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Analyzing Learning Frameworks in Children's Museums

Posted by
Jen Rehkamp
September 01, 2016

This Spotlight was collaboratively written by Susan Foutz, Jenni Martin, Jennifer Rehkamp, and Melissa Swank
 
With the leadership of the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) and the University of Washington's Museology Graduate Program (UW), staff from ten children’s museums are working to design and implement research to benefit the field of children’s museums. Building a Practicing Research Network in the Children's Museum Field, a project funded by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), aims to foster the field's capacity for research and create a self-sustaining research network. This Spotlight gives the history of the research network, and highlights its first research project, an analysis of institutional learning frameworks from five children’s museums.

In 2012, ACM received a grant from IMLS for The Learning Value of Children's Museums project. This project included: a landscape review of existing literature on how children’s museums foster learning, a symposium where participants worked to define issues facing the field and drafted and vetted a research agenda for children’s museums, “[b]ecause despite the unique focus and growing presence of children's museums, the learning value of these institutions has not been well defined". 

In 2014, ACM was awarded a second grant from IMLS to build a research network to investigate some of the avenues identified in the research agenda. After an application process, ten museums (see below) were selected as the first research network cohort. The participating museums have the internal capacity to conduct research and evaluation, and have appointed one or more staff members as a representative to the network. These representatives attend the regular network meetings and are tasked with designing and conducting research on behalf of the network.

10 Museums Comprising the First Children’s Museum Research Network Cohort

  • Boston Children's Museum
  • Children's Museum of Houston
  • Children's Museum of Pittsburgh
  • Children's Museum of Tacoma
  • DuPage Children's Museum
  • Minnesota Children's Museum
  • Providence Children's Museum
  • Thanksgiving Point Institute
  • The Children's Museum of Indianapolis
  • The Magic House, St. Louis Children's Museum

Through a review of the research agenda and the ongoing research and evaluation studies at each participating museum, research network members decided to prioritize research on: parent engagement, family learning, and learning frameworks, with learning frameworks being defined as the educational standards and/or outcomes by which museums guide the development of exhibits and programs. With the guidance of Dr. Jessica Luke (UW), Jennifer Rehkamp (ACM’s director of field services), and the project’s advisory board, the first research project for the network was selected. The project focused on analyzing learning frameworks from five network museums and was guided by the following research questions:

  • What major vocabularies do these frameworks share? Where do they diverge?
  • What constructs do children’s museums use and prioritize in their learning frameworks?
  • What learning theories do these frameworks implicitly and explicitly reflect or endorse?

A focus on learning frameworks leveraged the ongoing work of network participants, work that was institutionally specific but had the power to inform the larger field’s understanding of how children’s museums conceptualize and operationalize theories of learning. In addition to analyzing the content of learning frameworks, the research network interviewed museum staff and reviewed the histories and purposes of the various learning frameworks. When analyzing the information gathered, careful thought was put into how to code the emerging themes in a way that would honor the variety and diversity that exists across the field of children’s museums. Instead of approaching with the question “what should a successful learning framework include?”, the network pondered the question “what learning frameworks exist and what can they tell us about the field’s beliefs about learning?”

The results from the in-depth analysis of the learning frameworks will be disseminated in an issue of Hand to Hand, ACM’s quarterly journal, later this year. In brief, three thematic stories emerged from the qualitative analysis of the five learning frameworks:

  • Approaches to learning: Learning was defined differently across the five frameworks, with varying perspectives on who was the learner (i.e., the child, the adult, or both) and what aspects of learning were prioritized. However, the frameworks did draw on similar theories of the nature of learning, especially with regards to the social nature of learning.
  • Role of outcomes: Some, but not all, of the learning frameworks clearly articulated outcomes. Among those that did, the outcomes were highly specific to the institution.  This begs the question “do shared learning outcomes exist in the children’s museum field?”
  • Play: There was no consistent definition of play across the five museums, as the learning frameworks incorporated play in different ways. The varying perspectives on the relationship between play and learning begs the larger question, ”How can the field make a larger case for play?”

Clarifying the issues raised by this analysis will be paramount in demonstrating the value of children’s museums, specifically on learning in the educational landscape. However, it is important to note that while this exercise focused on learning frameworks created by children’s museums, we believe the overlaps, gaps, and range of differences is not unique to children’s museums. It is likely that an analysis of learning frameworks generated by science centers and other museums would also find a misalignment between frameworks. These differences are not problematic per se, but illustrate a challenge for the museum field in communicating a consistent message.

Taking a more overarching view of the learning frameworks, it was found, not surprisingly, that each was borne out of the philosophy of the authoring museum and carried evidence of the purpose for which it was created. Some were developed as a measurement tool, first and foremost, while others were created primarily to define learning for an institution’s specific context. Some were strongly based in the research literature of a certain topic, like play, while others were drawn from the practitioner experience at the authoring museum. What they had in common was their use as an internal communication tool for conversations about learning occurring in the museum. As institutionally supported documents, the creation of the frameworks and their continued use at each institution necessitated conversations about what aspects of learning the organization was focused on supporting and measuring. As such, each framework is an important guidepost for the museum that created it.

As participants in the research network, we hope this first research project serves as a jumping off point for future work—and not just future research. Using a research-to-practice approach, the network anticipates seeding a larger conversation in the field on the definitions of key terms, like learning and play, and what learning outcomes are supported by a visit to a children’s museum. While this research has shown a great variety in the details of the individual museum learning frameworks, it also highlights the power of an institution-wide lens for describing the visitor experience. We hope that based on this analysis, other children’s museums will appreciate the importance of learning frameworks and undertake the process of creating one specific to their institution.

For more information about research agendas in various areas of Informal STEM education, please visit the following page on InformalScience.org, http://www.informalscience.org/research/research-agendas

See also: an Infographic Overview of the Research Network