Thursday, April 19, 2018

Rewind: Children at the Center

Children at the center has a ring to it and, at least in my networks, is referenced often enough to be familiar to many. But, is it a powerful tool or an empty buzzword? Yes–and both. With some teams I work with, children at the center sparks an interested, highly engaged response. From other teams the phrase produces a polite blank or bored look, signaling a readiness to move on.

A suspiciously attractive phrase, I nevertheless think placing children at the center extends well beyond a professional belief invoked with passion. What is at the center is what is important. Occupying a central position serves as a reference point towards which other considerations and actions are oriented. Children at the center asserts that children, their healthy growth and development; their resilience in the face of adversity, small or large; what is in their long term interest; and their joy are all important.

At its fullest, this idea offers an asset-based approach to building social capital in communities–better day-to-day experiences for children now as well as brighter futures. Children at the center has the capacity to align interests among multiple organizational partners to work towards long-term change for a community, its families and children. Finally, it is a compelling idea with enough gravitational pull to consolidate and focus a shared set of understandings and practices to better serve children in a museum, school, childcare, or community program.

While placing children at the center can advance these significant strategic, organizational, and learning interests, it does so only with deliberate and steady work among a group, or even an active network, of people. The work starts with developing a deep, clear, shared understanding of what placing children at the center means. 

Seeing Strengths
Seeing children as strong, capable, competent, and full of potential is at the core of placing children at the center. The strengths and possibilities of even the very youngest child refute the easy assumption that children are simple and in need of correction, direction, and filling up with facts. Through movement, thought, reason, and language, infants and toddlers notice, follow sensations, organize information, seek out others to engage with, and make and change meaning. We might even view children as the original hackers, with their innovative customization of their world.

Children’s amazing potential is captured in an experiment of delivering a box of tablet computers in sealed boxes to two remote Ethiopian villages. The purpose was to see if illiterate children with no previous exposure to written words could learn how to read by themselves by experimenting with the tablet and its preloaded programs. Within 5 days, children had opened the boxes, figured out how to operate the tablets and were using an average of 47 apps each. 

It is not just children in remote villages with comparatively limited opportunities to spark an eagerness to explore that illustrates their strengths and capabilities. Evidence from everyday moments abounds. Children use others, often adults, as tools to accomplish their goals: to access something on a high shelf, roll the ball back to them and play, decode text, lift them up for a better view. Children observe others doing something they can’t do and then imitate them. Now they do it by themselves.

Our perspective influences what we see in children’s curiosity, expressions, persistence, and successes. When we see a strong, capable child, we see an active agent in exploring and learning. We view a child’s marks, questions, and choices as intention to make meaning–something we value greatly. We notice an extended focus on a purpose a child has invented herself rather than presuming a short attention span. We believe each child has something to say; each brings a narrative to the moment. It might be an observation about time, such as one 5-year old’s chronology of  world events, “Dinosaurs, Baby Jesus, the Knights, and me.” These are some of the magnificent offerings of children.

New Starting Points
Museums that internalize a view of children as strong and competent are in a position to activate the potential each child has. This sounds ambitious, and it is. The careful work of placing children at the center requires a deliberate shift from creating exhibits and programs that fill heads with facts or impress museum peers to centering the museum’s language, thinking, planning, and actions around children.

Learning from, with, and about children offers significant new starting points for a museum’s work. Who are these children? What do we know about them? What fascinates them? How do they explore, think, and make meaning? If children are the focus and source of what is important, then everyone across the museum becomes interested, patient observers. This is precisely the same as everyone being alert to safety everywhere and all the time.

Focusing on children’s strengths and capabilities reveals their competence as authors of their own experiences. They follow interests, investigate materials, make choices, modify approaches, and express possibilities. Children’s use of their many languages or ways of representing and expressing their ideas and emotions comes through in their spoken and written words, visual arts, drama, movement, and more. This focus opens new understandings about children and allows a museum to imagine ways the child’s agenda can be the starting point for explorations that will generate new thinking. Approaches shift to make room for children’s competence in building knowledge and seeking meaning in the environments the museum creates, the interactions it facilitates, and the relationships it nurtures. Rethinking environments, experiences, exhibits, and programs that invite children to wonder and extend their investigations is inevitable.

