«To appear in S. Paris (Ed.) Multiple Perspectives on Children’s Object-Centered Learning. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Objects of Learning, ...»
The way in which resolution of information was most important was in children learning that robots can be much less competent that humans at seemingly simple tasks. Fictional robots are often depicted as having abilities that equal or surpass humans. However, experience with the real robots quickly dispelled at least part of this notion. The natural way to play follow-the-leader would be for the child to walk forward facing away from the robot. However, because the prototypes could only track a visitor who moved slowly and stayed within the relatively narrow area covered by sonar, the main activity that emerged for children was to learn how to shape their behavior so that the robot could track them.
The most successful children either kept looking over their shoulder or learned that it worked better if they walked backwards, facing the robot. In addition to letting the child monitor the robot’s progress, walking backwards had the added advantage of naturally slowing the child’s movement and thus making it easier for the robot to track her. Other children discovered that it was much easier to control the robot if they walked towards it and had it back away from them. Pushing the robots was easier because the robots seemed to have a slower back-up speed, because it was easier for the child to monitor them, and because children naturally slowed down their walking so that they would not bump into the robots. Even so, the robots often got confused in the small, busy
spaces of the museum. The fragile abilities of the robots to do something as simple as follow-theleader led some children to tell us that they didn’t think these robots were very smart. One boy said:
“It like a little kid! It doesn’t know how to play [the game]”.
Reflections on Burning Buses and Quacking Robots How did interaction with the robots change children’s understanding? It is probably the case that the most important change was in calling the certainty of their understanding into question. As most of their prior knowledge about robots was probably derived from fiction, the modest appearance and severe behavioral limitations of real robots may have led to restricting certain aspects of the category that may have once been widely applied. For example, many children learned quickly that robot behavior was rigid and fragile, and that somewhat unnatural and exaggerated human behavior was needed for the robots to succeed in playing follow-the-leader.
Any prior assumption about human-like abilities in children’s understanding of the category “robots” was most likely challenged and pruned by these interactions with authentic robots.
Children also learned that robots could be two feet tall and could act like ducks—we have subsequently interviewed children who have not seen the robot about this idea and most find it Page 10 06/27/01 2:53 PM initially to be preposterous. Thus, for the first time, many of the children had some hard specifics that they then needed to account for in their broader knowledge of robots.
How did the object of the burned bus change the student-teachers’ understanding? In contrast to the case of the robots, the learners were very familiar with authentic examples of buses.
They were also familiar with many elements of the history of civil rights in America. The encounter with the bus at the BCRI served to drastically alter the original concept of bus and to reify the “struggle” portion of the civil rights struggle. The vividness of the bus lay in features of scale and detail. Its power to change understanding rested with the ways in which clusters of student teachers used it to mediate their own concepts of the civil rights era and everyday bus travel. Thus, in this case, the object served to elaborate and instantiate familiar ideas as well as to connect two fairly distant and previously unassociated ideas.
In the first part of the chapter we have characterized museums as places where systems of objects exist that support learning conversations, and have identified four features—resolution and density of information, scale, authenticity, and value—that make objects unique. Each of these features draw visitors to the object and press the object into the experiential repertoire of the group.
Thus, talk can refer to a simple label for the object; but it can also contain a considerable amount of descriptive detail, which in turn can lead to speculative explanations. This allows different members of a group to respond to different specific features of the object. We have argued that objects are best thought of as examples that create nodes around which existing knowledge can be restructured and into which new knowledge can be integrated.
Although we have referred to these four properties has belonging to objects in museums, it is important to note that none of these exists independently of the visitors. This is most clearly true of the last two properties, authenticity and value. Each of these exist only in the interaction between the object and the culturally specific identity and knowledge of the visitor. The first two of these dimensions—resolution and density of information and scale—might at first appear to be “objective” properties of objects. After all, regardless of who is looking at a dinosaur skeleton, the bones will look big and will have certain kinds of textures and colors. Yet it is important to note that not all visitors will experience even objective properties in the same way, and, even if experiences were roughly equivalent, the learning will not necessarily be the same.
