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Three questions for museum educators to ask if they want to become indispensable to teachers

Back in May at the American Alliance for Museum 2021 Annual Meeting, Elizabeth Merritt, founder of the Center for the Future of Museums noted that while the initial fears that the COVID-19 pandemic would see the permanent closure of many museums had largely subsided and things are looking up for the cultural sector overall, museums still face a medium- to long-term existential crisis. The way to avoid that crisis, Merritt posited, is for museums to pursue a new business model-- to “build themselves into the infrastructure" of their communities. Her words have been ringing in my ears ever since because along with my co-founders, I started Wondrus with the goal of making museums, libraries and other cultural institutions part of the fabric of the American K-12 educational experience.

The potential, and need, here is clear. To give just one example, let’s look at background knowledge. Background knowledge (sometimes called “world knowledge”) is what you already know. And in school, background knowledge—or, rather, the lack of it—is one of the things that holds inequities in place. Think about it: if you’re an 8th grader who’s been to the National Air and Space Museum, you’re likely to have an easier time solving a math problem like this one from one of the top middle school math curricula in the U.S.

An 8th grade word problem about the Apollo Guidance Computer and a photo of a rocket taking off.

Even if you don’t remember everything you learned at the museum—even if it’s just bits and pieces —you’ll be less likely to be distracted by what you don’t know and better able focus on the mathematics at hand.

For teachers, though, these gaps in background knowledge can feel insurmountable. After all, you can’t bring math class to a screeching halt to review the race to the moon. So, museums are uniquely positioned to provide students with the rich context they need about the past, about the natural world, about art and culture and so much more.

And, we believe, a trip to the physical museum space, or even a virtual, guided tour of the collection is not necessary for museums to have a deep and lasting impact. Over the last year of course, museum education teams have pivoted to focus on exactly this with mixed success. But as the doors swing open again, it would be a mistake to return to business as usual. Instead, museums should continue giving equal or additional weight to their efforts to reach students beyond their walls. By seeing their pandemic efforts as early prototypes in this effort, museums can iterate on solutions to one of the most vexing problems they face, which was true pre-pandemic and will continue to be true post-pandemic, MOST children will never visit them. Even so, the question they should be asking is not, “How can we recreate the experience of visiting our museum for those children who won’t be able to come?” but rather, “How can we make ourselves indispensable to teachers and families no matter where they are?”

That’s a big question, but we believe museum education teams can start to get at some answers by thinking a little less like museum educators and a little more like product managers. Before Lisa, Marley, and I started Wondrus, we worked at an ed-tech start up that provided high-quality, digital math and English Language Arts curricula and supplemental resources to K-12 teachers. In our roles as directors of curriculum there, we worked in lock-step with a cracker jack team of product managers.

Product managers are the individuals responsible for ensuring that their company’s products are both valuable to customers and viable for the business. They’re the people behind the products you know and love: your iPhone, your Netflix account, your toothbrush, your meal kit subscription.

In our experience, they succeed because they ask three key questions that keep their users front and center at all times. And education teams at museums, libraries, and nonprofits can succeed- can make themselves indispensable to classrooms and families- by asking the same ones.

Question #1: Who are our users?

Before you can begin to create materials for your “users,” you have to understand who they are. Saying “third-graders” or “social studies teachers” isn’t sufficient. You’ve got to go deeper. Product managers build out user personas and stories—through interviews, surveys, feedback loops, and usage data.

There are lots of resources out there to help you build these out, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. The simple exercise of asking yourself (and your teammates) a series of questions and writing down the answers can reveal a lot about who you’re striving to serve, what you know about them, and what you don’t yet understand.

When you ask and answer these questions, a human being begins to emerge—a persona.

The point isn’t to understand every unique user; it’s to get yourself into the habit of thinking like one. So the next time you’re tasked with creating a new learning resource, you’re designing with them specifically in mind.

Done well, a user persona helps you and your team turn something relatively abstract—a teacher, a student, a parent—into a human being. Not just a persona, but a person.

Question #2: What problems are our users trying to solve, and how can we help?

Building on user personas, this question helps reframe the work. Instead of starting with an exhibit, or a new software package you've been told to use, you start with understanding what teachers are trying to achieve—what jobs they’re trying to get done, to borrow some product management language. Then you work backwards from there.

That way, your solutions are addressing a need—and are more likely to be used.

Chances are, you already know quite a bit about the daily challenges your K-12 users face. Make a list of them and then vet it with a few teachers, adding more—and more specificity—as you go. Along the way, ask yourself what challenges your institution is particularly well suited to address.

Question #3: What will delight our users?

It might seem obvious, but it’s worth stating. If people don’t like using your materials, they’ll stop using them... or won’t ever start. And “like” is a pretty low bar—we challenge the organizations we work with to delight teachers and students.

Granted, delight means different things to different people. But here’s how we think about it: delight occurs when something reduces friction at just the right time.

Now, you can’t delight your users without knowing them, the challenges they face, and the jobs they're trying to get done. So these questions all build on each other.

But think of delight as the final ingredient—the seasoning that makes a meal taste good, that makes you want seconds. Because, when your products are delightful, teachers and students will keep coming back for more.

By asking these three questions, you can bring a product management lens to museum education, and shift your relationship with families and teachers, putting yourself on a path to indispensability in K-12 education.

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