts.


If we are serious about cultivating 21st century skills–or any other skills, for that matter–in museum learners, we need to value agency as well as the capacity of experiences to support it. We are going to be in the 21st century for a very long time. We need to do our part to ensure museum learners experience agency and want more.

Photo credit: NASA

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