11. 2017-July-24 Comps Day 1- Holliday

11. 2017-July-24 Comps Day 1- Holliday

My Prompt:

Through a written paper, please discuss how learning might occur in museums and how it might be different than learning in formal classrooms. Also, discuss the variety of education interventions that have been used in museums historically and how each might impact visitor learning.

I started at 8, took lunch at 12:30, and turned in my essay right at the deadline of 17:00. I spent the last half hour just making sure I actually had all the references I was making or alluding to, and plugging them in and formatting them. I've never had nine hours pass so quickly. I've been home for three hours and it already feels like several days worth of time has passed in that shorter interval (which is admittedly sorta neat). I feel like I did a decent job of addressing the first part of the prompt, discussing self determination theory as well as the nature of museums as informal education institutions. For the second part, I don't feel nearly as confident about my answers. It got really rambly and I found myself lashing out like an octopus playing the drums. But I think that that's a good takeaway, that I need to do more reading and thinking about informal education interventions and museum exhibit work.


The paper:

Debate continues at a semantic level about the proper terminology used to describe learning and education that takes place outside of the formal school curriculum. With terms such as informal, nonformal, out-of-school, and free-choice learning being favored by different authors (Dierking et al., 2003; Kim & Dopico, 2016),  criticism frequently falls on the term “informal learning” due to distinction between it and formal or nonformal learning being muddied. However, general consensus supports the use of the terms formal and informal education to distinguish learning which occurs in- or outside of the classroom. Formal education is constrained by hierarchical structuring, administrative formality, large-group classroom management, and strict measures on student success (Smith 2006). This corresponds to the purpose of formal education in preparing students for integration into the community at large, described rather grimly, “as a mechanism of indoctrination for the practical purposes of social efficiency.” This prioritizes the bulk instruction of predefined topics in a curricula with limited to no room for expansion into unique development of groups or individuals (Harper, 2010).  

Formal education is further constrained to the temporal structure and curriculum of schooling, which results in children spending over 79% of their waking hours outside of school, (NRC, 2000). When extended to the human lifespan, this time, which can potentially be utilized in some part for informal education, expands to 90% (Bransford et al., 2005). One of the benefits of informal education over formal education is the absence of curricular constraints, allowing any subject to any depth, to be the focus. While formal education environs are commonly the source of new pieces of knowledge, informal environments reinforce and extend visitor knowledge, but infrequently add new knowledge (Rennie & Williams, 2006). As formal curricula strain to accommodate expanding breadth and depth of material, informal education allows for “learning [which] can be generated by entertaining engagement that is designed to create further interest and a desire to learn more about the topic” (Fenichel and Schweingruber, 2010). Informal environments typically allow for learning that is described as learner-motivated, guided by learner interests, free-choice, personal, ongoing, contextually relevant, collaborative, nonlinear, and open-ended (Griffin, 1998; Falk and Dierking, 2000). This allows for learners to delve deeper into content and topics of interest to them, while at the same time frequently avoiding the trappings of the expectations of formal education, namely rigid testing and instruction (elements of competence, as discussed in the next paragraphs). A frequent quagmire in informal settings is anything that makes it “feel like school”. The recurrence of the word engagement and motivation emphasizes the capacity of informal education to not only to educate, but to do so in a manner that cultivates future independent learning.

Museums of natural history focus primarily on anthropology, geology, and cosmology, and several facets of biology, including human evolution, animal diversity, environmental conservation, and sustainable development; many science centers and museums specifically address sustainable development, global climate change and other process driven environmental concerns. Botanic and Zoological gardens are major sites for biodiversity and conservation education. In all of these instances, however the focus primarily lies on products of processes, rather than the processes themselves and the underlying concepts. The historical role of museums as collections, sites of classifications and categories, continues to permeate museum practice, and reduces many exhibits to merely collections of identifying labels, as matrices of facts without cogent application.

The example that most prominently comes to mind is a classic: dinosaurs. All children love dinosaurs. So it makes sense that natural history museums have dinosaur skeletons or facsimiles taking up a large amount of exhibit space. However, if you were to ask a patron what they learned from their visit, most likely you will find that they learned, or had confirmed for them, that yes, dinosaurs are in fact awesome. Beyond this, they may have learned incidental factoids about the ecology or taxonomy of dinosaurs, but the underlying processes, whether concerning their evolutionary relationships, fossilization, or identification, are frequently left at the wayside, which is at odds with the goal in science education of establishing the nature of science. There would seem to be an age range in which children are indoctrinated with the names of a phenomenal number of dinosaur names, yet there continues to be a dearth of progress in what children learn about dinosaurs. In a world where we understand many if not all dinosaurs were feathered, and were an ancestral group to modern birds, popular culture, and in many ways the contingent fields examined in science communication and education, continue to languish in the shadow of Jurassic Park; this sort of disconnect between modern scientific research and public perception can be found in countless other examples.

