Learning in Informal Settings
Educational research typically explores how and what students learn and tends not to examine where students learn. The assumption is people learn in school. With some notable and impressive exceptions (e.g., Resnick, 1987), the subject of setting for learning simply has not been of critical importance to educational researchers. However, it is the central question for researchers who study learning in informal settings.
School is a physical setting operating roughly from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon for thirteen years of childhood. It is the formal setting for learning. But what are informal learning settings? Any visitor to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or to the Vatican would be amused to hear them referred to as informal. Should three friends exploring a neighborhood creek on a Saturday afternoon be as participating in an informal learning setting, or should some notion of structure and intentionality be included in defining such settings?
By structure, researchers assume that the informal learning does not simply happen in some place and time other than school, but that such places have reasonable physical and temporal boundaries. There has to be some sense of a setting to informal learning settings. Thus, they can be a museum, a concert auditorium, a farm, even a baseball field, but probably they are not parks, the dinner table during an interesting discussion, or a toy store.
This distinction leads to the notion of intentionality. Not all museum visits have learning as a goal, and a visit to a toy store could possibly be primarily educational in nature. It depends in part on the purpose for the visit. Jackson (1968) writes about intentionality as being a key distinguishing feature of teaching, and the concept generalizes well here. Many settings can provide the opportunity for learning, but not all do, nor do all settings at all times. Thus, informal settings for learning may be defined here as those circumstances outside school in which learning is clearly at least one of the goals of the event.
An informal learning setting should be a setting bound by space and time, and its intended use should be educational during the activities under consideration, for example, a class trip to a natural history museum to learn about the First Nations people who lived in the area and that the class is studying in school. It could be a small group of students going to an art museum to look at Islamic art in relation to a special report that they are writing on geometry. Or it could be a high school cooperative vocational program in which students enhance applied mathematics skills.
Informal learning settings have structure and intentionality. But should the term also include individuals of school age who are learning school-related subject matter (perhaps broadly defined) on their own in informal settings, what Falk and Dierking call “free-choice learning” (Dierking & Falk, 2003; Falk, 2005)? This would then
include family outings to informal learning settings, and programs developed by institutions to teach children in various areas, but that are not directly related to schools themselves. Finally, there is the increasingly looming question of the Internet. At the Timeline of Art History section of the Web site maintained by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one can spend weeks learning about cultures from all over the world and all through the history of humankind. Should the definition of informal learning settings include virtual locations as well as physical ones?
These possibilities have been presented for two purposes: first, to limit what will be discussed in the remainder of this entry; and second, and the more important part, to suggest the incredible variety, potential, and power of learning in informal settings. There is a spectrum of possible definitions of learning in informal settings. At what might be called the narrow end of the spectrum, the definition from the perspective of the individual might be: “I am at this place at this time to learn something that is related somehow to what I am learning in school.” At the broad end, the perspective might be: “I am not in school and yet I am learning.” Although the broader end is clearly the more intriguing one, the narrower end is of great concern to those who are interested in building strong and useful relationships between schools and cultural institutions (and other institutions), and this relationship is the focus here. It is strongly related (perhaps identical) to Eshach's 2007 notion of non-formal learning. Eshach differentiates formal learning (school-based), informal learning (everything individuals learn outside of school), and nonformal learning (learning in a planned situation or organization, but not in school).
Traditionally, school learning in informal settings has been characterized by the one-time school trip visit to the museum, zoo, local company, or performing arts venue. Often, preparatory activities and auxiliary materials accompany such visits. But research literature says little regarding the efficacy of such programs to produce what might be called school-based learning. Griffin (2004) reviewed the literature on such trips and finds that in terms of statistically significant gains on cognitive measures related to school subjects, the evidence is equivocal at best. Bowker (2002) looked at factors that influence learning in museums and again found that the literature does not speak with a single voice. There are some indications of generalizable findings, such as the need for students to have some time on their own in a school visit and the strong possibility that the increase in interest associated with museum visits pays off in subsequent classroom learning (Borun, Flexer, Casey, & Baum, 1983). But, in general, the conclusion one has to reach is that there simply is not a whole lot of literature demonstrating the efficacy of the single-trip museum visit in terms of the kinds of learning that are valued in schools.
