Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How Do Museums Adapt To What's Changing Around Us?

One of the many responses to the recent ExhibiTricks post entitled "What Is Innovative Exhibition Design?"  came from Walter Staveloz, the Director of International Relations at the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) in Washington, D.C.

With Walter's kind permission, I've printed his response in today's post.  (PLEASE NOTE: Although Walter works for ASTC, the words below represent his views only, not necessarily those of ASTC.)

I think it's great that we are finally discussing how effective our field is in its core business. Thanks to Axel and Paul for launching this discussion. I will not try to respond or comment on most of what Axel says, I want to make some side observations to contribute to the discussion.

I think that my first remark would be that we cannot or should not see an exhibit (hands-on or not) isolated from the rest of the museum experience. As Axel points out, there is no way that an isolated exhibit will deliver what we expect. Even the most effective and most surprising exhibit, such as a counter-intuitive experience, does not teach a lot of anything, as has been proved by the Exploratorium. There needs to be a favourable environment that includes cultural dimensions: "Counterintuitive experience does not necessarily support inquiry, neither does straightforward hands-on. It’s all the other aspects like: great aesthetics, opportunities for creation and intriguing representations". J.P. Gutwill: Journal of Museum Education, Volume 33, 2. 2008.

In addition, a science centre experience has to build on the social dimension of the visit. It is and has to be different from a visit to an art museum because it does not appeal only to emotions - it is supposed to help us understand something that will hopefully be meaningful for the visitor’s future life. The best strategy to build on is to stimulate group learning, as a family or as a school group.

In South Africa, Prof. Jan Smit applies this through the POE method. It's a three phase process where visitors are invited to predict, then to observe and discuss and finally and only after, read the explanation about what they saw. That only works if visitors create a dialogue among themselves. Something that was successfully tested at the Exploratorium using the GIVE project.

The team built experiments where groups discussed so called "juicy questions" in order to have a fruitful discussion as well as a "hands off" one. The results are absolutely positive:

"Families and field trip groups who’d learned one of the inquiry games did more “linked” investigations than those who hadn’t been taught the games. In other words, their questions built on each other to create a line of investigation, rather than being lots of unrelated questions….. In particular, groups who had learned to play “Juicy Question” interpreted their results most often. Families in Juicy Question spent more time at the exhibit than other families. Families and field trip groups who’d learned one of the inquiry games made more “consecutive interpretations” than those who hadn’t been taught the games – meaning group members made interpretations in a back-and-forth conversational way, rather than making interpretations in isolation.  This suggests they were trying to make meaning of their results together, in collaboration.”
Group Inquiry by Visitors at Exhibits (GIVE) in Group Inquiry at Science Museum Exhibits by  Gutwill, J. P., & Allen, S.. Exploratorium Museum Professional Series, Left Coast Press 2010.   (Here is a link to a related research report.)

This is not surprising and in a way is confirmed by the most recent findings on what the new pedagogy should be. The most recent publication of the Open University in the UK: Innovative Pedagogy 2014. Sharples, M., Adams, A., Ferguson, R., Gaved, M., McAndrew, P., Rienties, B., Weller, M., & Whitelock, D. (2014). Innovating Pedagogy 2014: Open University Innovation Report 3.Milton Keynes: The Open University, Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, MK7 6AA, United Kingdom.© The Open University, 2014.

There is much of the Innovative Pedagogy report that is worth citing and relates to topics such as:

Massive open social learning; Learning design informed by analytics; Bring your own devices; Dynamic assessment; Event-based learning; Learning through storytelling; Threshold concepts and Bricolage that all apply to science center activity in some way.  But I will stick to the element called "Flipped Learning" and the need to incorporate the "Learning to Learn” concept.

The flipped classroom reverses the traditional classroom approach to teaching and learning. It moves direct instruction into the learner’s own space. At home, or in individual study time, students watch video lectures that offer them opportunities to work at their own pace, pausing to make notes where necessary. This allows time in class to be spent on activities that exercise critical thinking, with the teacher guiding students in creative exploration of the topics they are studying. Flipped learning is sometimes seen simply as a different approach to delivering content. It also offers opportunities for the classroom to become a more flexible environment, where the physical layout can be shifted to enable group work, where students can make use of their own devices, and where new approaches to learning and assessment are put into practice.

Learning to learn: We are always learning. Throughout our lifetime we take on board new ideas and develop new skills. What we find difficult are learning what others want to teach us, and managing our learning in order to achieve particular goals and outcomes. Self-determined learning involves learning how to be an effective learner, and having the confidence to manage our own learning processes. ‘Double-loop learning’ is central to this process, for double-loop learners not only work out how to solve a problem or reach a goal, but also reflect on that process as a whole, questioning assumptions and considering how to become more effective.

What I find particularly interesting in this report is that it actually confirms what I believe and Axel mentions as well. The most efficient way to help people learn and not become overwhelmed with information is to familiarize them with the scientific method. Transform every citizen into a researcher if you will. Not such a stupid idea. It's the ambition of Prof. F. Taddei from the CRI (Centre de Recherche Interdisciplinaire - INSERM the French Institute of Health and medical Research) in Paris. He has created the "Savanturiers" project (a contraction of savant and aventurier) Prof. Taddei, who was a speaker at the SCWC in Mechelen (March 2014), motivates his project as follows:

 "The mission of the schools today is defined by the response to the question: can they deliver youth that become flexible and thinking actors in society? This identity crisis of the education system opens the doors to a renewed pedagogy resulting from the digital transformation of our society. Our learning project with the youngest children is based on the scientific research method and ethics. Scientific research is a combination of engagement, collaborative projects, questioning, creativity and rigor, opening to the world, inspiration from shared knowledge and the will to explore the unknown to serve the greater good. The capacity to identify the problems and to ask a new and the right questions is what defines innovators whatever the field they are in.

