Wednesday, May 20, 2015

10 Lessons from Learning Frameworks

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I was delighted when Robin Meisner and Suzy Letourneau of Providence Children’s Museum asked me to join their session at InterActivity 2015 to deepen the exploration of making learning through play visible. This session was a response to interest from last year’s session and focus on why understanding a institution’s view of learning is important to making learning visible.

In thinking about how to frame the presentations by Janella Watson from NYSC, Amy Eisenmann from Bay Area Discovery Museum and Robin and Suzy, I wanted to do two things. First, I wanted to find out how typical a practice having a shared understanding about learning is and how this compares to other museum areas.  

I began by asking how many of the approximately 80 participants had an institutional view of learning at their museum? About 12 people raised their hands. When asked whether that institutional definition of learning was written, 12 hands remained. About 6 hands remained when I probed whether this definition was part of a larger document on learning. 

The results were quite different when I asked whether their museums had a financial plan, a marketing plan, a development plan, or an exhibit plan. Virtually every hand was raised for every plan. This generated some murmuring! Why don’t museums have a broadly shared understanding about learning as they do about marketing, finance, development? Why isn’t a shared understanding about learning woven into a museum’s fabric? Made visible as accomplishments are in those other areas?

My second hope in framing the session was to share the hard-won experiences of museums that have developed learning frameworks. A learning framework consolidates a museum’s most important ideas about learning and learners, and where a museum will focus its resources, distinguish itself, and deliver learning value. It seems, if not obvious, then extremely helpful, for a museum to articulate the important ideas at the convergence of its strategic and learning interests. Frameworks can focus on global awareness, creativity, inquiry, play, or early language development.

For the last 20 years learning frameworks have been my tool of choice for strengthening and making visible the learning value museums offer in their exhibits and programs and through staff and volunteer interactions with learners. Regardless of museum size or focus or whether it a museum is on its first framework or third update, 10 observations are worth sharing.

1. People who work together and who use the same terms–learning, play, creativity, global awareness–do not necessarily mean the same thing by those same words. These important ideas require a shared and deep understanding about how people who work together understand them.

2. A museum’s most important ideas about learning, creativity, or play must be defined by people in that museum, for that museum, for its audience, and taking its community.  into account

3. Identifying key ideas, defining them together, collaborating on a written framework, and distributing it makes these understandings and intentions open and public. They are available for others to examine, discuss, challenge, revisit, reflect on, and change as needed.   

4. Clarifying the meaning of learning, inquiry, play, or creativity is a negotiation. It brings together various interpretations and perspectives. Dialogue among colleagues makes the ideas and their meaning clearer, stronger, and shared. Wholesale adoption of a particular pedagogy or model defeats the purpose. One person’s passion cannot dominate. There’s a higher value than having your idea triumph. It’s having the right ideas clarified. 

5. As important as it is to be clear about individual ideas, it’s critical to understand how they relate with one another. What is the relationship of play and learning? Fully understanding the meaning of an idea includes clarity about how it engages with other muscular ideas. Connect the dots.

6. Whether or not we’re trained as educators or our position descriptions say we are educators, we all are engaged in some way in providing rich learning experiences for children and adults–no matter how we define learning. Everyone has a role to play and must play it well.

7. A framework around learning–or inquiry, play, creativity–is a framework for the entire museum. It’s not just for educators. A framework is an expression of how a museum values and views learning and learners; how it sees its value to its community; and how it sees itself as a learning organization.

8. A learning framework pushes well beyond an intention to contribute to positive changes for children, adults, and staff. It is a working tool for finding ways to make the learning that is occurring visible to learners staff and trustees, and to museum supporters.

9. This is hard work and demands rigor. Every museum may not be ready to make learning visible to children, parents and staff. But every museum can clarify and connect its most important ideas about learning that are embedded in its mission, related to its audience, and in service to its community.

10. A framework is a use-dependent tool. The more it’s used, the more it generates new insights and gives clearer direction for where the museum can accomplish more.

Related Museum Notes Posts

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Starting on a Higher Rung

Partial view of the Tree of Forts
Not so very long ago, when a new museum opened, it looked, well, not quite ready. Hand-made exhibits occupied a small left-over space. Passion, pride, and excitement somewhat compensated for what the exhibits lacked. Friends and optimistic supporters kindly acknowledged that, “given some time, this museum would get a few more things right.” This was certainly true for Madison Children’s Museum when it opened at its first site in the early 1980’s. We were scrappy, inventive, good with duck tape, and hopeful.

I began noticing a change when Milwaukee’s Betty Brinn Children’s Museum (BBCM) opened in 1995. From its exhibits, programs, staff, and even visual identity, this new children’s museum seemed as though it had been operating for several years. This wasn’t entirely surprising. BBCM’s founding executive director, Mary Ellyn Voden, drew on her significant museum experience as Director of Exhibits and Education at Children’s Museum of Houston that had been operating for 10 years and had opened a new building in 1992.

