«To appear in S. Paris (Ed.) Multiple Perspectives on Children’s Object-Centered Learning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Objects of Learning, ...»
Burning Bus We start with an example of a powerful object located in a history museum, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham Alabama. According to the museum’s web site, the purpose of the Institute is to document the events and display objects from the Civil Rights
“The Institute's historic galleries trace the footsteps of those brave men and women. The journey moves from the era of segregation to the birth of the Civil Rights Movement and the worldwide struggle for civil and human rights. Along the way, exciting multimedia exhibitions depict dramatic events that took place in Birmingham and other cities, events that stirred the conscience of a nation and influenced the course of an international human rights struggle” The museum is located across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church, which was bombed during the struggle resulting in the deaths of four young girls. Inside the museum sets the stage for the visitor who moves through a fairly prescribed set of displays, from early Jim Crow laws exemplified by a shop with various signs through Martin Luther King’s jail cell and the March on Washington. There are several major sections that the visitor moves through after an introductory film: Barriers, Confrontation, the Movement, Procession, Milestones, Human Rights.
Photographs, sound, and lighting all contribute to a sense of the visitor being there as opposed to just looking at objects and images. One of the most prominent features in the Movement Gallery is a burned out bus. The bus is a very precise replica of a Greyhound bus that had been bombed and burned.
Consider the bus in relationship to our object features. The most prominent of the features is scale. The bus is life-sized; one walks around it, feels small next to it, and feels enormously vulnerable when realizing that even with its enormous size it was not big or strong enough to Page 5 06/27/01 2:53 PM protect the riders. The density and detail of information, from the charred sides and interior to the shiny chrome of the areas not touched by flame, are both realistic and evocative: Here is where the fire spread; these seats, like those I might have been sitting in, were completely burned… those less so. These are personal evocations prompted by the scale of the bus and the density of information;
that is, the association is dependent primarily on the relationship between the individual’s historical experiences and the object. Both the constructs of value and authenticity, because they are social constructs, are more complex to determine. The bus is an actual Greyhound bus, so it is authentic in that sense; but it is not THE bus that carried the freedom riders and was bombed and torched.
The value is in part that the museum got a real bus, but the value resides more in that visitors are prompted to consider their own experiences with buses and the assumptions of safety and protection we usually make while in a bus.
Our example of the burned-out bus is drawn from a study in which 50 pre-service teachers went to the BCRI as part of a social studies unit in their normal training program (Gregg & Leinhardt, 2001; Leinhardt & Gregg, in press). The student teachers had conversations in small groups before the visit and again after the visit. They drew semantic nets of their personal concepts about the Civil Rights Era before and after the visit, and they designed activities centered on the BRCI for their students. These young people had an average age of 22 and none of them was alive during the Civil Rights Struggle or the Vietnam War. As local residents of Alabama they had heard about the period but tended to view it as a part of the past or as an intensely personal struggle.
Regardless of their own ethnic background they tended to believe that the conflicts and struggles associated with the time were between African Americans and European Americans.
Before the visit to the BCRI not one single student when talking in their small groups mentioned the Freedom Riders, the attack on the bus, or the bi-racial nature of the group of Freedom Riders. Nor did they talk about them when discussing what they might see at the BCRI or what might be emphasized. Only two student teachers included Freedom Riders or the bus in their webs of ideas before the visit. After the visit all but one of the groups mentioned the bus, and for the majority of the groups it was the first thing they talked about and they returned to it often. At the individual web level, the message is the same: two of the 50 students mentioned either the bus or the Freedom Riders in their pre-visit webs while afterwards all but eight did. Furthermore, many of the pre-service teachers frequently mentioned in their post-visit webs the fact that the Freedom Riders were both black and white.
The object of the bus with its vivid destruction and all that that implied served to anchor the other historical information about the Civil Rights workers, their ethnic make up, their physical route from Washington to New Orleans, and their abrupt ending in Birmingham. The small group discussions do not have elaborate examinations of the bus and its meaning but the conversations reflect our basic assertions of why objects are memorable and significant locations for mediating the “important part” of the story.
