Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Where I'm Coming From

Why do you care about and or work in museums? This post tells my (weird) story. I hope you'll share yours in the comments below (or on your own blog). And check out the comments. They are active and awesome.

My story is about radical educational philosophy. I don't work in museums because I love them. I didn't grow up staring open-mouthed at natural history dioramas or wandering through art galleries. When I visit a new city, I don't clamor to visit museums. I go on hikes. I go to farmer's markets. I walk around and get a sense for people and place. And while I'll visit museums out of professional (and occasionally personal) interest, I don't do it because of a deep emotional connection. Yes, there are some extraordinary museum experiences that have changed my life, but they are the exception, not the norm.

I don't work in museums because I love them. I love the promise of what they can be. I work in museums because I hate schools and see museums as a viable alternative. I'm a strong believer in free-choice learning, and I see museums as places to circumvent the hazards of compulsory education and support a democratic, engaged society of learners.

What is free-choice learning? I first encountered the term as a teenager through the writings of John Holt and the unschooling movement. "Unschooling" is an an educational theory that argues that people of all ages (including children) learn best when their work is self-directed--and that children are better at determining what and how they should learn than any accredited school or instructor. As John Holt wrote, "Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners." Unschoolers generally believe that schools perpetuate undemocratic processes that hinder rather than help learning happen.

I agreed. I was great at school, and I hated it. I didn't want to care what was going to be on the test. I didn't feel supported pursuing intrinsically motivated projects. Much to my mom's relief, I stayed in school but remained deeply suspicious of the artificial structure of grades and gold stars. I went to a project-based engineering college where I could set my own curriculum and graduated early. Professors always encouraged me to go to graduate school, but I wanted to get into "real life"--and real learning--as soon as possible.

I started working in museums because I idealized them as places that support user-directed learning (I still do). In college, I stumbled onto the Institute for Learning Innovation and John Falk and Lynn Dierking's work on free-choice learning in museums, dropped my plan to design pinball machines for a living (probably not that lucrative) and started investigating hands-on museums. I took the two things I was most passionate about--math and non-compulsory learning experiences--and smooshed them together into a string of internships and part-time jobs in science museum education departments. Eventually, I slid into exhibits, and meandered my way to the present.

When I started working in museums, I didn't realize that free-choice learning was a radical proposition. When I first explored the ILI website, I assumed that free-choice learning was the backbone of all museums. I thought I'd found the place for unschooling to thrive. I didn't have a clue about the other rationales for museums--places of stored knowledge, places to keep stuff, places to colonize minds. It wasn't until I started working in museums that I discovered that the museum as a place where you make your own meaning is more a promise than a reality.

There are many parallels between free-choice learning and participatory design. Both are based on the premise that given the opportunity, regular people (learners) will create extraordinary stories and experiences that serve their own purposes better than anything experts can design for them. They don't need to be cajoled or threatened into learning. As museum professionals, or educators, or librarians, or humans who want to support learning, it's not our job to teach people everything. What we can do is design conditions and tools for access to those opportunities and a supportive infrastructure to encourage learning.

Unlike John Holt, who ultimately argued that schools were ineffective in any form, I believe that museums can live up to the promise of free-choice learning. Museum professionals repeat Frank Oppenheimer's words, "no one ever failed museum" with pride. And yet we are increasingly caving to the purse strings and demands of the traditional K-12 and higher education sectors, becoming more like school add-ons than school alternatives. Even the training of museum professionals has gotten more academic with the explosion of university-based graduate programs. Why are we training future leaders of alternative learning using traditional academic techniques and facilities? Instead of trying to align ourselves more closely with K-12 and universities, why aren't museums charting new territory in free-choice learning? Why are we in bed with institutions that fail to acknowledge people as learners rather than vessels to be filled?

I know the practical answers. There is money in traditional education, lots more than what MacArthur and other foundations are starting to offer for alternative learning environments. The contemporary culture of user-generated content is bringing self-directed learning to the forefront, but that doesn't mean there's money or traditional rewards to be found there. No teacher is going to book a field trip to a place that is not tightly tied to school curriculum. A graduate degree looks good on a resume. University people also care about learning, even if they execute it in traditional ways.

