Driving Question: How are museums and libraries promoting 21st century learning?
Marsha L. Semmel is Director for Strategic Partnerships, Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Marsha oversees and coordinates IMLS partnerships with other federal agencies, foundations, and non-governmental organizations. Ms. Semmel led the agency’s initiative Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills and has spearheaded a new partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that focuses on creating “learning labs” for teens in libraries and museums.
"What? Such bastions of cultural heritage and preservation as museums and libraries embracing 21st century learning?” If visitors haven’t stopped by lately, they would miss how today’s museum and library staffs are answering this post’s driving question and promoting collaboration, critical thinking, creativity and innovation, and communication outside the school walls. Visitors might also be missing how the trained staffs and volunteers have expanded their knowledge of 21st century themes such as information and media literacy, environmental literacy, health, civic engagement, global cultural awareness, STEM, and financial literacy as well as web-savvy information-gathering skills and techniques. And they may not have noticed that these venerable repositories have leaped ahead with services that promote 21st century skills and your community’s “learning quotient” in partnership with other agencies, including local schools.
Since the first decade of this century, these institutions have been leveraging the power of digital tools’ and social media’s reach beyond their walls with web-based services, user-generated content, virtual exhibitions, homework help, games, and augmented reality. Many museums and libraries also are aligning their education programs with state standards and now the Common Core to provide rich opportunities for student engagement and teachers’ professional development.
As libraries and museums bring their services in line with their communities’ need to promote 21st century skills, three strands of action stand out: leadership, evidence, and new program models.
Leading a Transformation
As early as 2008-9, The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) created a national task force of library and museum leaders. Their work created a report and web-site, Museums, Libraries and 21st Century Skills. This initiative underscored the critical role our nation’s museums and libraries could play in helping citizens, including students, build such 21st century skills as information, communications and technology literacy, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, civic literacy, and global awareness. The report has become an IMLS “best seller” with broad distribution around the globe. IMLS regularly updates its site with new resources, including blog posts, video clips, and profiles of successful projects.
In 2010-11, IMLS convened seven local gatherings to explore ways for museums and libraries to lead, join, or enrich community-wide 21st century skills efforts. Since then, IMLS has developed and posted a ‘community toolkit’, supported 21st century skills-focused grants to libraries and museums, (including projects under the auspices of our Grants to States program that funds population-based allocations to State Library Administrative Agencies), and in 2010, launched a formal partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation that is funding the planning and design of 25 learning labs for teens in libraries and museums around the country. These labs are drawing on P21’s four Cs and research on teen learning conducted by University of California Irvine ethnographer Mizuko Ito. The innovative labs are providing mentored pathways and physical and digital environments for youth to “hang out, mess around, and geek out” as they chart their learning trajectories. In addition to the labs themselves, IMLS and MacArthur are supporting a community of practice among the grantee institutions, as well as a full project evaluation.
Building an Evidence Bank
Just as there are challenges in measuring effective school-based four Cs outcomes, there are even more daunting hurdles when trying to measure effective 21st century learning in “informal” out-of-school settings. Libraries and museums are “free-choice” learning environments. It is difficult to regulate the participants’ engagement “dosages” or encounters and levels of engagement that provide evidence of meaningful and deep learning. It can be even more difficult to link these experiences with academic achievement. Yet many efforts are underway to research “what works” in out-of-school education. In addition to IMLS requirements for each grantee to provide (and report on) an evaluation plan for every funded project, there are many current broad-scope projects that are building a viable and respected evidence base:
- These include the MacArthur Foundation’s Connected Learning Research Network, the National Research Council’s Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits; the Arts Education Partnership’s Arts Ed Search (www.artsedsearch.org), the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s Science Learning Activation Lab, and ongoing studies by the Program in Education, Afterschool, and Resiliency at McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School, the After School Alliance, The Wallace Foundation, and the Harvard Family Research Project.
- The recent National Research Council report, Education for Life and Work: Developing Transferable Knowledge and Skills in the 21st Century, describes the intertwined and mutually reinforcing cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal clusters of “21st century competencies,” many of which can be nourished in library and museum experiences.
- The Department of Education’s National Educational Technology Plan (Learning Powered by Technology) and the recent Race to the Top District Challenge grants recognize the value of such hallmarks of informal learning experiences as project-based learning, responding to youth interests and passions, and personalized learning environments.
Putting Programs into Practice
This sampling of successful local museum/library-based efforts suggests ways in which libraries and museums promote the four Cs.
- The Maine Historical Society’s Maine Memory Network digitizes important historical resources within repositories throughout the state and builds the four Cs in students, teachers, civic officials, and community members through a process of co-creating online community history exhibits.
- The Skokie (II) Public Library adapts programs and services to respond to the four Cs needs of children and adults with a focus on financial literacy, information and computer literacy supported by a formal school liaison providing resources for teachers.
- The Houston Children’s Museum adapted the Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills self- assessment grid for its current strategic plan. Its CEO worked closely with its board of trustees and staff to infuse the four Cs throughout the organization and align budget, programs, and services to the 21st century skill-based goals.
- The Columbus Museum of Art’s (CMA) Center for Creativity has played a leadership role in a statewide conversation that has addressed the importance of creativity in Ohio’s new initiatives around 21st century learning, both in school and in the workforce. CMA is collaborating with the Columbus Metropolitan Library, the COSI Center of Science and Industry, the Wexner Center for the Arts, and WOSU, the local public radio station, to create a series of teen-focused learning labs under the auspices of the IMLS/MacArthur Foundation program.
- The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan developed an online curriculum, Innovation 101, to infuse 21st century skills development in a dynamic online education module that uses oral history interviews and assets of the Henry Ford's resource for active teaching and learning of the four Cs. The museum recently field- tested the curricula in schools across the nation and conducted third-party evaluation to gather feedback from teachers and students, obtaining positive results in student critical thinking and creativity.
- The Mississippi Library Commission has created the Mississippi Library Leadership Institute for librarians across the state to develop Mississippi librarians’ abilities in critical thinking, problem solving, communications, leadership, and responsibility.
- The Minnesota Historical Society has created History in our Hands: The Field Trip for the 21st Century Learner, bridging the classroom and museum learning environments through the creation of digital backpacks, classroom toolkits, and mobile apps.
- The Illinois State Library has developed ILEAD USA, a continuing education immersion initiative that supports librarians’ competencies in the use of participatory technologies to meet community needs. Begun in Illinois, the program has expanded to involve librarians in Colorado, Iowa, Ohio, and Utah.
The momentum for promoting the four Cs in such out-of-school venues as libraries and museums continues to grow. As the landscape for learning continues to be re-charted to match learners’ needs, evolving research, and the potential of on-site and on-line experiences and connections, libraries and museums are ripe for an increased leadership role.