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«To appear in S. Paris (Ed.) Multiple Perspectives on Children’s Object-Centered Learning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Objects of Learning, ...»

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To appear in S. Paris (Ed.) Multiple Perspectives on Children’s Object-Centered Learning.

Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Objects of Learning, Objects of Talk:

Changing Minds in Museums

Gaea Leinhardt & Kevin Crowley

Learning Research & Development Center

University of Pittsburgh

3939 O’Hara St.

Pittsburgh, PA 15260

Keywords: conversation, explanation, museum learning, civil rights, robots, African art, learning

from examples.

Author Notes We would like to thank our collaborators in these studies: Madeline Gregg and her student teachers from the University of Alabama, the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, MOBOT, Illah Nourbaksh, Rose Russo, Catherine Stainton, and the Carnegie Museum of Art. We also thank Joyce Fienberg for her assistance with the manuscript. Preparation of this chapter was supported by the Museum Learning Collaborative, funded by the Institute for Museum and Library Services, the National Science Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The opinions expressed are solely those of the authors and no official endorsement from the funders should be presumed.

Objects of Learning, Objects of Talk:

Changing Minds in Museums In the increasingly fierce competition for leisure time and educational spending, museums are seriously challenged by edutainment, the Internet, CD-ROMs, and 500-channel satellite TV.

For example, if a child is interested in dinosaurs, 20 years ago a parent would have been likely to take her to the museum to see some fossils. Today, many parents would probably begin by taking her to the computer to search the World Wide Web, where a quick search reveals thousands of dinosaur web pages.1 If the family did not find a site among these thousands that satisfied the child’s curiosity—or if the family found a great site that whetted the child’s appetite for more dinosaur knowledge—the parent might decide to take the child to Barnes and Nobles to browse through several shelves of books about dinosaurs and one or two bins of CD-ROMs such as Microsoft “Dinosaurs.” On the way home, the family could stop at Blockbuster to pick up one of the National Geographic videos or perhaps even a copy of Jurassic Park. There is no reason to wait until the weekend to visit a museum to find out about dinosaurs. It is easy to tap instantly into a flood of pictures, video, and text about almost any topic in art, science, or history.

Why should anyone bother to visit a museum to see the actual artifact when virtual copies are so easy to come by? The current museum research literature does not provide a coherent answer to this question. Many of the recent studies focusing on learning in museums have been conducted in the context of interactive exhibits, mostly in the domain of science and technology (e.g., Allen, 1997; Borun, Chambers, & Cleghorn, 1996; Crowley & Galco, 2001). These studies have correctly focused on the role of interactive hands-on activity, with either an implicit or explicit comparison to the passive learning of didactic instruction. While this is appropriate for hands-on science centers, it is less useful for artifact- and collections-based institutions, which, after all, exist to collect, to conduct research on, and to display pieces of art, history, and natural history that are far too valuable to put into interactive settings.

Studies that have been conducted in art and natural history museums have often been directed at understanding the effects of signage or other mediation devices on visitor content learning (McManus, 1989). These are valuable studies, but they are not directly related to the question of how artifact-based museums can provide unique educational experiences. For example, one conclusion of such studies is that layered text can be effective at providing appropriate educational context for an artifact (e.g., Blais, 1995). This may be important to maximizing the learning once a visitor is in the museum, but it directs attention away from what is the unique part of the experience: The artifact itself. CD-ROMs or web-sites are far more efficient vehicles for layered text or other structures that allow a presentation to adapt to varying levels of domain expertise. If layered text is the important educational element, museums are an inefficient way to present that information, and they do so to a much more limited audience than does a good web site.

So why should people bother to visit museums when virtual copies of most objects in museums are so readily available? In the first part of this chapter we consider four unique characteristics of learning from objects in museums and then trace these characteristics through two examples of visitor learning. The four characteristics are resolution and density of information, In early 1999, a Yahoo.com search on the word “dinosaur” revealed 32,727 web pages; two years later, in early 2001, the same search uncovered more than 224,000. Narrowing down these sites to just those that deal with “fossils” reveals a set of about 31,000 sites; narrowing those down to those that are for “kids” reveals a set of 2,830 sites. By the time this book is published, the number of sites, and probably the usefulness of the best sites, will have increased again.

