In the world of learning, whether in museums or schools, we often hear about skills, knowledge, and proficiencies. We seldom, however, hear much about dispositions. Disposition might be a bit of an old-fashioned word and doesn’t enjoy great use. Perhaps that is because disposition lacks the crisp currency of skill with its sharp edges that lend it to being tested and measured.
Disposition, however, is a useful and underutilized concept, especially in museums with an interest in inviting thinking, engaging learners, and supporting life-long learning.
A disposition is a habit, an inclination, or a tendency to act in particular way. With a focus on frequent and voluntary patterns of a behavior or activity, dispositions differ significantly from skills and knowledge. Acquiring a specific skill or knowledge on a particular subject does not guarantee it will be used or applied. A disposition makes use of that skill or knowledge more likely. We might say someone has a disposition to be curious if she typically and frequently responds to the setting by exploring, investigating, and asking questions about it. Simply having the skills to ask questions, however, does not assure that she will do so.
Lillian Katz who has been writing and talking about the role of dispositions in children’s learning for 30 years defines disposition as a “pattern of behavior exhibited frequently . . . in the absence of coercion . . . constituting a habit of mind under some conscious and voluntary control . . . intentional and oriented to broad goals.” In Cultivating a Culture of Thinking in Museums, Ron Ritchhart of Harvard University’s Project Zero refers to a dispositional perspective on thinking as not only the ability to think but also the disposition to think. Patterns of thinking not only can be used, but also are used.
Dispositions can be social. Someone may have a disposition to be friendly, helpful, or cooperative. Other dispositions are intellectual such as a disposition to ask questions, to read, to gather information, to observe, to weigh evidence. Not all dispositions are positive. Consider a disposition to be bossy or complain.
Dispositions can be developed and are more likely to be developed when other people, such as parents, grandparents, teachers, siblings, peers, model them. Even so, developing a disposition requires time, time for it to be enculcated, practiced and strengthened. Environmentally sensitive, dispositions are acquired, supported, or weakened by the conditions of the environment, the interactive experiences in settings with significant adults and peers.
The qualities characterizing dispositions set them up as a good fit for museums in creating experiences for children and adults. Dispositions can be modeled. Museum educators, floor staff, facilitators can be (and often are) trained to model certain behaviors: asking questions, noticing patterns, or checking assumptions. As museums prepare environments and exhibits with particular objects and activities to invite and encourage learners to use skills and draw on understandings, they can also encourage certain dispositions. Many dispositions relate precisely to the kind of behaviors and actions we want learners to engage in: to notice, to try, to ask questions, to gather information, to be creative. Some dispositions relate strongly to certain areas, like science.
Three related aspects of dispositions make them even more useful in museum settings. First, focusing on dispositions reinforces a learner-centered focus. The learner is the subject, the agent, the person likely to try, to read, or to ask a question. Second, planning that encourages certain positive dispositions builds on strengths and puts abilities into play. Someone is likely to do this; a parent wants to answer a child’s question. Finally, dispositions are associated with action and doing. They lend themselves to active engagement; and this aligns with museum interests. Considering what people are likely to do in an exhibit or at a component based on the conditions created (or that can be created) becomes a worthwhile exercise, reinforcing museums as places to exercise choice and preference. Discussion shifts from learner outcomes and what a child or adult will do or will learn, to what a child or adult can do or is encouraged to do.
Dispositions in Museums
The experiences and environments museums create are powerful mediators of thinking, doing, and learning. Bringing a dispositional perspective to planning these experiences alters the focus from skills and content to learners, and to framing experiences that encourage dispositions relevant to broad project goals. I have been reading, searching the Internet, checking old files, and talking with colleagues to find out how a dispositional approach to providing experiences is being used in museums. I found several references to and examples of dispositions being used in museums.
Dispositions are sometimes mentioned along with skills, knowledge, and attitudes as foundations for science learning in museums as they are In Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits. Ron Ritchhart, mentioned above has been exploring and writing about a dispositional approach to thinking in schools and bringing that approach to museums as places for nurturing students’ awareness of and inclination for thinking. Boston Children’s Museum has brought a dispositional approach to interpretation in Science Playground. Graphic panels invite children to "Notice, wonder, question, play” throughout the exhibit’s three areas. Habits of Mind call out basic dispositions and their relevance to learning about the world.
The Exploratorium deliberately uses and supports the concept on disposition in the Tinkering Studio. Cultivating a “tinkering disposition” is the Tinkering Studio’s approach to engaging visitors in using their hands to investigate phenomena, materials, and tools. In this case, a tinkering disposition is “a proclivity for seeing the word as something that can be acted upon and building confidence in one’s ability to do so”. The Tinkering Studio focuses on space, activity, and facilitation as the conditions that encourage tinkering. A welcoming studio space anticipates and provides for interactions, access to materials and tools, and for tinkerers’ comfort and concentration. Activities are thoughtfully designed to support tinkerability, emphasizing, for instance, hand-made materials, making processes visible, and revealing easy entry points. Facilitators are prepared to be alert, helpful, and unobtrusive in encouraging tinkering.
These examples are varied and interesting but are too few. The people I have talked to about dispositions, while unfamiliar with them, recognized the promise this approach has in museums. If you know of work being done in this area, please share it. If using a dispositional approach to creating museum experiences inspires or interests you, I hope you will get going and get in touch. In any case, please spread the word.