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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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The tape was partitioned based on a combination of location and talk. A segment consisted of a coherent set of talk about a particular object or grouping at a particular place. The total number of segments for the visit was grouped into five equally sized (in terms of number of segments) chunks. The five chunks were viewed as five phases of the visit. The chunks varied with respect to the amount of time and the actual amount of talk that took place within them; only the number of segmented “stops” stayed relatively constant. There was nothing magical about the division into fifths beyond the fact that it allowed us to view the first chunk as settling down and orienting, the second through fourth chunks as the main substance of the visit, and the last chunk as the process of disengagement and exiting. Thus, by contrasting the second and fourth chunks, we can see a bit of how the conversation evolved over the course of the visit.

Each segment was coded in terms of the structural and thematic features of the talk. The structural features of the segment included listing or identifying, synthesizing in a personal manner, synthesizing in an object manner, analyzing, and explaining. The thematic features of the talk, reflecting themes of the exhibit, were function, craft, beauty, and social meaning. We view analyzing and explaining as more complex than listing or synthesizing, and we considered discussions of beauty and social meaning as more challenging than discussions of function and craft. Each segment was coded for one and only one structural feature and for as many thematic features, if any, as were mentioned. Examples of the coding follow.

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Analysis and Results In order to give the overall feeling for how Camilla and Harold’s visit evolved, we give a brief numerical description. Second, to get a sense of the developing and social nature of the visit, we describe the overall visit in terms of the gradual evolution of explanations.

Harold and Camilla had 42 segments overall and nine segments in their second chunk, which comprised 77 lines of dialogue. Three of the segments in the second chunk were list-like, comprising 13% of the lines of talk; one segment included synthesis between objects, comprising 6% of the lines of talk; three segments were analytic, comprising 43% of the lines of talk; while two of the segments were explanatory, representing 35% of the talk. Thus we see in the early part of the visit that this couple devoted almost 80% of their talk to analyzing and explaining a few objects. Over the nine segments, Harold and Camilla discussed functional features on six occasions, craft aspects twice, and issues of beauty and social meaning once each.

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Page 15 06/27/01 2:53 PM In the fourth chunk of the data, Camilla and Harold had 102 lines of dialogue and 8 segments. None of the segments were lists. One segment was an object-based synthesis comprising 8% of the dialogue lines. Four segments were analytic and comprised 33% of the dialogue lines.

Three of the segments were explanatory and comprised 61% of the dialogue lines. Thus, explanatory discourse went from 33% to 61% of the discussion space while list-like behavior dropped out completely. With respect to the thematic aspects of the talk, two segments dealt with craft, two with function, and three with social meaning. When we consider the combination of structural and thematic features together, we can see that not only did the structure move from list to explanation, but also thematic discourse moved from functional descriptions to explanations of social meaning concerning the objects.

Another way of tracing how the visit evolved is to examine one kind of discourse, explanation, over the entire visit. Explanations can be offered about the content of a display, the meaning of the display, or the intention of the displayer or curator. But to explain something requires both asking and answering a query (Leinhardt, 2001).

Harold and Camilla engaged in nine explanations. Their first explanatory segment occurred in the first chunk. It dealt with a functional theme and emphasized the composition and purpose of the “neck collars.” Interestingly, Harold saw the collars as both old-fashioned “back then” and as unique to the African contexts. In contrast, Camilla immediately connected the collars to men’s necklaces, which are still in use in the U. S. The second explanation occurred just two segments later when Harold tried to figure out “How does this tie in?” to the other objects they were looking at. He and Camilla were confused and puzzled by the relationship of groups to the dead–they wondered, do the living take care of the dead by doing the necessary ceremonies and gifts or do the dead take care of the living by watching over them? They understood the idea that the dead in some sense were to be appeased, but they were confused by the statuary for baptism of the dead. Again it

was Camilla who clarified the two positions although she did not resolve them:

“But they expect the living to be in a position to take care of the dead or if they have not [they have] made that decision. But they have, there is also a belief that they are allowing the ancestors to control what’s going on in present day life among the living. Cause the ancestors would, could be [ruffled] They considered them spirits which could punish, if something were going wrong… Whereas the religious practice you’re talking about is baptism of the dead. The other is more to insure their salvation. Not a control of…” In the next explanation, a part of Chunk 2, Camilla introduced the ambiguity once more.

