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EducationLearning: Theory and Practice
Learning in Context
by Laura Martin

Why talk about context?
My experiences as a grade school teacher in the 1970s made me curious about children’s thinking. I decided to attend a graduate program in developmental psychology so I could study why children thought the way they did. I was already familiar with Piaget and had seen real-life evidence supporting his theory. Once I watched a first grader at a school fair paying for a nickel item with a quarter and getting two dimes back as change. He was delighted: "Now I have more money!"

In graduate school, one study was presented to us as a significant breakthrough,a 1948 study of children’s memory by Z.M. Istomina, translated from Russian, and reprinted in an obscure journal. The study looked at how well four- and five-year-olds remembered a list of grocery items, in what’s called a free-recall test. Istomina presented the task in two different conditions: a regular laboratory-like interview setting and an embedded dramatic play situation in a preschool. Children in the preschool condition remembered significantly more items from the grocery list: The play setting facilitated learning and remembering. This result is difficult to explain if you believe that what people think resides inside their heads and has nothing to do with why or where they’re asked to do remembering.

Since the mid-70s many scholars of cognitive functioning and development have criticized standard laboratory studies of cognitive performance. These critiques address some of the problems researchers have had in explaining individual differences in performance and in understanding cognitive processing outside the school or laboratory.

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The approach I adopt in understanding thinking outside of school is an activity theory, or sociocultural, approach to cognitive development. It is based on the theoretical work of L.S. Vygotsky, whose theory accounts for a lot of the results in individual performance that Piaget's theory and others' can't address. Vygotskian theory is concerned primarily with the development of higher mental functions like speech and reasoning. It also is concerned with the relation between everyday (intuitive) and scientific (tutored) concept development. Vygotsky recognizes that development occurs on different planes (for example, the interpersonal and the intrapersonal), that these planes intersect, and that they cannot be understood entirely independently of each other. Activity theory (an offshoot of Vygotsky's work) posits that individual human action is that intersection and that it exists within a goal structure defined by cultural circumstances. To me, this is a critical part of understanding learning within the contexts of specific cultural institutions.

One important insight that came out of this work deals with goals and motivational settings. The same formal problem can be encountered, for instance, as part of a school assignment, as part of a job in the stockroom of a factory, or as a practical task in the kitchen. We now know that individuals will apply different sorts of mental strategies in each case, not only because the tools at hand differ, but also because the task goal differs in the three settings: completing an assignment, filling an order, adjusting a recipe.

Most of the research looking at science learning was conducted in schools, and school tasks themselves exist in their own particular context. Researchers have noticed that the general goals of the schoolwork context may be at odds with those supporting genuine scientific investigation. If we want to understand learning outside of school, it is important to look at studies of school contexts compared to non-school contexts.

Supporting authentic learning
Ricardo Nemirovsky (1992) has written a piece, based on his experiences with project-based science instruction, that raises questions about investigations versus demonstrations, and the goals we set for students. Nemirovsky sees the challenge in his teaching as that of creating an atmosphere for students that is both like one in which scientists work and one that supports students’ "intellectual autonomy." Specifically, his goal is to help students see everyday things as newly interesting,that is, to make the familiar wonder-ful. This is very close to what museums try to do, too.

Nemirovsky, though, raises an important distinction between the feeling underlying the expression "I wonder" and that underlying "this is amazing." He sees amazement as the experience of an external, distant phenomenon because it is not located inside the person, but in the amazing thing. Genuine inquiry, rather, depends on the "extent the student feels her or his own personal way of approaching something is worth looking at." This distinction asks us to reflect on the goals of the experiences we provide to the public (different from school); the role of amazement, which is part of the museum experience, in this scheme; and the role of reflection in a museum setting.

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Another example of the context of schoolwork being at odds with more authentic learning practices is found in the work of Luis Moll. Moll and his colleagues (1992), trying to build bridges between teachers and Mexican families in Arizona, have examined the "funds of knowledge" available in communities that children are immersed in outside of school. They have found that by reframing the traditional view of knowledge (school-based skills), they could identify a wealth of problem-solving domains the children are familiar with: household management, construction and repair, medicine, ranching, and so on.

Their work is a clear illustration of the fact that learning in different settings has very different components and practices. It raises questions about which competencies are acquired in a museum. Do they have to be the same as in a school setting? Do museums also restrict the social setting such that learners’ skills are less in evidence?

Concept acquisition
Children’s concept acquisition in different contexts was studied by Giyoo Hatano and Kayoko Inagaki in a series of studies (1993). The authors were interested in context-free knowledge,that is, abstract understandings that people can apply to new situations if they need to, the kind of thing school teaches. Specifically, they were interested in how mental models of animal biology develop such that some are flexible or adaptive and others are routine or procedural.