In other words, objects do not speak for themselves. Particularly in the case of children, parents and teachers are the ones who need to speak for the objects. It is precisely the features that make objects most powerful that children will have the most trouble with, because in many cases they do not have the requisite prior knowledge to make sense of the example. Thus, parents and educators in informal learning environments are challenged by the problem of mediation. It is interesting to note that, for the student teachers visiting the BCRI, the need to mediate for children was a driving force in their learning. Their task was to use the visit to plan activities for students, and a challenge that drove much of the learning and conversation was around issues of how to highlight, intensify, and, in some cases, defuse the power of museum objects.
In our examples of learning from objects, all of our visitors knew about the objects that they saw. The teachers knew about buses and about Civil Rights and the children knew about robots.
What happened in the mediated encounter with the objects was that the objects grew into nodes of social value and salience with specific detailed features. The examples became enriched, attached, meaningful, and focused. This kind of learning is not unique to museums; as we mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, television, web pages, and books can also support the transformation of a vague concept into an anchor point for learning. However, we believe that the museum is unique in its capacity to provide situations in which those nodes (powerful object based examples) that can and will be usefully extended will be found.
Page 11 06/27/01 2:53 PM Learning Conversations Over Time So far In this chapter we have not acknowledged the tension that exists between the Museum Learning Collaborative’s vision of learning as the accumulation and enrichment of the mundane and the implied assumption of Howard Gardner’s remarks in searching for the genius of the museum – that learning is an act of sparkling insight. The deep consideration of objects – the topic of this volume—has forced us to try to resolve these differences. We take as our analog “punctuated equilibrium” from evolutionary biology. Punctuated equilibrium is the resolution in evolutionary theory between the pure, slow, natural-selection explanation of evolution, and the cataclysmic, sudden, environmental-shift view that imagines steady states with moments of rapid change. Punctuated equilibrium accommodates both the gradualist, cumulative, elaborative view and the sudden, insightful, unique view. We have come to believe that museums are places where the unique object – bus or robot for example – can have a powerful impact; but we also believe that the thousands of other objects present in the BCRI or the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, which were perhaps less noticed but helped to set the total stage for learning, were also significant.
We consider learning, in the MLC context, as Conversational Elaboration (Leinhardt & Crowley, 1998; Leinhardt, Crowley, & Knutson, in press). By Conversational Elaboration we mean that visiting groups to a particular museum exhibit may have a set of experiences that enable them to discuss the thematic and object based content of the exhibit in more complete, analytic, synthetic, and explanatory ways than they were able to do before or without the visit. This means that the conversations are elaborated in two ways: first, the structural form of the conversation can move from list-like identification or labeling to analytically engaged or explanatory one; second, the conversations move from almost aimless exclamations to thematically connected ideas. The idea here is that one of the benefits of going to a museum is that one can share that visit experience with friends in real time and in a later recounting and that it is the details of those conversations that both are the processes of learning and one outcome of it.
Is Conversational Elaboration the only outcome of museum visits? No. But it is one. And, we would argue that it is a valued and valuable one. We use our capacity for discourse in many ways: to manage our time and plan, to give directives and orders, to gain simple information, and to have conversations whose goal is social cohesion and appreciative sharing. White (1995) has suggested that this latter conversational aspect of our lives is of considerable interest and relatively rare. In the context of the MLC we focused on this particular type of discourse as an area where visiting a museum might have a positive discernable impact.
If Conversational Elaboration is something that occurs as a result of a visit to a museum then when exactly does that take place? Does it occur as a kind of summation? Or does it accrue gradually throughout the course of a visit and continue to grow even after the visit has ended? If Conversational Elaboration does develop then how does it develop? The purpose of the second part of this chapter is to examine one group’s visit to a museum exhibition in a manner that helps us to actually see the growth of conversational detail and specificity over a short period of time and to help trace the moment-to-moment alterations in the conversations in a manner that permits us to speculate how conversation develops.