A new museum starting on a very high rung opened May 1st in Mankato, MN, located 75 miles south of the Twin Cities. The Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota opened in a converted City of Mankato bus garage after 10 years of planning and growing.  I first met the two founders, Linda Frost and Mary Jo Hensel in 2005. Early childhood educators and friends, they
formed a board, joined ACM, and incorporated in 2006. The next year they invited me to facilitate a planning retreat and develop a case statement with them. In early 2009, CMSM hired Peter Olson as executive director. Peter brought 6 years of operations, marketing, and exhibit experience at Minnesota Children’s Museum to CMSM’s start up efforts. In 2011 I worked with a board committee to develop a master plan that served as a framework for exhibit and experience planning.

While most new museums follow similar steps, this museum has done so while thinking big, building community connections, being very intentional about the small and the beautiful, and keeping children at the center of their vision. 

Mankato is a community that believes the prosperity it has enjoyed comes from the regional resources–the river that connects towns and people, sandstone quarries, and productive agricultural land–and the resourcefulness of its inhabitants. This narrative threaded through the city’s 2007 economic development plan. It has informed CMSM’s vision and framed its approach to funders. It has become infused throughout the Museum and its experiences.

Thinking Big
CMSM has been thinking big from the start–not expressed in inflated language or high square footage ,but as a roomy vision that fits its community. CMSM has seen itself since the beginning–and more so with time–as extending the community’s prosperity to its children through a childhood rich in play and opportunities, as a children’s museum.

When CMSM decided how to build local awareness and learn to operate a children’s museum, it opened its first Play Lab in 2010 in a temporary, long-term space. Play Lab was a location, a state of mind, and an expression of the Museum’s interest in learning how exhibits and experiences play with the Museum’s audiences and how audiences play with exhibits. Play Lab was also where CMSM premiered TapeScape in 2011. A twisty, tubular crawl-through landscape, Tapescape is constructed from plastic shrink-wrap and packaging tape stretched and woven around an L-shaped steel pipe structure (32’ L x 24’ W x 9’ H). CMSM’s Tapescape was the first of this type of temporary installation that has since been installed in several other museums.

If anything indicates that CMSM thinks big, it’s probably the new Tree of Forts climber introduced at the opening. This multi-story tree supports numerous tree forts of different designs and materials that are connected by vertical, horizontal, and angled rope climbers and ladders. The tree bursts through the building’s roof, opening into a kind of tree fort high aloft and with a view of the river and city. The Tree of Forts rolls fantasy, childhood memories, physical challenge, and surprise for children and adults into one amazing structure. Climbing through it myself, I met toddlers and grandparents and every age in between climbing, sliding, slinking, and discovering.

A Strong Sense of Place
CMSM has deeply and thoughtfully grounded itself in southern Minnesota. In making choices, it has infused experiences and environments with a strong southern Minnesota flavor. Massive sandstone blocks from a local quarry enclose the Quarry Zone creating a very real sense of being in a quarry. Mounted on the wall inside, an historic 12’ circular quarrying saw blade seems to be poised for cutting stone. The combination of stone and blade creates a feel of authenticity with a hint of danger.
Play Porch, for infants, toddlers and preschoolers to 3 years, is completely at home in Mankato. The detailed ornamental scrollwork, porch posts, and creamy yellow clapboard are copied from the childhood home of Maud Hart Lovelace, author of the Betsy-Tacy children’s books. The books, the house, the map of Deep Valley–Mankato in 1905–are part of the town and the childhoods of parents and grandparents visiting with their children today.

Local references are integrated throughout the building and exhibits. They are embedded in the expansive farm scene mural showing local crops and in alternative uses of farm materials like stock tanks, corrugated metal panels, and barn board. Regional crafts such as quilting and sewing are visible in the hand-made quilt that features southern Minnesota landscapes. High up in the rafters sits one of the recognizable millions of cats taken from an illustration in another local children’s book author, Wanda Gag. In every area of the museum, placed-based and historic references help tell their own stories. They invite conversations and elicit memories from parents and grandparents about quarrying, farming, and building tree forts.  

Visible Community Contributions
The importance of place is also reflected in the visibility of community connections, forged through the Museum’s planning and now contributing to what it offers. Like the hand-made quilt that traveled to the very first fairs and festivals CMSM attended, connections started early and have become integral to CMSM’s identity. The Toddler Committee made up of area early childhood educators has worked on the Play Porch for 7+ years.  Community carpenters built prototypes for the market and the quarry at Play Lab. Four hundred pieces of produce hand sewn by volunteers fills the wheelbarrows and bins of the farm and the market.

