Tuesday, February 05, 2008

New Models for Children's Museums: Wired Classrooms?

Do you talk to people sitting next to you on planes? I don't. I'm like an airborne clam, hoarding my book, my space, my ears. But last year, over Thanksgiving, I sat next to a man who was working on his laptop (not an activity that invites conversation), creating a presentation on elementary education and technology. I kept sneaking glances at his screen, watching it fill with words like “Web 2.0,” “virtual worlds,” and pictures of kids tuning out teachers and tuning in their cellphones. Curiosity got the better of me, and that’s how I met Bob Whicker, a K-12 Education Development Executive for Apple. Bob’s job is to set up and support “wired” schools and school districts. A former superintendent of such a district, he explained the basic premise to me: each student, from kindergarten on, has a personal laptop. The schools have open wireless internet, so each student has continual access to the Web. Apple calls this program “one to one” learning, meaning not one instructor but one computer per child.

I was fascinated by our discussion, and Bob came to mind last month, when I was asked to write an article for the Association of Children's Museums quarterly journal, Hand to Hand, about children's museums and Web 2.0. There’s a thriving debate about the role computers should play in children’s museums, with many professionals sounding the alarm about the negative impact of exchanging screen time for tactile environments. To many of these folks, Bob's wired classrooms seem threatening. But the more I learned, the more I wondered where the real threat is, and why children's museums have been so resistant to change.

To understand more, I turned to Elaine Gurian's article The Molting of Children's Museums?
in her book, Civilizing the Museum. Elaine starts, as always, with a bang, writing:
Children's museums may be facing a dilemma. It can be argued that they have exhausted the potential bequeathed them by the experimentation of the 1970s without developing fresh approaches for the new millennium.
Elaine argues that historically children's museums have been on the leading edge of progressive educational and developmental theory. Institutions like the Boston Children's Museum (which she helped lead in the 1970s) drew heavily from and worked in partnership with the "open classroom" movement to develop informal educational models that are interactive, open-ended, and individualized. They were ahead of the museum curve, using language like "participatory learning environment" (Brooklyn Children's Museum, 1977) that is still thick in the mouths of contemporary museum directors in other fields.
Since the 1970s, children's museums of this experiential, open-ended type have exploded, out-pacing other types of museums in new construction projects and venues. And while they were once ahead of the curve, the lack of change in recent years is becoming more noticeable. As other museums have entered the "participatory learning" conversation, children's museums have not moved on to a new generation of audience and principles.

Consider other family-oriented products: toys, media, schools. All of these have gone through a series of movements in the last 30 years reflecting cultural shifts and expectations. Shrek is an unimaginable construct in the world of 1970s family cinema. And yet in 2004, I listened to an exhibit manager vent about the challenge of creating an early childhood development exhibition in his science center. He wanted something new, but "everyone shows me a goddamned giant plastic tree. I don't want a plastic tree. All the designers will only give me plastic trees."

Why the uniformity? Why haven't children's museums pushed past the 1970s model? This conundrum, partnered with the recent growth of children's museums, brings to mind a Yom Kippur sermon I heard in which the rabbi argued that "Jews have gone from people who do good to people who do well." Are children's museums in the same boat--less willing to change, to lead the charge for new progressive models of education, because they don't want to leave the comfort borne by the 1970s model?

I didn't think this was an issue until I met Bob. Who cares if children's museums don't change as long as the content and the experience is good? The audience recycles every few years, and every kid loves making giant bubbles.
But Bob helped me see that there are intelligent ways to go further, to advance the same goals of self-directed, experiential learning with tools that speak directly to kids' interests and aspirations.

Bob argues that giving kids laptops enables more participatory, engaged learning. New questions are raised as classes can rapidly access information relevant to lessons, and students no longer look to the teacher to have every answer. They look to their own tools, and by extension, to their own abilities to learn.


The wired classroom is not a free-for-all nor an entirely screen-based experience. Teachers and administrators have remote desktop applications that allow them to view any kid’s screen at any moment. Bob told me stories about principals instant messaging students to ask them to remove objectionable content from their machines, and students instant messaging principals to ask for more variety in school lunches. He explained lessons where the teacher successively displays different students’ work with a projector for full-class discussion, and group projects where kids work together across different schools and grade levels using collaborative software. Teachers still steer the boat, but students have much more freedom and opportunity with the controls.


