FEd Fall 2001 Newsletter - They're having fun...but are they learning anything?

Spring 2001



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They're having fun...but are they learning anything?

Alan J. Friedman

Reprinted with permission of the Parents League of New York, Inc. The original version of this article appeared in the 1998 issue of the REVIEW.

One hundred million people visit science centers each year, and equally huge numbers visit zoos, botanic gardens, natural history museums, and planetariums. Most of these visitors are families with school-age children, and children on school field trips. All of these informal science learning institutions feature education in their mission statements, and indeed it is education that is most often cited by parents and teachers as the reason for the trip.

However, if you go along on a school field trip or take your family to any of the popular informal science institutions, especially on a busy day, what you see doesn't necessarily look like a learning experience. Everybody seems constantly in motion; there is a great deal of noise, laughing, and flashing lights. The children are clearly having a great time, and it is often hard to get them to leave at the end of the visit. But are they learning anything?

You can't tell by just looking

How can we tell whether our children are learning during a museum visit? Learning is rarely something we can observe by just watching, either in a museum or in a classroom. There is certainly a traditional view of the look of learning: it is what happens when an individual sits quietly and reads a text carefully, or listens attentively to a teacher, or concentrates hard on what he or she is figuring on a piece of paper.

The last twenty years of research, however, have made it clear that learning is not so simply evaluated. A summary of this research was presented by an eye-opening video, A Private Universe, made by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. The video begins by interviewing Harvard liberal arts students on their graduation day. All had taken and passed introductory science classes. Yet when asked to explain basic phenomena of nature, like the phases of the moon, these students quickly got into trouble. It was clear they had forgotten what they supposedly learned in their classes, and fell back on naive notions (clouds cause the moon to look like a crescent), similar to those of elementary school-age children.

What looked like traditional learning in their Harvard science classes turned out to be only short-term memorization, quickly forgotten. Of course, these students did learn other things, particularly in their major fields and in classes that covered topics of passionate interest for them. What determines when learning really occurs, and when it only appears to be occurring? That's one of the key questions for current research. One preliminary finding is that having passionate interest in a topic is an excellent predictor that learning will occur.

There is also increasing research on learning outside of the classroom and the school-based curriculum. Just as conventional learning methods must be studied carefully to tell whether or not they are working, recognizing learning in the informal setting is not a simple matter of noting the level of noise or motion. What we are learning about informal science education can help parents and teachers take the best advantage of the remarkably rich resources, which happen to be outside of the school building.

What learning looks like outside the school curriculum

Few of us would deny the effects of our parents' influence...or our hobbies...or early experiences of travel and role models. We have long felt that participation in Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts is an important part of growing up and many of us can fondly recall the excitement of a secret decoder ring. We can still remember a particular day at the zoo or a visit to see DINOSAURS in the museum! But we don't remember learning something: learning is that painful thing that happens in school.

George Tressel, in Informal Science Learning/What the Research Says...

While not every exhibit works as an effective educational tool for every visitor at every moment, we have hard evidence that measurable learning does indeed take place in typical museum and science center settings. There are now hundreds of studies available to help us define and improve that learning.

In a major study at the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia, children in grades 7 - 9 were given both pre-visit and post-visit tests of science content. The results showed significant increases in scores as a result of the visit.

A traveling exhibition on viruses developed by the New York Hall of Science was tested in New York and in other museums around the country. Teenagers who used the exhibition doubled their scores on several important questions about how a virus is transmitted from person to person.

A study at the Natural History Museum in London demonstrated that even children who were not observed to read any labels on the exhibits nevertheless learned information that was only available on those labels. Apparently the information was transferred from those children and adults who did read to the ones who did not read, during casual conversations while walking through the museum, on the school bus or in the car, and over dinner or breakfast the next morning.

The other dimensions of learning

While studies like these measuring content learning are encouraging, learning in a museum or other informal setting is very different from classroom learning. We must be careful not to miss these other forms of learning, such as the acquisition of interest in a topic, which may be even more important results of a successful informal learning experience.

The conditions of museum learning are very different from those of the classroom. Museum learning is self-directed rather than directed by a teacher. Exhibits replace the teacher as the central medium of instruction. Objects instead of words are the principal currency of discourse....There is no compulsory attendance law, career placement office, or even beloved teacher to induce attendance.

Willard Boyd, in the preface to The Museum Experience

One of the most striking demonstrations of how different the museum experience is from the classroom is the mad dashing about that we see, especially on the part of early elementary children at the beginning of a visit. Research is helping us understand what is going on here.

First, because informal science institutions are free choice environments and therefore offer as many attractive choices as they can pack in, getting the most out of a visit (at least a first visit) encourages many short stays, often only half a minute or so, at each station. Children especially want to be sure they have seen everything. Remember how terrible it was when you were a child to discover that you had somehow missed the very best thing in the museum/mall/circus (or at least so your older sibling assured you)?

Two kinds of learning are happening when children burst into a museum for the first time. In the beginning, youngsters are building up a mental catalog of what experiences are available. Towards the end of their visit, they will come back to a few exhibits that especially aroused their interest, even if they seemed only to push the button and run during the first time around. Youngsters also need to acquire a mental map of the environment to make it theirs. While they are too young to understand the kind of schematic map we put on the walls, physically being in every space and locating its landmarks (big objects) is a good way to construct a mental map. This cataloging and map-making activity helps explain why young visitors' stays at exhibit units tend to be short at the beginning, and to grow after the first circumnavigation is complete.

