Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills

“Success in today’s society requires information literacy, a spirit of self-reliance, and a strong ability to collaborate, communicate effectively, and solve problems. Combining strengths in traditional learning with robust investment in modern communication infrastructures, libraries and museums are well-equipped to build the skills Americans need in the 21st century.” (IMLS 2008)

For today’s National Library Week post, I’d like to share some interesting excerpts from a report titled Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills, by the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Washington, D.C. (2009).

“The new global economy presents both opportunities and obstacles. Changes in the economy, jobs, and businesses have fundamentally altered the nature of work today. The shift in the last two decades to a globally interconnected information economy has radically expanded the types of skills necessary for individuals to succeed in work and life. For example, in 1967, the production of material goods accounted for nearly 54 percent of the country’s economic output. But by 1997, the production of information products (e.g., computers, software, books) swelled, accounting for 63 percent of the country’s output (Partnership for 21st Century Skills 2008).” (p. 10)

“The demand for skills that are nonroutine –e.g., critical thinking, creativity, innovation– is increasing dramatically in the 21st century.” (p. 10)

“The needs and nature of the workforce have undergone dramatic shifts, as shown in the next table.” (p. 7)

“These three factors – the shift to a global economy, the rising importance of self-directed lifelong learning, and the expectation of customized, on demand audience experiences – provide a compelling backdrop for museums and libraries as they position themselves as institutions of learning in the 21st century.” (p. 13)

“Museums and libraries offer rich and authentic content, dedicated and knowledgeable staff with deep expertise, and safe, trusted settings for individuals and families, all of which invite and support effective learning. The collections in libraries and museums—books, artwork, scientific specimens, and other cultural artifacts—connect people to the full spectrum of human experience: culture, science, history, and art.” (p. 6)

“Competencies like critical thinking, global awareness, and media literacy are no longer simply desirable—they are necessary.” (p. 6)

“Museums and libraries can play a critical role in helping citizens build such 21st century skills as information, communications and technology literacy, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, civic literacy, and global awareness.” (p. 1)

“Skills like critical thinking and problem solving are not only relevant for K-12 students and schools. There are millions of adult learners not in formal education programs looking to refine workplace skills. Even school-aged children spend the overwhelming majority of their waking hours in non-school settings, and increasingly they spend this time in organized out-of-school settings such as afterschool, museum, and library programs. In these settings, they develop important skills— such as problem solving, collaboration, global awareness, and self-direction—not only for lifelong learning and everyday activities, but also for use back in K-12 schools and college classrooms.” (p. 4)

“In fact, all people today—youth and adults— spend the majority of their lives learning outside the walls of formal classrooms: in out-of-school programs, workplaces, internships, and other informal learning experiences such as those offered by libraries and museums.” (p. 4)

Homeschoolers should like the following section on “Society And Learning” (p. 11):

“The 21st century has changed how, when, and where we all learn. The lines between “formal” and “informal” learning are becoming less clear, as institutions from MIT to the University of California put their lectures and class materials online for all at no cost, and iTunes U has accelerated access to truly mobile learning. Substantive conference proceedings are documented, shared, and debated in real time via online social networks, creating meaningful dialogues and interactions among experts and interested individuals on an extraordinary scale. At no other time in history have more educational offerings been made available more widely or for so many.

Even with these changes in digital access to information and educational experiences, perhaps the most significant change is the growing interest in self-directed learning. Dr. John Falk and Dr. Lynn Dierking’s pioneering work in this area has been instructive for museums and libraries in its emphasis on the importance of widely available, diverse learning environments that are accessible to everyone in a community. In Lessons Without Limit: How Free-Choice Learning is Transforming Education, the authors underscore the importance not only of accessibility, but experiences that are “designed in ways that support multiple motivations, interests, skills, and knowledge levels” (Falk & Dierking 2002). Scholars in the emerging field of the learning sciences stress that learning develops across multiple timeframes and settings, and they emphasize the importance of “supporting deep links between formal schooling and the many other learning institutions available to students – libraries, science centers and history museums, after-school clubs, online activities that can be accessed from home, and even collaborations between students and working professionals” (Sawyer 2005). Indeed, a growing body of evidence points to informal learning environments as significant sources of knowledge and skill development. Dr. Dennie Palmer Wolf, Director of Opportunity and Accountability for the Annenberg Institute and a leading researcher in the area of children’s out-of-school learning, notes that “goal-directed free-time activity in safe, supportive environments with responsive adults and peers make sizable contributions to learning, social skills, and mental health” (Wolf 2008).

Therefore, it is critically important to align and leverage all participants in the learning system—schools, institutions, organizations, programs, individuals, families, and neighborhoods. When such alignment happens, everyone has the potential to be a learner, educator, and collaborator, which benefits not only the individuals but entire communities as well.

An important recent contribution to the dialogue around informal learning is the National Academy of Sciences’ report Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. The work offers a compelling research-based analysis of how science museums can “enrich the scientific knowledge, interest and capacity of students and the broader public” (Bell, Lewenstein, Shouse, & Feder 2009). The report emphasizes the need to view learning from an “ecological perspective” that involves “life-long,” “life-wide,” and “life-deep” experiences. The authors acknowledge the great degree of science learning that can occur in informal environments, building on learners’ motivations and interests. They provide evidence for the types of learning that occur “across the lifespan” and describe the synergies between formal and informal learning. This richly detailed report, like much of the literature around out-of-school learning, discusses the proven benefits of designed experiences that appeal to the individual needs of learners and account for their diverse social, economic, and demographic backgrounds.”

Page 34 addresses various stakeholders in the community’s overall learning system.

“Community, cultural, education, and business organizations each have a stake in strengthening the community’s overall learning system. Specific next steps for stakeholders include the following:

• Community institutions can initiate partnerships with museums and libraries and others to strengthen overall basic literacy, civic awareness, environmental literacy, and health literacy throughout the community.

• Cultural institutions including libraries and museums can join together to encourage greater global awareness and visual literacy.

• Formal education institutions (e.g., pre-school programs, schools, universities, colleges) can partner with museums and libraries to enhance 21st century skills across their campuses, with a particular focus on cross-disciplinary thinking.

• Businesses can initiate collaborations with libraries and museums that encourage 21st century skills like creativity, innovation, communication, collaboration, and financial literacy to strengthen the workforce as well as the economic health of the community.”

Read the full 36-page report: [Institute of Museum and Library Services (2009). Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills (IMLS-2009-NAI-01). Washington, D.C.]

NOTE: Pages 23-26 of this report are worth printing out to share with high school students and job seekers. These pages contain detailed lists of “Skills Definitions.” Built on a foundation of deep content mastery, such skills are the new workforce requirements for maintaining U.S. global competitiveness and ensuring each person’s personal and professional success. The lists could serve as a valuable self-assessment tool in a career exploration program, college success class, or life skills course.

How many of the 21st century skills can your student (or you) check off? How could you more effectively support 21st century skills in your homeschool? How would you go about rectifying any weak or missing skill sets? How will you monitor your progress toward improving certain skills? How might you enlist the help of other individuals and organizations (libraries, museums, science centers, businesses) to assist your efforts to learn new skills?


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