But the practicalities are only one part of the story. It took me a long time to realize that supporting free-choice learning isn't the primary goal for most museum professionals. We like designing the experience. We like telling visitors what's important. Whenever someone points out that "visitors make their own experiences," it's usually followed by a but. BUT we will try to force them to do what we want them to anyway. BUT we will make sure the only stuff they encounter in the galleries is vetted. BUT we won't acknowledge their voices and their meaning.

My goal is to break down those BUTs. That goal isn't based on technology or social media. It's based on liberation, idealism, and activism. It's based on inviting visitors to participate in museums as active learners so the institutions become as meaningful and relevant as possible.

What's your goal? Where are you coming from?

25 comments, add yours!:

narrator said...

Funny, I still quote John Holt all the time - along with Postman and Weingartner (not the cranky older Postman so favored by anti-technology folks, the young, engaged Postman who wanted to break down the walls of the school). And I was lucky enough to attend a Postman-designed school-without-walls high school. Psychology class meetings at midnight in Grand Central Terminal. History classes done entirely with films and novels. A "class" in social science that was simply work in the City Planners office. A biology class that grew a heritage garden. And whatever courses spent wandering NYC and its cultural places.

A real education. And not school at all.

I realize that almost all I know I know because I have found it in the world. And almost nothing I know has come from any sort of "classroom lesson" - There've been a few exceptions. A fabulous architectural structural engineering course, great art courses, a lit class here, a philosophy class there. But all worked because they were processes of discovery, and very little was "taught."

That was true in primary school. It is true in graduate school.

We can create Free Choice Learning. I think my "Toolbelt Theory" stuff is an attempt to bring a tiny bit of that strategy into life (and school if need be). But we can do it best when society's repositories of information and knowledge open themselves to true flexibility, and merge with some vestige of schools, to create a personalisable learning environment within the world...

- Ira Socol

Mindy said...

Very interesting post! I'm a big fan of John Holt's books, and Grace Llewelyn's book about unschooling also had a huge influence on me. As a homeschooling family, my mom took us to every museum in our area whether big or small. It was a great way to learn, I must say. :)

infrarad said...

Man oh man. See, I was excellent at school, and have pretty much loved it. Frequently I wouldn't show up to class, of course, "because my learning style means reading on my own, so class is only occasionally useful." Somehow, I thought that was a perfectly reasonable statement until embarrassingly recently.

Now, I'm recognizing that, in order to have continued on in my schooling despite everything in the system that is stacked against learning, I must really love math. Which, of course, makes me even angrier than I was before about how it is taught.

If Superstruct lit a fire under me, you've really helped throw some more fuel on. Thank you so much! I'm glad to have met you.

Seb Chan said...

Hey Nina

This should really be a museum blog meme - a call out to others to write the same on their blogs!

But given that it isn't (yet! and I'm not one for starting it) . . . . here's a little but of where I'm (usually) coming from.

I guess I *fell* into museums having been more interested in the sociology of youth and subcultural geography. My research work predated the dotcom boom but revolved around sites of cultural production, subcultural infrastructure etc. I ended up in IT as a result of the dotcom boom and general generational good luck.

What my museum friends probably don't know is that I'm also a DJ - one that has toured overseas, played huge festivals to underground club nights - and also used to run a weekly club night, not just for a season but for ten years. That finished in 2006 but I still run a music magazine and do a radio show outside of museum life.

What DJing taught me is the inherent liberatory nature of the remix - and the need to balance long term ideological goals ('everyone must have *my* great taste in music') with the immediate needs of the dancefloor ('its not my revolution if I can't dance to it').

DJing, especially of the cross-genre kind I practice, is all about a kind of participatory, functional kind of curatorship. Dancefloor storytelling.

Hanan Cohen said...

Same here for libraries.

Just gimme the books!

Paul Orselli said...

Hi Nina,

This posting really makes me think about your "elitist" article a few months back regarding your experiences in National Parks --- in the sense that some "learners" really want/need structure, some don't.

Museums and libraries, ideally, are set up to provide services and opportunities for a broad range of visitors and learning styles.

To imply that one type of "learning" is better than another is to ignore the real possibility that "structure" and "liberation" may well be opposite (necessary?) sides of the same educational coin.

Suzanne said...

Very interesting, Nina! John Holt is also one of my heroes, and my ideas about free-choice learning and museum as community space were definitely shaped by "deschooling."