Page 2 06/27/01 2:53 PM scale, authenticity, and value. The two examples, drawn from our recent museum learning research, are teachers learning to plan field trips to a history center and groups of children interacting with autonomous robots in a children’s museum. In the second part of the chapter we explore the conversations of a pair of visitors engaging with objects in an African art exhibition in order to see how conversation develops around objects.

Everyday Learning, Museums, and the Role of Objects

What is it about museums that makes them unique learning environments? Museums are places where the objects and messages have been selected as ones of high cultural value--whether one is referring to a specific art collection, historically salient artifacts, or a collection of bones or scientific findings. Sometimes objects are included in museums because they are unique examples of a category—the oldest, largest, rarest, or most complex of their kind. Sometimes objects are presented for the exact opposite reason—to be common evocations of an interesting or important group, time, or place. Objects are displayed in systems designed to encourage visitors to consider a particular take on a discipline and to encourage reactions such as amazement, mystification, realization, and personal connection.

In his role as a discussant at our Museum Learning symposium at the 2000 American Educational Research Association, Howard Gardner challenged the field of museum learning in general, and those of us in the Museum Learning Collaborative in particular, to document the “genius of the museum” as a unique learning environment. First, consider what is not likely to qualify. In contrast to the systematic and extensive presentation of disciplinary argument and evidence in a textbook, museum exhibits are opportunistic and incomplete. The aspects of a topic that are addressed in an exhibit depend on the objects that can be conveniently assembled; in fact, curators often identify objects in the earlier stages of design and then work backwards to connect them to aspects of disciplinary knowledge in the final exhibition (Knutson, 2001). In contrast to the linear arguments that can be built up in textbooks or essays, museum exhibits cannot be based on strong assumptions about what visitors have seen or understood in an exhibition prior to viewing any particular element within it. Visitors choose their own path through exhibitions and, even when they follow what may be the desired flow, they rarely view every element (Serrell, 1997).

Similarly, diverse paths through exhibitions make museums much weaker vehicles for narrative than are novels, movies, or television shows. Narrative is sometimes presented in museums (Roberts, 1997), but typically it is narrative in the broader, socio-cultural sense, meant to engage visitors in conversation and debate rather than story-telling in the strict dramatic or historical sense (DiBlasio & DiBlasio, 1983). Finally, in contrast to web pages or other media, museums are very slow to update their content in response to innovation and advance. Furthermore, while the web and the media, which can be accessed spontaneously at little to no cost when a learner questions, museum visits are special, pre-meditated, and relatively expensive events (in terms of time, organization, and money).

From the standpoint of how they best support learning, one might think of objects in museums as collections of examples. Learning, when it is carefully orchestrated in classrooms or when it emerges from spontaneous activity, requires examples. Examples are the evidence that needs to be explained by any acceptable concept or theory. As learners study examples, the examples are unpacked and connected to existing declarative, conceptual, and procedural knowledge (Atkinson, Derry, Renkl, & Wortham, 2001; Leinhardt & Ohlsson, 1990). The essential features of good examples are that they characterize the core structure of an issue or domain and, through their specifics, make the organization and application of domain specific knowledge more veridical and flexible (Leinhardt, 2001; Young 2001). Thus, when they are unpacked and connected, they carry the specifics that are most important to the pedagogical or practical goals of the learning situation.

Page 3 06/27/01 2:53 PM We think of objects in museums as a special case of example-based learning. There are four features of objects that make them unique nodes for ideas and their elaboration.

1. Resolution and density of information. Real objects, as opposed to two-dimensional representations of those objects, maintain veridical resolution and density of information.

Photographs and drawings can embody many important visual features of an object, but are abstractions for which the photographer and artist decided which characteristics to preserve and which to ignore. A photograph of a complete painting may allow viewers to appreciate composition, but subtle gradation of color and brush-stroke technique are lost. Similarly, the ragged edges of decomposing clothing or fine twists of rope from an unearthed mummy combine in especially vivid ways. Other features available only from objects are those that cannot be photographed—the smell and sound of standing next to an elephant at the zoo, the texture of a leaf at the botanical garden, or the heft of a cast iron colonial stew pot at a history center. Although many of these features could be described completely and perhaps even represented in closeapproximations of reality, the holistic collection of features for an object cannot be efficiently represented in the absence of the object. For example, a series of pictures from different zoomlevels might be able to address issues of both brush stroke and composition in the same painting, but the viewer sees these as separate


presentations rather than a smooth perceptual zoom as he or she moves from standing yards away to standing inches away from a painting.

