Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Making Learning Visible. What Does it Mean?

Image: Reggio Children
Have you heard yourself or a colleague say, “I wish our visitors could tell us what they are thinking and learning”? That musing might continue with, “Are they trying strategies we never imagined? How are they figuring out why something happened? We’d have an idea of how they reason, how we might extend their exploration, and if they got a glimpse into their thinking.

Museum visitors and learners can give us an idea of what they are thinking and learning. They do, all the time, if we are interested, paying attention, and prepared to help make learning visible. Small gestures and facial expressions; conversations in which someone explains what she did and why and what he thought would happen; structures and gizmos built; choices made and materials used and “misused” share clues about learning.

Making Sense of Experience
“Making learning visible” emerged from decades of work among educators in the Municipal Schools in Reggio (IT) and was chosen as the title of a book written collaboratively by Project Zero at Harvard University and Reggio Children. A powerful and intriguing idea, this phrase has, not surprisingly, attracted great interest. Migrating from the schools of Reggio Emilia to schools and museums in the U.S. and other countries, it has generated multiple meanings and inspired various applications.

In the Reggio schools context, making learning visible reflects a strong interest in understanding and communicating children’s learning, thinking, and discoveries. An important focus of this work is understanding children as individual and group learners in school settings. In extended projects and explorations, children use multiple languages–drawing, movement, materials, and words–to represent, communicate, and express their ideas in varied media and symbol systems. Documentation, a cycle of inquiry and a shared process among educators, parents and children, has evolved as a robust tool for capturing, sharing, and studying children’s thinking and learning. As a research tool, documentation gives value to and makes apparent and accessible the nature of children’s and adults’ learning processes.

The collaborative work of Project Zero and Reggio Children has served as a bridge to U.S. schools and museums. With time, this idea has been adapted to various museum contexts such as school-based programs, exhibits, and maker spaces, and to approaches like thinking routines.  The Exploratorium’s Tinkering Studio uses “visible thinking” routines from Harvard’s Project Zero to emphasize certain aspects of the tinkering and thinking processes. Inspired by Reggio pedagogy and guided by research agendas and learning frameworks, interest in making learning visible and audible is present in museums including Providence Children’s Museum, Columbus Art Museum, and Portland Children’s Museum (OR).

Museums know that understanding learning and thinking in museum contexts is important for delivering and growing learning value. Consequently they look for ways to adapt processes that make learning (and thinking and experience) visible for all learners, not only children. While an attractive phrase, making learning visible, is a complex concept, one that requires time and effort to understand and practice. Not cartoon thought bubbles filling with text that explain a visitor’s thinking, it does, however, offer great potential for capturing meaningful clues about learning processes and how museum learners make sense of their experiences.  

Different museums naturally have different definitions of what this phrase means as well as different ideas about its application. Museums, for instance, can and do solicit visitor feedback; they post signs that effectively say, “Learning is happening here.” These and similar abbreviated approaches overlook the nature of learning, its complexity, and the conditions that support learners in developing ideas, expressing hunches, understanding materials, and working around obstacles. These methods stop far short of shaping experiences and environments that make room for thinking and learning, extend exploration, encourage engagement and conversation among learners, and offer different media and methods for exposing thinking and learning.

In Museums
Given the nature of learning and museum environments, both opportunities and challenges to make learning visible are at play and sometimes at odds. In the visitor-centered, social settings that characterize museums, learners follow their interests, pursue questions, and engage in conversation with others. They use their senses and multiple symbol systems to gather and organize information. As active agents in their own learning, they make connections among objects, materials, stories, phenomena, and art that museums present. They pause, muse, and make sense of these experiences in ways that are significant to them.

Museum teams of designers, educators, developers, and evaluators are charged with creating engaging learning experiences and environments in galleries, programs, labs, and studios. Following their interest in sharing subject matter, developing skills, and delivering messages, they select learning strategies, choose materials and objects, invite exploration, and plan discovery to support these intentions. Throughout an extensive experience planning process and beyond, museums conduct evaluations, assess, and carry out research; these are processes and practices with interests in common with documentation.

Conversely, museums encounter challenges in creating the conditions that help make learning visible. Exhibits are often planned to be self-guided, determined by a visitor’s agenda, personal pace, or time constraints. The difference between one visit and another is striking because of a visitor’s age, interest, and reason for visiting. The nature of learning itself–a personal process requiring time and occurring over time–also poses obstacles for museums. Visits are relatively brief, especially considering the other activities also taking place during a museum visit. Dwell times at an exhibit or artwork are relatively short. Single visits are more common than multiple visits. Visitors leave the museum at the end of the visit, perhaps returning and perhaps not.

A Language of Thinking and Learning
While every museum is challenged to find ways to demonstrate its learning value, it also has a remarkable advantage in making learning visible. At the very heart of what it does, a museum makes substantial investments in talent, time, resources, and expertise to create engaging learning experiences and environments for learners of all ages. A great asset, this in fact contains two other opportunities for making learning visible.  