According the BCRI web site, this was not the actual bus but a Greyhound bus similar to it.
Even though this group had a misconception about the authenticity, it is noteworthy that they had a bit of questioning and followed that up with a check from text. The main point here is that the vividness and strength of the impression was extended because they believed that to have been the real bus.
Here is the voice of detail or resolution from two other groups also discussing the bus:
In this last section the detail and authenticity merge with the very first idea in the previous quotation; the bus is iconic and symbolic, “something like a burnt out bus.” This third group of pre-service teachers went on to mention four more times that they did not really know about the Freedom Riders, they did not know that there were white people involved, and they did not know that white people had been hurt or arrested. As they said later on, “ I did not know how many white people stuck up for the black people…” The bus was the transport for that idea. The idea that both groups participated is very powerful. For this set of young prospective teachers, the comfortable cover that “it was how they were raised” (therefore they could not be expected to have behaved differently in the face of injustice) had been lifted by the presence of a few remembered white people on a bombed-out bus. If those people had worked to help right a wrong, why not
others? The authenticity and explicitness of the bus carries that concept home:
Why is the burnt bus such a powerful object in the BCRI? We think there are several reasons. Buses are iconic. We can all conjure a mental picture of a bus in our mind and most of us even today can imagine a silvery sleek Greyhound bus. “Busness” is a construct, it is totally ordinary, we almost all see many every day. We can imagine ourselves climbing the steep steps walking back towards an empty seat, settling in for a long or short ride. What we can not imagine is our bus being blown apart by a bomb. Seeing the results of that shatters the safe, solid image.
and it is that precise conflict that makes the bus so valuable.
We can consider what changed for the student teachers with respect to the bus. From a cognitive point of view we can assume that all of the pre-service teachers had a mental construct of bus, even a construct of Greyhound bus (as distinct from city busses). We know that they had a concept of the Civil Rights Era. However, the Civil Rights Era concept was less vivid, less real, and less specific than what we believe the concept of the original bus was. What happened was that a new concept with a vivid image developed--the concept of a bombed and burned bus. The bus concept became connected in a very powerful way to the original bus construct and to the concept of the Civil Rights Era. The object and its icon become a bridge between two abstractions. We believe that for some time into the future, thoughts about the Civil Rights Era will evoke a particular image of a particular bus, everyday thoughts about buses will be haunted by a particular bus in the BCRI and its evoked history.
That is our cognitive tale of the bus. Socio-culturally, what do we think took place? This is more complex. A group of European and African American pre-service teachers connected in quite different ways to their own historical past. The museum offered an affordance for its visitors to connect to the everydayness and the uniqueness of a bus. The impersonal historical record that had vacuous labels, such as struggle, injustice, prejudice, was enlivened by the appropriation of the meaning of an object. As a group, the pre-service teachers had seen, shared, and thought of ways to make active use of a particular object in the activities and practices of teaching that they were all trying to develop. For many of us, the Civil Rights Era is in our personal historical memory; for these students, it is not. We think that, for these students, the bus and what it symbolized altered their sense of identity. Because the bus provided a shared evocation of details that could be discussed in concrete terms and it connected the group members to the question: If I were there then what would I have done? European American students had, prior to this experience, excused themselves as being the products of their families—but the riders of the bus were also products of their families yet they stepped out of their historical contexts; for African American students the assumption that they would have been in the struggle, too, may have been shaken because the realism of the violence and the loss of life and injury became more palpable.
Page 8 06/27/01 2:53 PM When the Object is “Alive”: Autonomous Robot Playmates in a Children’s Museum Our second example is drawn from observations and interviews with groups of children and adults interacting with two prototype autonomous robots at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum. The idea for the prototypes was to program the robots to act like ducklings who attempt to engage children in a game of “follow-the-leader.” The robots used sonar to detect objects in front of them and were programmed to back away from targets coming close to them and to follow targets that were moving away from them. When the robots detected no targets in front of them, they were programmed to move forward rapidly until they found another object. Only the front three sonar units were active on the prototypes, which meant that the visitor needed to be directly in front of the robot in order to be noticed. Because of the robots’ relatively narrow “visual field,” visitors had to move slowly to get the robots to track them. Mounted to the top of the robots were two speakers that produced quacks—specific kinds of quacks were associated with specific actions on the part of the robot.
