What does it take to create a great education program?

As we plan for 2018 at the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum, we have decided to reduce the number of programs we offer, holding workshops and home-school programs monthly instead of semi-monthly, and cultural festivals bi-monthly instead of monthly. The goal is to leave more time to ensure excellence of programs, and to build strong systems that might then allow us to build up more effectively.

This has left me thinking: What does it take to create a great education program? What are the things that we often forget, but which are critical to enduring excellence?

Below is a list of 10 statements about programming which I believe to be true and important. Each of these statements in turn leads to its own sets of questions. I welcome readers’ thoughts – are there items here that are new to you, or which often go unconsidered? Are there things I am forgetting? Would a greater exploration of any of these topics be useful?

1. Programs start with an idea. 

Where do ideas come from, and which are worth doing? How do you decide when to start a new program, and how to prioritize which idea to try next?

Where do ideas come from?

2. Offer programs that matter.

When is a program worth offering, either because it supports museum mission, makes money, or is a marketing tool? When are these priorities in conflict with each other?

3. Some programs fail.

What does it take to get a program off the ground? How nimbly can we create a pilot program – what is essential and what can we leave out of a pilot? How many years does it take for something to gain traction? And for pilot programs, how do we decide what deserves a second or third chance? How do we “fail fast” with the programs that turn out not to be successful? And how does something move from a pilot phase to something deeper?

From Spotify video on their engineering culture.

4. Good planning requires starting with evaluation.

How do you leave time to plan with clear implementation objectives and participant outcomes in mind? At what stage in program development can these objectives be articulated? How do you balance objective-based planning with leaving room for visitors to make their own discoveries?

5. Program budgets are bigger than you think they are.

What gets included in a program budget? What are the real costs of a program – not just materials, but staff time and utilities? How do you calculate indirect expenditures, and when do you include them in the program cost? And how much of the cost is passed along to visitors – how do you set fees that allow access, while also ensuring as much revenue as possible?

6. Details matter.

At what point in the process do you begin to visualize and track the tiny details that make a program successful? What tools exist, or can be invented, for remembering the paper cups and the staff to greet volunteers and the name tags and the clear communication with the admissions desk?

7. Good teaching is essential. 

What does good teaching look like? What are the varieties of good teaching, and how much variety can be allowed in a single program or institution, and how much does everyone have to follow the same rule book? What does it take to train staff to teach well?

School group at the PlayHouse with a School Programs Volunteer

8. It’s useless to offer a program if no one knows about it.

What does good marketing look like, and whose responsibility is this? In what ways can museums empower and support educators in promoting programs as widely and effectively as possible, to ensure that they are at capacity? When is fee-based marketing worth it, and what free marketing options exist? How do you engage community partners and volunteers in assisting with marketing? How do you capture and use existing data to improve marketing for future programs? And, just as important, how do education staff promote a program internally, in order to ensure that all staff understand the value of this program?

9. Programs are fundraising tools.

What contributed funds can be found to support programs? How can new and ongoing programs be an asset to fundraising, allowing the museum to reach out to new funders, or to museum supporters with additional potential? What grants are available to support programs, and who should take the lead in finding and writing these? And how important are different programs in promoting and fundraising for the museum as a whole?

10. Evaluation is best understood as one piece in a cycle of constant improvement. 

How do you know if a program “worked,” and how do you make room for constant improvement? How do you make sure that everyone – visitors, but also staff and volunteers – has the opportunity to share what worked and how the event could be improved? How do you make time to look at and make sense of the data gathered, and who needs to be part of this team? And what is needed to incorporate these findings into the next iteration of the program, to ensure constant improvement?


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