The sustained work of placing children at the center relies on listening to, being responsive to, and sharing in a child’s world attentively and respectfully. While evidence of children’s thinking and connections and their own words about what they are doing and understanding is rich, varied, and plentiful, it is all but overlooked in most settings. Documentation, an approach that gives visibility to children’s processes and accomplishments, brings together listening, recording, photographing, and reflecting on children’s actions, work, images, and words.

In making children’s thinking visible, documentation gathers evidence of an individual child’s or a group of children’s thinking from their words, drawings, questions, actions, and exchanges. In a program, at an exhibit, during a drop-in activity, and while prototyping, staff may listen to a child’s questions about what keeps a ball aloft; observe a child's repeated adjustments of objects around a light source to change shadows; notice a child’s persistence blowing bubbles; or reflect on a child’s varying the base of block structures. Notes, transcripts, photos, and children’s drawings that staff collect fuel discussion and interpretation about how children approach and think about the experiences the museum has created for them, or that they have created or discovered. Documentation is an iterative process of reflection, distillation, and sharing. It yields insights into how to support and extend children’s explorations, and modify environments where children will choose to invest their curiosity, imagination, and creativity.

At its best, documentation is a teaching, learning, and research tool. It illuminates children’s thinking and learning to them, to parents, and to staff. It frames new questions, and informs future planning.

Centering the Museum Around Children
There is no straight, short, or simple path to placing children at the center of a museum in a meaningful way. However, when educators, developers, designers, and visitor service staff from across a museum wholeheartedly and collectively engage in placing children at the center, momentum builds and change occurs along many dimensions.

Seeing children as strong, capable thinkers, planners, and doers readily translates into seeing colleagues across the organization as capable and competent. Colleagues are recognized for bringing valued perspectives and complementary expertise needed to advance a shared vision. Staff working in different departments become collaborators in explorations and documentation that informs and deepens their work. A larger community of learners and partners with and around children takes shape.

Centering the museum’s language, thinking, planning, and practice around children takes hold gradually. New and more ways of placing children at the center begin to appear earlier in planning an exhibition, developing programs, framing the budget, hiring and training staff, forming partnerships. Through each project insights into children’s strengths and capabilities deepen, revealing new insights. A shared vocabulary develops. New ways to support more elaborate explorations unfold. Cycles of documentation are tried, shared, and modified. Existing practices evolve and new ones emerge, clustering into an increasingly supportive set of everyday practices with children at the center. Museum-wide practice aligns thinking and links qualities of environments, experiences, exhibits, programs with children’s thinking and knowing.

All museums have aspirations. Yet few actually translate these aspirations into change at a meaningful scale for a community, its citizens, or even itself. A shared vision and a sustained commitment are required. Placing children at the center of a museum’s long-term interests can be a way a museum matters in the life of its community. This commitment may be adopted as a value, a foundational principle, or a vision statement such as, “We envision a child-centered community that makes decisions based on what is in the long-term interest of the child's well-being.” 

Stated clearly and at the highest strategic level, placing children at the center can inspire, guide, and unify a museum’s varied and complex work across multiple formats and over time.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Because a Good Question is Hard to Find

I love a really good question: chewy, shiny, juicy, provocative. Like a brilliant cup of coffee or morning pastry it makes my day.

A good question can be strategic or tactical; pedagogical, experiential, or operational; evaluative or reflective. Really good questions are like an itch. When we have been bitten by a good question, we simply have to come back to it again and again.

