I don’t know why it has taken until 2040 to recognize a simple truth – there are many, many ways to learn. Different approaches and different tools for different purposes and different learners….with different teachers in different places. Finally, society got it, and I’m proud to say that museums helped lead the way. Education was becoming something of a taboo topic. It came to be associated with spending a lot of money on formalized, bureaucratic training aimed at getting jobs that no longer exist. As that approach to learning has faded, the idea of an ecosystem approach to learning emerged….and I’m proud to say that we’ve played an important role in that ecosystem.
A guiding principle of the transformation for institution-based educational “systems” has been the switch to “student-centered learning.” As that paradigm shift took hold, it had a cascade of effects on the approach to learning as a whole. One effect particularly important to museums was the realization that learning need not be restricted to schools – it should take place wherever, whenever, and however.
As I hand over the reigns to the Director-in-Waiting, I’d like to highlight several accomplishments over the course of the last twenty-five years that we can all celebrate.
First, was our advocacy for context-based learning. While many pundits talked about a shift away from the importance of place, or physical location, in the virtual world, we advocated the opposite. In an increasingly virtual world, place is more important than ever! Context-based learning emerged as an idea that the best place to learn about something is to immerse in it, whether a real or a virtual place. The logic was that if you wanted to learn about history, for instance, visit a place that has history! If you wanted to learn how to make your own objects, travel to a place that has 3D printers and other maker tools. And we had both! The screen shot to the right captures one of my favorite quotes from a student. I won’t reveal the identity of “grampa.”
Thanks to our strong focus on the future, we saw these changes coming, even though they took a bit longer than we anticipated.
The second accomplishment was our advocacy for the future. We emphasized the value of context as a venue of learning, whether about the past, the present, or the future. In fact, a key shift in our mission was a move to incorporating all three time perspectives as central to what museums – and learning – should be about. The old notion of museums as repositories of objects has long faded away, but we shouldn’t forget what a difficult challenge that was. Students, we found, were hugely excited about inventing their future, and we ready for them with exhibits and approaches devoted to “creating your future.”
A third accomplishment was our somewhat controversial embrace of a competency-based approach to learning and credentials. “That’s not our cause,” many said. But we realized that recognizing learning wherever it would occur was not only good for students, it was good for us. Rather than measuring whether someone learned something by number of hours in a classroom, regurgitating information, and passing tests, student success became measured by their ability to demonstrate competency. And it turns out that a very effective way to become competent in something is to learn it in the appropriate context. Competence in biotechnology, for instance, is now measured “in the lab” and those learning labs were often found in museums. Rather than being worried about “garage biotech” getting out of hand, we put the tools into a public place where everyone could access them and learn how to use them, in a safe and supervised way – that was also a lot of fun. One of our most successful marketing campaigns ever was “Learning should be fun.” Below is a screen capture from a student visitor that sums this up better than I could.
Museums were proactive in driving the move to competency-based approaches, based on the emerging future rather than the receding past. We designed new exhibits and experiences that reflected where the world was going. Interactive exhibits of emerging technologies became a tremendous favorite of kids. They were excited by the challenge of rolling up their sleeves and doing things, playing with the new equipment, whether real of virtual.
Which brings me to the fourth accomplishment: devising creative learning experience that blended the virtual and the real. This recognition enabled museums to greatly expand their scope and reach. We were no longer restricted by square footage, but used the virtual to enhance the real…and vice-versa. We thought long and hard about what should be physically there, and what could be accessed via the virtual. The really key insight was thinking about how to blend the two in the most seamless way. It was not either-or, but both-and. And the feedback was phenomenal. I don’t know how many stories I heard about our security team having to “force” students to go home at closing time.
Since we were not bound by the rules and constraints of the old education system, we had greater freedom to innovate and provide more interesting learning experiences. Students voted with their feet, in coming to us to learn. Put simply, instead of sitting in a classroom and listening to a lecture, they could go to the local museum and try it for themselves, which they found a better way to learn which enabled them to demonstrate their competence and earn their credentials. To the right is a picture of the first four competency badges that we were authorized to confer by the State Board of Education.
We got so good at devising learning experiences, I’m proud to say that we developed a whole new consulting business around designing learning experiences.
Finally, our fifth accomplishment that I am most proud of – of course there were more than five, but I see some hungry faces out there eager for dinner – is helping to change the paradigm around the purpose of education. The old paradigm of education suggested that education = jobs. More and more emphasis was placed on learning only what was necessary for landing a well-paying job. The “other” aspects of learning became increasingly marginalized within the education system. Liberal arts, for instance, continued to be decimated vis-à-vis sciences and engineering, which were seen as a better route to jobs. This laser focus on jobs turned out to be a strategic error by higher education, as we moved into a future where so many jobs could be automated, and the importance of jobs became, well, less important. Our horizon scanners saw this coming a mile away – so to speak – and we became advocates for a well-rounded approach to what students should learn. It became more useful for students to learn how to not only work, but live, learn, play, connect, and participate in civic life. Below is a reproduction of one of my favorite bumper stickers from the 30’s.
We didn’t think that one up, but we sure encouraged a more holistic approach to learning. And that included how we worked among ourselves. The founding of the VMN (Virtual Museum Network) might be our crown jewel. We literally became as one. It started by sharing access to collections, exhibits and expertise. This enabled a more rapid turnover of physical exhibits, for instance, because if an exhibit travelled elsewhere to a network member, access to it could be enabled remotely. A swap system emerged and removed duplication and enabled more exhibits to happen. Today, of course, we strategically plan at the national and increasingly international level.
So, friends and colleagues, it’s been quite a ride. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished together and I am so pleased to hand the baton to my capable successor and my first act as Director Emeritus will be to enjoy a wonderful dinner tonight.