The kids we work with value the constraints of permanent scientific questioning. They learn how to formulate solid and pertinent research questions, to define concepts and to share results with their peers. In this way, the learning of the scientific thinking becomes part of their cultural values and a product of collective intelligence".

"This concept is the result of research in cognitive sciences that shows that all kids have the ability to correctly question natural and cultural phenomena…. Individuals for whom learning is as fun and rewarding as necessary. We don’t want to train only professional researchers, but to offer all citizens the critical thinking skills, the engagement and the entrepreneurial spirit of researchers (...)

But this also changes the relationship between the researchers and the citizens. Citizens will still recognize the specificity of the research profession, but they will not think anymore that they should be excluded from research itself, the debates it generates or the way it influences society as a whole"

This is an interesting connection and evolution of the thinking within the scientific community. We have moved away from the deficit model of the nineties and have implemented in several places around the world significant "science in society" or "science for society" programs. These programs enable us to rethink the place of science and scientists, and their role in society through a renewed dialogue with the public. This is a great achievement in itself. Taddei's position, however, goes beyond that - the dialogue does not only serve a better engagement of the public with scientific issues, it is the core for improved science learning.

I do believe that this brings us all to a new place. Public engagement and science learning cannot be seen separately anymore. They are the two necessary components to develop the scientific literacy of a country.

There is no surprise that change is coming at this point. On various occasions and through different means and voices, the scientific community has expressed a changing view of their role in society. There is a push for a better understanding of their role as experts and advisors. There is a vision that decision making processes should be based on scientific evidence that possibly puts the scientist in a role of advocate for certain causes. For more on this see:

· An open letter to the newly elected House and Senate to urge them to take action against global warming: Prof. Steve Schneider from Stanford University and a group of famous climate scientists (March 23 , 2009)

· An AAAS and NSF funded  workshop on October 17-18, 2011 at AAAS aiming to explore what role, if any, scientists should play as advocates for specific policies is a matter of heated debate both inside the scientific community and in society more generally.

· From Anne Glover, Chief scientific advisor to the European Commission 2012 -2014. From European Science and Technology - Issue 15 Research. A clearer path to prominence 10 July 2012: “The most positive thing is that, by and large, my appointment has been welcomed and one of the areas that people speak about is how we can get evidence to be more prominent in policymaking, how we can make it easier to give the evidence a higher profile and be able to speak about the evidence in a much more comfortable way.”

· At the Planet under Pressure Conference: "Research plays a significant role in monitoring change, determining thresholds, developing new technologies and processes, and providing solutions. The international global-change research community proposes a new contract between science and society in recognition that science must inform policy to make more wise and timely decisions and that innovation should be informed by diverse local needs and conditions". , Dr Lidia Brito and Dr Mark Stafford Smith, supported by the conference Scientific Organizing Committee. Co-Chairs (London, March 2012).

These statements link the changing role of scientists with a new relationship to the public:

· "There was growing momentum to establish a set of Principles for Science Advice as an instrument to galvanize a global commitment to evidence-informed public policy." (...) "As such, there was evidence not only of the rapidly changing relationship between science and society, but also the changing relationship between the public and their elected officials, as mediated by science". 28-29 August 2014, the International Council for Science (ICSU) organized a conference in Auckland (NZ) under the Presidency of Sir Peter Gluckman, Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of New Zealand that addressed the issue of "Science Advice to Governments".

·  The mission of the scientist cannot be limited any longer to producing and disseminating knowledge because of the social and economic impact of scientific discovery. Scientists now have a collective responsibility to contribute to the citizens debates/discussions about priorities for the science activity, the scientific policy as it were. Prof. Jean Marc Levy-Leblond as developed in "Pour une nouvelle politique scientifique" in "Le Monde Science et Techno (10/11/2012).

How should science centers react to this global change in relation to their own mission and, in particular, to their key activity in building exhibits?

Allow me to isolate only one sentence out of the above citations and references. It relates to the ICSU conference in New Zealand: "As such, there was evidence not only of the rapidly changing relationship between science and society, but also the changing relationship between the public and their elected officials, as mediated by science"

This may be the key for us to understand what our new role should be. It tells us we need to go beyond the traditional self-explaining exhibit and the limited public engagement or relevance to our communities. I am indeed more and more convinced that we are facing a new deficit model regarding our connection with the community. There are of course significant exceptions, but overall, the connection with the community seems to be an increased effort to convince the community that they need us, while I think we should focus on the opposite question: "how can we help the community?"

Most of our science centers are in urban areas and today many cities face increased problems of sustainability because of global challenges for the planet. Cities increasingly understand the need to base their decisions on scientific evidence and the scientific community. The "Future Earth" program steps up to help in that context. If we then hear the message that the ICSU conference concluded with: “the evidence for a changing relationship between the public and their elected officials, as mediated by science" we should understand that there is a special role for science centers in the future which is to educate the public about the science that helps the community to make the right decisions.

After all, and citing George Hein, did he not say it already?  "What could be more worthwhile than consistently considering how our educational activities might support democracy and social justice? The important point is not only be that there is an unequivocal educational purpose for all museum activity, but also that education should be progressive, that the educational purpose be in the service of improving society". George E. Hein: Progressive Museum Practice; John Dewey and Democracy. August 2012.

Thanks again to Walter Staveloz for sharing his thoughts with ExhibiTricks readers!

How can museums be more effective in building bridges to their communities?  Let us know in the "Comments" section below.

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