But really good questions are hard to find and have at the right moment. Gradually, however, I have realized that appreciating good questions has also helped me find more good questions. I notice questions in reading and interviews and I collect them. I write them down on scraps of paper and in notebook margins. I borrow and up-cycle promising questions. Sometimes I search stacks of sticky notes to get unstuck myself; frame a blog post, prepare for a workshop, or push my thinking. I occasionally suggest a question when someone’s process is off track and needs a reset. Framing questions has become my tool for thinking, learning, and working.

As our questions go, so goes our thinking, noticing, choosing, experimenting, and acting. Consequently thinking hard about what makes a really good question is thinking well spent. Yes, good questions are open-ended, but they are far more than that. They help us focus and get at more complex or inaccessible aspects of the world. They generate more questions. Asking, Who owns this place? easily prompts another one like, What can we do to increase a sense of ownership in our museum?

The questions that follow come from various sources: questions I have heard and read; borrowed and modified; constructed and revised. My appreciation goes to many, especially Lani, who forms many, good, strong, useful questions that reveal other questions. The questions I have selected are not only roomy, but help get at what we frequently miss until it's too late. They also help illustrate qualities of robust, productive questions. Perhaps they will invigorate your thinking about questions, offer a just-in-time question to hone, or start your list of really good questions.

Really good questions serve different functions. Some are openers, inviting exploration and opening dialogue. By asking, How can we develop an identity together as a group, or as a community? a question can initiate changes in how we see others, ourselves, or situations and create greater change. A question like, Whose agenda is it, any way? can challenge our thinking. Questions to invite analysis are different than ones to invite reflection. A question for sustained study will not help in deciding how to begin an experiment. Some questions, like, What makes a good stick? provoke thinking with their simplicity.

Seemingly small differences among questions matter. Questions get better when we take a close look, push on what is being said and not said, and compare. For instance, the question, What partners can we collaborate with to create a better version of our ideas and learn from? offers meaningful distinctions compared to, Who should we partner with on this project?

Frequently, questions nestle inside of other questions and we must look for those questions. Examining them uncovers assumptions and reveals lacking relevant or foundational knowledge. When we wonder, how can we serve families in our community, we might want to start by asking, What ideas do we have about families in this neighborhood?

So it’s not surprising that a really good question does not emerge full-blown but is developed by peering into it, pushing on its assumptions, honing it, and finding the right language for it. This circling around and through a question is explored in A Shiny Question. An initial question moves through four versions.
What do children learn in a neighborhood-based learning environment?
How do children become connected to the neighborhood?
How do children of different ages experience their community?
• Finally:  How are children of different ages and cultural groups building connections to their neighborhood through our community program?

Staying with a really good question is important because often we don’t know the answer to it. In fact, a really good question often is one that can’t be answered. What does your museum make possible? tugs at our thinking, encouraging us to back up and reexamine beliefs and aspirations. While challenging us to be compassionate, generous, and bold, (and imagine what that looks and feels like) we are not likely to come up with a crisp to-do list or measurable goals but we may have a stronger sense of what creates meaningful change.

We can end up with the same old answers unless we find new starting points. What does this mean? is a familiar question when we look at information gathered from observations and surveys. How much more thinking, discussion, and insight could emerge from asking, What is the deeper structure of these ideas? This may surface more thoughts about what lies beyond the obvious words, numbers, drawing, shapes, or activity that produced them.

An uncomfortably open question like, What is worth discovering? pushes us to consider new starting points as does, What is fascinating to children? We might ask, What are we not seeing in this situation or opportunity? when familiarity with a situation clouds our vision. On the other hand, asking What questions have I not asked that I should be asking? can help in navigating unfamiliar territory or exposing biases that hinder us.

Because we often confuse intention with achievement we need more productive questions. We want visitors to set challenges and take risks. We want them to care about climate change. Goals that insist this will happen because we plan for it are highly unlikely to be realized. However, a question that asks more of us and our thinking, like, How can we encourage and support visitors in setting their own challenges? may push us to imagine new ways of thinking about agency and engagement.

When we want to bring others’ perspectives into our thinking and planning, for instance in visitor experience planning, we might ask, What relevant competencies and questions do visitors bring with them to the museum that we are not thinking about? 

