Author: Karen Burns
Organization: Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center
My name is Karen Burns, and I am an Aquarium Education Specialist at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center. For nearly a decade, the Aquarium has worked to improve the skills of its education staff through incorporating reflective practice. Along with my colleague, Gallery Educator Lindsay Thomas, I lead the facilitation and implementation of the Reflecting on Practice™ (RoP) Professional Learning program for education staff, education interns, and volunteer docents. Staff from other departments–including Animal Husbandry, Operations and Guest Services–have also participated in this program. These colleagues of ours are not traditionally considered to be “educators” and their work does not strictly fall under the purview of the education department–but they are all public-facing and often interact with visitors. By participating together, we have been able to take a holistic approach to the visitor experience that builds in learning across all areas of staff interaction.
Each fall, staff are invited to participate in an RoP learning group. The size of the group depends on availability and supervisor approval and can range from 6-15 participants. This group will function as a cohort throughout the duration of the program. Sessions and/or activities from the RoP curriculum are conducted at scheduled meetings held 1-2 times monthly. The curriculum is covered in its entirety over the course of 6-12 months. The Aquarium has 400+ volunteer education docents; these docents play an important role at the Aquarium by engaging and educating guests at touch pools, exhibits and Curiosity Carts providing hundreds of programs each month. RoP activities play an important role in their training and have been incorporated into new docent onboarding classes and ongoing enrichment training for experienced docents. In addition, entire RoP sessions are incorporated into the introductory training for summer interns who will be working as gallery educators, summer camp and outreach program instructors. Although these staff are seasonal and often do not work full time, our investment in their professional learning has huge payoffs for our learners by creating a consistent, high-quality experience for visitors.
In particular, RoP sessions use video as a reflective tool–and that has enabled our education staff to elevate their learning facilitation skills to another level. After participating in the video reflection process, they reach a comfort level reviewing and discussing their presentations with colleagues, a.k.a. their “critical friends.” Using questioning and engagement strategies introduced in RoP and explored in the video reflections, staff from across the Aquarium are able to increase the impact of their presentations and the overall guest experience. These investments in professional learning for staff and volunteers have supported both educational programming and Aquarium goals, as well as the development and professionalism of education staff and volunteers.
Reflecting on Practice has given credibility and validity to what we do as informal educators in the field of education and as we look ahead to enhancing the guest experience at Virginia Aquarium, I know that because of RoP we will be providing exceptional learning experiences for all of our visitors.