In short, Bob told me about a new model for progressive education, one that offers flexibility, personalization, and respect for students’ self-determination. The “wired classroom” model accepts and integrates technology instead of avoiding or denying it. As Bob explained, in wired classrooms, there is no longer a continual cat-and-mouse game between teachers and students about the use of approved devices. Teachers don’t have to pretend that Wikipedia, YouTube, and other online tools don’t exist, or aren’t used by their students. Instead, teachers and administrators work creatively to educate with these tools, thus giving their students relevant experiences with the tools that are becoming the hallmark of the adult world.

I'm not suggesting that we need to replace all the plastic trees with laptops. But children's museums should get back on the leading edge, working alongside folks like Bob to define and model informal educational experiences in today's world. The "wired museum," like the wired classroom, like the open classroom, like the open museum, is a place that privileges free-choice learning.
It is a place that reflects and grows with a society increasingly organized around digital tools. It is a place where individual experiences are tracked and personalized so that visitors can establish and develop unique identities. It is a place that encourages social interaction and collaboration among past, present, and future visitors. It is a place that includes visitors in content creation and distribution. It is a place that continually changes and adapts based on the contributions of the museum community.

Who is going to create and lead this place? And if not this place, where else might children's museums go? Now that the "participatory learning environment" has begun to take hold in more staid, adult institutions, where will children's museums smear the finger paint next?
What changes are you already making in your own institutions to move into the future?


Note: Portions of this post excerpted from "Beyond Hands On: Web 2.0 and New Models for Engagement," In Hand to Hand, Winter 2007, Volume 21, Number 4. Reprinted with permission from the Association of Children's Museums, Washington, DC.

5 comments, add yours!:

Jennifer - Bay Area Discovery Museum said...

Interesting thoughts as always Nina! One key point here though is the age group served by the children's museums: at our Museum anyway, the average age of the child visitor is about 3.7. So we're talking about a lot of children for whom any screen time is not developmentally appropriate.

That's not to say we shouldn't innovate on exhibitions (no more plastic trees!) but I'd say one of the main benefits of children's museums is the ability to get kids from out behind screens, into a rigorously designed world where they learn experientially.

Tech may serve to extend the experience back into the home (i.e. interactive photo experiences that you can then view and manipulate at home, create community and connect with other visitors etc) but you still need the physical exhibitions to be tactile, hands-on, gross- and fine-motor oriented etc...

Plus my colleague here points out that tech can be challenging to maintain on the often limited children's museum budget - a grant may supply initial support but to be able to extend operating budget support to be sure to maintain and upgrade tech is not always possible - witness the problem many school districts have with keeping their computers in the classroom up to date...

To me, the more appropriate territory is developing communities for grown-ups that extend the children's museum experience - I love the Indianapolis Children's Museum Promise Tree project you wrote about - has a physical component on-site, and an online community to extend it for families, not just kids...

DC1974 said...

I think the 1970s model has been moved away from so much in the last 20 years -- to the detriment of the child. My mother stopped teaching to raise me. Left the classroom in 1974 and came back full time in about 1998. Her feeling was that all the progress, the innovation of her early days of teaching had been lost: group work, interaction, value education that was about biblical morals -- had all been lost. She was really at a loss to figure out how schools in 1970s Philadelphia were actually more progressive and child centered than 1990s suburbia.

I think we've lost track of the child in all of this. And the need for play. I'm not someone that thinks kids should be watching the screen at an early age. We need a lot more time spent developing 3-D spatial abilities.

There was a study a couple years ago about how much earlier American schools try to cram in reading. And how we also have a higher incidence of near sightedness, while not actually have a higher literacy rate.

I've always felt that the play and spatial learning of Children's Museums needs to find its way "up" stream more. I was at an exhibit on building materials at the Nat'l Building Museum. The most engaging piece in the whole exhibit allowed you to play with little bricks and practice being a brick layer. Adults, kids, etc. couldn't get enough of it. The rest of the exhibit was dead in comparison.

