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EducationLearning: Theory and Practice
About Learning: Introduction
by Elsa Feher

When Wendy Pollock approached me on this project I knew the time was right, that it couldn't be more right. The museum community was seriously concerned with and eager to know more about the problems of learning. The level of interest could be gauged by the enthusiastic response to the series of articles What Research Says About Learning, published by ASTC (Borun et al 1993 and Serrell 1990), and by the widespread interest in a conference on Public Institutions for Personal Learning held in Annapolis in August 1994 (Falk and Dierking 1995). These efforts, precursors to the present project, were important in giving us a clearer understanding of what needed to be the next step. Looking at what they did and did not accomplish gave us insight into the task we faced.

The need, as we see it, is two-fold:

Deeper understanding—Because the term "learning" is used is so many different ways by different people, the discussions about learning are often frustrating, and meanings are unclear. First and foremost, then, there is a need to sort out the various aspects of learning and clarify them. The issues are complex, and deeper understanding should lead to better dialogue within the museum community.

Interpretation—Scholars who are deeply engaged in thinking and doing research on learning have subject-matter expertise and methodological know-how which we need. However, the interpretation of their work and its consequences for museums is best done by professionals who are active in the museum environment. We need to be proactive in developing the dialogue between scholars and museum practitioners and in taking on our role as interpreters.

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To address these issues, we proposed to bring front-line work that is being done outside the confines of the museum field to the attention of the museum community. Reading this work would extend the scope of our (the museum professionals') understanding, expand our horizons, and at the same time provide language and concepts that are helpful in articulating arguments. The result would be better communication, and a discourse enhanced in quality, accuracy, and depth. Furthermore, we proposed that the role of interpreters be taken on by members of the Task Force, who had long-term interest and expertise in specific domains of learning.

So the present project was born: the development of an anthology of articles, written by people who are deeply involved with issues of learning, and an interpretive link with the museum enterprise provided by the Task Force members. The articles chosen for the anthology had a variety of purposes: to acquaint readers with seminal papers and current ideas; to promote enthusiasm for doing research in our institutions, suggesting fruitful directions and presenting proven methodologies; to start a process to which each and every member of the museum community could contribute in the future, adding their own choice readings.

It became clear that the anthology could not be all-inclusive. It would have to be idiosyncratic, representative of the members of the Task Force, since we could only interpret for others that which was in our own background experience. In other words, we could only take others on a voyage where we had already been ourselves. As the Task Force began its work, this metaphor of a voyage began to blossom. We found we were taking each other on trips of discovery into our own areas of interest, ports of call where each of us would assume the role of guide. And so the anthology gave way to a field guide, a travel manual, with the following format: At each port of call one of us, the guide, tells his or her story. The story is preceded by an account of the lens, or viewpoint, of the guide. Each story has sections consisting of a cluster of articles or chapters from books, with a commentary that weaves them together and discusses their relevance to the museum enterprise.

If we map the territory covered, it is clear there are important places where we have not been on this voyage. For example, we have not included human factors (i.e., the design of the interface between object and visitor), metacognition (i.e. strategies for monitoring one's own learning), and, undoubtedly, some of your own favorite areas. In the future we could embark on other voyages with other ports of call. And at each port of call we could sightsee a little longer, take in a few more sights.

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Our own trip has been very stimulating, but not always tension-free. Early on we agreed to disagree. I think the field guide is richer for the diversity of views. Perhaps a little of the tension that has kept the dialectic going has found its way into our arguments and keeps them lively for the reader.

I would like to thank the Task Force members for their contributions and for a most stimulating year. And I'd like to express deep appreciation to Wendy Pollock, without whom this project would never have come about, and whose intelligent and gracious efficacy have helped us navigate to safe haven.

References

Borun, Minda, Sheila Grinell, Patty McNamara, and Beverly Serrell, eds. What Research Says about Learning in Science Museums, Volume 2. Washington, DC: Association of Science-Technology Centers, 1993.

Falk, John H. and Lynn D. Dierking, eds. Public Institutions for Personal Learning:
Establishing a Research Agenda.
Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 1995.

Serrell, Beverly, ed. What Research Says about Learning in Science Museums, Volume 1. Washington, DC: Association of Science-Technology Centers, 1990.

 

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