2. Scale. In contrast to pictures, drawings, and photographs in which scale either is absent (it's the size of the book page) or requires a mathematical transformation (for example, a person standing next to a dinosaur bone), objects in a museum are in their actual scale. In many cases the smallness or largeness of the object is precisely the characteristic most worth noting. Clearly, being dwarfed by the hulking skeleton of a diplodocus is a powerful moment in the life of many children.

Likewise, for adults, examining a recovered space capsule may often lead to stark realizations of how small and seemingly unprotected the cockpit is. In a culture awash with sport utility vehicles and minivans, most of us would feel vulnerable and naked driving to the store in a vehicle of that size, let alone orbiting the earth, re-entering the atmosphere, and splashing down into the Pacific Ocean in it.

3. Authenticity. Our third construct, authenticity, exists only in the interaction between specific objects and our history and culture. Thus, the Campaign Bed of Napoleon is authentic because we believe it is actually the bed that he slept in and we know that to be the case because someone who we call an expert has said it is. The response to this authenticity is that the visitor stands right next to, and in some sense shares, the object with Napoleon. In the Henry Ford museum, this concept expands out to the underlying belief system of Henry Ford himself, which was that objects have auras that are tangibly communicable. Although fewer people today share Ford’s faith in psychic mechanism, we think many would acknowledge that there is a moment of awe and sense of historical connection when we stand next to objects connected to venerated or loathed individuals and events. We think many might also acknowledge the same sense of a personal connection with everyday objects of extreme age in museums—perhaps while looking at the scores and indentations on a arrowhead and imagining vividly the moment when an ancient hunter carefully chipped it out of flint, or looking at the worn, uneven threads of homespun garments, or perhaps thinking about the how many dinosaurs were ripped up and wolfed down through the jaws of a fossilized T-Rex.

4. Value. It is often the case that authentic objects of cultural import are also valuable, but it is not always the case that valuable objects are authentic as we have defined it. By value we refer to an object’s uniqueness and, in many cases, its monetary value. Because generally we do not have in our possession objects that have value in terms of the larger culture, being in the actual room with the Crown Jewels invites us to imagine being the owner or possessor. Similarly, a recent exhibit on aluminum at the Carnegie Museum of Art included an aluminum car—the Plymouth Prowler.

Although the car is somewhat expensive and exotic, it is certainly not culturally or historically Page 4 06/27/01 2:53 PM valuable. Yet it was one of the more popular elements of the exhibit, perhaps in part because most visitors would like to drive around in it, but will never get the chance.

We now consider how these dimensions play out in two examples of learning from objects in museum. Each of these examples is drawn from the on-going work of the Museum Learning Collaborative. Funded by a consortium of federal agencies, the Museum Learning Collaborative is exploring the role of conversation as a process and outcome of museum learning. Elsewhere we elaborate on aspects of conversation that serve to parse, connect, and explain aspects of the museum visit (Leinhardt, Crowley, & Knutson, in press). Like many other museum learning researchers who have explored connections between museums and everyday or classroom learning (Borun, Chambers, & Cleghorn, 1996; Falk & Dierking, 2000; Gelman, Massey, & McManus, 1991; Gleason & Schauble, 1999; Paris, Troop, Henderlong, & Sulfaro, 1994;), our approach has sometimes led us to focus on what makes museums similar to other learning environments. One of us (Crowley) has even gone so far as to term museum learning “mundane,” arguing that, while some real insights and breakthroughs may occur in museums, the most common kind of family learning and the one that museums should design for is more related to families practicing habits of scientific literacy such as explanation and hypothesis generation (Crowley & Galco, 2001).

Although considering how museum learning is like everyday or classroom learning is likely to account for a large percentage of the learning that occurs in museums, especially in interactive science and children’s museums, it will not characterize the genius of the museum more specifically. We suspect the genius of the museum exists somewhere in an analysis of how unique and powerful objects support learning. In the Museum Learning Collaborative we think that that support is in the form of conversations (Leinhardt & Crowley, 1998; Schauble, Leinhardt, & Martin, 1998), conversations that get elaborated as small clusters of individuals engage with objects.

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