I think that as a museum professional I really came out of the cooperative and DIY movements. I count the free school, community center and skillshares I helped organize in Mpls, as important to my formation as my formal schooling (and I have as much formal schooling as one can possibly have).

I learned about building consensus and making things happen, and the way radical communities coalesce for coalition work and then keep working in their own spaces. I learned to love exciting projects and to value the leisure time to really reflect on them.

BodhiBadger said...

I absolutely agree. Here is what I posted in the Superstruct "Turning Education Inside Out" (at www.supertstructgame.org) Writing from the perspective of 2019: "Self-motivated learners (including all six year olds!) thrive in environments where they can stimulate their curiosity, explore, make discoveries and ask their own questions. This is a pretty good description of informal learning. In the first decade of the 21st century, we tried to improve education by making it more and more rigid: controlling delivery and content, mandating specific, narrow results. We all know how that crashed and burned: the comprehensive evaluation conducted in 2012 of "No Child Left Behind" documented its disasterous effects on motivation and performance of students and teachers both. We are still struggling to reverse the effects of this policy debacle and reinvent our educational infrastructure. I think the key to this restoration is to take the opposite approach to NCLB--break open the walls of the traditional school, integrate formal and informal learning, inspire children to direct their own learning while giving them the skills they need to pursue their passion. One year it may be dinosaurs, the next, trains. Some kids may know from a young age they are destined to be artists, or writers. It is like Akido--use the momentum of their enthusiasm and direct it to encompass basic skills of math, reading, writing, logic. Don't beat the basics into them without context or meaningful reward. And what is one of the best ways to inspire motivation and fuel a child's passion? Take them to a museum. Take them to lots of museums. Museums aren't static storehouses of "truth", they are treasure houses of possibilities. They are mazes to be explored and probed, giving each child the impression that they and they alone have discovered the secret object, the key to something new. Museums are the ultimate source of raw materials for the imagination. So here is a goal--find the financial support needed to enable every museum to offer free admission to anyone under the age of eighteen. Then, arrange transportation networks to ensure they can visit, with safe supervision, anytime they want, during "school hours" as part of their studies, or on their own time."
The current formal education system is fundamentally broken, and museums can be a core element in a new, functional system unconstrained by outmoded assumptions. But it can't just involve changing museums--we need to tackle the whole system. I hope this is one issue the Center for the Future of Museums can push.

Tikka said...

Whew ... that was a rave and a half Nina!

I hear what you're saying about school v museums, and the utopian potential of museums for learning, but I'm not sure I agree with an either/or analysis. As far as I can tell, no matter what even the most didactic curators and educators
think they're communicating in exhibitions, visitors will do whatever it is they want with that content - and that's great. This is as comforting to me as tiny blades of grass that struggle through cracks in concrete.

What does seem locked down is how you manage your body in a museum space - unless it's a science museum or children's museum (and of course the sfmoma exhibition you described). We had an exhibition of an amazing Indigenous artist, Emily Kame Kngwarrye, at the National Museum of Australia a few months ago. And I organised a meditation in the gallery - three 20 minute sits on the floor - an hour all up. It was extrodinary to be comfortable in a museum! To roll around on the floor, to be outside the social role of 'museum visitor'! I experienced the physical freedom as encouraging internal freedom as well.

Anyway, as for my own story and museums. I did spend hours and hours in a museum as a kid - not because I wanted to, but because it was convenient for my parents to 'park' me in the local library/museum every Saturday for most of the day. After I got bored in the library, I'd wander into the museum to have a scarey experience. The museum had these amazing, huge dioramas in very dark rooms - giant elephants, lions, tigers and 'native' habitats - that early 20th century style that Donna Haraway describes so well in Primate Vision. And big, empty, slippery wooden floors that were great for running and sliding (when the guard wasn't around).

Then in college I fell into a job at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts because they needed a licensed motion picture projector operator! I ended up doing an honours thesis on the museum's education program - I filmed docents taking inner city kids on tours and found that the kids were a lot more interested in the marble floors, massive ceilings and picture frames than in seeing 'great art'. And that what they really got from their experience was awe at the 'big buildings the white folks lived in'. (Which may have been the desired political message.)

