Today I decided to start my reading for Gavin, and the natural first start was piece of literature he'd previously shown me, chapter 7 of the Handbook of Research on Science Education, Volume II, Learning Science Outside of School.
The chapter summarized both the concept of informal learning (which it prefers to call learning outside of school), as opposed to informal education (the distinction seems unclear to me), and the various means and methods of outside of school learning can be deployed, and a review of past studies examining their effectiveness.
The provided definition is, "learning that is self-motivated, coluntary, guided by the learner's needs and interests, learning that is engaged in throughout his or her life" (Dierking, Falk, Rennie, Anderson, & Ellenbogen, 2003, p. 109). The key distinction to be made is that learning can occur in formal or informal settings, or curricula, or structure, but the learning itself cannot be appropriately described as such. So, as far as I'm concerned, the term informal education is still fully functional, but reimplementations of that descriptor informal must be treated with caution.
The chapter also readily acknowledges the "problem" of the term informal education, namely that it serves as a grab-bag definition of any and all education occurring outside of a formal curriculum within a formal setting. As a person thoroughly consumed by their obsession with structure, and by extension, language, semantics, and precision of speaking, I was on the edge of my seat with the lovely sentiment, "The important message about terminology is that wherever research is done and whatever conditions apply to what, where, how, and with whom learners are given opportunity to learn, researchers should make clear the meaning of the terms they use." In short, this belies the idea that without establishing the underlying declarative facts, concepts, rules, and procedures can never follow.
The chapter refers to various views on learning, which I'll
need to review: behaviorist, constructivist, and socio-cultural.
A minor point for the focuses of my research, but important nonetheless, is the fact that studies focused on the learning and engagement of minorities, disadvantaged groups, women, and adults, are grossly underrepresented (Falk et al., 2012; Lloyd et al., 2012).
Again the importance of play in children, and that learning is something that occurs beyond the scope of the lesson; namely, that learning is a cumulative process that requires significant time-scales to measure significant effects within.
"The original goals of the science museum were conservation, collection, research, and training, but the current generation of science-technology centers has just one mission: public education (Friedman, 2010)."
As these facilities often bleed into one another, there is an ongoing challenge of maintaining funding, particularly with the expansion of digital content (a big focus in parts of this reading), and the constant struggle of balancing learning with fun, but, of course, it is well acknowledged that the two are hardly mutually exclusive (and thank goodness they aren't, because that's the whole idea of my research!). An important takeaway as well was the notion (from other studies, Falk and Needha 2001, Rennie and Williams, 2006), that visits to science centers and museums reinforce and extend visitor knowledge, as opposed to add new knowledge.
The transcription (or more properly described, transposition) of learned knowledge into the knowledge to be presented is described as muscographic transposition, a frankly obnoxious term for what I would consider to be a philosophically and psychologically intuitive idea.
In a portion from a study by Mortensen (2011), "Full interpretation of this exhibit required visitors to assume the role of a ave beetle inside a dark cave; however, many vistors did not realize this. Mortensen concluded that immersive exhibits built as metaphors neieded to make that metaphor explicit, advising visitors of their intended participatory role and giving hints on how to play it."
A challenge remains, to use the creation of science stories, a typical result of the muscographic transposition, to engage audiences so interaction with the information as it is meant to be met (overcoming mind models) can occur, and learning can happen.
Afonso and Gilbert (2007) found "Exhibits that were easily related to everyday situations were more educationally successful than those that were not, because many visitors failed to recognize the underpinning concepts of exhibits that exemplified phenomena or were unable to identify the source and/or target of an analogy-based exhibit."
Again, a need for a didactic engagement, some degree of framing and structure/guidance, is essential for proper engagement and learning.
In good exhibit design, It should be obvious what one has to do toe engage effectively.
Barriault and Pearson (2010), proposed a mechanism to monitor effectiveness of exhibits:
"The Visitor Engagement Framework comprises seven observable visitor behaviors divided into three levels: initiating Behaviors (visitors do the activity or watch others), Transition Behaviors visitors repeat the activity, express positive emotion in response to engagement), and Breakthrough Behaviors (visitors refer to past experiences while engaging, seek and share information, are engaged and involved)."
"High levels of breakthrough behaviors are expected if an exhibit promotes learning."
A process of interpretation of exhibits (specifically dioramas), is a model of
Co-participation is essential for engagement, by use of larger screens/spaces for observers, multiple interfaces, and other elements to create a social element to the process of interaction with exhibits.
Not terribly relevant to my own research, in the section concerned with Aquaria, Zoological and Botanical gardens, and Planetariums, a simple conclusion was found that with the first two types "[...] research assessing success in communicating envrionmental and conservation messages reveals that these do not rank highly on vistors' agendas." and that one of the most effective manners of engaging attention to communicate important concepts is live presentations, followed by prerecorded material, and most distantly signage, unsurprisingly, but rather sadly, content and ideas presented through signs can only be effective, if they are effective, if they are read.
In what I can only imagine was a rather sad conclusion to be reached, Smith, Weiler, and Ham (2011) suggested "[...] paying attention to the animals and what they do distracts visitors, reducing their focus on messages about conservation.". This, frankly, is at best, an unavoidable problem of zoological gardens, and at worse, a grave misappreciation of what brings people in the gates. Having active participation, both from the audience, and of educators, seems to be an important step to properly construct conceptions and ideas, and to scaffold learning.
In a broad summary, what seems most essential to informal education is interaction, within the audience among one another, with the material being presented, with the presenters of the information, and between those presenters and all other educators involved. Before informal education can be most effective, proper framing must be established before and after by those involved, whether by teachers involved in bringing students to the environment, families enjoying a museum together, or audience members discussing collaboratively their understanding of a concept in conjunction with experts.
Proper priming and followup seem incredibly important, and evaluating the effectiveness of informal education, learning outside of school, seems to be heavily dependent on having comparable metrics between studies, robustness of the time intervals involved (pre-post testing with a six week retention seems to be a rather nice combination), and a properly established desired outcomes and materials to be covered.