Gaining Perspective in Free-Choice Learning: Reflecting on Practice

Looking back on things helps us gain perspective, but truly reflecting on educational practices helps build a roadmap guiding us into the future

By Lindzy Bivings, Senior Manager, School & Community Programs, California Academy of Sciences

Here are five tips in gaining perspective through using reflection to become a more effective educator. These are strategies that I wish I had known earlier in my career, and that I actively employ today. Maybe they can help you too.

Avoiding the Road to Hell . . .

There is a saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Maybe you’ve experienced that hot, uncomfortable place. I know I have! Let’s flashback to 2008, in our aquarium . . .

Sweat was dripping down my neck, my throat felt the slow burn of trying to be heard over thousands of visitors, and the students that hadn’t wandered off had some blank stares. I was definitely not meeting my intention of getting students excited about what they could do to help with coral reef conservation.

Thoughts that ran through my head: “What am I doing? Why did I let my supervisor talk me into this?”, and “How do I get out of here?”

Fortunately, over time I have learned how to make less frequent trips to hell.

Side note: The genesis of these tips began in 2010 with a program called Reflecting on Practice (RoP), developed by the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, California. Prior to the program, I had been feeling like I was treading water, and kept thinking, “If only I had a mentor to help me figure out a better way.”

RoP provided me with a context to figure out the better ways. Seven years later, I keep going back to it as a way of mentoring and managing other educators. RoP truly helps to strengthen our programs, our activities, and our working relationships. It helps us to be nimble in a changing landscape.

Tip #1: Plan Your Path Purposefully

Being reflective helps me plan and reminds me to communicate my intentions to my coworkers. If I state my intention for a specific outcome and share the ideas for how I think I might best meet that goal, my colleagues can help me get there by looking for evidence that it’s working and then working with me to brainstorm ideas for how to get there.

One docent who participated in RoP talked about this concept in this way:

“Until I began using video as a reflective tool, there were things I thought I was doing BUT in fact I was not. For example, I thought I was having engaging conversations with our guests at exhibits and during my presentations, but I was doing more lecturing than facilitating conversations.”

One of the things that I intentionally work on is designing activities that allow learners to talk out loud to one another. This is important because people in my audience have limited English, and they benefit from not having to listen to excessive talking that they then have to translate internally for themselves. When they talk in a language that is comfortable for them, it’s easier for them to internalize things.

When I think back to my aforementioned “hell,” the middle of an aquarium was not a place to meet that goal. Moreover, I wasn’t making space for students to connect what the aquarium was showing to their prior knowledge and what was important to them.

A strategy I now use is to “map out the discussions” that I want to have with my learners so that I can be responsive to their thoughts and still achieve desired outcomes (see pages 17–19 of this sample RoP module for an example). Our team at the Academy came up with our own list of strategies based on research in RoP, grounded in shared experiences in our teaching practices.

Tip #2: Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

Informal education is not new, and yet it often seems that we are inventing things over and over again. Why? (I know—it’s fun, there are things no one has tried to do, I am unique, my guests are unique, etc. These are all valid). But, come on, fess up—how many times have you created something only to realize it’s already been done, and maybe in a better way?

Before you dive into (re)inventing something, check the research. There are so many wonderful resources out there from published studies on how people learn, to papers on common misperceptions about scientific topics, and shared evaluation studies! You can also, of course, do your studies.

One of the great things about RoP is that the curriculum provides you with some of the best research that is out there on how people learn (see pages 26–27), and it helps build a shared understanding among colleagues about what that research tells you. Additionally, in our department it has created a norm of seeking out and sharing research that can inform our educational practices.

Another RoP graduate mentioned this:

“We now have a better way of talking to each other about what we do. We are building a language and way of sharing that we didn’t have in place before.”

One of my favorite resources comes from Page Keeley and Cary Ivan Schneider (here is a timely one on eclipses, in advance of the August 21 total solar eclipse in the United States). They pull together research on misperceptions and interventions around specific topics, and then create “probes” to help students and teachers externalize their thinking. This is great! I could’ve come up with my own eval, or done my own scouring of Google Scholar, but I can also build from work that others have already done—hence standing on the shoulders of giants.

Tip #3: Cultivate Curiosity about Your Learners
(or, “It’s Not about You!”)

What do your learners know? How do you figure out what’s important to them? How do you help them fulfill their own personal interests? How might your activities/programs/lessons connect with what is important to your learners? What tells you that you are doing that successfully or unsuccessfully?

