It was a simple question … and one that defied my expectations.
As a parent, what is more important for museums to focus on: inspiring curiosity in children about the world, or helping children perform better academically?
Except it isn't that simple a question, is it? It is a question weighted with value, and one that considers the different, yet complementary, roles played by museums and formal education.
Everything in my 2017 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers made me expect that, if I were to ask this question of museum-going parents, I'd get a fair number to say better academic performance. After all, most museum-going parents are extrinsically motivated, and they tended to talk about those kinds of pragmatic outcomes when they commented on the value of museums.
Thus I suspected some, when asked so bluntly, would stick to those pragmatic goals, while other parents would pause a moment and go "oh, wait … that curiosity piece is actually really important." (I expected intrinsically-motivated parents, in contrast, to be all over the curious response.)
So I included the question in my 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, and I projected about two-thirds of parents to say curiosity, and about a third to say academic performance.
I was wrong.
94% of museum-going parents want museums to focus on inspiring curiosity about the world in their children. Ninety-four percent. That is practically universal.
Surprised? Me too. Ecstatically.
But maybe museum-goers are outliers. After all, they tend to be outliers in other ways. What does the broader population of Americans want museums to focus on? To find out, I included the question in a broader population sample, refining it slightly to include responses from both parents and those without minor children.
76% of Americans agreed that inspiring curiosity about the world was more important than helping children perform better academically.
Or, to put it another way, Americans are three times more likely to want museums to focus on curiosity than academic performance.
This all begs the question … why?
Here's what I think. We all know that these two choices are not mutually exclusive. Ideally, we as a society should work to nurture inherent curiosity in children so that learning is a joy, yielding better academic outcomes (among other things). But over the past couple of decades, emphasis on academic performance has seemed to drown out that curiosity, that intrinsic motivation, in our national discussion on education. Which perhaps makes these results seem so surprising.
These results tell me that Americans highly value the role of curiosity in children's lives. That they realize it is a crucial part of education, and one that, let's be honest, the rigor and structure of school is not particularly well-suited for. Thus, things that cultivate curiosity, such as museums, are a critical underpinning of formal education, and help make successful formal education possible.
I've thought this through as a parent as well, and how museums and formal education work together. The rigor and structure of my son's public elementary school is providing something museums, and I as a parent, simply cannot: incremental, daily, focused, step-by-step learning that is comprehensive. That's extremely valuable. Museums, however, share with us all the amazing thing of being a human in this world, and all that it entails, and inspires my children to want to learn more. Together, that is what education is all about … a realization that curiosity is what helps many of us achieve personal and academic success.
The public values curiosity, and museums' role in cultivating it. Now we need to back up their belief in us by continuing and extending the work that we do while also providing evidence of this impact, and how it supports academic and personal excellence. Not by trying to out-school schools, but by being the effective foundation of curiosity and intrinsic motivation that makes personal and academic success far more likely.
A note about fielding research. I hold dear the idea that research for the field, about the field, should be shared with the field. But that only works when museums work together to make it possible. My thanks to the museums that participated in the 2018 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers, which makes my sharing this research, and fielding broader population samples, possible.
If you value this research, want more of it in the coming years, and want to track your own museum's progress over time, please consider enrolling in the 2019 Annual Survey of Museum-Goers. Enrollment will open in May 2018, and the fee for 2019 will continue to be only $1,000.
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the traditional lands of the Duwamish people. I thank them for the care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.