Not that computers can't be in the museum or the classroom, but we need to move away from the screen and the page. Children's Museums can lead the way.

Nina Simon said...

Yes, there is a related argument that we have strayed too far from the "golden era" of hands-on interactivity embodied by Boston Children's Museum, Exploratorium, etc. And I'm certainly very sympathetic to that as someone who is very hands-on, very hands dirty, very build your own tree fort.

However, we're in a different place culturally than we were in the 1970s. The open classroom (and museum) was a reaction to former "don't touch" environments and overly directed educational experiences. Now, the same open experiences are reflected--not rejected--by everything from the way kids watch TV (more surf YouTube videos than watch full programs) to the amount of personal agency they expect to have interacting with toys. In this world, it may be something else that's lacking--contemplative experiences, social group experiences, others--and might be addressed by museums.

One of the things that Elaine G talks about in her article is that children's museums should be places that give voice to parents' and teachers' unspoken desires with regard to educating and engaging with their kids. Jennifer's point about engaging parents through technology, starting to mine those desires, may lead to very different exhibit experiences, with or without technology as a basis.

DC1974 said...

Just noticed that I wrote "value education that was about biblical morals" -- I meant value education as that was NOT just about biblical morals.

I think kids aren't being raised well. I think the amount of time kids spend inside watching TV is a problem.

Go through a suburban neighborhood any more and you hardly see any kids just playing anymore. When I was a kid in the 1980s, we ruled the neighborhood from 4 p.m until dinner time.

So now everything is structured athletics and play groups -- perhaps that means that children's museums need to be even MORE focused on activity. Even more hands on.

Kids are still kids, and they still like the same things and are curious about the same kinds of stufff. As I've mentioned before, I spend the weekends at an art museum. It's interesting to observe the kids. Most couldn't care less (I loved art museums as a kid, this is probably why I became an artist), but they are all, especially the boys, interested in the hydrothermographs in each gallery. These machines monitor the humidity and temperature over time. I can see them spot it and there eyes get wild. I always take time to explain what it is and how it works.

Kids see museums different, and you are right, the do demand a more interactive experience. And they create it whether it is there or not. I have a friend who takes her daughter to art museums and does a scavenger hunt for paintings with animals. Try it the next time you go to an art museum, you'll be amazed how many animals are in the collection.

I think it's important to create spaces that allow for these types of self exploration. That don't try to guide the child too much. Museums that are perhaps in constant prototype (another aspect of 2.0 -- the continual beta) and observe these interactions. If the museum spent as much time observing the children as developing programming and exhibits -- they'd learn too.

Dan Spock said...

As a fromer children's museum exhibit designer/developer, I'm really interested in this thread. My perception from the outside looking in is that the world of the late-60's early-70's really is a lot different but the needs of kids aren't so much so other than the fact that they do not enjoy the sheer quantity of unstructured playtime. A couple of other things have happened -- interactive science centers cropped up everywhere and have effectively syphoned off the families with kids old enough to read. At the same time, children's museums have lost their spark, becoming a bit more dreary and didactic, often overshooting their core audience of preschoolers with good intentions, but lame uninteresting stuff. Both science centers and children's museums have also become increasingly cookie cuttered from city to city. As a matter of practice, I think there's a prevailing misconception that developing children's exhibitions is simple or easy compared to those for adults (a former boss told me as much once saying "It's not rocket science.") Actually, the opposite is so.

I think there's a lot left to do with children's museums, but it begins, as always, with understanding the audience, at this point, preschoolers and adults. As the previous post implied, a play principle is key, but also, accomodating the group, including adults, in some pleasant and comfortable way. I think a future for children's museums might entail recapturing the kind of relaxed environment of a playground, rather than the grafted on content loading pardigm. In other words, what kind of place do kids really respond to playfully and in the kind of way that parents don't mind hanging out with it? The electronic discussion is a bit of a red herring for me because it looks at the vehicle without looking at the user. Creative uses of new media in kids museums needn't be of the onscreen variety. Use it to enhance non-TV experiences and you're into the zone where the action really is.