Techniques for facilitating children’s learning in art museums

Over the next month I am going to have a go at writing a handful of posts on techniques for facilitating young children’s learning with and through art in museums. I have been thinking about doing this for a while but didn’t quite know how to go about it as I did not want to construct an idea that there is a singular way of teaching and learning in galleries. I am also totally disinterested in presenting the idea that I have more expertise on this topic than others as that is simply untrue and well, boring. There are so many people out there doing brilliant things in early childhood education and I love learning about the different ways that other educators approach their work. Please feel free to comment below to pour some other perspectives into the mix! I see these posts as thinking snapshots and hope they might generate deeper consideration around how others understand and implement methods in their context.

Each post will include a description of a technique in addition to how and when it may be useful. These should not be seen as all-conclusive but more as different options to experiment with. This first post will explore the broader notion of facilitated learning and its possibilites in relation to gallery learning.

Before I go any further, I would like to acknowledge two former colleagues and friends – Kaye Stuart and Shelley Radanovic – who taught me so much about techniques for facilitating children’s learning. I worked with Kaye and Shelley on the children’s programme at the Ipswich Art Gallery in Queensland, Australia. Kaye had previously worked as a director of a community kindergarten and Shelley as a primary school teacher. Shelley now runs an amazing children’s art studio driven by a project-based learning philosophy. Their relentless enthusiasm, passion and knowledge towards early childhood education had a huge influence on me and I will be forever grateful to have had the opportunity to have learnt from them.

Facilitation

To facilitate means to make something easier (Collins Dictionary online, 2017). In an education setting, this does not mean to lower the standard for learning bur rather support an individual’s ability to make connections and thinking critically about their learning process (Mac Naughton & Williams, 2009). Facilitation may take many forms such as questioning, suggesting, modelling and giving feedback as well as non-human interventions such as the layout of materials or the arrangement of artworks. A facilitator, whether that be a parent, a peer, a resource, an art tool or a material allows learning to complexify, deepen and diversify over time.

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Facilitation acknowledges the active role children play in their own learning and development. This moves away from an understanding that knowledge is predominantly contained in direct instruction. In an art museum, an artist or gallery staff member may create the conditions for learning but it is the participants who select what they explore and how their learning journey proceeds. The role of the educator could then be seen as guiding and extending an individual’s thinking.

From my experience, finding a balance between a child’s individual explorations and adult intervention can sometimes be tricky. Too much intervention and the learning environment could become overly didactic. Too little intervention and the activity could lose any pedagogical structure leading to an individual becoming frustrated or disinterested. An important aspect of this process is also allowing children to encounter failures and frustrations as part of their journey as this permits time for problems to be explored in innovative ways.

Whilst facilitation is a low-intervention technique, this can become problematic if it is understood as a ‘laissez-faire’ approach to learning. The following quote from Mike Petrich, a designer from the Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium in San Francisco describes this misunderstanding in relation to the tinkering movement:

“Unfortunately, a lot of people think that tinkering is just about throwing a lot of random things on a table and asking kids to have fun with them. That’s not what this is about. Tinkering is fun, but it’s also a highly choreographed, sometimes painstaking, deeply discussed, and a well thought-out discipline, so that we actually can facilitate peoples’ thinking through initial starting points that might lead to complex new directions.

Instead of just saying: “Go ahead make anything you can imagine”, we are trying to carefully choreograph moments where you enter into a situation and  find something of interest to start with. It is not “whatever” you want to build with our light play setup. We are asking: “What do you notice?” “What are you curious about looking at more?”  “What might you want to change?”  “What might you like to construct now that you have become more familiar with the material?” (Petrich & Wilkinson, 2015).

Facilitation therefore requires skilled practitioners who are confident in supporting, extending and scaffolding children’s diverse learning needs and interests over time. Learning curators and artists play an active role in planning the context that children’s learning is facilitated in. This could be done in many ways including:

  • Selecting artworks, materials, tools and equipment for an activity;
  • Selecting ‘cognitive tools’ such as what artistic techniques will be demonstrated or what art concepts may be introduced;
  • Selecting furniture and a spatial arrangement that encourages people to play, make and talk together;
  • Recruiting staff who are experienced and confident in their ability to work with young children;
  • Considering what additional resources could be given to parents to support them in supporting their children’s learning;
  • Encouraging those working directly with children to continuously observe, reflect and make changes to an activity whilst it is in progress.

Building upon this, the next post will explore the technique of ‘suggesting’ and how this can be used to support learning.

References

Collins Dictionary online, viewed July 6, 2017 at: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/facilitate

Mac Naughton, G & Williams,G 2009. Teaching young children: Choices in theory and practice. Second edition. Open University Press, Maidenhead.

Petrich, M & Wilkinson, K 2015. ‘What do we want? More replicants or a next generation of students who can think for themselves?’ The LEGO Foundation website, viewed April 10, 2016.

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