From the moment they came rolling and quacking onto the museum floor, children and adults were fascinated by the robots. At one point a large school group had moved upstairs, leaving the first floor mostly empty except for the robots and the adults involved in prototyping them. It took us a little while to notice that, although the kids had all moved up to the second floor, they remained fixated on the robots, pressing their faces against the windows in the second floor railing.
It’s unusual, especially in a place that is as interesting as a children’s museum, to see such sustained focus on a particular object.
We think a great deal of this interest in the robots relates to the dimension of authenticity and value. It might at first seem strange to the reader to think of robots pretending to be ducks as authentic. However, although robots have long been a part of popular culture, it is likely that these were the first real autonomous robots that the children had ever met. Thus, although children may think they are very well acquainted with robots and their abilities, they are at the same time almost completely without relevant authentic experience when they approach real robots for the first time.
The role of this extensive yet impoverished knowledge was made clear in an age-related difference we noted in how children related to the robots. Toddlers and preschoolers were more likely than elementary school children to spontaneously touch the robot. One boy, who appeared to have just mastered walking, toddled straight up to one of the robots and, without hesitation, grabbed onto it. The robot, programmed to avoid obstacles, tried to back away, but found its path blocked by an exhibit. Trapped between the exhibit and the child, the robot tried a series of small turns and forward lunges, looking for an opening to resume its wandering and get back to playing follow-the-leader. But the child, oblivious to the robot’s predicament, began playfully pushing against it and touching a lot of the hardware. At one point he almost switched it off, prompting an adult nearby to tell him not to press that button or the robot would go to sleep. This boy, like other
young children we observed, were applying the standard children’s museum script to the robots:
Run up to an exhibit, press and pull whatever is there, and wait to see what happens. The younger children appeared to encode the robot as just another machine—a vacuum cleaner or a remote control toy.
This reaction of the young children was in stark contrast to the way the school-aged children reacted to the robots. The older children acted much more like children do when they approach strange dogs on the street or when they approach sheep or goats at petting zoos. Older children approached the robot warily, moved their arms and legs slowly, and constantly looked up at the nearby adults for confirmation that they were doing OK. Even after they began playing follow-the-leader, most of the older children appeared to hold their bodies and faces more rigidly than normal. These older children appeared to us to be a little nervous and unsure, but intensely excited. The older children knew enough about robots to recognize that they were looking at one and that it really did appear, in least in some sense, to be alive.
Page 9 06/27/01 2:53 PM Once the feature of authenticity is established, the features of scale and resolution and density of information become important to the kinds of learning that could be supported by the object. Sometimes this learning was accurate. As a fictional technology, robots are often portrayed as having quasi-humanoid form and often are human-sized or larger. The prototype robots were cylinders about two feet high with a lap-top computer and speakers on top. One girl at first was not sure she was really looking at robots, telling us: “Robots usually have hands and arms. I didn’t think they would be this small.” Other times, the interaction of familiarity with resolution and density of information had unintended consequences. In an interview with us, a boy repeatedly talked about how the robot had an eye and could see him. Despite our assurances that the robot doesn’t have eyes and navigates through use of sonar, the boy insisted he was right. He finally got fed up with us and marched over to the robot, pointing at a red LED that was the power indicator on one of the speakers: “See?
Here’s his eye.” Another pair of children told us that the robot had been talking to them, telling them to “Wait, wait, wait.” In fact, all the robots could say was “quack, quack, quack,” but these children had interpreted “quack” as “wait,” perhaps because they assumed the robot spoke English and perhaps because the robots kept falling behind the leader. In both cases, children might be portrayed as looking to the object to find evidence to support assumptions based on their familiarity with fictional as opposed to actual robots.