Indications that CMSM intends to continue to engage the community are apparent. A sign in the Ag area invites input for an indoor/outdoor new ag exhibit with, “What do you want to learn about modern agriculture?”

Worth Discovering
A wholehearted commitment to giving children something worth discovering is apparent throughout the Museum. There is not only the Wanda Gag cat in the rafters, but there is also a secret passage into the farmyard through the crawl-through log in the farm mural.  A message that wood comes from trees is carried by the steps spiraling up the Tree of Forts. Each tread is made from a different tree, its name burned in–Boxelder, Ash, Elm, Poplar, Maple.

CMSM knows children scour their world for information, are fascinated by small details, and notice often-overlooked features. The Museum has been deliberate and generous in making sure there are abundant opportunities for play, exploration, and discovery. Multiple mailboxes stand at different heights. Because children will feel and see details, the mailbox interiors are textured and patterned. Mailbox doors open and open-and-close at both ends suggesting games and extending exploration and play with others. 

Beauty as well as interesting details and novel materials invites investigation. Area artist Malia Wiley painted the farm scene mural in Grow It and included a mother and child and recognizable flowers and herbs. Liz Miller’s mixed media installation Preternatural Prairie Mirage floats overhead among the rafters. Children working with fabric artist Amy Sinning sewed and dyed 2,100 fabric willow leaves that hang–and detach from–the tree in the Play Porch yard. Laser cut steel railings carry a prairie grass motif designed by Ellen Schofield along the mezzanine where the Whiz Bang STEAM area is located.

CMSM has opened with a loud, wonderful, and long-awaited roar. I have no doubt that planning and refining will continue. This is a museum that knows how to discover ways of engaging children and their families, enriching childhoods, and strengthening connections with southern Minnesota.

Related Museum Notes Posts

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Between Planning and Chance

Chance favors the prepared mind.
Attributed to Louis Pasteur

You plan and you plan and then you just have to acknowledge that some things will be left to chance.

This plannerism is one I keep in mind especially when deeply involved in a planning project that is winding down and moving towards implementation. What comes after planning? Opening a museum, launching a strategic plan, activating a learning framework, or unveiling an exhibition is much like the moment of taking off the training wheels and riding. What happens next?

This moment of transition from planning to action characterizes many aspects of museum work as well as teaching, planning a trip, finding a job, or, for that matter, life. For conferences, board retreats, organizational budgets, visitor panels, exhibition planning, or a strategic partnership, we can get the right people together, gather the needed information, meet with stakeholders, check-off the steps, develop a critical path, and have the right people in place. 

I suspect that, even when we have planned well, what we really want is an extraordinary version of our plan to play out, delivered by remarkable opportunities and chance.

We may be poised for opportunities, but we never know until the very moment whether we will recognize them or be able to act on them. Chance is not necessarily the unexpected popular guest arriving with impeccable timing. Sometimes chance shows up as back-to back blizzards, illness, or road construction. While we don't know just what chance will deliver or when, chance will play a role. 

Even with a firm a belief in the value of planning and the preparation it provides, how can we leave room for chance? Will we be ready when the ideal site is available long before we planned to start a site search? Can we take advantage of a special granting opportunity when we don’t have all the right people in place? We cannot predict, schedule or invoke opportunity or a lucky break. But we can find ways to make space for chance in planning and in living the plan.

Intentionality and Thinking in Time
From a strategic agenda to a conference agenda, from facility design to exhibition design, planning is being deliberate about accomplishing something significant for a museum, its visitors, and community. We identify the steps along the way and the means for accomplishing them–time, space, prepared staff, funds, and partners. As well as knowing what we want to achieve and encourage, we must also know what we are not after; we need to be alert to signals and precursors of opportunity and wrong turns that might lie on our path.

The larger a planning intention is, the more comprehensive planning will be. Yet, planning is not having everything figured out and tied with a bow. Rather than a script for the future, planning, at its best, develops a shared clarity about what is important and what we hope will happen. Because the future is necessarily uncertain, planning is as much a way of thinking and preparing for possible opportunities as having a detailed plan. Both strategic thinking and design thinking activate a static plan document or rendered exhibition design by the everyday thinking that continues long after the plan is officially complete.

When staff continues to focus on a plan's or project's purpose and intent, they are able to generate relevant insights that allow the museum to be nimble in a dynamic context. Thinking in time and making an integrated set of choices help optimize opportunities and navigate challenges whether the project is opening a satellite facility, launching a professional development center, creating a nature area, adding a maker space, or incorporating dialogue into interactions with visitors. This is living the plan.

