Sunday, December 29, 2013

2014 Resolution: Shiny Questions


 
Each new year is a grand question that unfolds over 365 days asking, “What does this year hold? During the course of the year hundreds of smaller questions appear, hover, perplex and delight. Hopefully many are answered.

In the spirit of a new year, I resolve to ask more and better questions in 2014. Power tools for thinking and listening, questions make connections, unleash creativity, and help solve problems

Statements can be clear and concise, elegant and even poetic. While good statements have their place, they can also give the feeling we have accomplished work only imagined. But when we ask questions, we begin to know what we want to learn about and what we need to find out. Questions direct our attention, open us to possibilities we can’t yet fully imagine, and help in managing uncertainty about the future. Questions make us learners. Questions developed with others make us part of a larger community of thinkers and learners.

Over the next year, I hope to make the most of different types of questions, ones that deepen understanding and ones that clarify information; open-ended questions, research questions, questions to get a conversation going, and questions to revisit. And I resolve to ask more shiny questions in particular.

Polishing Questions
A shiny question starts off like many questions intended to guide a project or extended work. When, however, the question is tossed, tumbled, and polished by a group of people working together to explore and understand its intent and potential, the question is strengthened, its meaning is sharpened, and its language made explicit. It becomes shiny.

The original shiny question emerged through a lively, collaborative process among members of several groups gathered to develop a research question for community camps in a St. Paul neighborhood. Nearly 10 years later, the shiny question has become the gold standard of questions for many of us who participated. Fortunately, two members of the group, Nan Kari and Lani Shapiro, captured and shared the conversation and related thinking that produced the shiny question. The following description highlights pivotal shifts in the 2-hour discussion and the 5 versions that the research question assumed.

The process of developing the shiny question begins
Context
When a group of neighbors from St. Paul’s West Side and the Neighborhood Learning Community (NLC) at Augsburg College began planning neighborhood summer camps, they approached steering committee members of the emerging Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota (RINMn) to develop a research question to guide planning and learning from the camps. The groups, NLC, RINMn and, Minnesota Children’s Museum, enjoyed shared interests but had limited experience working together.

Inspired by the neighborhood as a “living classroom,” All Around the Neighborhood’s (AATN) free camps would serve children 5-11 years living in or attending school on the West Side. Children would explore the neighborhood in weeklong camps that highlight contributions from the cultures of people living in the neighborhood. Community members would serve as teachers for the camps.

Opening Discussion
Background information about the camps helped to both launch discussion and surface the need for additional information. 
An AATN planning team member shared two themes to be woven into each camp: learning about people and places in the neighborhood; and building and experiencing successful intergenerational and intercultural learning communities. She also shared questions AATN was curious about.
·       What do children learn in a neighborhood-based learning environment?
       What competencies do children build through informal learning in a multicultural, mixed-aged group of people? 
·       How do people, children and adults, learn about democratic principles/practices in a neighborhood-based learning environment?
       What skills are developed when children are engaged over time in an intergenerational learning community?
       What do children contribute to “place-making” on the West Side, when they are invested in a neighborhood learning environment?

Following initial consideration of the themes and questions, members of the group expressed a need for clarification and additional information. How do the questions relate to goals? How would AATN focus research? Would the questions actually tap the interests of community teachers? One suggestion was made to distinguish “what” questions from “how” questions. Four criteria for framing the research question were also identified.
·       Simple language
·       A straight forward question
·       Worded to allow making simple hypotheses
·       Lead to a compelling story that can be told to others

Incorporating this group’s perspectives on the themes and questions and adding criteria shaped an initial research question.

First version: How do children become connected to the neighborhood?
 
Developing the Question
With a question to focus on, discussion shifted to its capabilities. Thinking about working with the question, members of the group suggested that it should address:
  • How children might express being connected
  • Indicators adults use to interpret children’s connections to the neighborhood? (This accounts for adult filters)
  • How  we will know connectedness and what it looks like (Indicators)
  • The nature of the child’s connection to the neighborhood
In generating these questions, the group identified several factors at play. First, there were, in fact, two perspectives: those related to children’s experiences and those related to adults’ noticing children’s expressions of their connection to the neighborhood. This distinction helped highlight the difference between “connecting” and “experiencing.” Finally, distinguishing between adults and children prompted consideration of age-related differences. The next version of the question reflected these distinctions.

Second version:  How do children of different ages experience their community?