At an educational level, dinosaur exhibits are not indicative of much success. It frequently seems that the fascination we have with the strange and peculiar (and like and familiar) is used to gather, and even maintain attention, but is then not heavily leveraged into more meaningful learning. In many NHM installations, the biodiversity of life, or at least animal, or at least chordate life, is on display, but the various concepts being presented alongside these exhibit elements, usually concepts on phylogeny, evolution or simply natural history, fall to the wayside beside the spectacle of the primary materials of the exhibits and their systematics. Especially as many of these concepts require or support some foundation of scientific literacy, it is even more crucial that the exhibits provide the necessary scaffolding to allow for meaningful learning by patrons/audiences.

In most - and possibly all - educational contexts, two interrelated general outcomes must be considered:  engagement with includes the audience's total attention and interest in the content and learning which encompasses the audience’s retention of content. Both of these metrics can be evaluated at a population or individual level.

“Pervasive student disengagement is both a national and an international problem, with 20-25% of students in 28 OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries classified as having low participation and/or a low sense of belonging (Willms, 2003).”

We can see the interplay of engagement and learning in four common responses to content:  some learners will readily engage and learn, others will have difficulty engaging but easily learn once so engaged, others will engage easily but retain information poorly, and still others will have difficulty with both facets. We desire retention of information and concepts presented in the educational environments.  But perhaps more importantly we desire to see integration/awareness of the knowledge retained into their understanding and appreciation of the content as it applies to their lives and the world around them.   Thus, engagement can be viewed as a gateway to learning, and learning a gateway to awareness. Awareness of global scale concepts and issues is crucial to effective action to address these problems as they continue to develop.

In any endeavor, humans are driven by some combination of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations. Extrinsic motivations typically consist of positive or negative rewards and punishments exterior to the activity directly which may or may not be reinforcements for desired behaviors and outcomes. Intrinsic motivations come from the performance of the activity itself, or from internally produced reinforcements. Studies have shown (classically, Skinner), that extrinsic rewards can produce motivation for behaviors, but can frequently diminish engagement with the activity proper as well as any intrinsic motivation. Self Determination Theory delineates three major facets needed for meaningful intrinsic motivation: Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Autonomy describes the ability of a person to have a measure of meaningful control over the outcomes of their actions within an environment, an ability to perform an action and appreciate that the outcome corresponds in some rational measure. Competence is the sense of being able to perform a task, neither to so little an extent that failure or success are out of  one’s control, nor so well that success or failure is a guarantee; it is the self-perception that you understand the dynamics of inputs and outputs in a context. Relatedness then consists of your actions existing within a context relating to other actors, whether they be other individuals (social relatedness) or merely the outcomes of the activities. When all three of these factors are felt, intrinsic motivation is easily produced and maintained, allowing for easier and sustainable engagement in activities.

In informal settings, whether they be museums, learning centers, or non-structured environs such as parks or beaches, potential learning enables all three facets of Self Determination theory. Autonomy is exemplified in the free-choice nature of attendees in informal settings. Whether in a structured environment such as a museum, botanic or zoological garden, or science center, visitors have the freedom to choose which exhibits and displays to interact with. The degree to which they choose to interact with possible learning sites allows for a comfortable establishment of competence: without the looming pressure of examinations or assessments, informal learning allows for personal selection of the degree of information learned, establishing a personal measure of difficulty. Finally, informal settings typically allow for peer-mediation of learning either among classmates, family groups, or friends: learners can interact with one another in conjunction with contextual elements, share knowledge, and incorporate learning into both personal and sociocultural contexts.

In contrast, curricula (if not individual units of instruction) heavily impede autonomy, as the materials being covered, as well as their rate of coverage, are defined not by student choice or success, but rather the timelines imposed by the curricula themselves. Competence is somewhat supported, particularly in older students as elective and advanced course present themselves, allowing students some measure of selection in the difficulty and nature of materials learned, but the gross requirements of the education system means students will be forced frequently to deal with subjects and topics that they find challenging/overwhelming or redundant/unnecessary. While many of the sociocultural contexts are shared in both informal and formal settings, the concurrent discipline expectations in formal education often are an impediment to the conjunction of relatedness with learning.

