Sunday, December 17, 2017

Learning Together in Museums

New views on learning together
(Dalston Mirror House by Leandro Ercich)
When we think about learning together in museums, we note that museums are social spaces. We focus on visitors as part of groups, small intergenerational social groups–families–and school or community groups. We plan for learning in such groups in exhibits, on tours, and in structured program activities.

While the group is a powerful context for learning in museums, learning together also occurs in ways that are not necessarily visible, within a group, or planned.

Adults and children; first-time visitors, seasoned members, staff and volunteers; people in groups and exploring solo are each likely to be learning together. That’s not surprising. This is how we learn. Beginning with the finely tuned interactions between mothers and infants, we build meaning together through social interaction. David Hawkins, referencing Vygotsky, Dewey, and Malaguzzi, stated there’s never learning that is not socially constructed.

Because we do make sense of our world through interactions with others, we are often learning from them informally through conversations, gestures, and observation. In a gallery this may be a visitor noticing how someone handles a tool or refolding a paper airplane after watching how another paper plane floats down. It may be a docent learning from a tour member’s question or someone eavesdropping on a conversation about a painting on view.

The ideas we pick up from others and build on are part of learning together and critical for us doing our jobs. Someone’s stickie note posted on the talkback board may spark an idea for an idea for an exhibit activity. The grant proposal you are writing or the conference session presentation you are working on is your learning together with colleagues. Without learning from others’ well-framed question, study results, or trenchant observations, my blog posts would consist of a few phrases and some examples.

Learning together is not the same as getting people together in a group with an intention for them to learn from a given agenda. Just being together in a public lecture, at a staff training, or at a funder’s gathering of grantees to learn about its projects does not necessarily involve learning together.

A working definition for learning together might be the active, co-exploration among informal learning partners to make meaning through watching, listening, talking, or gesturing. These learning partners may, or may not, be obvious, known to one another, or even present.   

A visitor engaging with an exhibit might be inspired by seeing how someone uses their body to lift a heavy object; from noticing the features of an elaborate block tower created and left by others; or from observing a technique for working with a new material. Nearly hidden as these moments are in the flow of words and movement at an activity, in front of a fish tank, tapping on a screen, learning together is learner driven, on-the-spot, and occurring before our very eyes. And they happen in a flash.

Learning together in the Zone of Proximal Development
For instance, we sometimes see a child pair up with another child or call on an older partner to work with on an activity or solve a problem. Bringing together different levels of information, skills, interests, and experience expands the available range of capabilities, of sense making and meaning making. These interactions produce new learning and insights such as, “Oh! I see how to do that now.” Learning is occurring through what Vygotsky calls the Zone of Proximal Development, the difference between the actual and potential level of development available through collaboration with a more capable peer.
• When museums create collaborative experiences and activities that invite a wide range of capabilities, skills, knowledge, and previous experience they support learners in benefitting from more capable or knowledgeable peers and enhance meaning making.

Just-in-time information pertinent to the moment
In the lively mix and mingle that can occur around a display case or an exhibit activity several conversations may be murmuring along at one time. Anyone nearby might overhear someone’s excitement about what they are looking at, hear an explanation of how something works, or pick-up on the significance of a tiny detail. At that moment, the learner gets something they would be unlikely to get otherwise: just-in-time information pertinent to the moment, the place, the activity, and what’s going on. Not everyone leaves with the same understanding, but each does have a relevant understanding of their own
• Museums can add to the richness of visitors’ explorations and inquiry by facilitating opportunities for conversation in spaces where people can bump into one another, work or stand side-by-side, and eavesdrop. Something fascinating to notice and talk about in places to linger also encourage conversation.  