Often our thinking stops short of where we hope it will take us. Our team, department or partners may enjoy a deeply satisfying exploration about shared values or practices. Will it continue? To create new space we may need to ask, How can we keep our shared understandings open and moving, experimental, improvising?

Sometimes a rich and complex question emerges from dropping a single word. Consider, What are the rules? compared with What are rules? The latter opens a whole new line of exploration about who makes the rules and where they come from.

While asking a lot of questions is important, being alert to really good ones is critical. The more attuned we are to finding good questions, the more likely we’ll come across one that someone has thoughtfully honed and asked. Then it is ours to write down, revise, and polish. Ultimately, being inclined to refine a promising question to suit our purposes is the best way to answer the question: What makes a good question?

Monday, March 19, 2018

Children as Placemakers and Worldmakers

Place means something to children discovering their world, who they are, and where they belong. Sensitive to their surroundings, children’s encounters with spaces and places are immediate, multi-sensory, physical, emotional, and full of information. Place, whether it is small or large, familiar or new, invites children to explore, discover, make meaning, and learn; it shapes their understanding, experiences, and ideas. A powerful way for them to know and understand themselves and their world, place calls to them to climb, check out new perspectives, pour water over sand and see what happens, stack sticks, use their whole bodies to measure a space, and hypothesize about what happens here.

Children are natural and active placemakers. Their placemaking is an open, exploratory process of transforming a space through play, imagination, stories, and friendships that brings new meaning to it, builds their knowledge of the world, and expands their sense of self.

Children’s constructions are the most obvious expression of their placemaking and initially what placemaking suggests to us. Images of forts, hideouts, and dens come to mind, hiding places tucked into a hedge or behind the curtain of low spreading boughs. Found across many settings, special places may also be under tables, nestled among sand dunes, in the attic, enclosed by sofa cushions, or deep in the woods. Sometimes ephemeral, children’s places may also be where they return physically and in different seasons. Special places are sometimes enduring and remembered throughout life. 
Seemingly empty spaces­–under the stairs, the corner of a lot, behind the garage, the depths of a snow pile–summon children and invite them to explore their potential; they fill in with their imaginations. Qualities of space–openness, enclosure, height, scale, shape, fragrances, sounds and silences, different textures, even drops of water–suggest possibilities for what a space might become. An old, old tree, a distant view, a rise in the landscape, a remembered story can envelop a space and make an ordinary spot extraordinary. Likewise, something fascinating may call out to a child or pose a question. The blurred pathway that crosses a clearing, a place of brilliant light changing to deep shadow might inspire placemaking.

Placemaking-possibilities may be triggered incidentally: stumbling on an old wooden crate, digging up pottery pieces, discovering a dented hubcap, finding traces of past activities, or remembering the fragment of a story or song. But the power of a place is itself a compelling invitation. Sunlight, lacy shadows, or cool shade can summon placemaking. Subtle, unusual, and capricious environmental conditions–wind, mist, springs, echoes–are qualities that can add drama, mystery, and possibility for shaping space and supporting exploration.

The open-endedness of placemaking supports a wide range of activity. Children hunt for and gather materials; they build and modify their space; and they embellish it with finds and treasures. They climb, chase and challenge one another. Stories live in the dens and hideouts children create. New narratives about events of daily life, movies seen, the lives of dolls, action figures, and cherished animals enter and enliven life inside. Groups form and friendships grow in the shelter of a camp, fort, or snow cave.

Play and placemaking are closely connected in many ways but are also not the same. Clearly the forts, dens, and hideouts created during placemaking become places for play, contexts for pretend play, and backdrops for games. But, at the same time, placemaking is the serious work of children exploring, testing, understanding, and making their mark on the world.

More than Building
Placemaking goes well beyond building forts and hideouts. In this dynamic process of exploration, change, and discovery, children are making a place for themselves in the world. They are mastering materials, building confidence and competence, forging relationships, and shaping a sense of self.

