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.