A dialogue through the medium of materials
Photo credit:
Two children work side-by-side exploring clay at a worktable. One child looks at the other child’s clay construction, a construction with wires. Noticing the wires, the child adds wires to their construction. When the other child sets a piece of fabric on top of the wires, the other does as well. That child then carefully presses one shell and then several more into the clay and announces that this is treasure at the bottom of the ocean. At first we may be inclined to view this dynamic as one child copying from another. That moment when one child glances at another’s choices and process to shape and elaborate a piece of clay may be a dialogue between them through the medium of a material.  
• Museums can support back-and-forth explorations by creating places to work side by side with easy visual access that allows seeing what someone else is doing. Offer a wide range of materials that prompt rich, new dialogues. Mirrors mounted overhead showing what’s happening from a different perspective provide additional opportunities to borrow, expand, and learn together.

Revisiting what we have heard others say
In an out-of-the way spot, someone sits alone in relative stillness. Waiting for someone? Seeking quiet time? Enjoying a moment of reflection? In what may appear to be a solitary moment, someone could be considering any one of a number of things: the light in this space, the source of light in a painting the docent noted, and echoes of others’ comments about changing light and shadow. One of the processes that occurs in museums is reflection, through which we learn. In reflection we revisit something we have experienced, something we have heard others say. We continue the conversation through our silent inner speech; remembered voices of others enter our thinking.
• To support reflection and internal conversations that build connections and understanding, museums can create quiet spaces with comfortable seating, and views that engage and calm.

Learning from others who are not present
Voices from the past make
connections in the present
Even when we are exploring an exhibit by ourselves, we are not alone. In fact, we are likely to make connections between what we are experiencing and what happened previously and with others who are not present. We interact with the artist when we think about what we see in a painting, even if it’s a silent, “I don’t get it.” We transport a strategy we saw someone else use and apply it to another situation. Reading and responding to a question on a text panel is a silent conversation with the author, unknown to us, who composed the question. We may share our experience later with someone over coffee.
• Museums support connections with others across time and space by asking questions, offering suggestions, creating challenge and uncertainty…in text panels, through staff engagement, through discrepant objects. These and other strategies encourage learners to make multiple connections that are meaningful physically, with others, and with previous experiences.

Everyone learns something different together
Sometimes a group of visitors spontaneously becomes a team working together at an exhibit. They create a challenge or invent a problem they must solve together and organize themselves around the challenge. It may be to move blocks on a crank-operated conveyor belt from one level to the next in record time. Commands come down to crank faster, updates are issued on how time is ticking away, tasks are added to the challenge, new workers are added to cause, and materials are adapted. In these moments, everyone learns something different together.
• Connected experiences, ones that flow physically, that work with varying numbers of visitors and allow visitors to assume different role support self-forming groups of visitors directing their experiences and learning together.

Learning together makes possible what might not otherwise occur. No amount of planning on the museum’s part could provide the on-the-spot support or information, the extra pair of hands, or the just-in-time idea that makes learning together happen.

What new possibilities about learning together in your museum do these examples suggest?

Friday, November 24, 2017

Gratitude and Generosity

It’s that time of year when we tend to think about and express our gratitude more often than usual. We are grateful for the love and support of family and friends, for good health, food in the cupboard, for kindness and understanding from others. We also tend to be more generous this time of year, serving a meal at a shelter, dropping money in the kettle of the bell ringers, or writing a check to a favorite charity. We certainly hope our museums will be on the receiving end of others’ generosity with a year-end gift.

While valuing both gratitude and generosity, I’ve gradually decided that gratitude is relatively easy; generosity takes work. Generosity, it seems, is a more demanding, active, and compassionate form of gratitude. With gratitude someone else’s generosity or a lucky moment has enhanced us. We feel grateful to be on the receiving end of someone’s good will, gift, attention, or extra effort. How hard is that? On the other hand, when we have given up time, wisdom, or money, our generosity enhances the situation or wellbeing of someone else, not ourselves. Generosity is our giving without the expectation of someone else’s gratitude.

We are likely to think of people like Bill and Melinda Gates when we think of being generous. There is a link between generosity and resources with a long-standing connection between generosity and the elite. In fact, the origin of the word generosity is from the Latin word meaning of noble birth.