German social intellectual Walter Benjamin noted in 1928,
Children are irresistibly drawn to the detritus generated by building, gardening, housework, tailoring, or carpentry… In using these things they do not so much imitate the works of adults as bring together, in the artifact produced in play, materials of widely differing kinds of new, intuitive relationships. Children thus produce their own small world of things within the greater one.

Children use materials and objects, their knowledge of how the world works, and ingenuity in placemaking. Loose parts, found objects, and discarded building materials are instrumental in transforming a space. They use what’s at hand: bricks, boards, boxes, and blankets; clay, cloths, crates, and cushions; sand, seeds, sticks, stones, string, and stumps; Legos, leaves, and license plates. 

Random as they might be, collected objects and materials contain valuable and actionable information about altering a space and realizing a vision. When they gather, move, and arrange materials; when they dig holes; when they drag a piece of sheet metal, children experience properties such as weight, mass, strength, and rigidity. They discover what different materials can do. Sticks help outline boundaries; some sticks bend while others are brittle and don’t. Blankets and branches span a distance; stones can weigh down a blanket; carefully stacked stones become a tower. 

In exploring places, hideouts, and landscapes, children are constructing an understanding of space and themselves. They measure space, size, and dimensions using their bodies, hands, eyes, and voices. Through their movements, they know the prepositions of space: under, above, inside and out, through, between, and on top of. Being in or out, up, down, or underneath, children encounter distant views and unusual perspectives, uncover new routes, and make connections to another time or place. With playmates, they work to make something big happen together. They share secrets, make-up ideas, negotiate how to work together, make up stories, layer in rules, and take on roles.

Children come to know something about themselves as well through placemaking. They test themselves
against the space, undertake feats, push their limits, and explore their identity. Can I pull myself up on this branch? Can I make my idea happen? Who am I in this space? What can I be here? They search for risk and the promise of challenge perhaps in building small fires, sharpening tools against a rock, or testing the ice for thickness. Moments of fear and triumph sweeten the experience.

As placemakers, children are experimenters, agents of change in charge of transformation. They find a spot that is undefined or open to being redefined and dictate its meaning. As they incorporate new materials and ideas, they continue to modify the space, its qualities, and meaning. This opportunity, ordering the physical surroundings in ways that express their own ideas and interests, is rare for children, but it engenders a feeling of competence and satisfaction. That anonymous patch of dirt transformed into a place with an original identity, yields a tangible, lasting sense of accomplishment.

Often children find something in a space that speaks to them of possibilities invites them to investigate their connection to the world. In working that space, they develop a relationship with it and come to know it, from its smell, sounds, or silences and from what has taken place there. A special place can stay with children when they are not there, over time, into their adult lives. Who doesn’t remember a place from childhood, created or found; a shelter for play, friendship, hiding; visited through changing seasons; and revisited over time in our memories?

Related Resources

Monday, March 5, 2018

Prelude to a Learning Framework

Conducting the Effektorium at the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy Museum   

Recently I was asked a question that I often hear, “How do we start developing a learning framework?” While the question is basically the same from one query to another, the context supplied by the following sentence varies.

• In the past we’ve had educational philosophies that we talked about, but that deep focus on what learning is and how the museum supports both has been missing.
• Our learning framework was developed as part of planning our new museum (or during a growth spurt); so much has changed since then and we know so much more about what happens here.
• We opened recently and our exhibit master plan which guided us through the expansion isn’t relevant in going forward.
• We developed a learning framework awhile ago. Its advocates have moved on and we have new staff who don’t feel a sense of ownership in that framework.
• We do have a learning framework that we have used heavily. It’s no longer current and we need to update it.
• We recently completed a strategic plan; it calls for our becoming a leader in learning in our community.
• We have a new Executive Director who had a learning framework at the previous museum and thinks we need one too.
• We’re gearing up for a major project (i.e. expansion, renovation, move). Our internal team will grow and we’ll be working with advisors and consultants. We need something that can guide all of us.
• Our community has changed and we’re not as relevant as we should be.
• We have grown a lot recently in attendance and staff; now our internal culture needs work around shared ideas about what learning is at our museum.