For the whole middle part of my life I worked in publishing, starting in print and then moving into web - a law office, a university, an archives and now a social history museum. It's not museums as such that I love, but history and especially the history of everyday life. Objects in museums are such a great way of getting us to have an embodied experience of history. And I think that I'd argue that even if you're not 'doing anything' you can't help but imagine what it would be like if your own body had to live life in relation to these quite unfamiliar objects around you. It's even better when you can touch them and use them ...

Rick said...

Really thought provoking post Nina, and I look forward to following up the references.

For me an essential part of learning is finding a way of learning that works for you. Crack that and the quality of learning as an experience and in terms of self development rise according to the resources you can give to learning.

And as a former trainer trying to asses how the individuals in a group learn was always a pleasant challenge. I used the Honey and Mumford system as a starting point but tried not to pigeon-hole people.

I agree with Paul’s statement above that structure and liberation are both parts of learning. I would add that ideally we would let the individual learner choose their point on the scale between the two.

We may already be doing this without realising we are. For example with children’s activities offering support to those who want it and allowing those who want freedom to forge ahead.

At a personal level I still find very structured learning too confining. I have found my balance point between structure and liberation in a distance learning post grad course I am doing. I have structure from the module topic and assignment titles but freedom to explore the topic as I feel fit.


Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Patarakin said...

Very good. Thank you from Russia. Iread your blog with big interest and it is so amazing to find more and more links between - Holt, Scratch, participation, etc. I think that next tags may be wiki, Ivan Illich and Netlogo

Textielbibliotheek said...

As a librarian at the www.textielmuseum.nl in the Netherlands, I´m just starting to think about museums / libraries and how to encourage learning. My library will move to a new location in the Textile Museums buildings. I love learning myself and will help my visitors to learn!

David Chesebrough said...


I agree that museums offer an alternative learning mode--but we need to recognize several realities against our idealism:

1) Gardner and others have helped us understand that there are different learning styles--which translate to not just the classroom, but the museum experience--my dad will read every label that has been placed on the walls--I tend to skim and explore consistent with my ADD tendencies--and then zoom in on something that's caught my attention. We need to recognize and accommodate that (or pick a learning style and be honest about it).
2) Museums, as you indicate, really are NOT developed around a consistent approach to education--in curatorial driven institutions there is consistency with your concerns of telling a museum-desired story, in others (children's museums often) its user driven play and exploration, and science centers are scattered among exploration, demonstrations, and designer driven experiences in an exhibit.
3. We have not as a field been able to establish ourselves as legitimate and substantial learning institutions--so for the time being we can't isolate ourselves further from schools--but as you indicate we need to strive to establish our identity and strength as "free choice" learning institions while keeping connections to the formal education system so that we're able to influence best practice.

That is maybe where we differ a bit--I don't think we have to "sell out" by linking w/schools, but rather help link their learning needs to our strengths, just don't give up our strengths and be firm about what our particular strengths are.

At COSI we are working with the "power of real" as I've come to call it--if a child or youth is interested in a topic, I want them to be able to interact not only with real explorations, but also interact with the real people who have a passion for the topic. The right curators in a collecting museum can use the power of real objects in teh collections to let people explore the stories, science, etc. around real objects. In science centers we need to tap into the "real science" (not just the "science center science" we often do), giving our guests the opportunity to explore concepts, technology, and such that we can do well.

But as John Falk has reminded us in some of his writings, we can't meet everyone's styles and needs, but might do better striving to work more often with fewer people who have a desire for our style.

How we do that with financial models often built on driving attendance is still being explored.

I think, though, as your premise reinforces, it's the potential of our unique possibilities that we have to tap, while helping establish our field as an integral cog within a learning society.

Keep up your thought stimulation!

David Chesebrough

wren said...

I would love to hear if writing this post made you at all uncomfortable Nina?

And, why, or why not?

Eric Siegel said...

Great post, Nina...the old science museum adage...people are interested in themselves and how their experiences are reflected and integrated into the story....

I've been a museum guy all my life, growing up around New York going to museums has been part of what I did with my family, what I did as an adolescent and adult, and part of what I do with my family now.

What actually happened during each of these phases of museum going changed dramatically. As little kid, I went every weekend to AMNH to take their classes in astronomy, geology, etc while my mom went of and did schoolwork/
research. These were basically slightly relaxed versions of school where we did some experiments and could ask question. Most of all, tho it was a way to hang out with some other geeky kids. Somehow at like 8 years old, we all learned about the hubble constant, red shift, and the big bang. I also bought my mom a piece of meteorite in a little round cage as a birthday necklace. I never forgot either of those.