Peering into the Question
The group shifted its attention to making finer distinctions. If differences in ages could affect children’s experience of community, the group agreed it was also possible that children may be connected to the community differently and they may not be connected to the neighborhood. Connection to the neighborhood was likely a function of children’s experience. The group wondered what knowledge children create about their neighborhood, and how they construct it.

At this point in the conversation the group felt that the word community seemed to carry more complicated meanings than neighborhood, especially considering that AATN is a neighborhood learning program. This shift appeared in the next iteration of the question.

Third version:  How do children experience this (neighborhood) space?

Honing the Question
Consideration of children’s prior experiences, their agency, and the conditions to build connections to the neighborhood shaped the evolving question.
 
The group picked up earlier discussion about children having a range of prior experiences related to age, cultural group, school experience, etc. While AATN would be one way they could experience connection to the neighborhood, taking into account multiple prior experiences was important as was providing various ways for children express their experiences.

With children as the subject of the question, there was a on the child’s experience; this, the group realized, also included the possibility that children might not have the experience adults intended. The research question, they agreed, should allow for this. Yet, the next version of the question actually reduced children’s agency when the group thought about experiences the camps might create for children that build or strengthen connections.

At this point the group wondered how children become connected to the neighborhood. Referring to the original set of questions, it identified 2 major pathways:
  • Experiences leading–or not–to connectivity
  • Children’s knowledge and competencies that build understanding of their neighborhood

Fourth version:  How does AATN allow children to experience the neighborhood?

Questions Inside of a Question
Critical elements of the research question became clearer in a set of sub-questions.
  • What ideas do we have about children’s connections to the neighborhood?
  • What constitutes connections?
  • What details do children notice?
  • How do they represent the details?
  • What do we provide that facilitates their expression?
  • How do they respond to each others' interests (Social connections)?
These questions helped draw the group’s attention to relatively small changes in wording that signified meaningful shifts in the next, and final, version: the child is the subject; building connections is an active, on-going process; “the” neighborhood became “their” neighborhood; and AATN’s role is identified.

Fifth version:  How are children of different ages and cultural groups building connections to their neighborhood through AATN?
 
The final three versions of the question
 Final Reflection
A final review of the question considered both content and language. A critical look at this version considered how it allowed for different starting points; acknowledged children as active learners; and accommodated variations in the pace of learning. The group also noted that it also for children creating knowledge about the connections they make which the research should capture.
  • Each word in the question reveals something about our assumptions about children and ourselves 
  • Bridges/barriers facilitate children making connections
  • Recognition that AATN participants will look at the research question through different lenses
An iterative process of framing a question, discussing and reflecting on it, and recasting it moved through these 5 versions.

# 1: How do children become connected to the neighborhood?
#2: How do children of different ages experience their community?
#3: How do children experience this (neighborhood) space?
#4: How does AATN allow children to experience the neighborhood?
#5: How are children of different ages and cultural groups building connections to their neighborhood through AATN?
Thank you to the May 2005 group: Kelly Finnerty, Barb Murphy, Lani Shapiro, Patti Loftus, Sandy Burwell, Erik Skold, Jeanne Vergeront, Linda Melcher, Nan Kari

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Reggio After Images




A striking idea; a persistent after image; connections engaging with multiple and foundational ideas. Together these are the first indication that a new idea has staying power.

Over the years Reggio educators and their pedagogy have been a source of provocative ideas. The museums group study tour this year was no exception. Ideas were presented and unfolded. Thought leader and wonderfully quotable Loris Malaguzzi was often cited. One month later, I am holding onto some ideas and some ideas are holding onto me. Those with the greatest staying power and that engage with projects, practice, and pedagogy are ones I will likely explore them in future blog posts.

1.     The social value of materials. The significant role of materials exploration in the Reggio schools is well known and well documented. Educators select materials for children to explore with their hands and imaginations, as tools, for their expressive potential and to make connections between languages. Less obvious is selecting a material for its social value, its capacity to build a sense of group or to encourage cooperation among children. Distinctions among materials may consider how they build the child’s familiarity, relationship, and confidence with the material. A material may also be selected because it enriches a child’s elaboration of their ideas and desire to share them with others. No doubt other carefully considered dimensions also help extend exploration and I have yet to discover them.

