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EducationLearning: Theory and Practice
Learning Inside the Head
by Elsa Feher

While affective factors, as well as social context and physical environment, play important roles in the process of learning, the ultimate act of acquiring knowledge goes on in the head of the individual. Something changes in the brain/mind of the learner. Identifying this change, describing it, explaining what brings it about: This is the task at hand.

My take on the problem of learning is embedded in the tradition of my background discipline, physics, and is shaped by many years of teaching science in very different environments (from elementary school to university settings and museums). When I look at the problem, "What is learning? How do we know if it is taking place?" I think, "This is too complicated. We have to start out with the simplest case, the central issue, isolating a segment of what is going on. When we understand this, we can increase the complexity systematically, adding other elements (the affective, situational, metacognitive aspects, and so on) and find out how they affect what we have figured out."

The heart of this story of "Learning Inside the Head" is conceptual change, the change in thinking that is the hallmark of learning. When individuals interact with the physical world, their experience gets incorporated into their thinking in two ways. In some circumstances, the information from the outside world augments but does not conflict with the individualís prior knowledge. There are no surprises. (Example: A child holds and lets go a variety of objects and they all fall to the ground). In other cases, the new information is unexpected. It requires a reorganization of ideas, an active restructuring in the personís thinking. (Example: The child is handed a helium-filled balloon; when let go, this object goes up instead of down). Notice the generality of what has been said: It holds for a child, an adult, a layperson, a scientist. This is a powerful and compelling way of looking at the acquisition of knowledge because it allows us to think in similar ways about three seemingly disparate processes: the development of childrenís thinking, the acquisition of expertise by adult learners, and the birth of new theories in the history of science.

The cognitive revolution, an interdisciplinary event of the mid-1950s, had a strong influence on my professional life. The various strands of work that came together at that time ranged from research in artificial intelligence, through the development of thought in children, to discoveries in neuroscience about the workings of the brain. The common concern was understanding the principles of intelligent systems, the strategies of human thinking, and the nature of human information-processing.

Constructivism and prior knowledge

To do
Read the following articles:

von Glasersfeld, Ernst. "A Constructivist Approach to Teaching."
In Constructivism in Education, edited by Leslie P. Steffie and
Jerry Gale, pp. 3+15. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,

Roschelle, Jeremy. "Learning in Interactive Environments: Prior
Knowledge and New Experience." In Public Institutions for
Personal Learning, edited by John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking,
pp. 37+51. Washington, DC: American Association of Museums, 1995.

Driver, Rosalind and Beverley Bell. "Studentsí Thinking and the
Learning of Science: A Constructivist View." School Science
Review 67, 240 (1986): 443+456.

Whatís going on
The two questions "How do we learn?" and "What can we know?" are related but by no means identical. To ask what I can know is to ask whether there is an objective real world out there that I can discover. Answers to this question have ranged from the idealist view, which says no, all I can know are the ideas I have in my head about the world, to the realist view, which says yes, there is a world which I can discover that exists independently of my knowing it. The realist view is the one that we are familiar with in the quest for scientific knowledge.

A departure from the realist view that has gained popularity in recent years is known as constructivism. The constructivist view holds that to know is to construct conceptions of reality that fit my experience, that are viable and useful to me; it is not to discover truth. Von Glasersfeld, a philosopher, explains:

The concepts and relations in terms of which we perceive and conceive the experiential world we live in are necessarily generated by ourselves. In this sense, it is we who are responsible for the world we are experiencing.... [This] does not suggest that we can construct anything we like, but it does claim that within the constraints that limit our construction there is room for an infinity of alternatives.

Clearly, the constructivist theory of knowing has something profound to say about learning. If to know is to generate ideas that give meaning to the world, making sense of our personal experience, then to learn is to organize and reorganize these ideas. We are not empty vessels to be filled with objective knowledge; rather, we are meaning-giving systems that arrive at a learning situation with prior knowledge, prior ideas.

Among researchers in science learning, the term prior knowledge is of recent general use. Since the late 1970s, when teachers began documenting the common errors made by their students, what we here call prior knowledge has received much attention and many different names. The errors were called misconceptions, to emphasize they were mistakes; or naive conceptions, to contrast the naive learner with the experienced teacher; or intuitive notions, to note that the holder of the notion was simply unschooled; or commonsense notions, until it was found that many of the ideas that were deeply rooted did not seem commonsensical at all; or student views, in an attempt to treat the learner with respect by only indicating ownership of the ideas.

Jeremy Roschelle explains the role of prior knowledge in learning science. Based on his review of the research, he argues the importance of looking at prior knowledge as providing building blocks for learning and not as a barrier that stops or misleads the learners. He stresses the view that science learning consists of refining everyday ideas; that it is a process of restructuring, not of replacing, the ideas; that it takes a long time; and that it requires a rich social context.

Rosalind Driver and Beverley Bell, both science educators, give us the practitionerís take on the constructivist theory of knowledge and what it means in the real world of the classroom. They illustrate for us the "talking aloud" methodology they use for eliciting learners' thoughts and thought processes in the course of knowledge acquisition.

So what
What does it mean to take a constructivist approach in our museum? It means we:

  • provide rich environments that help expand the visitors' experience with the world;
  • encourage visitors to actively make sense out of their experiences, to give meaning to what they experience;
  • attempt to provide links to what they already know;
  • deepen our own understanding of our visitors by observing them in action, talking to them, finding out what they think and why they think so; and
  • provide ample opportunities for social interactions.

Here are a couple of examples of ways in which we have interpreted and implemented some of the above in our own science center.

The museum is a very social place. To promote social interactions almost means only making sure one is not impeding them. We noticed that at some interactive exhibits several people wanted to do the activity at the same time; typically, but not exclusively, this happened at exhibits where the userís face is captured by a TV camera and displayed on a screen. At these exhibits we provided, with much success, stools that seat two people. Exhibits where the manipulables are on a table top are designed as islands, easily accessible to users and onlookers on all sides. Exhibit design and layout are important considerations in promoting socializing, but there are others. For example, ambient noise can be a problem if it prevents, as it sometimes does in our facility, the easy flow of conversation.

To encourage visitors to become actively engaged in making sense of their experiences, we routinely do not use questions in our captions. We would like our visitors to take ownership of their learning by coming up with their own questions. With this in mind, any questions in the captions are someone elseís questions, the curatorís questions, and not the visitorís. Donít we think it is important to model questioning techniques for the visitor?, Iíve been asked. Yes, we do, and the format of the captions that we use, we believe, does the job well. The To Do and Notice format tells the visitor: Let me show you something I find interesting: If you do this, you will notice thus and such. If you do that you will notice so and so. The hoped-for result is that the visitor asks the "what if?" type of question we would like to stimulate: Oh! and then what if I try this? What will I notice then?

As we have just noted, the viewpoint on learning of the museum professional who puts together a display is apparent in many ways, some of them subtle indeed, such as the format of the captions, the design of the furniture, the layout of the exhibits, the amount of ambient noise. The constructivist approach as we interpret it at the Reuben Fleet Science Center is primarily experiential, based on inviting a questioning mode, encouraging visitors to raise their own questions. In another museum the approach may be didactic, relying heavily on the orderly presentation of facts and scientific explanations.

Museum professionals have only recently begun to identify their views on knowledge and learning. These views are important because they define and shape the institutions to which we belong. We all write institutional mission statements. But these are usually global, general views about the goodness of education for all; they generally are not articulations of philosophical positions. I suggest that an important item on our agenda as museum professionals is to become explicitly aware of our own and our institutionsí stance in regard to learning.

References and further readings

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