They were examining a variety of cups and noticed one was double—two distinct cups in the shape of back-to-back heads, joined at the neck. They discussed the social rank implied by the carving on the cups and then discussed why it would be a double cup. The explanation focused on both function and social meaning. Harold suggested it was a marriage cup – similar to our own customs

-- while Camilla noticed that it might just be for sharing in a ceremony of social significance not necessarily marriage.

But it was two explanations later where Camilla and Harold engaged most deeply. They had come to “Nailman,” a wooden figure of a man studded all over with large iron nails—it was a show-stopper of an object for most visitors. In their discussion it was Camilla who jumped to the conclusion that the figure was a voodoo doll, used to harm or curse others. Harold questioned whether that was really the case. They both then read the label copy. They discovered that “it’s not Page 16 06/27/01 2:53 PM voodoo dolls, it’s different…because the reason for it was different. Like if you take some type of secret oath. I guess for contracts, legal decisions. I think it used…” Camilla concurred but noticed that there is implied power in the nails and the act of nailing. Thus the nails could heal or exact revenge if the contract were broken. Therefore the nailman might be, in Camilla’s logic, a forerunner of the concept of voodoo dolls. She continued her reflection of forerunner by saying, “[S]ome practices were brought down from generation to generation. And they just changed, their use has changed.” Harold and Camilla have found a device to support engagement. The device originally was “them versus us” (as with the neck collar); but,with the Nailman exploration, they shift and discuss “then versus now.” Although the exhibition is in fact quite modern (20th Century) and the objects themselves not particularly old, this couple focused on time rather than cultural differences to act as a lens for interpretation. The advantage of their approach was that they could constantly construct a problem space of finding where a concept or artifact played itself out in present societies. Harold and Camilla made four further explanations of objects in the exhibition. All but one dealt with the thematic idea of social meanings.

Harold took the lead in one of these explanations, where he was trying to understand initiations for young men. He started by saying, “Secret societies. Good old forerunners of the Elks! … I’m not going there, but once again what you are seeing, you had all these different tribes that had certain procedure they used for guiding the young boys to manhood…All of them had a way of teaching boys how to become men.” From there Camilla connected these rituals to those of the American Indian and then circled back to comment on the lack of such guidance and training in the modern context of America. Both Camilla and Harold pressed to interpret the particular cultural constants that link the alien objects to their own American experiences. What they avoided, however, was any deep engagement in the aesthetics of the exhibit. They noted when things were pretty or skillfully carved or delicate or glittery, but they never commented on the artistry or form of objects – the lines, scale distortions, and mixed media that so captivated the artists of the early 20th century remained invisible to or unnoted by this couple.


We began this chapter by wondering why people should continue to come to museums and with a concern about the relative emphasis on the unique or the mundane as the best lens for research on museum learning. We have presented two conceptual frames to help us consider these issues. The first proposed four features of objects that make them unique and powerful kinds of examples. The second proposed a particular way of examining conversation as a mediating process for learning. Visitors come to expand on what they already know and to experience what they have only imagined, and to see beyond the mundane to the unique. Just as they can come for multiple reasons, visitors can learn in multiple ways. As we saw with the preservice teachers at the BCRI, the encounter with the bus challenged them to reconsider their understanding of the Civil Rights Era by attaching to a mundane concept (a bus) a vivid distortion (burned). As we saw in the case of children at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum, encountering a real robot prompted a revision of a fairly extensive but romantized knowledge base. In the case of Harold and Camilla at the Carnegie Museum of Art, we saw a couple finding a way to evolve a system for exploring, over a series of African artifacts, connections between the familiar and the alien.

In some ways these findings lead us to consider the very identity of museums themselves.

When museum researchers document the rapt engagement of young children in science museums, one might conclude that museum learning must have a hands-on feature or no powerful learning can take place. This assumption is clearly false because museums are also places of quiet contemplation. Similarly, when we at the Museum Learning Collaborative focus on the social features of conversational elaboration as the mechanism of learning in museums, we do not mean to suggest that visitors must talk all the time in deep and meaningful ways. This assumption is clearly Page 17 06/27/01 2:53 PM false because museums are also places of solitary exploration and of trivial chatter. So too, when a volume is devoted to objects in museums as the agents of impact, we must be cautious because the layered accumulation of multiple experiences, of multiple moments of contemplation, of multiple objects is essential to the thing that is a museum and the learning that takes place there.