Near and Far Horizons
Fast forward. A plan has been launched. A strategy team is meeting for the first time. The exhibit has opened and visitors are streaming through the gallery doors. The creativity framework is being shared across museum departments.

On the heels of completing a plan a critical but subtle shift occurs: merging day-to-day choices with overarching purpose. Living the letter of a plan is, on the one hand, artificial and rigid. Plans, frameworks, and exhibit designs are, necessarily, idealized versions of what we think should happen. In contrast, implementation is immersion in immediate, practical circumstances constantly in flux. Focusing completely on the everyday at the exclusion of the big picture can lead down rabbit holes and obscure opportunities and new possibilities.

Living in both the plan’s far and near time frames is vital. Active dialogue between them and alertness to approaching opportunities is facilitated by frequent discussions that easily shift between; they link the big picture with current choices. As decision points approach, we revisit past decisions in light of current information. We adjust our view to look at the big picture with a broader or narrower perspective. Reassessing the situation sometimes requires letting go and starting a new path. Challenging assumptions, noticing information that doesn’t fit, and being wary of confirmation bias help trefocus or bring developing conditions into focus.

J. P. Morgan noted, in planning as in life, we go as far as we can see. When we get there, we can see farther. What was invisible or out of view earlier is now visible and apparent.

Awake and Alert to the Moment
A plan isn’t going to send up flares to announce an approaching opportunity. Being alert and awake to the moment is the only remedy; it is, however, not as simple as it seems. An unlikely combination of concentration and responsiveness, it requires keeping a steady focus on what is to be accomplished, a openness to alternatives, and readiness for an adaptive response.

Difficult to put into in words, it is equally challenging to pull off in the moment. The image of a dowser holding a divining rod lightly in order to sense the tug of water far below suggests a readiness for the unexpected

In the municipal infant-toddler centers and preschools in Reggio Emilia (IT), one expression of planning is a well-developed structure and thoughtful organization that support teachers in guiding children’s explorations. A clear, but broad, agenda and preparation inform teachers’ choices as children pursue interests and follow bigger ideas. Extensive explorations, often spreading over weeks and even months, emerge from a focus on a well-planned activity, reflection on what’s occurring, and a responsiveness to children’s interests and questions.

While in a classroom, not a museum and in a pedagogical rather than a strategic frame, teachers concerned with larger goals are also attuned to what is happening as children express fascination and ask questions. Teachers are alert to what is happening, what might happen, and are ready to capitalize on an unanticipated twist or happy accident when chance comes to the classroom.

Reflection and Action
Along with intentionality and thinking in time, embracing near and far time horizons, and being alert and awake in the moment, reflection and action inhabit the time and space between planning and chance.

Practiced individually or as a group, reflection introduces important qualities not readily available and decidedly different from what task-driven action and decision-making pressures yield. In stepping away from the everyday, even if briefly, reflection creates a space for paying critical attention, making sense of what has occurred, and consolidating learning. Through reflection we may backtrack through choices, ask new questions, re-sort information, and reassess progress. We may integrate intention with actual experience, synthesize opposing ideas, and connect knowledge from prior experience to current options and choices. A new continuity emerges from hundreds of separate steps and actions.  

Reflection generates new ways of seeing. By reprocessing information, we may understand differently what has or hasn’t happened–or what could have happened. We may see something that wasn’t apparent before or see it in a new light. Bringing a new viewpoint to a situation can re-frame a problem, discover an ally, find a fertile a crack between two obstacles, or reveal ways to restructure work and move forward.

Insights from reflection often offer a glimpse of the possible, an imagination of what might happen. It might put us on a path to deliberate action that we couldn’t have appreciated before; open a door we didn’t know was there. We may recognize an opening for action.

Even if the space between planning and chance is different from what we sometimes wish it were, it is, nevertheless, roomy, rich, and often unexplored territory. Sometimes it delivers the results of hard work rather than a free sample. Sometimes it produces a generous shift rather than an ordered gift. But under a few right conditions, the space between planning and chance delivers.

 “… something incredibly wonderful happens.”
Frank Oppenheimer

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Rewind: A Disposition to…

I have been heartened recently to come upon more references to and conversations about museums using a dispositional approach to learning in their learning framework and programs. Well-suited to the informal learning setting of museums, a dispositional perspective shifts away from a focus on content and facts to thinking and understanding. Here's a post on dispositions from 2013.

In the world of learning, whether in museums or schools, we often hear about skills, knowledge, and proficiencies. We seldom, however, hear much about dispositions. Disposition might be a bit of an old-fashioned word and doesn’t enjoy great use. Perhaps that is because disposition lacks the crisp currency of skill with its sharp edges that lend it to being tested and measured.

Disposition, however, is a useful and underutilized concept, especially in museums with an interest in inviting thinking, engaging learners, and supporting life-long learning.