2.     Connections as learning. Clarity about learning through connections threads through Reggio pedagogy. Consistent with a constructivist learning perspective, decidedly interdisciplinary, and congruent with the interconnectedness of the world as we experience it, connections recognizes learning as actively engaging multiple senses, construction across different dimensions, and forging links between experiences and ideas. In this way, we actively build understandings of social and physical relationships operating in the world. Connections start where the learner is and go everywhere and anywhere. Neither limited by nor respecting subject matter boundaries, they follow interest, and encounter the unexpected.

3.     Prepared to follow. To be able to follow children’s explorations–with light, movement, air, or the city–the adult must be familiar with a wide range of concepts that children might explore in the classroom, the museum, outdoors. Thoughtful preparation acknowledges the child's significant capabilities and natural curiosity as well as opening the adult to the possibilities of the context, the project, the studio, the exhibit, the activity. The adult becomes a learner and researcher along with the child who is a ready learner. In the role of following, the adult extends children’s exploration; gets a sense of what is and isn’t happening; and activates, especially indirectly, the meaning-making competencies of children (Bruner).

4.     A helpful disruption to the play – learning connection. Calls for more play in the lives of children in the US, born of grave concern about the lack of play in their lives, come from many voices and sources. Appeals for more play often argue for its value by equating play and learning, linking it to more recognized public health issues like well-being or obesity, or elevating it to children’s work. Inadvertently, this undersells play by reinforcing unproductive dichotomies, suggesting that a simple equation (play=learning) can explain a rich and dense relationship, and concealing the very complexity of play that makes it valuable. Opening up the connections and pathways between play and learning and other important processes such as creativity help expand the idea of play, reveal the power within play and why it’s valued. Can we speak of playing without learning? Creativity without play? Play without stories and narratives?

5.     When a drawing is not a drawing. “Can you draw a picture of a …” is a question adults often ask a child. Because of the way it’s stated, it may convey a sense of expectation of the child; the child thinks the adult wants her to make a specific drawing–a chair that looks a certain way or that very tree out the window. Inviting a child to draw is not necessarily about the child drawing the object, the dog, the bike, or the shell. Rather, it may be about the child getting to know that object, seeing the shape, noticing how the petals of the flower touch, or attending to the spiral of the shell–and translating that knowledge into a drawing. A question posed or a request made frames the experience for the child. Will it be an experience of looking and thinking or an experience of guessing what the adult wants?

6.     Stakeholders in children’s learning. We often refer to a museum’s stakeholders: partners, supporters and friends, both individuals and groups, who are likely to affect or be affected by the museum. These are valuable relationships that can be even more valuable when they focus on what is of highest priority to a museum. Shifting the focus to children and, more specifically to their learning, applies a powerful new lens, invites additional considerations of current and new partners, and opens opportunities for increasing impact. Stakeholders in the museum might be interested in the foot traffic it generates for local businesses. Stakeholders in children’s learning, on the other hand, might be interested in engaging children’s ideas and giving visibility to their thinking. They might be interested in advancing these interests with the museum. Thinking about stakeholders in children’s learning might bring new partners to the table and allow the museum to set a different table.

7.     Aesthetics and ethics. The most intriguing and provocative idea of the study tour–and in a long time–was atelierista Vea Vecchi’s assertion of the “emphatic” relationship between aesthetics and ethics. Referencing poet Josef Brodsky’s statement, she placed this powerful connection in the culture of the atelier, the context of Reggio pedagogy, and the lives of children around the world. She further related aesthetics and ethics with struggling against indifference. She did not, however, explain the connections. In exploring how these apparently unlikely ideas might engage with one another, it seems that the aesthetic dimension keeps alive in us a search for beauty and an attitude of being attentive. What we attend to with a particular sensibility, we value: loveliness, harmony, nature, exchange with others, a sensibility in the moment. What we value, we care about and we care for. We are not indifferent to what we care about and what matters. How do you understand and imagine this relationship between aesthetics and ethics?
8.     Imagine it before being asked to do it.” A comment shared by Tiziana Filipinni, pedagogista in the Reggio Schools in the first sessions has proven to be a Matryoshka doll with many and intriguing meanings. It is, certainly, advice to be alert and prepared across a range of situations. This includes bringing a pro-active stance to considering the long-term, strategic interests of a museum, a school, or a city: paying attention to the time and community we live in and updating our understanding of the present. An unusual vision of leadership is also carried within this statement. When we use our capacity to imagine what’s possible and what’s next, we are able to construct the future. Our “imagining it” puts us out in front to shape what comes next and allows us to bring others along, something the educators in Reggio seem to have been able to do over the last 60 years