Although perhaps a bit depressing, this finding is not particularly surprising. There are a number of natural constraints on finding such effects, including the difficulty of studying the phenomenon in a rigorous fashion, the limited time frame of the museum encounter, and the frequent lack of congruence between what the museum has to offer and what the students are learning in school. The question that is raised by the paucity of research documenting the efficacy of school/museum interactions is: Do museums actually contribute to the learning of school-related material? That is, is the research scarce because it is hard to produce, or is it scarce because there is no real learning?
Basically, the answer to that question is that it is the wrong question. It is the wrong question for researchers and evaluators to have asked, and to a degree, the wrong questions for museum educators to have tried to live up to. For too many years, those concerned with education in informal settings have tried to show that museums can lead to higher test scores of one form or another. But the logical linkage between what a museum has to offer and what is measured on school tests is tenuous, and the path from one to another is often tortuous. This is not meant as a critique of either cultural institutions or the institution of school testing; both have their place. It is simply a statement that it is hard to find one's way from one place to another. As an example of the nature of the problem, a federally funded, three-year project at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum found that students in the project used critical thinking skills more in looking at art than children not in the program but that there was no discernible effect on standardized test scores (National School Boards Association, 2007). And this was for an extensive program. When one considers the additional constraints of a one-time visit to a museum, complete with bus trips, packed lunches, lining up, getting coats off and back on again, the difficulty in finding statistically significant findings on test scores comes more into focus.
Fortunately, better questions are being posed in the early 2000s. Researchers have stopped looking at informal learning settings as adjuncts to schools and have begun looking at them for what they can offer and excel at. Schauble and her colleagues argue that researchers need to include issues such as the sparking and maintenance of motivation and personal development when considering the impact of museum visits (Schauble et al., 1996). Hooper-Greenhill (2004) addresses this issue as well, arguing that researchers need to consider broader educational goals, which she calls generic learning outcomes, instead of more subject or unit-within-subject specific goals. Citing efforts by Great Britain's Economic and Social Research Council
Teaching and Learning Research Programme, she lists (among others) as possible goals:
positive identities of students as learners
knowledge and skill acquisition
acquisition of values and dispositions of a learning society
development of personal, community and societal concerns
One might reasonably ask if these are properly school-related learnings. Perhaps in a No Child Left Behind world, one might have difficulty in finding such statements in the masses of standards that define each state's desiderata for student growth. But the list cited in Hooper-Greenhill aligns quite nicely with New Zealand's “Key Competencies,” the centerpiece of its national curriculum document (Ministry of Education, 2007):
Using language, symbols, and texts
Relating to others
Participating and contributing
It is perfectly reasonable to wonder, at this point, if museum education researchers have such difficulty in documenting small and specific effects, why would one expect to find broader effects. The answer is that is what museums do, when they are working well. They engender broader considerations and ideas, cause people to reflect beyond the visit, and encourage people to think in ways that perhaps they had not before. Although it is entirely possible to visit a museum and not be intrigued by anything in the collection, Carr (2006) argues that the very existence of objects of value and veneration should engender questions in the visitor. The visitor may ask about who made the artifacts, why they are important, and why they are displayed in a museum. Visitors may wonder about what the display means to them personally and how the displayed objects related. When individuals start to ask such questions and seek answers to them, learning occurs in various ways. First, knowledge is gained from the content and context of the objects themselves. Second, there is skill development in learning how to find answers to questions. Third, individuals often place themselves in the context of the objects, leading to an exploration of a sense of community and identity.
If, indeed, one can argue successfully that the learning that occurs in museums is of this broader and more substantial kind, how might one go about documenting such learning? This is a serious challenge, but one worth taking up. And there have been several promising starts. Leinhardt and Crowley (2002) begin from the perspective that one should be open to capture the learning as it occurs in the informal learning setting as opposed to determining what that learning should be a priori and then seeing if one can find the preconceived learning. This is a remarkable insight and one that might be well extended to learning in schools as well. Their approach to finding that learning is to have museum visitors fitted with recording devices so that they can listen to their conversations with others as they go to a museum, visit it, and return home from their visit. Leinhardt and Crowley call their approach, “learning conversations.” Although their approach is costly, time-consuming, and can only sample very few participants, their results are nonetheless impressive. It is clear from their research that individuals in informal learning settings engage in conversations during and following visits that reflect authentic engagement with museum artifacts. They argue convincingly that the scope and level of these conversations, in comparison to conversations prior to the experience, are the types of experiences that lead to meaningful learning.
