Principles of learning

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Principles of learning

Mesaj  Admin Bir Salı Nis. 07, 2009 1:37 am

Principles of learning
What are some guiding principles of constructivist thinking that we must keep in mind when we consider our role as educators? I will outline a few ideas, all predicated on the belief that learning consists of individuals' constructed meanings and then indicate how they influence museum education.

1. Learning is an active process in which the learner uses sensory input and constructs meaning out of it. The more traditional formulation of this idea involves the terminology of the active learner (Dewey's term) stressing that the learner needs to do something; that learning is not the passive acceptance of knowledge which exists "out there" but that learning involves the learner s engaging with the world. 7

2. People learn to learn as they learn: learning consists both of constructing meaning and constructing systems of meaning. For example, if we learn the chronology of dates of a series of historical events, we are simultaneously learning the meaning of a chronology. Each meaning we construct makes us better able to give meaning to other sensations which can fit a similar pattern. 8

3. The crucial action of constructing meaning is mental: it happens in the mind. Physical actions, hands-on experience may be necessary for learning, especially for children, but it is not sufficient; we need to provide activities which engage the mind as well as the hands.9 (Dewey called this reflective activity.)4. Learning involves language: the language we use influences learning. On the empirical level. researchers have noted that people talk to themselves as they learn. On a more general level. there is a collection of arguments, presented most forcefully by Vigotsky, that language and learning are inextricably intertwined. 10 This point was clearly emphasized in Elaine Gurain's reference to the need to honor native language in developing North American exhibits. The desire to have material and programs in their own language was an important request by many members of various Native American communities.

5. Learning is a social activity: our learning is intimately associated with our connection with other human beings, our teachers, our peers, our family as well as casual acquaintances, including the people before us or next to us at the exhibit. We are more likely to be successful in our efforts to educate if we recognize this principle rather than try to avoid it. Much of traditional education, as Dewey pointed out, is directed towards isolating the learner from all social interaction, and towards seeing education as a one-on-one relationship between the learner and the objective material to be learned. In contrast, progressive education (to continue to use Dewey's formulation) recognizes the social aspect of learning and uses conversation, interaction with others, and the application of knowledge as an integral aspect of learning. 11

6. Learning is contextual: we do not learn isolated facts and theories in some abstract ethereal land of the mind separate from the rest of our lives: we learn in relationship to what else we know, what we believe, our prejudices and our fears. 12 On reflection, it becomes clear that this point is actually a corollary of the idea that learning is active and social. We cannot divorce our learning from our lives. 13

7. One needs knowledge to learn: it is not possible to assimilate new knowledge without having some structure developed from previous knowledge to build on. 14 The more we know, the more we can learn. Therefore any effort to teach must be connected to the state of the learner, must provide a path into the subject for the learner based on that learner's previous knowledge. 15

8. It takes time to learn: learning is not instantaneous. For significant learning we need to revisit ideas, ponder them try them out, play with them and use them. This cannot happen in the 5-10 minutes usually spent in a gallery (and certainly not in the few seconds usually spent contemplating a single museum object.) If you reflect on anything you have learned, you soon realize that it is the product of repeated exposure and thought. Even, or especially, moments of profound insight, can be traced back to longer periods of preparation.

9. Motivation is a key component in learning. Not only is it the case that motivation helps learning, it is essential for learning. This ideas of motivation as described here is broadly conceived to include an understanding of ways in which the knowledge can be used. Unless we know "the reasons why", we may not be very involved in using the knowledge that may be instilled in us. even by the most severe and direct teaching. 16

The meaning of constructivism for museums
Having suggested these principles, I want to reflect on what they may mean for our specific day- to-day work both in mounting exhibits and in developing educational programs.

Points #1 and 3
Most museum educators have accepted the idea that learners need to be active, that in order to participate in learning we need to engage the learner in doing something, in hands-on involvement, in participatory exhibits and programs. But the more important point, I believe, is the idea that the actions which we develop for our audience engage the mind as well as the hand. Not all experiences are educative, as Dewey pointed out in Experience and Education. This does not mean that they necessarily have to be complex---but they do need to allow the participants to think as they act. I recently saw a videotape of a group of children building a cardboard ramp which would serve as an inclined plane for an experiment they were to do. What the video tape showed was a fifteen-minute period in which the children spent time measuring, constructing (and wandering around) with little idea of what they were building or why they were building it. It was a hands-on activity that was not likely to be educative as intended for two reasons: a) The children had no chance to incorporate what they were doing into a larger picture: the focus was on completing a task, which for them must have appeared to be just one more of the senseless requirements of school. b) There was no opportunity to alter the task to fit the meaning-making of any individual student. They all simply measured strips of paper 24 inches long (the US is still not on the metric system) and 1.5" wide, everyone following the same recipe with no variation.

By way of contrast, I have watched adults look at a map of England at the dock where the Mayflower replica is berthed in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Repeatedly, adults will come to the map, look at it and then begin to discuss where their families come from. (I could imagine an even more elaborate exhibit at the same place which would include a map of the world and different ways in which people have immigrated to the US, so that all visitors could find something to interest them.) But at least for those who trace their roots back to England, here is an interactive exhibit (even if there is little to "do" except point and read) which allows each visitor to take something personal and meaningful from it and relate to the overall museum experience. For me, the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv came alive when I had the opportunity to call up family genealogies on the computer in the reference center. The opportunity to view and manipulate a library of family trees covering several generations and a wide geographical distribution, gave personal meaning to the idea of a Diaspora.

Physical involvement is a necessary condition for learning for children, and highly desirable for adults in many situations, but it is not sufficient. All hands-on activities must also pass the test of being minds-on---they must provide something to think about as well as something to touch.

Point #2
The idea that we learn to learn as we learn, that we begin to understand organizing principles as we use them, is not terribly radical to most of us, but I believe that there is an important manner of formulating it that can help us, which sometimes eludes us: What are we assuming about our visitors' ability to learn (to organize knowledge) when we present exhibits to them? What organizing schemes do we attribute to them, that may or may not be available to them? Let me give you an example. During the last year we have been observing visitors at the Boston Museum of Science interacting with a series of exhibits developed originally at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. We asked them what they thought of the exhibits. Some visitors did not have the tools they needed to get the concept of the exhibit. I don't mean that they did not understand the concept (that will be my next point) but that they did not have the organizing principles, and thus the learning tools.

For example, there are exhibits which require visitors to turn knobs which will cause a component of the exhibit to move or change. Not all visitors are clear about the relationship between the knob and what it does. The exhibit is intended to explain a causal relationship between two variables in nature; one variable is altered by turning the knob and that change then causes the other variable to respond and vary. But if the visitor does not understand about knobs and what they do, then the message of the exhibit cannot possibly be understood.

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