We don’t, however, need to be rich to be generous. True generosity is the quality of giving good things to others freely and open-heartedly. We can be generous with time, attention, advice, donating our body’s blood or organ, patience, kindness, hospitality, mentoring, money, or service to others. Everyone, even very young children and people with seemingly few resources can be generous to others.

Generosity is a disposition to do well towards others. As an inclination to act in a certain way, generosity is something we can all practice. While it takes more time and effort than a polite thank you, we can all do an errand for someone else, let someone get ahead of us in line, and remember the anniversaries of loss and suffering. We can live in generous ways in everyday moments, giving more than we think we have to give, sharing more than may feel convenient, or giving what’s needed with respect.

Giving is both an individual and a social act. When we give, we are contributing in some way to others in a social network, to our neighbors, members of our congregation, someone we tutor, a homeless family receiving a meal, or refugees living in a camp on another continent. The act of giving connects us to others and contributes to a stronger social network that may be small and near, or distant and large.

It might sound like a Hallmark greeting card to say that generosity gives twice–at least. Our mentoring, financial contribution, time listening, or doing a favor contributes to someone else’s wellbeing. In return, these actions refresh what we have allowing us to recognize our capabilities, enjoy a sense of purpose, or appreciate that we are in a position to give. Giving further serves our enlightened self-interest and how we see ourselves.

Of greatest interest to me is a generosity of spirit, giving that depends less on the money we have or the opportunities and privilege we have received from others. In that sense, it is more available to more of us and with fewer limits. Having money to act on behalf of others or in the interest of our community is not required.

Generosity Has Such Wide Arms
Although generosity does not necessarily beget generosity, it does spread good will, redistribute advantages, and create openings for change. When museums cultivate a spirit of generosity within themselves in addition to encouraging supporters to give time and money to their missions, they create larger openings that invite and inspire people and ideas.

Along with playing a valued role in their communities, museums’ generosity can help strengthen communities. Museum resources like spaces can be meeting places, event spaces, or even platforms for friends and partners to support their friends and partners. Museum expertise in problem solving, event planning, or creating interactive experiences can help community groups meet their goals, and not just advance those of the museum. Helping partners meet their goals makes stronger partners and a stronger community.

The museum field is a generous field. We share ideas and lessons learned about what worked and didn’t. I know this first hand. Without the generosity of strangers in museums who became friends and colleagues, I would not have managed to start a museum, expand a museum, help museums grow, or write a blog. Such helpful, generous guidance from so many is a model for me and for others to make introductions, share resources, and give away ideas. Because any idea is inspired by the generosity of others sharing their ideas, what they have seen, heard, and thought before, giving away ideas provides others with fresh ideas for their thinking. 

In our museums and professional service groups, a generous spirit helps build a culture of respect and acceptance. This spirit allows us to give someone the benefit of the doubt, tolerate ideas and behaviors that may be at odds with our own, listen to someone with who we disagree as if they might be right. This act could inspire someone to go out of their way for someone who needs something, not expecting anything in return.

Gratitude is appreciating life’s gifts. Generosity is sharing life’s gifts. We need gratitude. But we are diminished without generosity. We could probably survive as a species and a society if we didn’t feel and express gratitude. There would, undoubtedly, be consequences of not hearing someone say thank you, or not opening an envelope to read heartfelt thanks. We could not, however, survive without generosity of spirit, open-hearted sharing, and true giving.

Of course, acting generously does not, for a moment, mean not feeling and expressing gratitude as well.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Museum Environment as Teacher

What does this space say about learning?
(Photo credit: Atelier of water Energy: Agriturismo Il Ginepro)
Twenty-five years ago I first came across the image of the environment as the third teacher in a brochure for The Hundred Languages of Children exhibit from the Municipal Schools in Reggio Emilia (IT). I was intrigued and delighted with the idea that the environment, along with parents and the teacher, was understood to promote the child’s well-being, offer learning opportunities, and support independence, in beautiful, thoughtfully arranged settings.  

