Sunday, May 21, 2017

Tackling Persistent Questions About Learning Frameworks

I feel fortunate to have recently attended InterActivity 2017 in Pasadena and to have a great time. As always, seeing and catching up with colleagues from far and wide renews me. Gathering recollections about the first InterActivity they attended made many personal connections even richer. I was impressed with the courage and imaginations of two museums, The Children’s Museum of Brownsville and Play Africa, in the session, Children’s Museums as Strategies for Children’s Rights. Wandering the pathways in the Kidspace Arroyo Adventure among native plants and tiny lights as darkness set in was magical. And, I learned a new word, adulting, thanks to Henry Schulson.

I was also encouraged that learning frameworks are receiving attention, perhaps even more than in previous years. One session description began with, “The buzz continues about learning frameworks, …” More perspectives on what learning frameworks can be, smaller museums developing learning frameworks, frameworks referenced in discussing play, and frameworks guiding museum research are all indicators that museums are serious about improving their planning and evaluation of learning experiences and deepening their learning value.

At the same time, some basic questions still hover around them. At the conference, I was in group discussions, overheard comments, and was asked questions that I have been thinking about. On reflection, these explicit and tacit questions seem to touch on more than just learning frameworks. They relate to how learning in museums is viewed and how professional practices are sometimes pursued. In the long run, they can limit our thinking and our capacity to increase museums’ value to their audience and community.

These questions focus on 6 areas. They may be ones you and others in your museum also have and want to explore. They may be questions you hear from colleagues for which you wish you had better responses. Or thinking about them just might help move your thinking or produce helpful insights about learning frameworks that will facilitate your work.

Why do we call this a learning framework when it focuses on play? If a museum is all about play and the power of play, this is an obvious source of confusion. At least initially. In following that thought, we need to ask why play is valued in the museum. Is play valued for its own sake or is because of the learning that occurs during children’s play and how it contributes to children’s overall development? True, the relationship between play and learning is not always obvious. In fact, museums, and children’s museums in particular, are working to explore the nature of this relationship and how to convey it to parents and caregivers and to understand it themselves. Another reason a learning framework is called a learning framework is that education, or learning, is, at core, the nature of museums’ value to their communities. In 1992, the American Alliance of Museums’ report, Excellence and Equity, established education as central to museums’ public service.  

While a museum may focus its learning framework on play–or creativity, inquiry, making, or global awareness–those serve as entry points to learning, to thinking about diverse learners, serving as a solid platform for a new initiative, or describing the museum’s learning value.

Do we have to use the word, “pedagogy”? A director of education confided in me that when the CFO hears the word pedagogy, he shrieks with horror. He’s an otherwise normal guy. When I asked for clues about this response, she said that pedagogy sounds academic to him. He may be protesting or making fun of the word; she isn’t sure. Pedagogy, as the theory and practice of education, should not be considered an outrageous or pretentious term to use in talking about a museum’s learning focus, the theories that inform it, and how it encourages learning through its resources and practices. Especially in an institution with learning central to its purpose and education tied to its tax-exempt status. I doubt that saying, fund balance does not elicit screams.

Of course, it is not mandatory to use the word pedagogy. When it’s the right word for your purposes, however, and the best way to refer to the museum’s learning ideas and approaches, use it with confidence. When the howling stops, you can explain what it means and model what listening learn looks like.

Aren’t definitions limiting? Definitions are a vehicle for a group of people to focus, think together, and discuss what something important to them means. Very often, however, we assume that the people we work with mean the same thing we do when we use the same words frequently–play, interactive, creative, global awareness, etc. Without discussion that leads to a shared definition of what something means, how are we to know? Like guiding principles, criteria, and even a mission, definitions make important ideas visible and public for others to consider, ask about, and build on. Rather than a box that confines our thinking, a definition allows use to look into a word or phrase, and glimpse what meanings it may hold. We can revisit it and rethink it based on new information.

Definitions don’t need to be long, technical, or academic. They can brief and in the museum’s own words. But they must be clear and used consistently for communicating among museum staff, with museum supporters, and partners. Months, or years from now, that definition of learning can be revisited and updated.  

Should all areas of the museum be involved in a learning framework? Everyone who works in a museum has a responsibility for visitor safety and security. Likewise, each person is expected to use resources carefully and to align their work with the museum’s strategic plan. Because each person’s work contributes to the museum’s delivering engaging learning experiences for its visitors, perspectives from across the museum–from the bookkeeper and cashier, to the volunteer coordinator, preparator, events coordinator, and receptionist–all help in creating a well-thought out learning framework. Furthermore each person has insights and ideas about the museum’s learning experiences as museum-goers, as learners themselves, from conversations they overhear in the museum, or what they hear from their contacts.

Everyone on the museum staff doesn’t need to be on the learning framework team or deeply involved in developing the framework. At a minimum, everyone should know the museum is developing a framework or has one and should have an opportunity to think with others about how it relates to their own work. Ideally, however, all should be invited to contribute their expertise; and offered a chance to be a sounding board or a reviewer.  
Do we start from scratch for the learning framework? If your museum has a mission (and it probably does), you already have a start on your learning framework. If your museum has a vision, values, and a description of its intended audience, you are on your way to having a learning framework that aligns with your museum’s driving principles. Clues about what else to include in the learning framework can be found in the strategic plan, exhibit plan, MAP (Museum Assessment Project) materials and report. Think about the conversations staff have had about learning, diversity, partners, adult engagement; gather studies and articles that have excited staff and are referenced in discussions. You can look at learning frameworks from other museums too and see how they have addressed learning focus or impact.

All of this informs the learning framework which consolidates important ideas about learning, learners, and learning experiences in your museum. You will likely need to organize, prioritize, and fill some gaps. But you don’t need to start from scratch.

When is a learning framework done? More important than being “done” is having the essential framework parts in place and assuming it will grow and change over time. First and foremost, the framework should reflect the big ideas and ongoing dialogue about the museum’s learning purpose, its learners, and learning experiences. With the main parts in place, a museum can start to use the framework to develop exhibit goals, plan an initiative, or evaluate its camps. Time and actual use provide information for integrating the framework into current museum practices and developing new ones.

Conditions in the museum and its community are guaranteed to change over time. Naturally a museum can’t anticipate everything. The audience may age up or down; engaging parents and caregivers may become a new priority; community initiatives may come on-line; new studies will shed a new light on learning in museums. A framework should be planned for updates that reflect changes and new insights. For instance, as it learns more about learning through its framework, a museum may want to add indicators to its outcomes or develop a research agenda.

Each museum best determines when its learning framework captures the essence of its learning interests and is sufficiently robust and ready to serve as a useful tool for its educational planning and evaluation.

What questions persist for you about learning frameworks?

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