In spite of the noticeable differences among the museums described above–new museums, established museums, museums embarking on change, museums consolidating recent gains–these museums have something important in common. They are navigating the changing realities in which they operate: shifting societal issues and concerns, changing population, growing expectations of the museum, and an evolving learning landscape. Changes occur internally as well in organizational priorities, culture, and practices.

Whether planned or unplanned, external or internal, these dynamics impact a museum’s long-term learning value to its community. As the comments above indicate, such changes require action including new advances around a museum’s long-term learning interests. The need for a learning framework may be readily apparent or may take time to come into focus. Once a museum decides it needs a framework around learning, how it proceeds will vary according to its mission, audience, and perspective on learning. It will also be informed by how it works internally and engages its community in its work.

Many, if not most, museums are likely to take some preliminary steps as they decide on their approach to consolidating their most important ideas about learning and increasing their value as a learning resource. An informal prelude to a more formal process is a prime opportunity to prepare, to start slowly and build momentum towards a full effort when the time is right.

Build internal interest and support. A learning framework that will serve a museum’s long-term learning interests will have meaning for the entire organization. Developing it will actively engage some and will require the support of virtually all. Make time to talk informally with staff and trustees. What do they think a learning framework could accomplish for the museum? How would it help advance other priorities?  What do they think it should cover? What are their concerns about the process and the framework itself? Growing the circle of interest and support will be helpful during development of the framework and its implementation.

Take stock of how the museum’s learning interests are currently expressed. Whether a museum’s long-term learning interests are clearly articulated or not, they are present in some way. Assess what these interests are, how and where they are expressed, and how aware others are of them. Gather and read over grant proposals that describe the museum’s approach to learning and its impact. What do they say (and not say) that a learning framework might address? Gather articles, books, white papers, blogs, and research reports referenced within your museum or recommended by staff. Who are the theorists referred to most often? Ask staff about whose ideas around learning informs their thinking.

Learn from colleagues. Because more museums increasingly have developed and are updating learning frameworks, they are great sources of information. Contact colleagues at other museums about their learning frameworks; the various processes and approaches they have used; sections they have added and deleted; and different formats they have used. Ask about how they use the framework–and how much. Find out what they would do differently next time to strengthen their framework and make it more user friendly. Check out the work of Children’s Museum Research Network and the Spring 2016 issue of Hand To Hand.

Leverage strengths: Every museum has learning assets that relate to areas of expertise where it invests resources and intends to have visible impact. For one museum it might be strong community partnerships, for another a large and well-prepared docent cohort; it could be making as a learning strategy or a commitment to interdisciplinary learning. Look into how those areas might be incorporated into the process of developing the framework. For instance, could the museum hold conversations with partners and community leaders about how they view learning and the museum's role? Which of the museum’s strengths are most relevant to the community’s challenges and promise? Where are the best opportunities for advancing the museum’s learning interests?

Think outside the framework. The most important thing for a learning framework to accomplish is to develop a cohesive outlook across the organization on how the museum matters as a learning resource to its visitors and community. Arriving at this shared understanding should come from an engaging, productive process with lively discussion and deepening understanding. Prepare chewy questions: what is informal learning in our museum's context? What kind of learning is important here? Consider different ways to explore, capture, and communicate ideas and the relationships among them. Is a mind map of learning processes more helpful than a list? How does visually representing the relationship between learning processes, activities, and impacts help convey learning’s complexity? Perhaps the final framework is actually a giant illustrated poster rather than a thick, or even a thin, report.

Do any of the museum situations described at the top of this post resonate with the situation your museum is in? If so, you may be poised to develop a learning framework with and for your museum. Taking time early on to prepare will make a helpful difference along the way and in the framework you create. Additional resources below might be of help.

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