As a family, we occasionally went to MOMA, Gugggenheim, and Whitney, and dutifully tried to get some kind of rise out of the chaos of styles, from installation art to conceptual art, that were finding their way into big time museums. Still struggling with that.

During high school, college, and the prolonged post-college years, through the influence of teachers and less...formal...influences, I pursued the kid of Victorian approach to art of one picture, one person = aesthetic ecstasy. I worked and worked at that, and had many small epiphanies standing in front of a piece of art for 20 minutes with my arms folded and my back hurting. Also, I hoped to meet some cute girls.

I studied music, ethnomusicology, and comparative religions in college. This was still all about the exploration for authentic, unmediated experiences. As a musician, I have a sustaining belief in the very powerful combination of personal practice, social communication, and beauty. The keys to this in my experience is the personal practice, and a social context that both allows and encourages the individual to pursue that practice.

If there is a motivating ideal in my museum work it is that...what kind of social settings can you create that will empower the individual to build sufficient passion so that they will engage in personal development that results in authentic understanding.

Unlike you, if I understand you correctly, I don't believe we have found an answer to that in the museum world. I don't think it is nearly sufficient to *offer* people unmediated experiences. If it were, there would be no need for museums, as the world is full of unmediated experiences, and everyone would be a scientist, a scholar, an artist.

Rather, the question that I keep on asking is what are the settings, social and physical, that encourage, transform, persuade, cultivate the individual to become interested in exploration, transformation, and beauty.

After a decade at the Hall of Science, I know that to build the opportunity for someone to become as interested in things--as Nina and you all are--takes some specific social conditions. Even if there were the resources and social agreement to create these conditions, the problem is that the social conditions vary from person to person.

So, the question remains, how can you build a social context with the kinds of support that transforms individuals from "un-interest" to "interest" and cultivates the energy to become learners.

I don't think unschooling is the general answer, and I don't think better schooling is the general answer. So far, the best response I have come up with is:
1) to create a world that allows parents sufficient time to support their young children,
2) to build an ecology of environments that support young people's learning outside the house.

Museums can be part of that ecology of learning environments, but I think it is not honest to assume that we can become the sole or even leading providers of learning transformation. People are *way* too diverse for that.

Thanks for creating the social context for this rant, Nina. I always appreciate the way in which your inquiries are designed to elicit responses, and I definitely rose to the bait this time!

I think it must be the residual tryptophan...


Nina Simon said...

Wow. Thank you so much to those Wren, I'd love to hear what you meant by your question.who have posted thoughtful, fascinating manifestos in the comments to this post.

A couple of thoughts (spurred by Wren's question as well as Paul, David, and Eric's comments):

Wren, I'd love to hear more about what you meant by your question. I was a bit uncomfortable writing this post, but not because the content was hard to express. I was uncomfortable because I thought that it was a narcissistic topic, one that wouldn't interest you. I consider blogging to be a personal learning experiment, but the more people read the blog, the more I want to "provide value" for you--so I worry that self-reflective posts aren't useful. Strangely, the opposite seems to be true--when I put out more emotional, personal pieces like this or the elitist jerk post, the comments pour in. I'm glad once again to be proven wrong, even if I still get nervous when I write these posts that no one wants them.

And a thought on balance. I often use this blog to put forward statements that are unbalanced, but that doesn't mean that I don't believe that balance is essential--either in the museum ecosystem or the world as a whole. I agree with David and Paul that a diverse range of educational structures are useful, and that museums should flirt with many of them. I often feel like I'm pushing for an AND - adding the participatory dimension, the social design elements, etc. to the museum experience. I often say I'm a very greedy person. I want all the good stuff for museums--and that includes irony, ambiguity, singles nights, free-choice learning... the list goes on. I spend most of my time writing and advocating for the parts of the balance that I perceive as under-represented. But that doesn't mean I think they should replace everything else in museums.

Finally, Eric, thank you for your beautifully written comment. I don't think museums are the be-all end-all for this stuff. It's just the setting where I (and you, and many of us) have chosen to focus. If museums were the sole provider, they would just become another kind of school. I'd rather be alternative in so many ways.

desaraev said...