The experience development process itself, from concept to remediation, supports thinking, learning, exploration, reflection, and documentation. In experience planning, developers, designers, curators, educators, interpreters, and evaluators are learners themselves working together to develop learning experiences for other learners–visitors. Furthermore, opportunities for learning in museums are not limited to self-guided exhibits and one-time programs. Museums also offer camps with multiple sessions, guided tours, professional development institutes, community engagement projects, and maker spaces. Ripe for learning about learning they invite, support, and extend participants’ engagement with materials and media facilitated by prepared staff.

In any experience planning, a team draws on its understanding of learning and the conditions that support it. In bringing greater visibility to learning, a team views itself in a learning role, recognizing that its learning is inextricably tied to visitors’ learning. Teams consider concepts learners could explore, learning processes they might use, and where exploration might lead. They anticipate thinking skills learners might use, revisit these hunches later, and compare them with what they think actually happened. In existing environments and during prototyping, they observe learners, looking for evidence of what they do and think in their conversation and use of materials.

Team members are explorers themselves, as individuals and as a group. Together they visualize the learning process and frame questions to tell them something about learners they didn’t know as well as about their own thinking and learning. They engage collectively around where they see evidence of learning in an exhibit, program, or studio, and reflect on thought processes to explore what they learn from visitors and how they know. Photos, sketches, a wonder wall, and videos assist in visualizing learning. Throughout the process a team keeps track of what it thought and did, constructs what it thinks is happening in the team, and continually updates its understanding of relevant concepts and processes.

This work suggests where to go next and new tools. Over time, a focus on cognitive processes–their own and visitors’–sharpens their understanding of thinking and learning. A language of thinking and learning develops as does a fluency with these processes.  

Practice, Context, Visibility
Inevitably, as a team examines and deconstructs existing practices to make learning visible, it challenges familiar practices. By pushing its own thinking and searching for ways to capture and express its learning insights, it shapes new practices.

An important set of practices for making learning visible involves making time and space for thinking and learning in an exhibit, studio, workshop, or camp. Designing for encounters that extend exploration, increase dwell time, support making connections, or add steps expands opportunities for learners to engage, focus, and notice their thinking. Encouraging higher levels of engagement among visitors through conversation and cooperation invites and registers thinking. Incorporating learning provocations such as objects, text, or photos into an activity helps slow learners, gives them time to focus, and alerts them to their learning.

Thinking and visibility take many forms. Materials and media must be similarly varied and responsive to elicit thinking, capture actions, record thoughts, and facilitate learners sharing with others. Materials that are receptive to learners’ intentions and manipulations show imprints of use and traces of thinking and learning in words, diagrams, sounds, constructions, mind maps, and messages. Diverse materials and media: writing and drawing materials, tools for recording conversations, taking photos and making videos, and digital technologies extend the range of possibilities for representing emergent thoughts.

Integrating materials and media into experiences themselves is critical for capturing thinking during an activity or experience. Thinking and learning arrive not solely at the end of a process or project, but throughout, from concept to remediation for a team, and from entry to exit and beyond for visitors. How did she think her way to the end of that problem? What mental path is he taking? What do their comments suggest about the challenges of that construction? Visitors learn from and are stimulated by other’s thinking explorations. Staff interactions with visitors also generate insights, gestures like pointing, smiles or hesitations observed; narratives overheard; and activities filmed.

Valuable but Difficult to See 
Insights emerging from these explorations are unlikely to be precisely measured learning outcomes or specific results in subject areas. Very much like thinking and learning, giving visibility to these processes is complex. Work takes place at many levels and over time. A trade-off between certainty about specific learning outcomes and complexity about learning is inevitable.

Teams, individually and collectively, arrive at new questions, subsequent observations, or recognition of new learning strategies. What surprised us about the experience of the learners? What furthered our thinking? What connections can we make to broader issues of learning and thinking in a museum setting? What is the significance we attribute to the questions, problems and ideas within a certain event? Even a small event, short thinking sequence, or learning moment is treated seriously and valued.    

For learners in exhibits, studios, workshops, and programs the process and product of learning is something that is valuable but difficult to see–yet. It is emergent, newly present for looking at more closely and reflecting. The value is in expressing the meaning making rather than arriving at a precise lesson learned. Exhibit exploration, tinkering, and conversation offer new perspectives on building knowledge and learning skills.

True, there are no auto-fill thought bubbles, no prescribed steps, and no amazing materials that magically reveal the thinking that is occurring. In fact, making thinking and learning visible is hard, incremental, continuous work. Every museum is challenged to find ways of demonstrating its learning value. By making explicit, visible, and shareable our thinking and learning, we make it much easier to think and learn. 


  1. Thanks for this post, Jeanne: Its publication coincided with a conversation we were having at Opal School about the topic! Much of the documentation happening at Portland Children's Museum occurs within the context of Opal School. You - and your readers - might be interested in these two posts that have been published in the last week: https://opalschool.org/secrets-wire-play-reflection-relationships-risk/ and https://opalschool.org/finding-path-productive-disagreement-reflecting-response-uncertainty-confusion/.
    Warm regards,

  2. Thank you, Matt. These posts will be interesting to read. There aren't as many examples of what this work looks like as I would wish so it's great to see this work in progress. Opal School and Portland Children's Museum are making the most of a rare opportunity to work together on ways to bring greater visibility to thinking and learning in learning settings in the U.S.