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Family behavior and learning in informal science settings: A review of the research

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Family behavior and learning in informal science settings: A review of the research
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  Family Behavior and Learning in Informal Science Settings: A Review of the Research LYNN D. DIERKING AND JOHN H. FALK Science Learning, Inc., Annapolis, M 21403 INTRODUCTION Almost every metropolitan area has an informal science setting, such as a natural history museum, zoo, science center or planetarium (Laetsch et al., 1980). Visitor demographics over the years have consistently shown that family groups constitute approximately 60 of all visitors to these settings (Bickford et al., 1992; Balling et al., 1985; Alt, 1980; Laetsch et al., 1980; Ham, 1979; Borun, 1977; Cheek et al., 1976). U.S. Bureau of the Census statistics in 1984 indicated that museum- going was rapidly becoming the single most popular, out-of-the-home family activity in America and this was confirmed again in 1991 U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1985,1992). In the last 10 years, the numbers of these institutions and the visitations to them have nearly doubled (ASTC, 1993). Given that these settings are popular places for many families to visit seeking interesting and educational ways to spend their leisure time together, these insti- tutions serve an increasingly important role in the science education infrastructure of a community (St. John Perry, 1993). Considerable effort by informal science professionals has been directed at creating more interactive experiences, with the intention of enhancing visitor learning. What do families do in such settings? Is there any evidence that these settings are promoting science learning? Even though families have long constituted the largest portion of informal science setting visitors, historically, little educational research focused on family behavior in such settings. Fortunately, in recent years informal science setting research has begun to focus on families and two areas of this research are analyzed here: (1) research that has focused on general family behavior in informal science settings, primarily investigating family group interactions, time allocation, and family agenda issues; and 2) research studies that have investigated the nature of family learning in informal science settings. Before launching into this study it is important for us to clarify some terms used in the various studies. Most of the studies contained within this review defined a “family” group as a social group containing at least one child and one adult. Science Education 78 1):57-72 1994) 994 John Wiley Sons, Inc. CCC 0036-8326/94/010057-16  58 DlERKlNG AND FALK Although families come in many shapes and sizes, many of the more systematic studies also restricted themselves to investigating families with no more than four adults and no more than five children for ease of data collection. Because these studies have been conducted with self-selected, casual visitors, it is also important to note that most of the families studied were middle class, Caucasian families as these families currently represent the bulk of museum users. This is an issue of great concern to the informal science community, many of whom are attempting to increase public visitation by underrepresented audiences.’ This long-term commitment is not yet a reality, certainly it was not when many of these studies were conducted. As informal science settings expand their family audiences to include traditionally underrepresented populations it will be important to broaden studies to include these families as well to ensure generalizability . It is also important for us to clarify how the word “learning” will be used throughout this article. Like many researchers in formal settings, we strongly en- dorse the need to focus our investigations on meaningful learning (Ausubel et al., 1978). Given that informal learning settings are multisensory environments that families freely choose to visit during leisure time, learning in such environments requires a broad definition that takes into account the unique physical and social contexts inherent in the setting, as well as the fundamental role that motivation plays in learning (Falk Dierking, 1992). Meaningful learning in these settings must encompass a wide range of possible processes and outcomes including the acquisition of scientific facts and concepts, but also application of these ideas, changes in attitude, aesthetic and kinesthetic experience, as well as socially me- diated conversations and interactions that might lead to learning. How motivation influences the choices that visitors make and their persistence in pursuing knowl- edge also are extremely relevant variables to consider in this broader definition of learning. We hope to demonstrate that this expanded view of learning is essential when analyzing the family museum experience, a socially, physically, intellectually, and emotionally rich experience. STUDIES OF FAMILY GROUP INTERACTIONS TIME ALLOCATION AND AGENDAS IN INFORMAL SCIENCE SETTINGS Researchers began their investigation of family museum behavior by observing and analyzing what families did while visiting these settings. Many of the early studies were primarily descriptive in nature, dealing with how families interacted with specific exhibits in a particular informal science setting. Later studies took the findings of these descriptive studies and more systematically investigated specific ‘Recent research by Falk would suggest that changing current family leisure patterns, at least among African-American families, requires attcntion to a variety of variables including museum-going as a part of the family leisure repertoire. pcrception of the institution as being inviting, and inclusive and other rclated issues. For more dctail see: Falk, J H. 1993). Leisure decisions injlurncing African American use ofmuscum s Washington. DC: American Association of Museums Technical Information Service.  