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End of Year Ruminations

Updated: Dec 21, 2022

As 2022 recedes and we acclimate to a post-pandemic reality, it seems everybody needs a breather over the holidays. We thought we’d take a moment to revive the ol’ blog (a resolution for 2023 for us for sure!) and share some food for thought that the Wondrus team is reflecting on as we close out the year.

Five things that the Wondrus team is thinking about:

1. Behind the headlines about pandemic learning loss is the reality that inequity has been exacerbated over the last three years. The disaggregated NAEP data tells a disturbing story: Black and Brown children as well as those living in poverty have lost unprecedented ground in their numeracy and literacy, which could have seismic effects on the future of our country's electorate and labor force. We are even more galvanized to our vision- creating a world where museums, libraries, historic sites and nonprofits can show up in new ways with a digital-first education strategy as an integral player in educating all of America's children.

2. Teachers are hurting. They had a hard job with relatively little pay before the COVID disruption and now many find themselves serving in chronically understaffed schools, while adding social worker and therapist to their job description, on top of the arduous task of turning a 4th grader into a 5th grader over a 9 month period. One middle school teacher in North Carolina summed up their experience in this way, “Academically what the kids should know at a seventh and eighth grade level, they don't know. So there's a lot of reteaching and a lot of refreshing with common vocabulary and knowledge. Socially, they're definitely behind [in knowing] how to interact with people - both their friends as well the teachers. I think there's a lot of growth that needs to be bridged.” A high school teacher from Missouri simply said, “It's a struggle for all of us. No teacher is reporting success.” More than ever, we at Wondrus believe that cultural institutions have an important role to play in making teachers’ lives easier. A small illustration of the burden on teachers comes from a survey we conducted with over 100 social studies teachers earlier this month. 73% reported that they spend more than 3 hours per week online looking for content to use with students and 20% said they spent over 6 hours on average. That’s time that could be spent helping struggling students or recharging at home. How can cultural institutions (separately or together) work to ease the time it takes teachers to find and use content in their classrooms? Whether a teacher is responsible for teaching the three branches of our federal government, how humans impact climate, or the characteristics of misinformation, they are on a perpetual hunt for engaging content that effectively builds knowledge and offers skills practice. What if this task were easier for them?

73% of surveyed teachers reported that they spend more than 3 hours per week online looking for content to use with students and 20% said they spent over 6 hours on average. That’s time that could be spent helping struggling students or recharging at home.

3. Teachers of struggling students are less likely to use materials from cultural institutions. The same survey confirmed a suspicion we’d had for a while and has caused us to think anew about equity and access for all students. We asked teachers to tell us about their students’ reading levels. Those teachers who reported that a majority of their students read below grade level were also more likely to say that they had not used materials from cultural institutions in the last 12 months. Though our sample size is small, the discrepancy was statistically significant. Meanwhile, we know two critical truths that, when connected to this finding, have meaningful implications: first, there are more struggling readers in upper grades who are students of color. Second, background knowledge plays a large role in one’s ability to read, and evidence increasingly suggests that expanding student background knowledge improves reading comprehension. So we are ending this year grappling with the sobering truth that struggling students, and students of color, are less likely to experience museums either in person or via classroom materials. And yet we know it doesn’t have to be this way; museums have so much to offer- not just in the way of inspiration and wonderment (though of course they have this in leaps and bounds) but also in important contributions to students’ academic and social emotional growth. We’ll enter 2023 ready to challenge ourselves and our clients around how they can show up for these students, wondering what changes in approach- taking into account both the design of learning experiences and the way in which cultural institutions promote and share them- might increase access for all.

4. Critical gaps in traditional curricula are coming, and museums can help fill them. Book bannings are on the rise. Legislatures in at least 36 states have introduced or enacted laws that attempt to restrict teaching about race and racism. Seemingly innocuous staples of the classroom, like discussing current events, or writing persuasive letters to community leaders are under fire in some communities. The net effect of such measures is to create a climate of uncertainty for educators, who fear for their jobs, and traditional curriculum publishers, who fear for their bottom lines. We anticipate that curriculum created by companies and organizations whose business model depends on sales to school districts, may increasingly avoid engagement with topics, literature, or practices that might put them in the crosshairs at local school board meetings. Museums and historical societies are already doing the hard work of uncovering and amplifying marginalized voices and complicating dominant, simplistic narratives. We believe that they may have a far larger role to play in the classroom as individual teachers turn to them to fill gaps in traditional curricula with resources from a trusted, expert source. But playing that role depends on showing up for all classrooms- rural, urban, rich, poor, above grade-level, and below, with on-demand materials that resonate with educators and students alike. In 2023, we are resolved to help our partners meet this challenge.

We anticipate that curriculum may increasingly avoid engagement with topics, literature, or practices that might put them in the crosshairs at local school board meetings.

5.Philanthropy is a force of change. Over the last year, Wondrus has noticed that the funding world that supports our cultural institutions- individuals, foundations and corporations- are demanding scaled impact as a contingency of their giving. Many of the organizations we’ve been talking to are realizing that a capital campaign for a new exhibit or building does not have the same resonance if not complemented by a fresh educational strategy that reimagines how to reach millions of children and teachers, not thousands. This development necessitates some shifts in thinking: First, that the online experience and/or classroom learning materials historically thought of as secondary may in the future be an institution’s primary mode of K-12 impact. Second, that truly achieving scale through a digital approach requires museums to think of themselves as product developers, competing in a crowded K-12 materials marketplace. Understandably, this second shift may cause some discomfort, even squeamishness. And also, understandably, cultural institutions do not have the product development expertise on staff, but we nearly always start and end conversations with the same simple message- talking to your audience, especially classroom teachers, especially those who don’t already know and love you, is a key to success. As former teachers, we love nothing more than connecting with teachers and can’t wait to help our partners have more of these conversations in 2023.

These challenges may feel like a downer for the holiday season, but we are ruminating on them with a spirit of optimism. We believe the future is bright. America's children are full citizens of the digital world and the “learn anything, anywhere, anytime” reality that now defines us is a new opportunity for cultural organizations to share the wonder they inspire well beyond their walls. We can’t wait to roll up our sleeves and help them in 2023.

From our team to you and yours, we wish you a peaceful, healthy, and joyous new year.

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