Thanks very much to members of the Reggio-Inspired Network of Minnesota that came together on December 15 to hear about the study tour and discuss many of these ideas: Tami, Christy, Tom, Lani, Eileen, Michele, Alaina, Katie, Stephanie, Erica, and Andrea

 Reggio-related blog posts on Museum Notes:
  • Reggio Study Tour and the Children’s Museum Field


Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Reggio Study Tour and the Children’s Museum Field

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Perhaps the very first blog post in this series about the November museums group study tour to Reggio Emilia should have been about what this extraordinary experience means for the children’s museum field. Instead, it’s one of the last. Reflection takes time as does the appearance of connections and possibilities.

The children’s museum field was well represented in the first ever museums group on a Reggio study tour. Among the 50 participants, 15 were staff  (and 2 former staff) from 11 museums (including an art museum) along with 2 museum trustees. Five members of the ACM board (30%) including past ACM president, Julia Bland, were in the group. Six study group members work nationally with museums in exhibit design, evaluation, education planning, and governance. Museum–and study group–partners in higher ed, public housing, health, formal education, social services, and preschool participated in exploring Reggio connections to US museums.

Growing Connections, Building Relationships
In the last 30 years, awareness, connections, and relationships between children’s museums and Reggio
Museums group members arrive at the Loris Malaguzzi International Centre
schools and their educators have been growing on several different fronts. Many people working in children’s museums have become familiar with the ideas and the connections to museum settings. Some have visited the schools in Reggio Emilia and are active in Reggio-inspired networks and study groups in their own communities. Others read articles, books, and blogs on Reggio pedagogy as part of their professional development.

Three children’s museums, the Capital Children’s Museum, Lexington Children’s Museum, and Minnesota Children’s Museum hosted Reggio Children’s The Hundred Languages of Children traveling exhibit in1990, 1993, and 2004, respectively. In the last 2 decades, the exhibit has traveled to about a dozen cities in the US with children’s museums including St. Louis, Memphis, Pittsburgh, Santa Fe, Chicago, Denver, Boston, Miami, Austin, and Richmond.

At least three Reggio-inspired preschools and kindergartens in children’s museums have opened in the last 7 years, joining the Opal School, founded in 2001 at Portland Children’s Museum (OR): The Woodbury School at The Strong; Children’s Museum Preschool at The Children’s Museum, Indianapolis; and the preschool at the Children’s Museum of Tacoma (WA).

InterActivity 2012 at Portland Children’s Museum with its Reggio-inspired Opal preschool and public charter school and The Wonder of Learning exhibit introduced hundreds more children’s museum professionals and friends to this pedagogy and its connections to children’s museums. That year Lella Gandini, Reggio Liaison in the US, received ACM’s annual Great Friend to Kids award on behalf of the City of Reggio Emilia.

Reggio Children has long had an interest in international cooperation. Annually it hosts international study groups in Reggio Emilia for educators from all over the world. It explores opportunities with groups internationally that could contribute to improving the quality of life through collaborative educational and research projects like the landmark, Making Learning Visible.

Julia Bland introduces the museums group
Over the years, connections between individual children’s museums and the Reggio schools and educators have helped build familiarity and relationships with a type of museum not present in Italy. An important piece in increasing the visibility of children’s museums was Tiziana Filippini, Head of Pedagogy in the Reggio schools, speaking in 2010 at the Louisiana Children’s Museum Investing in Children Summit co-sponsored with Tulane Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health. This connection with Tiziana, facilitated by Wheelock College, helped strengthen a relationship with US children’s museums and helped pave the way for the 2014 museums group study tour.

An identifiable museums group within the larger Reggio study group is an acknowledgement of this growing, active, and informed interest from US children’s museums and its potential. At the Loris Malaguzzi International Centre in Reggio where the study tour was based, Carlina Rinaldi, President of Reggio Children, expressed her organization’s interest in pursuing a relationship with children’s museums to Julia Bland. We can only imagine how this might evolve in the future and prepare for the possibilities.

Filling New Roles
Long considered the “new kids on the block” in the museum world, children’s museums are maturing as a segment, passing milestones of time, size, identity, and impact. Such a new position also affords fresh perspectives, different opportunities, and greater responsibilities to which children’s museums are responding.