Working with six-year-olds who were raising pet rabbits, fish, and birds, they and their colleagues found that children who had experience raising animals at home had formed more sophisticated concepts about animals' survival needs than children who had cared for animals as part of a school routine or whose teachers had cared for the class animals.

The active and spontaneous nature of children’s involvement was the basis, the authors claim, on which the children built their concepts. At the same time, they demonstrate that in order to understand the shape of the conceptual competence, you have to look at the learners’ experiential history, their practices, and the motivational context of their activity.

These studies and other recent research confirm what museum designers and educators know already: Learning outside of the usual school boundaries is powerful and different. Unhampered by curriculum and school tradition, museums have the opportunity to arrange situations that better lead us to our goals for visitors. We can, for instance, take the time to organize projects with outcomes that motivate learners to ask themselves questions. We can make use of intergenerational interests and conversation to reach learners where they are. Our exhibits and programs can extend the talk and direct it. We can offer up topics that are familiar to folks and that become the common object of their dialog.

Hatano and Inagaki’s work shows us that activity,including action, the people and tools involved, and the talk we engage in,is the basis for mental concept development. We, in museums, with the resources of scientists, technicians, educators, and designers, can think through optimal experiences along multiple dimensions,to a greater extent than can school staff,in order to support wonder, competence, reflection, and, thus, genuine inquiry.

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Specific Context
Doing psychological experiments with human subjects can be a satisfying enterprise. You can plan exposure to stimuli, set up contrasting conditions, and do statistical verification of the subjects’ performance. Colleagues who are studying less precise real-world functioning have been known to say things like, "What I’d secretly like to study is something tidy, like word list recall in a lab." But for all our desires to view the mental world in a simple and organized manner, we know that is often an elusive enterprise. Even in the laboratory, the situation has its own meaning, and the people participating in activities there are summoning up behaviors they feel are appropriate for that context.

If understanding specific contexts of learning is essential to understanding the development of thinking, then there is a need to deal with noise as a part of the analysis,with events or responses that are observed but that shouldn’t be included in the statistical equation or should otherwise be accounted for. It means collecting special kinds of data, namely, observational case study data, ethnographic and linguistic information, and other qualitative measures, in other words, looking at context.

Work on the effects of context arises from a long tradition of cross-cultural research, started in the early 1960s by Jerome Bruner and others, which found that number of years of Western schooling is the best predictor of an individual’s functioning on what we regard as neutral measures of abstract thinking and problem solving, i.e., tests of mental skills and functions. After analyzing what it is about schooling that supports such performance, scholars have turned to look at complex thinking outside of school in traditional societies,in the marketplace, in work settings,and at the relation of everyday thinking to schooled thinking.

Psychologists interested in educational contexts have learned a lot about methodology from anthropologists, linguists, and other social scientists. Anthropology, for example, bases its findings on in-depth observations of and participation in the world views of particular social groups. Its practitioners document interactions over time. They analyze unspoken meaning as well as symbol systems. They take speech acts and tool artifacts as indicators of what is significant to a group. They study questions of socialization,of how cultural practices get handed down and how individuals construct their own versions of them. The work takes extremely sensitive readings of complex settings yet steps back far enough to see patterns emerge.

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Using anthropological techniques
The work of three individuals who apply anthropology to the study of cognition has taught us much about the characteristics of thinking and learning outside of school: Jean Lave, Ed Hutchins, and Shirley Brice Heath.

In their article, "The Dialectic of Arithmetic in Grocery Shopping," Jean Lave and her colleagues (1984) look at how people use math in one everyday situation,the grocery store. They conclude that the grocery store setting and the activities in the store "mutually create and change each other." That is, the setting and the shopper together create the math problems; the problems are not "out there" waiting to be solved as they may be on a school test. Things in the store help shoppers with calculations or organize information for them, which helps them define problems and see the nature of the solution.

In another study of everyday cognition, Ed Hutchins observed Navy personnel navigating a large aircraft carrier (1993). What Hutchins saw is that cognition can be "socially distributed." In such a real-life setting, one person is not doing the thinking; everyone works together and the "cognitive accomplishments can be joint accomplishments." The distributed system is robust because of built-in redundancies of information and because of interindividual access and communication. This kind of parallel activity allows more complex tasks to be carried out and may allow more different tasks to be carried out than is possible by one person doing the thinking alone.