The pair of adults we focus on represents part of what we refer to as a coherent group—they are familiar with each other and have a pattern of interaction that stems from prior experiences together. They also have a particular task, to make sense of and to share in the experience of the visit to this particular exhibition. For each visit they must renegotiate the terrain. Because the purposes and layout of each exhibit is unique, a vocabulary for referring to objects, describing them, evaluating them and their display must be developed. The visitors need to establish a pacing of their tour as well as a path through it. They need to orient themselves with respect to each other and the content – What is familiar, what is foreign? Do they “like it”? Do they “get it”?
Page 12 06/27/01 2:53 PM As the visit progresses, the work of orientation and stance is established and the visiting group find themselves freer to discuss the particulars of the material and to perhaps engage with the subtleties of the curatorial premises—Why is this object here and not there? Why do the labels give this information and not that? What exactly is the “message”? Occasionally they may take a moment to renegotiate the path or anticipated duration of the visit, but mostly they engage with each other and with the objects in the museum. As the visit ends they return to the management of the visit itself, where they will go next, establishing the time, general way-finding behaviors through time and place.
The Setting and the Methodology
Our particular example of a visit takes place at the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMA) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The CMA is located in a cluster of buildings all donated by one of the patrons of the city, Andrew Carnegie—the Carnegie Library, the Carnegie Music Hall, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. All of these buildings are interconnected and are in sight of Carnegie Mellon University. The CMA is the most recent addition to the cluster, fashioned in the Modernist tradition of wide low stairs, abstract fountains, and slabs of glass; it fits and contrasts well with the neo-classical style of the adjoining buildings.
Inside the building there is a flight of deep, low, flat stairs. It is said that the stairs were deliberately designed to make fluid automatic movement up them impossible; the visitor can not stride up on alternating legs but must pause either every step or every other to insert an extra step.
This feature is designed to force the visitor to slow down and look around. At the top of the stairs is a small landing area that divides the permanent collection (to the left) from the temporary and visiting exhibits (to the right).
The Soul of Africa exhibition was open at the CMA in the summer of 1999. The exhibit represents 10 percent of the 2000-piece Swiss collection of Han Coray. Coray did not himself visit Africa. He developed his collection between 1916 and 1928 because of his interest in and devotion to the particular artistic features of African Art. In particular, he admired the abstract and primitive feel of the material, which stood in contrast to the prevailing European artistic milieu. The exhibition consisted of 200 pieces of 19th and 20th century art: masks, sculpture, ritual furniture, jewelry, textiles, and musical instruments. The exhibition was organized around the curatorial themes of Art and Leadership, Rank and Prestige, Life Transitions, Supernatural World, Remembering the Dead, and Music. The objects themselves were placed in a decidedly artistic stance with wall colors and mountings designed to emphasize the aesthetic aspects of the pieces (Stainton, in press).
The exhibition was not “easy.” While those formally trained in art could quickly see the similarities of line, form, and distillation that connect with modern art sensibilities and that pervade the collection, the less trained might tend to see an anthropological exhibition displaced into an art venue (see Stainton, in press, for an elaboration of this idea). Aesthetics were less easily captured than was a sense of craft and accomplishment, and throughout there was the tension between modern and primitive: the former encompassing simplicity by choice, the latter encompassing simplicity by circumstance. The visitors could, if they chose, float through the exhibition with their own preconceived notions intact or they could engage and be challenged by what they saw. What we are addressing here is how the engagement evolved and was reflected or not in the conversations.
The data are taken from a larger series of studies designed to validate the instrumentation and theory of the MLC (Leinhardt & Crowley, 1998). The specific data come from a sample of 12 groups of visitors to the Soul of Africa art exhibit. Camilla and Harold from Las Vegas, the group we focus on here, had come to the museum as a part of seeing the sights of Pittsburgh, not particularly to see the African art exhibition. Their interactive style was extremely pleasant and
Before touring the exhibition Camilla and Harold were wired with lightweight portable microphones. They were instructed to visit the exhibit as they naturally might and informed that the researchers would be noting where they were in the exhibit hall. As they toured, the researcher marked their stops on a map and noted phrases from the current conversation to help us later synchronize the stop with the ongoing audio recording.