A disposition is a habit, an inclination, or a tendency to act in particular way.  With a focus on frequent and voluntary patterns of a behavior or activity, dispositions differ significantly from skills and knowledge. Acquiring a specific skill or knowledge on a particular subject does not guarantee it will be used or applied. A disposition makes use of that skill or knowledge more likely. We might say someone has a disposition to be curious if she typically and frequently responds to a setting by exploring, investigating, and asking questions about it. Simply having the skills to ask questions, however, does not assure that she will do so.

Lillian Katz who has been writing and talking about the role of dispositions in children’s learning for 30 years defines disposition as a “pattern of behavior exhibited frequently . . . in the absence of coercion . . . constituting a habit of mind under some conscious and voluntary control . . . intentional and oriented to broad goals.” In Cultivating a Culture of Thinking in Museums, Ron Ritchhart of Harvard University’s Project Zero refers to a dispositional perspective on thinking as not only the ability to think but also the disposition to think. Patterns of thinking not only can be used, but also are used.

Dispositions can be social. Someone may have a disposition to be friendly, helpful, or cooperative. Other dispositions are intellectual such as a disposition to ask questions, to read, to gather information, to observe, to weigh evidence. Not all dispositions are positive. Consider a disposition to be bossy or complain.

Dispositions can be developed and are more likely to be developed when other people, such as parents, grandparents, teachers, siblings, peers, model them. Even so, developing a disposition requires time, time for it to be enculcated, practiced and strengthened. Environmentally sensitive, dispositions are acquired, supported, or weakened by the conditions of the environment, the interactive experiences in settings with significant adults and peers. 

Unpacking Dispositions
The qualities characterizing dispositions set them up as a good fit for museums in creating experiences for children and adults. Dispositions can be modeled. Museum educators, floor staff, facilitators can be (and often are) trained to model certain behaviors: asking questions, noticing patterns, or checking assumptions. As museums prepare environments and exhibits with particular objects and activities to invite and encourage learners to use skills and draw on understandings, they can also encourage certain dispositions. Many dispositions relate precisely to the kind of behaviors and actions we want learners to engage in: to notice, to try, to ask questions, to gather information, to be creative. Some dispositions relate strongly to certain areas, like science.

Three related aspects of dispositions make them even more useful in museum settings. First, focusing on dispositions reinforces a learner-centered focus. The learner is the subject, the agent, the person likely to try, to read, or to ask a question. Second, planning that encourages certain positive dispositions builds on strengths and puts abilities into play. Someone is likely to do this; a parent wants to answer a child’s question. Finally, dispositions are associated with action and doing. They lend themselves to active engagement; and this aligns with museum interests. Considering what people are likely to do in an exhibit or at a component based on the conditions created (or that can be created) becomes a worthwhile exercise, reinforcing museums as places to exercise choice and preference. Discussion shifts from learner outcomes and what a child or adult will do or will learn, to what a child or adult can do or is encouraged to do.

Dispositions in Museums 
The experiences and environments museums create are powerful mediators of thinking, doing, and learning. Bringing a dispositional perspective to planning these experiences alters the focus from skills and content to learners, and to framing experiences that encourage dispositions relevant to broad project goals. I have been reading, searching the Internet, checking old files, and talking with colleagues to find out how a dispositional approach to providing experiences is being used in museums. I found several references to and examples of dispositions being used in museums.

Dispositions are sometimes mentioned along with skills, knowledge, and attitudes as foundations for science learning in museums as they are In Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Ron Ritchhart, mentioned above has been exploring and writing about a dispositional approach to thinking in schools and bringing that approach to museums as places for nurturing students’ awareness of and inclination for thinking. Boston Children’s Museum has brought a dispositional approach to interpretation in Science Playground. Graphic panels invite children to "Notice, wonder, question, play” throughout the exhibit’s three areas. Habits of Mind call out basic dispositions and their relevance to learning about the world.

The Exploratorium deliberately uses and supports the concept on disposition in the Tinkering Studio. Cultivating a “tinkering disposition” is the Tinkering Studio’s approach to engaging visitors in using their hands to investigate phenomena, materials, and tools. In this case, a tinkering disposition is “a proclivity for seeing the word as something that can be acted upon and building confidence in one’s ability to do so”. The Tinkering Studio focuses on space, activity, and facilitation as the conditions that encourage tinkering. A welcoming studio space anticipates and provides for interactions, access to materials and tools, and for tinkerers’ comfort and concentration. Activities are thoughtfully designed to support tinkerability, emphasizing, for instance, hand-made materials, making processes visible, and revealing easy entry points. Facilitators are prepared to be alert, helpful, and unobtrusive in encouraging tinkering.