Increasingly, more children’s museums view their enduring purpose and public role in a larger context of their communities and around children and childhood. Defined to a great extent by their young audience, an age group squarely at the center of remarkable discoveries in brain research, children’s museums serve an age cohort during a critical period when personal and social prosperity is developing. The recent report Growing Young Minds from the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Institute of Museum and Library Services reinforces this and highlights the role for museums and libraries in making the most of young children’s skills and talents.
  
Because they serve young children, children’s museums–as well as other museums–see themselves as partners with parents and other early care and learning settings.  While navigating a somewhat fragmented early childhood landscape, children’s museums are also forging more extensive, varied and robust networks that cross contexts and connect researchers, and practitioners through more bridges and better advocacy. Children’s museums are often conveners in their communities around children and their well-being; recognized for expertise on play, kindergarten transition, and early literacy development; and creators of supportive experiences and environments. In expanding learning resources and platforms beyond exhibits and programs to include preschools, schools, and afterschool programs, children’s museums are drawing on evidence-based practices around early learning, knowledge related to development and the value of learning and play experiences for children.

Constructing Futures
As settings for informal learning, willing partners with connections to national networks, and a growing interest in what makes a positive difference in the lives of children, families, and communities, children’s museums have remarkable, if not fully activated, opportunities to help shape futures. Three major endeavors have been serving as field-wide efforts to look openly and critically at children’s museums future.

In 2011, the Association of Children’s Museums launched Reimagining Children’s Museums (RCM), a 3-year initiative to explore the question, What does it mean to experience a children’s museum in the 21st century Assisted in this process by four design teams, RCM is bringing new lenses to museum assumptions, spaces and relationships that affect choices and strategies. RCM has been encouraging its members to consider new ways to serve their audiences and create community impact by looking beyond usual networks and spheres of influence in forming new strategies for serving children and families.

On a parallel track, ACM’s board has revisited its strategic framework, recently formulating a vision for the field: Every child and family has access to a high quality children's museum experience. This vision is accomplished through: accessibility programs, professional development, and public awareness campaigns.

While Reimagining Children’s Museums is taking a more design-related approach, children’s museums have been exploring other ways to understand and communicate their value to children, families, and communities. Like other segments of the museum field, they have been developing a field-wide research agenda with which they can challenge, advance, and communicate an understanding of children’s thinking, the value of parent engagement, and the role of environments in play and learning to stakeholders as well as inform and update practice

At the Convergence
Benefit of the Reggio study tour sits squarely at the convergence of children’s museums’ long-term interests with these major efforts to shape many vibrant futures for children’s museums.

An unusually extensive professional development experience, the study tour immersed dozens of staff, trustees, consultants, and partners from across the USA and multiple museums in exploring a rich, comprehensive, and cohesive pedagogy. Significantly, this educational philosophy emerges from many of the same theorists that inform and ground children’s museums: Piaget, Vygotsky, and Dewey,  

This vibrant educational project (as the Reggio educators describe their work) aligns solidly with four main
Bringing Reggio home from the book store
pillars that support children’s museums: children at the center, a strong commitment to parent and family engagement, grounding in the local community, and a value on the environment as a teacher. Documentation, a way of working and researching that gives visibility to children’s thinking and learning serves as a robust and valuable connection to ACM’s research agenda. Furthermore, it advances children’s museums as both consumers of knowledge about children as well as generators of new knowledge about children. 

The shared professional development experience in Reggio is helping to support a community of learners across our own communities. Energized by the experience, fueled by word-of mouth, and supported by social media and documentation, this is a community that will continue to grow through professional outreach and support and personal expertise and shared interest. Throughout the course of the study tour, faculty and videographers from Wheelock College and its documentation studio interviewed  participants, capturing their impressions, questions, and their intentions for moving ahead on returning home. This record will serve as a tool for both individuals and their museums to share, revisit, and interpret their study tour experience. 

Also coming up is a session at InterActivity 2014 and in the project pipeline are multiple proposals to IMLS. The Wonder of Learning exhibit will be in Greenville SC  (January 24 – May 14, 2014) and in Albuquerque (June – December 2014) during the Visitor Studies Conference, July 15-19.

Very likely, children’s museums will look back on this period of time as significant in both their history and their future. By investing in the hard work of change on multiple fronts, the course of individual museums will shift, the impact of the field will expand, and the contribution to community level change will grow. Signs of the Reggio study tour will be evident in this changed landscape and viewed as contributing to, valuable to, and enhancing these changes. 

Making meaning of the study tour facilitated by the video project