Thank you for this post. I love reading and museums. Way to put them together.. and with John Holt no less!


MuseumDesignAsia said...

I absolutely agree about the lip-service paid by museums to more democratic forms of interaction. There tends to be a rather condescending attitude towards including their audience which basic requires that interaction to be mediated by elitist frames of reference.

narrator said...

Just a follow up after reading Eric's comment. We don't get from "here" to "there" without some significant societal shifts. As long as Americans spend so little time with their children - the multiple jobs, the long commutes, the huge houses with separate TVs, et al, the lack of vacation time common in all other 'developed' nations - the environment for free choice learning will be minimal. And as long as mass transit is rare and expensive, as as children and adolescents are limited in their wanderings, as even internet access is filtered and controlled, we block the opportunity for this.

Because, and I think we know this, free choice learning requires a specific platform. That platform is comprised of a society which prizes children, humanity, and a community of individuals (none of which is true in the US), which truly values education for education's sake (not true either), which embraces the tools which might actually allow social mobility (definitely not true in America), and which does not view children - or those "lower classes" - as colonized people needing to be "fixed" and turned into people "just like us."

What I have found is that given access to the world, and choices of interface with knowledge, most kids will make the right choices for themselves, almost all will explore, and every one will learn at a rate which leaves schools (as we know them) in the dust.

Schools could be part of this new paradigm if they would change into places of student choice, places of inquiry, rather than the one directional loudspeaker systems which exist today. Museums could be part of this too if they allow interaction and co-invention on the learner's terms, rather than the designer's terms or the donor's terms.

Museums, both physical and virtual, have a vital place in assembling the world to create "starting points" and in teaching about the values of differing interfaces. But they should always understand that they are "starting points" - places where quests begin, not where they end. Gateways, not repositories.

But even if we did all that, only the few and the lucky would get to them, unless the society changes as well.

RC said...

What got me into a museum is that they have a ton Great Things that can be experienced. In Parker Palmer's The Courage to Teach, he counters the Objectivist Myth of Knowing (p. 100) with the Community of Truth (p. 102). The former is a top down hierarchy where "The Great Thing" is only known by the expert who then passes along the wisdom to the unwashed masses. In the latter all have equal access to each other and "The Great Thing." In the latter the "expert" becomes a facilitator or guide to explore the Great Thing.

I worked in the state system as an archaeologist for a number of years. I was annoyed - actually, highly irritated that at the site I worked, the tour guides provided only canned answers, discouraged creative thinking, corrected responses that did not fit conventional wisdom etc. etc. My position was such that I was not permitted to interact with visitors at the site, but I could do programming in the schools, which I did. Schools were a total blast – asking youth what they thought the Great Thing was all about, and watching them engage. So through time, I spent more time away from the place where I was supposed to be working and filing reports - to the displeasure of my employers, and ultimately I resigned.

Fast forward a few years and the Director for a museum without an exhibit upgrade in 30 years comes up. They want someone to take the bull by the horns and make it happen. What an opportunity! So now, in the room that was piled with books and clutter, we have a hands on archaeology lab. We have replaced outdated drab exhibits with colorful contemporary renditions that engage visitors to think and discuss more. Youth are invited and guided to do archaeology, including the interpretation. And we have only scratched the surface.

What I see are visitors that have the same reaction of engagement I had the first time I saw a Van Gogh at the Art Institute of Chicago, or heard Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition played in my high school gym, or just pulled, prodded, touched all those Great Things at the Museum of Science and Industry. I know the passion for engagement those events set off in me. What more could one ask than to help facilitate that passion in others?

That’s how I got here.

Alli said...

My story begins almost as far back as I can remember. Both of my parents were teachers and there was rarely a doubt in my mind that I would follow their path. As a child, I followed my mom to her preschool classroom every chance I had, later I completed the preschool education program at my high school, and then dutifully graduated college with an elementary education degree. However, somewhere along the way things changed. Most obviously I matured over the fifteen years, but other changes were going on as well. NCLB was born and the era of standardized testing (which is hopefully nearing the end of its tenure) swept in with full force. By the time I graduated, the reality of a career in teaching wasn't what I had always envisioned; and through a windfall, I wound up in the museum education world. Currently I teach in an early childhood museum-based school where my role overlaps both the museum educator and childcare provider titles.