These examples are varied and interesting but are too few. The people I have talked to about dispositions, while unfamiliar with them, recognized the promise this approach has in museums. If you know of work being done in this area, please share it. If using a dispositional approach to creating museum experiences inspires or interests you, I hope you will get going and get in touch. In any case, please spread the word. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Six Strategic Questions

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 Say your museum wants to do strategic planning. It’s really time, in fact, it’s overdue, according to staff and board members . It’s been 6+ years since the last strategic plan. There have been some ongoing shifts locally in the educational landscape, competitive environment, and the funding scene. The museum has been experiencing, if not growing pains, signs of growth that are, fortunately, manageable–so far. The executive director is relatively new in her position, and she isn’t sure the museum is prepared for, or clear about, what comes next.

In a situation like this, some museums would prepare for a major strategic planning effort lead and facilitated by an experienced museum strategic planner. Other museums wouldn’t follow this route. Perhaps they can’t find a strategic planner familiar with their type of museum, in their budget range, or available in their time frame. Other museums might be interested in building internal capacity around strategic planning, and equally important, strategic thinking. This can be a right choice.

Armed with confidence, an appetite to learn by doing, and a firm commitment to building internal capacity, these museums put together and field their own process. They draw on the strategic planning experience of board members who have participated in strategic planning in their organizations as well as staff who have been part of a previous process at this or another museum.

Museums can easily find resources for non-profit strategic planning on line and in books and journals. Resources specific to museums and their circumstances are especially helpful. (See below.) Many museum strategic plans are posted on-line and are useful references. Equipped with a familiarity with strategic planning and these resources, a museum is ready to put together a team with both board and staff and designate a leader. During this pre-planning phase,  a planning horizon is set; a facilitator is selected; and key steps, tasks, and a timeline for completing the plan are identified. Getting organized and marshaling these resources assist a museum in ramping up and preparing to conduct solid strategic planning customized to that museum.

I would add one more piece to this thoughtful do-it-yourself strategic planning process: A really good set of strategic planning questions.

Over the years, through teamwork, testing, refining, and the sharp thinking of my strategic planning partner Andrea Fox Jensen, we have developed a set of 6 strategic questions instrumental to developing strong strategic plans. They have worked well across a variety of strategic situations and museums and with a variety of strategic planning processes and approaches.
Like any tool or template in books or articles, they are somewhat generic, needing to be customized to a particular museum and where it is in its life cycle; its purpose and audience; and what its community values. Cast at a strategic level, these questions focus on a museum’s context and enduring interests. They are aligned and readily build on one another. At a practical level, they point to the nature of information and stakeholder input to gather, topics for discussion, and areas of decision-making.

1. What do we know about our community or region–the children, families, residents, and community’s well-being–over the next 10-15 years that will affect the museum?
  • This question … sets the museum’s thinking and work in the context of its community and updates its awareness of current and future priorities, especially related to its broad interests and potential audience.
  • Related Museum Notes post: Public Value: From Good Intentions to Public Good  

2. What positive change do we, along with our stakeholders and partners, believe is possible for the community and its families/children/citizens/etc. over the next generation?
  • This question is about … identifying the community’s challenges and promises that the museum believes it is able to address and improve in concert with other organizations.
  • Related Museum Notes post: Re-envisioning Vision 

3. What distinct and valued contributions can our museum make to help realize this change?
  • This question is about … focusing on where the museum can concentrate its attention, energy, and expertise to bring change for the community.
  • Related Museum Notes post: Missions that Matter 
4. Who must we serve deliberately and well to make progress towards this purpose and be a valued community resource?
  • This question … deepens a critical understanding about whom the museum is for, and who it must serve and reach to fulfill its aspirations.
  • Related Museum Notes post: Audience, An Area of Enduring Focus 
5. What experiences, environments, and opportunities that bring distinctive value to our audience do we need to provide?
  • This question is about … thinking intentionally about the museum’s programmatic work, where it needs to improve, and opportunities for growth in order to benefit its end-users–its audience. 
6. What are the foremost capabilities and resources we must have to make achieving our programmatic efforts possible? 
  • This question looks at … the operational resources–communication, infrastructure, fundraising, management, and governance–most critical to implementing the programmatic work and promising and significant growth opportunities.

These questions don’t guarantee a stellar and compelling strategic plan. But they will push hard and productively on the team's thinking, challenge its assumptions, enliven its discussions, and make connections among vital areas of the museum’s interests more visible. And that will help make a noticeably stronger strategic plan that will serve a museum well.


Related Museum Notes Posts

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Rewind: Planting for Play

A few days of sunshine and temperatures reaching 70 F in early March can get even a seasoned Midwesterner to think about planting for play. Knowing how many museums have been inspired to create outdoor areas or to make existing ones wilder, brought to mind this post from 2012 . 