In the sciences, the vast span of topics contained within curricula requires a density of material to be presented with precludes prolonged endeavors to complete understanding, particularly in science and technology fields which are in a constant state of growth. Major processes underlying key components of these systems, such as evolution, biochemistry, thermodynamics, etc. are taught and tested solely within the confines of increasingly standardized tests, which limits the amount of time students and educators can openly explore topics of interest. In contrast Science centers and museums typically feature exhibits on topics that explore niche topics, utilizing novel interactive approaches to improve engagement. These interactions are frequently physically interactive, but more progressively are being developed to also be mentally interactive, and support use by multiple members within social groups. Falk and Dierking’s (2000) Contextual Model of Learning explicitly delineates three suites, containing eight factors, as fundamentally key to museum-based learning:

Personal Context

  1. Motivation and expectations

  2. Prior knowledge, interests, and beliefs

  3. Choice and control

Sociocultural Context

  1. Within-group sociocultural mediation

  2. Facilitated mediation by others

Physical Context

  1. Advance organizers and orientation

  2. Design

  3. Reinforcing events and experiences outside the museum

Within these eight factors one can readily see the expression of Self Determination Theory, as well as the recurrence of its three components. What becomes especially apparent is the role that prior knowledge, both in the personal and physical context, are crucial for understanding of materials presented. Norman (1988) coined the term “affordances” to describe directly perceivable properties of objects that determine how they could possibly be used, which in turn can support the immediate apprehendability of exhibits, particularly those with an interactive design. This idea of affordances is further encouraged as it is shown that using abstract models of concepts and processes in place of exemplar based models facilitates their use in novel settings (Gick & Holyoak, 1980), supporting the ongoing goal of promoting critical thinking and scientific literacy. However, this concept is complicated  by studies which show that attempts to use abstractions, analogy, and metaphor as such affordances can often fail as patrons of science museums tend to be highly literal in their appreciation of exhibits (Falk & Dierking, 1992; Gammon, 1999). In recent studies (Mortensen, 2011; Achiam, 2013) it has been shown that exhibits which utilize metaphor or abstraction to convey concepts must be explicitly didactic; in short, analogy and metaphors can only be transposed successfully to other applicable contexts if the transposition is clearly illuminated (Afonso and Gilbert, 2007). Intentional thematic linkages between exhibits from the perspective of staff can easily become obtuse to visitors (Oppenheimer, 1986) without obvious signage or connections. As such, the interactions between exhibits and patrons, and between exhibits and one another must be consciously delineated to optimize immediate apprehendability not only of the exhibits themselves, but the larger themes that they are designed to be connected by. The use of analogy and metaphor, abstractions, to convey complex concepts clearly has a place in both formal and informal education, but constant vigilance is needed to ensure that the desired outcomes are effectively communicated throughout to ensure both engagement and proper understanding.

The Biological Sciences Curriculum Study (BSCS) 5e model has been in use in formal settings since the late 1980’s (Bybee et al 2006) directly utilizes the the developed knowledge of the contextual model of learning, with each step building on the self-determination theory model for learning. Engagement allows the instructor to directly assess the preexisting knowledge, conceptions, and contexts of students. Exploration allows for relatively self-guided, competence-supporting activities interacting with the subject being worked with. This is then followed by Explanation, where the concepts at hand are made explicit by the instructor, working from the previous steps. An Elaboration step then revisits the concepts and exercises of the Exploration stage, now incorporating the new information from the Explanation phase, finally ending with the Evaluation stage, wherein the didactic content is reviewed, and the expected takeaways are made explicit. In the 5es, deliberate effort is made to ensure that not only are the contexts of learning established between instructors and learners, but that self-driven activities and feedback (in all five phases, varying in nature from initial feedback in Engagement to corrective instruction in Explanation) help to support an ongoing sense of competence, and provides some degree of freedom for developing autonomy and relatedness. Praxeological lessons taken from Informal education, allowing for self-motivated learning, can allow for a student to learn not only within the informal setting, but for instructors to be more effective upon their return to a formal one (Kuh et al, 1994)