I agree with your statement, Nina, that deschooling is a "radical educational philosophy." By that I mean, it goes against the grain of mainstream society and appeals most wholely to a minority population. I second Eric's well-written comments. I agree that the ultimate goal is intrinsically motivated, universally passionate learners. However, I also recognize that people have very different learning needs. Since I work with the very youngest of the museum going crowd, I also consider age-appropriateness in museum design. I wonder about the age-appropriateness of deschooling itself. For young children who thrive in structured, predictable environments, what supports need to be in place for free-choice learning to occur?

Lastly, I want to thank you for this post. I have been reading your blog for a couple months now and have been curious about the concept on museum 2.0, the melding of museums and viral communities. Now I where this pretty unique perspective is coming from. Thank you for adding transparency to your already thought-provoking and well written blog.

mediafutura said...

This post reminded me of my teenage encounter with A.S. Neil's Summerhill school. (One thing: I come from an ex-socialist country, with a very structured education.) I picked up Neil's book from my mother's bookshelf, and till this day I keep thinking about it. I came here to do my own course of study, and did it pretty successfully within the graduate school boundaries proscribed by the immigration laws.

Now I have a 4 yr. old son, and I am absolutely stunned with the education system here. I want to give him the widest choice possible in learning. What is there to do: private school (unreachable, and still somewhat structured), public school (terrifying!) or home ed?

I am working in the museum now, and for the practical reasons that you mentioned, I have been very disillusioned. Thank you Nina, for opening this "can of worms" again for me. And thank you all for commenting. It's good to know there are similar minded people out there.

Jennifer - Bay Area Discovery Museum said...

I'm here from your more recent post about narcissistic posts - I think one reason you get so many comments on the self-reflective posts is that you're giving people permission to talk about themselves - who doesn't like that!

So I'm here because I, too, have fallen into the museum world - but at a children's museum, which I'm discovering, really doesn't have a lot to do with a collection-based museum.

I'm completely jealous of the commenters above who had such open-ended educational experiences as children. It just sounds like so much fun! I'm also thinking that college is just so wasted on the 18-year-olds! I just went back to my 10yr college reunion, and while I had a fabulous experience, I would do a lot differently. I probably still would have majored in Human Biology (interdisciplinary, self-directed, very rigorous) but I would have taken deeper, not broader, classes for my general requirements. Though the school (stanford) made an effort to give a wide variety of choices, I was often stymied by requirements that you take some sort of initial survey course before you got to the good stuff- and who has time for that?!

And now, as the mom to a 3.5yo and a 9mo, I wonder how I will arrange their education? They'll be going to the (very good) public schools, by monetary necessity, but ones that are also considered so-very-good because of their extremely high test scores. I don't know yet how enrichment fits into it - music, art, garden etc. And as someone who was very traditionally-successful in school - how do I give my kids space to learn in the ways they will be best at? What if they are not traditionally-successful in school but successful in other ways?? How will other informal educational opportunities fit into that?

The thought of un-schooling or even home-schooling them is very frightening to me - how could I possibly help them learn everything they need to know? It seems irresponsible to let them lead their own learning - what if they don't choose to learn essentials?

I just watched Surfwise http://www.surfwisefilm.com/ - a Stanford doctor who gave it all up (in the 50s/60s) to raise 9 children with his wife in an RV traveling the US surfing, and unschooling their kids. The kids are incredibly resentful that they didn't get the education their father had - he had the choice to use it or not, they didn't have that choice.

Anyway, I'm not trying to be contrary here - just wondering how much we can use our children as an experiment - can we risk their success in a world that is still very focused on empirical results?

Of course, as Nina says in her comment, it's not an either/or - it's hopefully an AND!

Festival Museum Nusantara said...

nice to know you . i am coming from indonesia. i still in progress doing camaign to love museum epecially in indonesia. i hope you will support or more of that coming to indonesia to see the great museum festival

pamelapal said...

This was quite an interesting post!

I did my Bachelor of Education last year and am technically a certified teacher, but I've found that something was lacking for me in clasroom teaching.

Your post really got the wheels in my head turning and considering how I understand learning and education more.

I love this concept of "unschooling"; it's not something I'd heard of or thought of before, but it's very intriguing.

Thanks for the post!