I spent last week in Savannah and Charleston, delighting in the dense vegetation and exuberant growth in the squares, courtyards, parks, and gardens. As I sat back and watched children scoot, dodge, and duck among the plantings and duel with fern fronds, I wondered how yards, parks, playgrounds, gardens, empty lots, and nature centers, might be better planted as places for play.

For most adults, it is impossible to imagine playing outside as children without the hospitality of trees, shrubs, vines, grasses, and flowers for play. My friend Phillip played in a leafy room shaped by the boxwood where he grew up in Maryland. When they were little, the Nissle sisters used the spaces between the foundation shrubs as stalls for their imaginary horses. Recently I came across a list of childhood play places remembered by early childhood educators. One from A Little Learning for Two especially caught my attention.
We grew up on a farm, and we had a daisy bush as a big as a small car, and if we crawled inside, it was hollow, like a giant igloo.  We played there so often we wore a deep crater in the dirt underneath, and I loved lying there in the shade looking up through the flowers or reading books.
Under the boxwood, between the lilacs, and around the mounds of miscanthus grasses are the play spaces remembered from childhood, described in environmental autobiographies, and inspirations for books like Roxaboxen. Places planted for play can be found in the small corners of yards, along the fence, at the border of the schoolyard, under the bay window, at the edge of the porch, along the crick or drainage ditch. These might be places in gardens already well planted that wholeheartedly welcome children’s explorations. They may be wild places overgrown with plants that we carefully edit for play. Or perhaps these are now empty places we plant for children’s play and exploration across the seasons.

Towering trees, spreading branches, and a sweep of shrubs provide the highs, lows, edges, and insides defining space and creating a distinct sense of place for play. Children move low, slow, wide, side-to-side, and high as they crawl between, hide under, and climb up into trees and shrubs. Crouching, they explore leafy tunnels and how far they go. They duck into low enclosures created by sweeping branches where they hide, peek out, relish the feeling of being away from others; here they can see others and (think) others can’t see them. In pairs and small groups, children act out favorite stories and weave together new ones; they play games, and form friendships inside leafy huts.
The same branches that droop and provide cover become the rungs of a ladder. Carefully balancing on branches, children discover look-outs with new views of familiar place; and it's a bit unpredictable. Then sitting astride low arching branches, they feel the branch’s movements and work hard to achieve greater bounce. Straddling the boughs and crouching low, children might be racing ponies or riding out a storm on a boat.

Growing places change with the day, the weather, the season, and from year-to-year, always suggesting possibilities for children’s play. Bare branches leaf-out into tiny yellow-spring-green slivers, creating the fort along the fence; when the leaves turn bronze or gold and drop, the fort disappears. The sun-shade mix shifts from morning to evening; the morning cool disappears and children take their play deeper into the thicket. New smells come in after a rain and suggest an adventure. Leaves continue to sprinkle water even after the rain ends and inspire an expedition for finding rain-hat leaves. In piling leaves, peeling bark, and dragging sticks, children get nature under their fingernails as well as dirt.
Places planted for play are a virtual studio of natural materials to explore and create with. Where else are children able to explore the wide variety of textures offered by smooth, prickly, and fuzzy leaves? Watch hard, new berries ripen into squishy soft berries? Discover which pine cones are sticky and why? Cover rocks with wet leaves? Experiment with sticks that bend, snap, or float? Examine lichen and moss up close? Find out what it feels like to be buried in leaves? 

Children use their discoveries to transform spaces, put their mark on them, and take ownership. In their place-making, children sweep dirt floors with branches, make beds of leaves, arrange tree cookie furniture, and gather leafy decorations. They alter places they find with their own designs, gathering fallen branches, stacking logs, or propping sticks against one another to reconfigure space. Openings created among trees or shrubs become rooms to live or hide in, and some times to defend. Children often allocate ownership of branches, shrubby hollows, or leafy rooms. Places may be named to affirm solidarity, show ownership of spaces, and refer to shared and favorite stories.

Children’s play in planted areas becomes a dialogue with that place. Moving among plants, children experience the precise geography and climate of a particular spot, its deep or dappled shade, how water seeps and pools, the freshness deep into the dark growth, the dry carpet of pine needles. Under the magnolia, they find the cool of the thick and enduring shade; they excavate beneath the soft, constant carpeted surface of big leathery leaves. Even gnarly roots radiating from the trunk animate a place and suggest possibilities for play.