In another look at action integrated with thinking, Shirley Brice Heath (1991) helps us look at how language sets a frame for learning. She does this by analyzing how coaching functioned for one Little League team in California that went from the bottom of their league to the top. Heath looked at the framework that the coach and the children establish for learning the ethos, the skills, and the thinking styles needed to meet their goals of having fun and playing good ball. Heath sees sociodramatic play as an organizing discourse for the team, which is followed by cooperative reflection. Establishing a play frame for the purposes of "work" (skill-building) encourages experimenting and practice for mastery. The situation of children engaging in serious learning in a voluntary context also has implications for a museum, where activities may require structure and hard work, but without the negative reinforcement conditions of school.

Apprenticeship models
Traditional models of cognitive processing, prior knowledge, and mental representation have begun to incorporate Vygotskian principles, as researchers examine discrepancies between how people think in the relatively constrained conditions of clinical interviews or school tests and how they think as they go about their daily routines.

Allan Collins and his colleagues (1991), for example, discuss the important concept of cognitive apprenticeship. They argue that school practices may be usefully adapted to include features of traditional apprenticeship systems, and review examples of research that demonstrates the effectiveness of doing so. The authors feel that "standard pedagogical practices render key aspects of expertise invisible to students," which makes it hard for students to apply what they’ve learned in school to other situations. They feel that apprenticeship learning "is the way we learn most naturally." Collins, et al. cite four techniques of supporting learning by apprentices,modeling, scaffolding, fading, and coaching. They also summarize characteristics contributing to the effectiveness of learning environments, including the context of tasks: where they are situated, who the participants are, what the motivation is for engaging in them, and the cooperative nature of the tasks.

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Learning outside of school
Learning and thinking outside of school cannot be understood in terms of learning about abstractions. Neither do school reasoning and problems come into play very directly outside of class. The reasons for needing to do critical or analytic thinking in the two settings are fundamentally different.

Outside of school, we can see more clearly how the social context and goal for applying mental skills is part of the mental organization process. When we look at learning and problem solving in preparing meals, on the job, playing ball, or as part of street vending and directing air traffic, we see that the characteristics of problem structures little resemble those found in school.

Daily problem-solving
Researchers studying learning and thinking outside of school have found that in daily life people think about and find problems:

  • within a broader societal goal structure
  • in a way that is integrated with actions
  • using numerous cognitive supports (mnemonics, concrete manipulables, visual aids, etc.)
  • in collaboration with others or in distributed patterns
  • in different orders of complexity
  • as part of a complete task (in contrast to watered-down instructional versions of problems)
  • when solutions become available (people use available solutions; problems don’t dictate the means of solution)
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It will be interesting to compare these characteristics with museum experiences so that, perhaps, we can continue to develop a more appropriate pedagogy for those very special contexts of learning.

Activity theory, in fact, predicts that learning about a subject in school is going to be very different from learning about it in a museum because of the museum’s unique goal structure, cognitive supports, and discourse context. From this perspective, we don’t know enough about the nature of museums as contexts for learning concepts.

It will be important to understand how this particular context operates before we go to a more controlled or delimited situation to test out our hypotheses, if we do at all. The lessons of the science center may not be about acquiring specific scientific understandings but may have to do with how our culture views activity in and around science, an important lesson in itself. A museum is not school, but neither is it like a workplace in terms of involving goals of consequence, like making a living or preparing a meal. Rather, it is a hybrid of informal educational institution and recreational pursuit, though not merely that.

In order to understand the goal of people’s activities in a museum and what meaning they take there, a multifaceted research program would need to be organized. We could begin by asking visitors to describe their reasons for coming to the center and then look at the language they use for the descriptions in relation to what they actually do on the floor. A research agenda would begin with both observer and participant definitions of the experience in order to develop models of how museums get "constructed" by the visitors.

In order to understand further the context of thinking in a museum, we would also need to reanalyze observational research about the activities and interactions of people as they go through the museum. I am not necessarily referring to behavior with respect to exhibits. We don’t fully know yet what the range of conversations are that go on on the floor between participants (for example, a child with her teacher or her parent). How does transition time help define exhibit-centered activity? What happens within groups of people of different backgrounds? What meaning are visitors constructing from their museum experiences? What are the specific actions and mental operations that get called upon in transacting activities? Until we know more about how museums are construed and what types of cultural messages they foster (through dialogue, demonstration, access, and so on), we can’t truly say what museums teach or what role they have as an educational resource in the community.

While we are learning about what museums mean and how they mean, the institution in general is being defined by our society through funding trends, systemic initiatives, and local program development. We are part of the consolidation of an important arena of out-of-school learning and engagement. As we pursue a substantive research agenda, we can help increase the positive impact of the museum experience for our public and help propel educational change in the society as a whole.

References and further readings


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