Monday, October 3, 2011

The Dance: Informal & Formal Learning

Just one example of informal learning in its many dimensions

For years, I viewed the relationship between formal education and informal learning as a kind of dance. Two partners move in relation with one another inspired by a shared goal of educating students and serving the public. This image fit when I worked in public education in professional development and when I moved to museums. At Minnesota Children’s Museum, school visits and field trip programs were a high priority. Our long-term school partnerships reflected local school priorities and they grew. Curricula and kits that we developed, whether on geometry or water, were hands-on, for small group or family learning, and place-based. Yet they always reflected topics, skills, or resources where teachers expressed a need for support. Along with others, I described museums and informal learning as enhancing
, complementing, or supplementing formal education.

Finding Our Stride
Verbs matter. Enhancing, complementing, or supplementing are following verbs. For years, informal learning in museums was following formal education.

Learning, or at least our understanding of it, has been undergoing a transformation. Virtually all people of all ages and backgrounds are, at some time, engaged in informal learning, characterized as self-motivated, guided by learner interests, voluntary and personal, contextually relevant, collaborative, and non-linear. Opportunities for out-of-classroom learning through media, museums, zoos, libraries, nature areas, recreational activities, hobby clubs, community programs, on-line courses and resources (+ big etc.) are abundant and increasing. An estimated 80% of a child’s learning between the time she enters kindergarten and graduates from high school happens outside the classroom

Currents of change have placed informal learning in a pivotal role in life-long learning, classroom learning, and the broader educational infrastructure.

Given a persistent achievement gap, an inadequate supply of scientists and engineers, and the US slipping internationally in education, the promise of informal learning environments grows. That potential has also been at the heart of thinking, research, discussions, studies, and reports including the National Research Council’s Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits (LSIE). In many ways the 2009 IMLS project Museums, Libraries, and 21stCentury Skills also lays the foundation for museums and libraries to assume a larger and pro-active role in bringing informal learning environments to the forefront of a dynamic 21st century learning society. More recently, a posting on the Center for the Future of Museums raised the question of museums as major players on a completely new educational landscape that is on the horizon.
Not Entirely There
Returning to the dance metaphor and working it a bit harder: Museums need to pay closer attention to the music and how good at dancing they really are. At least weekly I encounter cases where, unwittingly, museums follow, and sometimes mimic, formal education ignoring the tremendous assets available in their own informal learning environments.

Several years ago I started noticing museum annual reports with color photos of children eagerly raising their hands; photo captions mention how the museum serves schools. Perhaps these photos had long been there and I finally woke up to the disconnect: representing children’s enthusiasm and learning capabilities in a dynamic, object rich and free-choice museum environment using a trite symbol for traditional and teacher-directed learning.

Just this past week I came across two examples of how formal ed frames perspectives in museums. A statement on a museum resource website said, “Museums enable us to supplement the formal, structured, curriculum-driven model encountered in classrooms.” In a recent and otherwise excellent article in a professional journal, science centers and museums were referred to as 3-dimensional textbooks of science. Do we ever refer to textbooks as 2-dimensional museums?

More classroom, less museum
A formal ed mindset is strong as well in designing and outfitting non-exhibit museums spaces. With few exceptions, classroom spaces in museums are replicas of school classrooms, with tables and chairs replacing desks. In fact, these spaces are generally called classrooms on the building directory. The creative thinking and fresh design that shape multi-sensory, flexible, contextual, and sometimes immersive exhibit environments manage to  leave workshop, studio, and lab environments completely untouched.

More museum, less classroom

While I feel impatient, there are understandable reasons for not yet having full traction. In a session at the Visitor Studies Association conference Joe Heimlich highlighted one reason. Most educational theory and frameworks have been developed using formal education with captured audiences and time frames and treatments useful to schools. Without fully registering this difference, we generalize from formal ed with captive audiences, individual cognition, and text-based approaches to settings where learning is voluntary, sparked by personal interest, contextual, social, and object based.

Learning New Steps
Transitions take time, especially transitions from a following role to stepping out and leading. Evidence of the shift that is occurring is gratifying and insightful. For instance, the 2006 Tamarack Nature Center (MN) master plan noted how environmental education professionals had allowed formal educational policy and standardized tests to determine the focus of programs, teaching methods, and the commitment to informal learning experiences–at the expense of a lasting connection to nature. In a recent Museum Commons blog, Gretchen Jennings reflected on how she had brought her public school perspective to museums, over time arriving at new ways of thinking about museum learning independent of formal ed.

Museums need to actively own and advance their learning territory and do so with a sense of urgency. Changes in the world of learning are unfolding right now; and they are changing in the direction that resonates with the very attributes that distinguish informal learning environments from formal education. They are self-directed, personal and social, evidence rich, with engaging physical contexts. Museums can amplify their contributions to a more robust and extensive learning landscape across communities and the lifespan. 

A common framework for informal learning independent of formal ed is needed. And while multiple theoretical frameworks exist, they have yet to be integrated, a task made more challenging by the need to recognize perspectives of different fields and a wide range of settings. Initiatives like Falk and Dierking’s 2007 In Principle, In Practice explore and make explicit connections among research, evaluation, and practice in museum learning. Frameworks such as the proposed Ecological Framework Across Places and Pursuits from LSIE pick up the challenge as well.

Advancing the potential of informal learning happens as well in the everyday work of creating learning experiences and environments. Museums serve learners across a wide age range, across generations, and across the community. Their array of interactive learning and experience strategies and methods is rich, varied, and enviable. They enjoy significant potential for engaging learners in meeting personal goals, museum learning interests, and community priorities. As they explore, articulate, and study these strategies, methods, practices, and impacts, program developers, educators, prototypers, designers, and evaluators can build a shared vocabulary, test new approaches, learn informally themselves, and inform the larger discussion.

Let the dance continue. Informal learning environments can be both partners with formal education and, it appears, lead the next dance.

Some Related Resources
•            In Principle, In Practice: Museums as Learning Institutions. (2007). John H. Falk, Lynn D. Dierking       and Susan Foutz (Eds.).
•            Lessons Without Limits. (2002). John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking.
•            Perspectives on Object-centered Learning in Museums. (2002). Scott G. Paris (Ed.); Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.
•            Learning in School and Out. (1987). Lauren Resnick. Educational Researcher; 16-30.

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