Classically, museums were primarily collections based, and used as institutions for conservation, collection, research, and training. However, with the advent of non-collection driven science centers and other types of museums, public education has come to the forefront as an explicitly institutional mission (Friedman, 2010). Historically museums were sites of categorical research, collections of materials both historical and biological, in a period where such classification and taxonomy of things was perceived to the only sources of knowledge. These sites of research naturally transitioned to universities in the first half of the 20th century as understanding of both physical laws, biological principles, and geological processes became prominent fields of study. As such the function of museums as the homes of collections, collection based research, and presentation began to transition towards the more education oriented focus of today. With the primary exception of art museums, which continue to have a primary aesthetic function, most museums now are structured to present collection materials in such a way to promote learning and understanding of the materials within. At their core, collections allow for the concentrated display of relevant artifacts and structures that are infrequently encountered firsthand elsewhere. Just as in zoos and aquaria one might see live, in the flesh, exotic or obscure organisms, in natural history museums an assortment of geological, biological, and anthropological materials are assembled in coherent proximity, bringing ideas and concepts from texts to prominent reality. This transformative experience, taking the abstracted and making it real, can allow for rapid reinforcement of existing understanding, and appreciation of ideas, ranging from realizing quite how large an elephant seal is (personal observation), to the craft and art of artifacts from antiquity.

As the topics of study have become more complex, so too has the expectation of and from museums to present these concepts as part of their educational mission. Whereas before the presentation of a collection was relegated primarily to explanations of classifications and obtuse labeling, now displays must be supplemented and in some cases supplanted with far more convoluted, interactive/participatory elements to properly convey the ideas contained within. Again, museums find themselves in a position where they must use all of the tools at their disposal to communicate increasingly complex ideas in supplement to the preexisting knowledge patrons have obtained from other environments both formal and informal. Additional challenges come from the varying natures of visitors to museums, as described by Falk (2009).

Falk identifies five broad types of visitor roles: Explorer; Facilitator; Experience seeker; Professional/Hobbyist; and Recharger. The nuances of these five roles further complicate the task of museum-based learning, as the goals of visitors can be at odds with educational goals. Experience Seekers’ and Rechargers’ motivations to visit museums tend to be less driven by a desire to learn, and more a desire to experience, either aesthetically or introspectively. Experience Seekers consider Museums to be a landmark, a destination at a locale, and going there is as important as the experiences it may contain. Conversely, Rechargers seek the atmosphere of museums, the calm, often serenely aesthetic surroundings a change of pace from the daily hustle and bustle. In contrast, the Explorer, Facilitator, and Professional/Hobbyist all enter museums with explicit educational goals. The primary differences between the three roles fall into the distinctions between who the experience is for, and the specificity of the experiences sought out. The Explorer and Professional/Hobbyist seek out general or specific knowledge, respectively, while the Facilitator typically prioritizes the learning and experiences of those they are visiting with. Naturally, all of these roles can overlap to varying degrees from visitor to visitor, and certain roles can allow for more or less difficult interaction with exhibits of any design. Facilitators in particular seem keenly aware of the educational purpose of museums, and seek to engage others, in many ways intuitively creating relatedness, during their visit. Especially when shortfalls are found in conveying broad ideas and connecting linkages between exhibits, Facilitators can often serve as buttresses to scaffold learning in other groups. When an interactive exhibit’s function is not entirely clear to one visitor, other visitors who readily understand (or not) and participate can allow for bridges of competence for novice visitors.

The National Research Council’s report (Bell et al, 2009) made the following three recommendations for informal education exhibit programmers and designers:

Recommendation 1: Exhibit and program designers should create informal environments for science learning according to the following principles. Informal environments should • be designed with specific learning goals in mind (e.g., the strands of science learning) • be interactive • provide multiple ways for learners to engage with concepts, practices, and phenomena within a particular setting • facilitate science learning across multiple settings • prompt and support participants to interpret their learning experiences in light of relevant prior knowledge, experiences, and interests • support and encourage learners to extend their learning over time

Recommendation 2: From their inception, informal environments for science learning should be developed through community-educator partnerships and whenever possible should be rooted in scientific problems and ideas that are consequential for community members.

Recommendation 3: Educational tools and materials should be developed through iterative processes involving learners, educators, designers, and experts in science, including the sciences of human learning and development.

The first recommendation refers to the “strands of science learning” which themselves overlap heavily with the strategies of the 5es, as well as Self-determination theory. The second recommendation recognizes that informal and formal education are complementary, and that direct cooperation between separate institutions can allow for most effective building on preexisting experiences. Recommendation three states the conglomeration of a number of design principles, namely that the interventions, tools, exhibits, and concepts should be built progressively and in conjunction with the intended audiences and contributors. A “Fail-faster” approach can be utilized here to as rapidly as possible both develop and improve exhibit design both to facilitate issues in design and routes to educational success.


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12. 2017-July-25 Comps Day 2- Mitchell

12. 2017-July-25 Comps Day 2- Mitchell

10. 2017-July-23