April 25, 2007

Learning from the learners

Of all the arguments for taking a participatory approach in museums and online, I think the most compelling are rooted in recent research on informal learning and audience behavior in museums. It is conventional wisdom - at least in my workplace - that too often the way visitors use our products (exhibits, Web sites, etc.) and what they learn from them does not meet our expectations. A hard look at what is known about how visitors DO use museums, what they want from us, and the kind of learning that takes place is enlightening.

Below are a few guiding principles gleaned from writings by Lynn Dierking, John Falk, George Hein, Jay Rounds, and Daniel Spock:
  • Visitors do not view museums as classrooms for learning so much as smorgasbords of content from which they construct their own meanings. We fear this reality but we should not discount it.
  • Museums provide unique environments for engaging with ideas, sparking the imagination, and inspiring further inquiry.
  • Rather than presenting a single version of "truth," visitors may be best served when museums facilitate informed discussion incorporating multiple points of view.
  • "Minds-on" interactivity is even better than "hands-on."
  • Social interaction with group members, fellow visitors, and knowledgeable mentors is a crucial part of museum learning.
  • Successful museum learning is about making connections - social, emotional, intellectual...
To sum up, learning is more likely when a museum's approach "has realistic overlap with the audience's behavior, attitude, and expectations" - something that can best happen when the audience is involved at every stage of the process (Informal Science Learning: What the Research Says About Television, Science Museums, and Community Based Projects, ed. Valerie Crane, p. 67). I plan to do some more brainstorming to see how we might better put these principles into practice on our museum's Web site.


Becky said...

Matthew and others,

I wonder how you think the participatory approach will be received by different members of the museum world. The arguments you make are extremely compelling to museum educators (including myself!), but I'm curious about how they are received by others. Are those who spend their careers stewarding collections as comfortable with the idea of visitors re-defining the meaning of or relationship among objects?

I'm looking forward to the discussion in Chicago!

Matthew MacArthur said...

In my own experience, there is a wide variety of thought on this but for sure there is a contingent that is highly resistant to this notion. That's why we hope to facilitate a wider discussion on the issue beyond the usual core of enthusiasts. In a future post I'll ruminate further on the relationship between experts and amateurs. Thanks for joining the conversation!

Susan said...

I think it's Falk and Dierking who also point out that much of the informal learning that takes place around museums happens *after* the visit, over a longer span of one's life. So, creating a scaffolding for extending the learning experience beyond the museum visit itself becomes important. This is one place where I believe web technologies can really help--not only as a platform for participation and commuity, but as an a locus for ongoing interaction and learning over time.

Matthew MacArthur said...

Susan, you're right...one of the important types of "connections" that museums are encouraged to facilitate is between what visitors see inside the museum and experience in the wider world. I know we can be more creative about extending visitor engagement beyond the doors of the museum.

mack said...

This is fascinating.
I’d been taught that left-aligned labels are preferred, to support the prototypical F-shaped eye-tracking heatmap of web browsing. The idea is that it supports easy vertical scanning.
online learning

angel said...

i am especially fond of laynie browne’s take in her 2007 book daily sonnets…lovely gentle surprising fun familial. she takes after bernadette mayer…
have you done a sonnet prompt for read/write/poem yet?
online informal