The idea wasn’t new to me. My graduate work had focused on the relationship between humans and the environment, between behavior and space. This vivid image, however, expanded my thinking and inspired me to imagine ways in which museum learning spaces could be harnessed for learning.  

The Environments of Our Lives
Environments are the lived-in containers of our lives. They are the spaces we inhabit, that shelter and protect us, inspire and give us pleasure. They make both daily life and grand occasions possible. At all points in the lifespan, environments represent an emergent context and force that shape behavior, inform choices, and deliver information.

The physical environment is more than the shape of a space or its full volume. It is more than the arrangement of furniture, the materials and finishes that cover surfaces, the combinations of walls and openings, light and sound. Our environment surrounds us. We engage with it directly, on many levels, and throughout our lives.

What does this space say about learning?
(Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo credit: Vergeront)
Contexts layered with meaning, environments signal what goes on in a space and at successive scales. This is a playground; that is a place to worship; this is a place for commercial exchange, that is a public gathering space, a place for sports, or a private, personal space. Scale and the configuration of space; qualities of light, sound, and smells; materials and surfaces add to the broad clues of function. Is this school welcoming? Is this park safe? Can I accomplish my tasks? Can I stay here and explore?

Although clearly physical, built and natural environments are also emotional, social, and cognitive spaces. They affect us across a range of emotions, making us feel at ease or anxious, competent or inadequate, motivated or discouraged. Some spaces encourage social interactions; they bring us together, facilitate connections, and invite conversations; and other spaces isolate us. We can be intellectually invigorated by our surroundings, intrigued by materials and objects that encourage us to ask questions, have ideas, investigate, and pursue choices.

An environment may be consistent with our expectations, facilitate our intentions, and support our capabilities. Sometimes, however, its goals–or those of its creators–are at odds with our own. The interaction of features, materials, light, and sound can be problematic; they can challenge our understanding of where we are and how to find our way. While soft, ambient sounds can create a soothing backdrop to conversation, loud sounds amplified by hard surfaces make conversation difficult, especially for people with limited hearing.

Surroundings with a sense of soul that resonate deeply with our own invite us to linger while a soulless container hurries us to leave. Across all domains, environments can facilitate or interfere with a feeling of well-being, a sense of accomplishment, rewarding interactions with others, and bold imaginings.

Ever-present, Reaching, and Teaching
While the concept of the environment as the third teacher emerges from the schools in Reggio, this idea is neither limited to children nor to schools and Italy.

Art, history, science, natural history, or children’s museums, historic houses or zoos; indoor or outdoor, purpose built or adapted spaces are functional and experiential entities with purpose. At least since the 1992 publication of the Association of American Museum’s Excellence and Equity, education has been recognized as central to museums' public service.

What does this space say about learning?
(Children's Museum of Southern Minnesota. Photo credit: Vergeront)
Museums advance their learning interests and serve their learners using a wide array of opportunities and resources. Text and labels; demonstrations, lectures and programs; objects and collections; curricula and interpretation; blogs and digital resources; phenomena and planned discovery are familiar approaches to learning in museums.

Museum visitors, however, are not just learners when they are in a classroom or reading a label. Like all learners, they are minds-on, senses-on, hands-on learners engaging directly with their surroundings and with others wherever they are and whatever they are doing. Even when shopping, standing in line, or relaxing in areas a museum doesn’t think of as educational, visitors are sensing, thinking, and learning.

And the environment is ever-present, reaching and teaching them. Space and scale; sound and light; visual and physical access; materials, textures, colors, and objects are encouraging exploration, facilitating connections with others and with ideas, and supporting meaning making. Conversely, these same features may be discouraging curiosity, interfering with connections, and overwhelming the senses. 