Finding passionate interests

Learning in the affective domain, creating those deep interests that motivate later learning both within and outside of the classroom, is another part of the informal learning experience that we have been discovering how to measure and study. Key elements in this kind of learning at museums include:

Making quick connections between what is personally known and something new, resulting in new associations and relationships

Having an authentic experience: seeing the real stuff (e.g., objects, artifacts, animals), or experiencing actual phenomena, or having access to the accurate, simulated device

Having experiences that involve naming, identification, observation, imagination, fantasy, imitation and role playing, cooperation, demonstrations and discovery

Being able to covet objects (guiltlessly)

Stephen Bitgood, Beverly Serrell, and Don Thompson in Informal Science Learning/What the Research Says...

Some of these experiences can be accomplished in the classroom, especially with well trained teachers and good curricula. Video, the Internet, and visiting experts can help. But museums, zoos, and other informal learning institutions are uniquely equipped to provide a great variety of appropriate settings for affective domain learning. What we learn on our own, and can think of as our own personal discovery, often has the most lasting effect.

My favorite early indicator of the success of an exhibit is observing a child suddenly step back from the exhibit, look around, and call out "Hey -- come look what I found!" Whether or not that child understood the full science content of the exhibit, whether or not he/she learned the correct scientific terms to use in describing it, it is clear that the child has just claimed ownership over something scientific. If that ownership can be nurtured, reinforced, and connected to later experiences, the basis for a lifelong hunger to learn may soon be in place.

Evidence for this process also comes from interviews with scientists about their earliest experiences with science. They often cite visits to museums as early sources of their interest, and can describe in remarkable detail a particular exhibit they saw 40, 50, or 60 years ago. The first glimpse of Tyrannosaurus at the American Museum of Natural History; the ball that bounced repeatedly up and down on the polished stainless steel plate at the New York Museum of Science and Industry; the first appearance of the stars on the dome of the Adler Planetarium in Chicago: those experiences, vividly recalled decades later, were critical elements of creating a lifelong, passionate interest in learning.

Suppose they don't know the words?

Measuring vocabulary is one of the easier ways to test learning. That's unfortunate, because learning vocabulary is one of the least important parts of learning science. However, it's often what is used to decide whether today's classroom experience or museum visit was worthwhile. "What did you learn today?" rarely gives a useful picture of what was actually learned. Many studies (like Jeff Gottfried's seminal thesis work at the University of California, Berkeley, studying children in the weeks after a field trip to a museum), demonstrated that children are much better at presenting their experiences to other children then they are at summarizing their learning with what adults regard as the proper vocabulary. A better way to ask, "What did you learn today?" would be to ask "How would you explain to your cousin what you did today in the museum?"

Of course we want children to learn the proper vocabulary eventually. They will need the words and the mathematics to communicate efficiently as their learning develops. Classrooms are usually better places than museums for learning vocabulary. But learning vocabulary either before or in the absence of internalization of the concepts and the generation of interest is likely to be a short-lived success, as the Harvard graduates demonstrated.

NYHall2.gif (20709 bytes) One of my favorite exhibits at the new Science Playground exhibit at the New York Hall of Science is the Standing Spinner. The Spinner is a merry-go-round for one. You hold onto a post in the center, which rotates with you. If you stand on the platform and shove off with one foot, you begin spinning around. The fun part is leaning in or leaning out. If you lean out, you slow down, nearly to a stop. But lean in, and you recover nearly all of your original speed. Lean out again, slow down. Pull in, and speed up. When you finally stop, you are dizzy and exhilarated.

You slow down when you lean out, and then, mysteriously, your lost speed comes back merely by leaning in. Where did the speed go in the meantime? What was it about leaning in that brought it back? It took some strain on your arms to pull yourself back in--was that connected with recapturing your speed? When you really want to know the answers to those questions, then you are ready to learn the words and the mathematics, and you can look forward to the classroom lesson on the physics of spinning bodies.

Did you learn any science at the Standing Spinner? Unless you read the pamphlet/guide, you probably did not learn the words "conservation of angular momentum" or "conservation of energy," and it is even less likely that you learned the equations which describe angular momentum and energy in terms of mass, velocity, and distance from the axis.

As a physicist, I certainly would want you to know the language, both English and mathematics, so that we could discuss the conservation of angular momentum in all its universal majesty (and it is a majestic concept). But I'd much rather you started out learning the feel of this remarkable phenomenon, and then learned what to call it and how to measure it precisely.

We still have a great deal to learn about learning, both inside and outside of the classroom. But at least one fact is clear: learning and fun are not contradictory experiences. There may well be learning experiences, which are dull, and fun experiences, which involve no real learning. Reassuringly, there are also lots of experiences which are filled with both.


A Private Universe, videotape produced by Matthew Schneps and the Science Media Group of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Distributed by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 390 Ashton Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94112

Informal Science Learning: What the Research Says About Television, Science Museums, and Community-Based Projects, Valerie Crane, et. al. (Dedham, MA: Research Communications Ltd., 1994)

The Museum Experience, John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking (Washington, DC: Whalesback Books, 1992)

A Naturalistic Study of Children's Behavior in a Free-Choice Learning Environment, Jeff Gottfried, Ph. D. dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 1979.

Alan J. Friedman is Director of the New York Hall of Science, in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, New York.