Allen, S. (1997). Using scientific inquiry activities in exhibit explanations. Science Education (Informal Science Education - Special Issue), 81(6), 715-734.

Allen, S. (in press). Looking for learning in visitor talk: A methodological exploration. In

G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning conversations in museums. Mahwah, NJ:


Atkinson, R. K., Derry, S. J., Renkl, A., & Wortham, D. (2001). Learning from examples:

Instructional principles from the worked examples research. Review of Educational Research, 70(2), 181-214.

Blais, A. (Ed.) (1995). Text in the exhibition medium. Québec City: Société des musées québécois.

Borun, M., Chambers, M., & Cleghorn, A. (1996). Families are learning in science museums. Curator, 39(2), 123-138.

Crowley, K. & Galco, J. (2001). Everyday activity and the development of scientific thinking. In K. Crowley, C. D. Schunn, & T. Okada (Eds.), Designing for science: Implications from everyday, classroom, and professional science (pp. 393-413). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

DiBlasio, M. & DiBlasio, R. (1983). Constructing a cultural context through museum storytelling. Roundtable Reports 8.3.

Falk, J. H., & Dierking, L. D. (2000). Learning from museums: Visitor experiences and the making of meaning. Walnut Creek: Alta Mira Press.

Gelman, R., Massey, C.M., & McManus, M. (1991). Characterizing supporting environments for cognitive development: Lessons from a children's museum. In L.B. Resnick, J.M.

Levine, and S.D. Teasley (Eds.), Perspectives on socially shared cognition. Washington, DC: APA.

Gleason, M. E., & Schauble, L. (1999). Parents’ assistance of their children’s scientific reasoning. Cognition and Instruction, 17(4), 343-378.

Gregg, M. & Leinhardt, G. (2001). Learning from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute:

Documenting teacher development. Manuscript under editorial review.

Knutson, K. (2001, April). Creating a space for learning: Curators, educators, and the implied audience. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans.

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Leinhardt, G., & Crowley, K. (1998). Conversational elaboration as a process and an outcome of museum learning. Museum Learning Collaborative Technical Report (MLC-01).

Pittsburgh, PA: Learning Research & Development Center, University of Pittsburgh [Available at http://mlc.lrdc.pitt.edu/mlc].

Leinhardt, G., Crowley, K., & Knutson, K. (Eds.) (in press). Learning conversations in museums. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Leinhardt, G., & Gregg, M. (in press). Burning buses, burning crosses: Pre-service teachers see Civil Rights. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, & K. Knutson, (Eds.), Learning conversations in museums. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Leinhardt, G., & Ohlsson, S. (1990). Tutorials on the structure of tutoring from teachers.

Journal of Artificial Intelligence in Education, 2(1), 21-46.

McManus, P. M. (1989). Oh, yes, they do: How museum visitors read labels and interact with exhibit texts. Curator, 32(3), 174-189.

Paris, S. G., Troop, W. P., Henderlong, J., & Sulfaro, M. M. (1994). Children's explorations in a hands-on science museum. The Kamehameha Journal of Education, 5, 83-92.

Roberts, L. (1997). From knowledge to narrative. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution.

Schauble, L., Leinhardt, G., & Martin, L. (1998). A framework for organizing a cumulative research agenda in informal learning contexts. Journal of Museum Education, 22(2&3), 3-8.

Serrell, B. (1997). Paying attention: The duration and allocation of visitors' time in museum exhibitions. Curator, 40(2), 108-125.

Stainton, C. (in press). Voices and images: Making connections between identity and art. In

G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley, & K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning conversations in museums. Mahwah, NJ:


White, H.C. (1995). Where do languages come from? - Switching talk. Unpublished manuscript, Columbia University, New York.

Young, K. M. (2001). Learning to write from examples: The effects of number of examples and presence of scaffolding on student understanding and writing. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

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