We often think of informal learning as occurring in the virtual world, and given all our busy lives, it’s a central concern of the workplace. But informal learning occurs in many settings, including museums, parks, aquariums, and zoos, and in many of these latter settings, we look to objects, living or nonliving, as artifacts for reflection. The job of museums, zoos, parks, etc. (I’ll refer to these collectively as “museums” now) is to connect these artifacts to information and interactions that engage us and create a lasting impact. Increasingly, technology is becoming part of this experience.
The goals of informal learning
In a 1995 monograph by Falk, Dierking, and Holland, “What do we think people learn in museums?” the authors provided a summary of discussions occurring at the 1994 Annapolis Conference. The conference (titled, “Public Institutions for Personal Learning: Understanding the Long-term Impact of Museums”) had two overarching goals:
1. To develop a manageable list of learning outcomes that could result from a museum visit and be applicable across various types of museums; and
2. To take these outcomes, reframe them as research questions and develop research designs to investigate the learning that results from museum experiences.
(Falk, Dierking, & Holland, 1995, p. 17)
The criteria for defining learning outcomes included a mix of the idealistic and the practical. The outcomes would have to:
- Augment understanding
- Improve service
- Increase value
- Be fundable
- Be achievable
Designing the experience
When considering characteristics of museum environments that are learner-friendly, the participants identified the importance of creating experiences that are
- Direct: objects are provided in context, in as close to their real-world settings as possible
- Personal and active: questions are relevant and there are opportunities to interact
- Socially-mediated: visitors share information across generations and social groups and museum staff are part of this sharing process
Conference participants described museum staff as facilitators and museum visitors as “changed,” “capable,” and “empowered” (Falk, Dierking, & Holland, 1995, p. 19). In other words, although learners are interacting with the artifacts of learning to develop/enhance their own knowledge and skills, the museum staff retains an important role in this process.
Defining learning outcomes
As noted by the conference participants, museum experiences are typically very personal and therefore unpredictable. To make these “free-range” experiences meaningful there needs to be some context that fosters the following outcomes:
- Intellectual connections (creating “ah-ha moments”)
- Emotional connections (with the potential to change values and attitudes, accommodating differences in others)
- Social connections (fostering a sense of cultural, community, and familial identity)
- Enhanced self-confidence and metacognitive processes (affecting how people think versus what people think)
In addition to the institutional challenges unique to particular museums/individual informal learning settings, some common themes emerged, including:
- The importance of optimizing both the personal appeal and effectiveness of informal learning experiences (i.e., if people see value, they will return)
- The need to integrate museums into community culture
- The need to tailor the learning experience to a diverse population ( the museum “message” will be perceived differently by different people)
- The need to identify methods of evaluating the impact of the learning experience
Why bring up a 1995 monograph in 2011?
Although The Annapolis Conference occurred over fifteen years ago, its findings are still strikingly relevant today. Even as we use technology to enhance and support informal learning experiences, we have to ground those experiences in our understanding and analysis of desired outcomes shaped by a unique and diverse target audience. Whether occurring in a museum setting or in the workplace, there’s still the need for learning facilitators to help learners create their own personal connections. These connections are not only intellectual, but emotional and social as well. Considering all of these connections is an important aspect of crafting informal learning experiences with impact.
Falk, J.H., Dierking, L.D., and Holland, D.G. (1995). What do we think people learn in museums? In Falk, J.H. and Dierking, L.D. (Eds.). Public Institutions for Personal Learning: Establishing a Research Agenda. American Association of Museums.