Claudine K. Brown
Assistant Secretary for Education and Access, Smithsonian Institution
Meeting learners where they are is the best point of departure.
I have always valued the role of the educator in our society. Whether I was called a teacher, a lawyer, or an arts administrator, I have always believed the my task, was to facilitate the ability of others to acquire knowledge. Whether I am teaching in a classroom or a museum, it is always important to me to find out where learners are and let that be the point of departure for their journey. This dovetails with George Hein's theories concerning a constructivist approach to learning, which suggests that "learners construct knowledge for themselves; and each learner individually (and socially) constructs meaning—as he or she learns." Constructivism acknowledges that each learner comes to an experience with some deeply personal contextual knowledge and a point of view that should be honored and affirmed.
We need to remember to honor individual’s inclination to play.
I recently attended a "Gaming" conference and was pleased that this community is reclaiming the importance of play for learners. It has been traditionally held that play is the work of young learners. Through play they solve problems, simulate experiences, develop language and engage their imaginations. The attendees at this conference were of course, extolling the virtues of video games and virtual simulations. They saw "serious games" as empowering tools for STEM education and for imparting skills that will be viable in the workforce of the 21st Century. They cautioned the audience to remember that our youth develop and play games because they are enjoyable. We were encouraged to create joyful, challenging and narratively rich games that honor a persons inclination to play.
I believe in immersive experiences. We learn by doing.
Having worked in museums for most of my career, I believe in immersive experiences—learning by doing. I love the Aristotle quote, "What we have to learn to do, we learn by doing." We know that students have different learning styles and they may have a variety of learning challenges. I believe that immersive learning—learning that imparts new habits of mind will empower learners to shape and master their own learning. In our science museums we teach inquiry-based learning. I our art museums, we teach design thinking and we use active learning approaches; and in our history museums, we use problem-based learning. Each of these methods encourages students to ask questions, identify problems, identify resources, prototype or debate ideas, get feed back and work on solutions. We believe that if we can produce critical thinkers who can apply these learned skills to other appropriate situations, we will have made a significant difference.
Museum educators take research and make it accessible to a broad and diverse public.
I see museum educators as advocates for the public. Our task is to take the research of our curators and make it accessible to a broad and diverse public. Clear communication is a hallmark of the work that we do. Many of us work in fields where the language is very nuanced and the concepts are sometimes very complex. It is our responsibility to explain facts and phenomena in ways that make them understandable and compelling for all types of learners. For those of us who work directly with the public, the gratification can be instant. There is no high greater than sharing someone's "aha" moment. This is the perfect job for people who are attracted to "brain candy." Our job is to continuously learn. We must master the new content that our researchers reveal, as we discover and respond to how our publics are shaping, understanding and acting on that content.
Our art is as complex as our nation.
Prior to returning to the Smithsonian, I worked with artists engaged in community work. These were artists who collected stories from people facing a variety of challenges that included mental health issues, social issues, isolation and/or poverty. The work that was created included plays, film, games, short stories, dance, murals, spoken word workshops for youth and musical performances. The audiences and contributors were migrant workers, the incarcerated, new immigrants, teen run-aways, and our neighbors across the nation dealing with change. My definition for art is: "the spirit made manifest." I learned from this work, that our nation is complex. If we rely on the popular media, our perspectives well be incredibly limited. There are important stories that we may never be exposed to. I valued witnessing authentic work, made by those who lived the experiences. I found that our youthful participants learned through this work to care about something that was bigger than themselves. I pay homage to Marty, Jawole, Meghan, Tory, John, Cindy, Carlton, Caron, Liz, Biko, Ping, Sandy and a legion of artists who continue to inspire me every day.
The views expressed on this site are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pearson Foundation.
Claudine K. Brown is the assistant secretary for education and access for the Smithsonian Institution. She is responsible for defining the Smithsonian’s education program and reports directly to Secretary Wayne Clough. Her focus is the Institution-wide plan for educational initiatives, assessment strategies and funding for students in the K-12 range. Brown oversees two of the Smithsonian’s educational organizations—the National Science Resources Center and the Smithsonian Center for Education and Museum Studies—and coordinates 32 education-based offices in museums and science centers.
Brown had been the director of the arts and culture program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation in New York since 1995. In 1990, she joined the Smithsonian to serve as director of the National African-American Museum Project. In this position, she coordinated the efforts of advisory committees that considered the role of the Smithsonian in the development of a national museum devoted to exclusively to the documentation of African American life, art, history and culture. She developed the Institution’s final study on the project and a program plan for the proposed museum. In 1991, she also became the deputy assistant secretary for the arts and humanities and developed policy for many Smithsonian museums.
As director of the arts and culture program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, Brown positioned the organization as a leading arts grantmaker that supports institutions that are committed to excellence, diversity and community involvement. During the early years of her tenure at the foundation, Brown worked to strengthen community-based arts education programs. More recently, she has worked with innovative organizations that have helped creative young people acquire new-media literacy.
From 1977 to 1990, Brown held several positions at The Brooklyn Museum: museum educator (1977-1982), manager of school and community programs (1982-1984) and assistant director for government and community relations (1985).
In addition to working in the museum and philanthropy communities, Brown has served for more than 20 years as a faculty advisor and instructor in the Leadership in Museum Education Program at Bank Street Graduate School of Education in New York City, giving her the opportunity to work with some of the pre-eminent museum evaluators, educators and thinkers in the field. Many of the more than 200 students Brown advised and taught are now directors of education and managers at art, history, natural history, science and children’s museums throughout the country.
Brown earned her bachelor’s degree from Pratt Institute in New York City and master’s degree in museum education from Bank Street College of Education. She earned her law degree from Brooklyn Law School.