Bamberger and Tal (2007) utilized multiple observations in looking at the effects of choice on student learning. They video taped museum visits, conducted semi-structured interviews, and used questionnaires (the authors refer to them as worksheets). The data were coded so as to allow for assessment of those activities known to be related to student learning: student questioning, linkage to prior knowledge, scaffolding. As with the Leinhardt and Crowley approach, the authors did not look for specific learnings, but for the evidence of learning in general.
Finally, Smith and Waszkielewicz (2007) found that individuals (adults in this case) in an art museum were more likely to rate themselves highly in terms of thinking about interpersonal, intrapersonal, and societal concerns and issues while in the middle of a museum visit than at the beginning or the end of the visit. Like the two studies mentioned above, these authors gathered information on visitors during the museum visit. Their approach, however, used a fairly standard questionnaire format that allowed for the gathering of a quite large sample and replication over two museums using the same approach.
The research on learning in informal settings may not yield exactly what one might anticipate or, at the outset, even hope for. But as is so often the case in research, the new horizons are more intriguing than the old ones. As researchers learn that informal learning settings may or may not provide much support for acquiring everyday school objectives (as important as they are), they learn that they may well support broader and deeper goals. Educators look for growth in personal development, the ability to analyze and critique, a sense of belonging to structures and communities larger than one's own immediate group; they hope to make ties to the past and make conscious hope for better futures. What they find will almost certainly be different from what they envision, but the trip should be an enjoyable and rewarding one.
Bamberger, Y., & Tal, T. (2007). Learning in a personal context: Levels of choice in a free choice learning environment in science and natural history museums. Science Education, 91(1), 75–95.
Borun, M., Flexer, B., Casey, A., & Baum, L. (1983). Planets and pulleys: Studies of class visits to a science museum. Washington, DC: ASTC.
Bowker, R. (2002). Evaluating teaching and learning strategies at the Eden Project. Evaluation and Research in Education, 16(3), 123–135.
Carr, D. (2006). A place not a place: Reflection and possibility in museums and libraries. Lanham, MD: Alta Mira Press.
Dierking, L. D., & Falk, J. H. (2003). Optimizing out-of-school time: The role of free-choice learning. New Directions for Youth Development, 97, 75–88.
Eshach, H. (2007). Bridging in-school and out-of-school learning: Formal, non-formal, and informal. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 16(2), 171–190.
Falk, J. H. (2005). Free-choice environmental learning: Framing the discussion. Environmental Education Research, 11(3), 265–280.
Griffin, J. (2004). Research on students and museums: Looking more closely at the students in school groups. Science Education, 88 (Suppl.1), S59–S70.
Hooper-Greenhill, E. (2004). Measuring learning outcomes in museums, archives, and libraries: The learning impact research project. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 10(2), 151–174.
Jackson, P. W. (1968). Life in classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.
Leinhardt, G., & Crowley, K. (2002). Objects of learning, objects of talk: Changing minds in museums. In S. Paris (Ed.), Multiple perspectives on children's object-centered learning (pp. 301–324). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Ministry of Education. (2007). The New Zealand curriculum. Wellington, NZ: Learning Media.
National School Boards Association. (2007, May). Art improves critical thinking. American School Board Journal, 8.
Resnick, L. B. (1987). The 1987 presidential address: Learning in and out of school. Educational Researcher, 16(9), 13–20.
Schauble, L., Beane, D. B., Coates, G. D., Martin, L. M. W., & Sterling, P. V. (1996). Outside the classroom walls: Learning in informal environments. In L. Schauble & R. Glaser (Eds.), Innovations in learning: New environments for education (pp. 5–24). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Smith, J. K., & Waszkielewicz, I. (2007). The civilizing influence of art museum visitation. Paper presented at annual meeting of the American Psychological Association, San Francisco, CA, 2007.
Smith, J. K. & Wolf, L. F. (1995, July). Measurement and evaluation techniques for museum evaluation. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Visitor Studies Association, St. Paul, MN.
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