The environment may speak louder than words, labels, and intentions to children and adults in how the museum:

• … is welcoming, creates a sense of belonging, puts them at ease; and assures safety;
• … values learners as competent, active agents in their own learning;
• … supports values such as creativity, caring, inclusiveness, or experimentation;
• … engages the learner’s curiosity and interests and removes barriers to participation;
• … encourages connections and promotes enjoyable interactions among visitors and with staff;
• … increases comfort and relieves fatigue;
• … creates ways for learners to see traces of their doing, thinking, and learning;
• … offers opportunities to explore, browse, reflect;
• … values alternative perspectives and learning in different ways;
• … creates moments of delight and beauty.

Harnessing the Environment for Learning
There are points in a museum’s life when it does focus deliberately on its environment from various perspectives. Typically this is when a museum constructs a new building, remodels a space, reconfigures the entry and lobby, opens an exhibition, adds a maker space, or upgrades exhibit components. A museum team, often working with architects and designers, considers the size and shape of a space, how it must work for its primary purpose and users, adjacencies and flow of spaces, the look and feel of the space, the furniture and equipment needed. After the opening, the space shifts to operations mode with regular cleaning and scheduled maintenance. Taking stock of the space is unlikely until the next remodel.

But spaces are dynamic. As living systems that morph over time, affected by use, misuse, and inevitable micro
What does this space say about learning?
(NYSCi. Photo credit: Andrew Kelly)
changes, museum spaces evolve. Strategic goals change, program schedules and formats are adjusted, visitor patterns shift, and new technologies arrive as the old disappear. Some spaces groan from over use, some are under-used, and some attract unwelcome activities.

The environment is an essential element of a museum’s learning value and its public service. Harnessing this great potential to serve its learners relies on a museum understanding its own learning interests, being attuned to the environment, and integrating these insights into museum-wide procedures, practices, and decisions. This on-going work requires the perspective of people from across the museum: designers, educators, visitor service, operations, and facilities staff. And visitors. The following practices work together and inform one another to help accomplish this.

1. Align museum goals and interests with the environment. Museums have goals, values, and guiding principles. They may aspire to be a more connected community, inspire innovation, strengthen families, or promote wellbeing. By identifying examples of how these driving principles can–and do–play out in the environment, a museum builds a shared vocabulary around the environment as teacher that contributes to experience planning, operations, and increasing impact. (See # 2, 4 & 5)  

2. Build space planning into experience planning. Each step in experience planning is an opening to focusing on how qualities and features of the environment can support learning. For instance, if a museum wants the visitor to try something new or take a risk, what conditions must be present for someone to experience a situation as safe, recognize new pathways, and perceive invitations to be creative? (See # 1 & 3)

3. Design, Not Rules and Signs. What museums hope to encourage visitors to do can be facilitated or obstructed by the environment; even a single feature can interfere with safety, comfort, or access. Spaces may create a bottleneck; invite racing, chasing, climbing; tempt leaning on cases. A museum can make rules and put up signs. Or it can address the problem through design solutions and decisions about the environment. (See # 2 & 4)

What does this space say about learning?
(Photo credit: New-York Historical Society Museum and Library)
4. Modify spaces based on information. Understanding how a space is informing the learning that takes place emerges from information and insights. Observation, asking questions, and listening to visitors help identify the physical qualities that encourage learning. Where is the flow of activity, traffic, and interactions positive and humming? What qualities are present? These insights can inform the vocabulary, experience planning, and dialogues about space. (See # 2, 3 & 5)

5. Open dialogues about museum spaces. Conversation among staff, volunteers, members, community partners, people of different ages, backgrounds, and abilities expands the environment’s capacity to support learning. These exchanges may probe what the environment says about the museum’s view of learning, how learning opportunities are best supported, and possible improvements. When a museum and its friends explore these questions together, a bigger, more visible view of the museum environment as teacher develops. (See #1 and #4)

What does your museum environment say about learning?

Related Museum Notes Posts

… we value space for its power to organize, promote pleasant relationships between children of different ages, create a handsome environment, provide changes, promote choices and activity and its potential for sparking all kinds of social and affective learning. All this contributes to a sense of well-being and security in children.
Loris Malaguzzi