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?