Q&A with Cindy Foley: Developing Systemic Interdependence

Topics: Community Partnerships, Future of Learning

KnowledgeWorks held a workshop that informed the creation of our recent Navigating the Future of Learning: A Strategy Guide. We reached out to workshop participant Cindy Foley, Executive Deputy Director for Learning and Experience at the Columbus Museum of Art, to share her thoughts on the opportunity area called “Systemic Interdependence,” where the strategy guide asks, “How might we forge structural partnerships within education and across other sectors for the benefit of all?” Here are her responses.

KnowledgeWorks Q&A with Cindy Foley from Columbus Museum of Art. She says, "The real doing is the relationship building."

Why do you think that systemic interdependence is an aim that education stakeholders should pursue?

Those types of partnerships are critical to achieving our aspirational visions. For example, the Columbus Museum of Art has a partnership with Columbus State Community College. Just last year, we opened a lab preschool together. But opening a school was not on our minds when we began working together.

As an institution, we are committed to creativity as our social mission. We know that when young children are in learning environments that focus on cultivating creativity, imagination and wonder, they become lifelong learners with those same dispositions. So we have for a long time had early childhood programs at the museum and worked to support early childhood educators.

Our relationship with Columbus State began very simply: future early childhood educators studying there would visit the museum quarterly to learn more about how the museum was fostering imagination and critical thinking in very young children. Eventually, Columbus State asked if we might consider allowing some of their students to complete their student teaching in the museum’s early childhood programs. Finding enough five-star Step Up To Quality teaching placements for their students was becoming more and more challenging. As we placed more Columbus State student teachers in our programs, they became essential members of our team, bringing new skills and resources from the college with them. Momentum grew.

When the city of Columbus announced that they wanted to prioritize early childhood education and acknowledged that we not only needed more early childhood educational facilities but also more highly trained early childhood educators, the museum and Columbus State opened Wonder School. The lab preschool provides up to 40 preservice teachers with a museum/school practicum built around a joint mission to foster purposeful play, critical inquiry and a collaborative community approach to education. It was what our community needed, and the school advanced both of our institutional missions. But we didn’t know that going in. The process was not linear. The key to success was a focus on relationships and radical incrementalism. We didn’t do too much too soon, and we celebrated small wins, which allowed for our successes to build and momentum to grow.  The effort advanced because the partners honored the varied expertise of each partner and the relationships that we were developing.

What are the key differences between traditional partnerships and the types of partnerships that you see as having the potential to be transformative?

Traditionally, partnerships have been very transactional. We have all been a part of well-intentioned partnerships that didn’t go anywhere. I think often it’s because we don’t actually need one another. I can recall one effort that we did alongside several other organizations. We liked that we were doing things for the same purpose and mission, but we didn’t really need them and they didn’t need us. So it felt like a burden to meet and to coordinate efforts. We weren’t building the other institutions’ capacity or adding value for them. While we had a shared vision, we didn’t do anything that those of us participating couldn’t do on our own.

In your experience, how can education organizations set up partnerships that have the potential to achieve big goals?

It’s less about the partnership agreement and the contract and who’s going to do what, etc. It’s about the relationships. We can’t make progress until we have created trust-based relationships among the organizations and the people in them, which is far more difficult and complex work. When we have that, then we have empathy and care about what that other institution is doing. We want to see their success. In the past, we would decide that we wanted to have a partnership, we would design it, and then we would spend a day deciding what to do together. More recently, most of our sustained partnerships have taken up to a year of cultivation before we have even done something. The real doing is the relationship building.

How do you think these types of partnerships are reshaping the future of your organization and of learning in your community?

Columbus Museum of Art is imagining that we can be something different. We are willing to have influence over and be influenced by other organizations, by the culture and by the community. That means that we also need to be willing to reinvent our own understanding of what our educational value is.

A project that we are currently co-developing engages teacher researchers to look at creative thinking and its relationship to civic engagement. We don’t know what’s going to happen from that. Some people may wonder, “What is a museum doing messing around in creativity and civic capacity building?” But our community needs us to be in that role. Artists have been navigating the creative and civic sphere for generations, museums can champion teaching for dispositional growth and be the catalysts educators need.

These deep partnerships have led us to see ourselves very differently. We now believe we are an institution that can catalyze social change, and we make decisions accordingly. I don’t think we would have come to that realization on our own. Now, we are in a position to serve our community in much more meaningful ways.

Navigating the Future of Learning: A Strategy Guide is organized into five opportunity areas for building effective strategies and offers examples of strategies that stakeholders might adopt, along with associated tactics. Explore more opportunity areas and strategies.