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. 

Related Resources:
Visible Thinking
• Art Costa's and Bena Kallick's Habits of Mind
ASCD Books