Children come first in places planted for play. They might snap a branch, or stomp down the grass; they might leave a blanket or a bowl (that should never have left the house in the first place one might think) outside. This is not the time to scold, protest, remind them that you have reminded them before, or shake an angry finger at them. Maybe if we provide more places planted for play–places that are easy to get to, familiar and changing, and sense-filling–children will joyfully play there throughout their childhood and carry the memories, discoveries, and possibilities into their futures.
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Thursday, March 5, 2015

More Than Fun and Cute


Engineering and play are more alike than we might think. Both have a significant PR problem. When I recently wrote about engineering and the confusion of many about what it is, I was struck by a similar confusion related to play. We assume we know what engineering is and what play is and often make snap judgments about them. Engineering is train operators, not problem solving and design. Play is fun; children are cute when they play.

Play’s PR problem comes through clearly in a question I was asked at InterActivity 2014, “How can we talk about the value of play without mentioning play?” I am not sure I was able to conceal my utter disbelief at this question posed at a conference for children’s museums that have a strong, if not fundamental, grounding in the value of play. More surprising, this was not the first time I’d heard something like this. A few years ago, a children’s museum executive director told me her board had instructed her not to educate funders and policy makers about play. I still wonder about that knowing that play was one of five words in her museum’s mission statement.

The message is clear. Play’s OK until it’s time to get serious, deal with what’s important, and talk with others who may not value it. And when we do own up to play, we are inclined to emphasize the fun. This is hardly an endorsement of what the American Academy of Pediatrics considers critical to the optimal development of all children. What does this say about play, and for that matter, about babies and children–including their play, drawings, language, questions, and movements? What does it say about our courage and commitment?

Scholars have looked seriously at play over the last century and recent research in neuroscience has amply demonstrated the rapid brain growth that occurs during the early years. Nevertheless we persist in not taking young children or their play seriously.

Cute, So Cute, Insanely Cute
When I scroll through Facebook, I love seeing photos of children I know or the children I know fill the lives of friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors. Mason has fallen asleep among his toys; Henry’s has just discovered the joy of licking the frosting off the big wooden spoon. Sara’s at the starting line for a ski race. Clara’s getting a soft wet kiss from Coco. And 3-year old Sadie is posing proudly in a very large Girl Scout badge sash ready to sell cookies with big sister Lucy. Invariably, at least one comment from friends (and family) is “cute.” There is also “fun,” “darling,” “angelic,” “so cute,” and recently, “insanely cute.”

“Cute” not only does not capture what is present, but also sorely underestimates the rich range of durable experiences and the enormous potential they are activating. How could one word–and the same word used again and again–cover so many children doing so many different things as well as describe piñata cookies or a brightly frosted cupcake caterpillar?

More Than Fun
Imagine if we labeled every painting in an art museum beautiful or every sculpture provocative. Using the same few words to sum up something erases the need to think more about what else is present. Limited words restrict what we see and notice and how we might respond and engage. The moments we see as simple and sweet on those Facebook page photos are filled with children making connections, feeling confident, meeting a challenge, discovering a new perspective, or delighting in a sense of agency.

While we often praise individuality, we all but ignore the individual present before us with a one-word caption of what’s going on. We gloss over what is specific, remarkable, and worth noting, in effect, diminishing the child’s capabilities and thinking–contributions the world needs. Watching a child’s play, we don’t take time and think about or imagine where the story of a runaway frog came from, how the idea of a pet palace grew, or what the child might be thinking about that space rocket.

At the gym, I watch a 2-1/2 year old walk backwards down a long hallway, a little wobbly but delighted. (Cute, right?) This seems to be an exploration of a new way of moving, feeling movement, and noticing how surroundings change as he moves. Rather than walking towards the door, he’s walking away from it; does he notice it is getting smaller? Most likely, more–much more–of life-long significance is occurring in a child’s everyday moments and during play captured in images of children at play in museums, in the library, at family gatherings, at a holiday. Seeing children crouch under a bush, notice how chalk crumbles, meet a cardboard challenge, create duct tape armor, or try to balance a plate on one hand communicates volumes about that child’s curiosity, interests, control, agency, capabilities, and sense of accomplishment. 

Use Your Words
We might each revisit a memory or a snapshot of a cherished moment from our childhood. Examine the image closely. Yes, there’s a crooked smile, an untamed cowlick, the shirt worn backwards, and an apple bulging from the pants pocket. As the beaming child, the spelling bee winner, would cute reveal the sense of accomplishment you felt or the relief still remembered? Others might have seen this moment as funny or sweet. But for you it was a discovery about words, the triumph of persistence, and pride in winning for your school.    

This is not a plea to banish cute or fun. Play is fun and more; children are cute and far more than cute. 
Rather, it is an invitation to look, wonder, and reflect on what is happening as five-year old Sonja gives a long explanation of how we smell things and Delroy learns to use a needle and thread sitting next to his grandmother. Surely, when Cyrus and Harper sing and dance their 90 year old great grandfather’s favorite song, it is more than fun and cute.

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