Eighteen months after one of our bilingual education specialists had started working at the Academy, I asked her to reflect on her experience with RoP to determine if the program was helpful for a new-ish educator. Here’s what she said:

“Since I am still a relatively new educator, there are still many moments of me being self-conscious, etc. However, as long as I remind myself to focus on the learners, teaching becomes joyful. Many of the strategies I learned are very helpful along the way.”

Imagine that! It took me five years to really learn that lesson. I mean, I almost always had fun teaching, but I can think back to how many times I wound myself up internally, and sometimes forgot to focus, really focus, on my learners, to see them as individual people. Now I have so many questions when I teach—I want to understand people’s worldviews! And, even when I can’t learn from everyone, I want to make sure they understand how this new stuff connects to their worldviews. How wonderful that there are some tried-and-true tips for how to create space to do this!

Tip #4: Be Your Own Matchmaker—Find Your Own Mentors/Critical Friends/Community

Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match! Sometimes people magically appear when they are needed, sometimes not. Being a part of a cohesive regional RoP group as well as the larger RoP community in the world is extremely helpful. If I am successful, it is in large part due to the people who grace me with their thoughts.

When my coworkers and I participate in an RoP session, I have the opportunity to connect with them in a way that is not about meetings, or logistics, or budgets. It is about a shared community of practice. In doing so, we learn so much from each other about the essence of what it means to be an educator. This is part of the brilliance of RoP—it builds community within a workplace, and beyond! I have found it also connects me with educators beyond my own institution, both locally and nationally. My own cadre of “critical friends” are peer coaches who have helped me write articles or think through challenging activities, directed me toward grad school, connected me with grants, and shared some awesome meals and therapy sessions.

If you are a manager/supervisor, you can think about what might help facilitate your staff and volunteers in working and learning together, and from each other. Elena Aguilar’s books are helpful in being a reflective leader.

Tip #5: Embrace Experimentation and Fail Forward

Hey! Guess what? The learning that we aim for as outcomes in our programs means that we have to do a lot of learning ourselves.

This means embracing experimentation—creating intentional questions or hypotheses to test. It means failing forward, meaning each misstep took me to a new place to go, and a new strategy to try. Everyone has to learn for themselves. In my current role as someone who manages diverse educators, I am learning to share what I know and allow my staff to create their own understandings in ways that are meaningful to them. Being able to say “yes, and…” is a helpful phrase.

One educator from another department commented that after an RoP module,

“I was able to achieve a greater understanding of what is possible and how to design activities to truly make an impact.”

Also, being able to try things out and see what works is important to innovation. For inspiration on failing, check out the Museum of Failure.


Public Service Announcement!

You can sign-up for a regional Reflecting on Practice Coaching Workshop that covers the newly updated and revised curriculum! (See a sample.) One of the workshops will be happening October 17–19 at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, California, just prior to the 2017 ASTC Annual Conference.

Generous support from the (U.S.) National Science Foundation is helping to make the program flourish and grow. The Reflecting on Practice Coaching Workshop is available at a reduced fee, and scholarships are available. Reflecting on Practice is a learning partner with ASTC, the Association for Zoos and Aquariums, and the National Association for Interpretation.

Additional Upcoming Opportunities to Participate in a Reflecting on Practice Coaching Workshop

Perhaps you are interested in learning more about how RoP can help you! If so, get in touch. We are always happy to “geek out” and chat. Reflecting on Practice can truly advance our field!

  • August 14–16, 2017: YMCA Camp Loma Mar, Loma Mar, California. Contact: Lindzy Bivings.
  • August 29–31, 2017: Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, Austin, Texas. Contact: Kristin Evans.
  • September 14–16, 2017: American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York. Contact: Preeti Gupta.
  • September 25–26, 2017: Aquarium of the Pacific, Long Beach, California. Contact: Dave Bader.
  • September 26–28, 2017: South Carolina Aquarium, Charleston, South Carolina. Contact: Karen Burns.
  • October 17–19, 2017: The Tech Museum of Innovation, San Jose, California. Contact: Lindzy Bivings.
  • October 26–27, 2017: Milwaukee County Zoo, Contact: Marilyn Brink.
  • December 6–7, 2017: Riverbanks Zoo & Garden, Columbia, South Carolina. Contact: Karen Burns.
  • January 22–23, 2018: North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Raleigh. Contact: Karen Burns.
  • January 31–February 1, 2018: North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher, Kure Beach. Contact: Karen Burns.

Don’t see a workshop that meets your location or timing needs? RoP leaders may be able to travel to you and host a workshop for educators from institutions in your area. Contact: Lynn Tran.

Meet Up with Us at These Three Events during the 2017 ASTC Annual Conference in San Jose!



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