INFORMAL SCIENCE SETTINGS 59 aspects of family group interactions and agenda. Viewed as a whole, these de- scriptive studies are extremely important because they have provided insights into the unique contextual nature of the informal science setting, enabling subsequent researchers to investigate this context and its relationship to family learning in more depth. Family Group Interaction Research Cone and Kendall (1978) studied family interactions in a Minnesota science museum and observed that the average amount of time a family spent in a particular hall was 10 minutes; the average time they spent in front of a display was 30 seconds. Almost no family attended to all exhibits in a hall. Dioramas were the most remembered types of exhibit while little attention was paid to charts and graphic displays. In a study conducted by Lakota (1975) at the National Museum of Natural History, adult-child groups were compared with all adult groups and their behavior described. Lakota observed a very stable pattern of interaction within families, with adults selecting the hall or exhibit to be viewed. Since he observed adults often assuming a leadership role as they went from gallery to gallery, he felt that adults wanted their children to view what the adult was interested in, or wanted children to view exhibits that contained information with which the adult was familiar so that questions could be answered. Another explanation might be that parents made a selection based on their child’s interests. Whatever the reasons for the selection, once the hall or exhibit was selected, the child determined the level of interaction. Lakota also collected data on two variables used often in museum-based research: (1) attracting power-the ability of an exhibit to draw the attention of a visitor; and (2) holding power-the ability of an exhibit to keep the visitor attending (such attention might mean visitors are reading labels, discussing the exhibit with their social group, or manipulating an interactive). Although both attracting power and holding power were important variables in the regression model generated for all adult groups, as indicated by the observation that adults did not necessarily interact with all the exhibits they viewed, attracting power was the only important predictor variable for adult-child groups. Once attracted to a particular exhibit, families remained, continued to interact with the exhibit, and then moved on; there was very little variance in the time they spent from exhibit to exhibit. Neither the Cone et al. (1978) study nor the Lakota (1975) study specifically addressed attention and its effect on learning. However, results did suggest that specific characteristics of exhibits, such as whether they were dioramas or highly interactive, were extremely important factors influencing the length and quality of attention, important pre- cursors to learning. McManus (1987) analyzed visitor behavior in The Natural History Museum in London [called the British Museum (Natural History) at the time]. Her study was not specifically a study of families, but like Lakota, she did investigate the behavior of adults in all adult groups and compared that behavior to their behavior with children. Women, when in all adult groups, were much more likely to be exploratory  60 DlERKlNG AND FALK than men, however, when in groups containing children, they were much more likely to assume a submissive, caretaking role, while men assumed the leader position. This finding was consistent with the findings of Lakota (1975) and Koran et al. (1986, 1988) who observed that men, when in groups with children, were much more likely than women to assume the didactic teacher role. These results certainly support Lakota’s contention that adult-child groups behaved in very different ways than all adult groups, but it also suggests that gender differences may not be totally straightforward, but vary depending upon the social context of the situation. Diamond (1980, 1986) conducted a study of adult-child groups in the Lawrence Hall of Science at Berkeley and the Exploratorium in San Francisco utilizing etho- logical methodology. She was interested in studying how social interactions affect the ways people interact within an environment. One general finding was that most families did not read participatory exhibit instructions before they interacted with them. They tried to understand by manipulating first and then, if unsuccessful and still interested, reading the instructions. Diamond also observed distinctive patterns of interaction and exploration in the science museum between parents and children. Children were significantly more likely than parents to manipulate exhibits, while parents were much more likely to look at graphics and read labels. These results are supported in studies described by Koran and Koran (1984) and Koran et al. (1986, 198S), in which it was found that children were much more likely to touch and interact with a hands-on exhibit than adults. These researchers suggested that novelty and curiosity were much more likely to be a factor in the behavior of children because adults were often familiar with many of the objects children found novel. Another explanation was that children have not been as socialized “not to touch” in museums as have adults. In the original dissertation, like McManus (1987), Diamond (1980) observed that there were a number of gender-related differences in the behavior of family mem- bers. The behavior of mothers was distinguished from the behavior of other mem- bers of the group. Mothers were less likely than others to choose what exhibits to view and more likely to follow other members of the group to the exhibits. Father-son interactions also differed from mother-daughter interactions when viewing exhibits. When a son approached his father at an exhibit, the father might read aloud, show or describe the exhibit, or ask a question about the content. These types of interactions were not observed between mothers and daughters. Rosenfeld (1979, 1981) conducted a study in which he analyzed family group behavior in the San Francisco Zoo and in a minizoo at the Lawrence Hall of Science at Berkeley. Successful exhibits, as measured either by attending time (attracting power) or the social interaction they elicited (holding power), in both zoos seemed to depend upon there being some interaction among animals or between animals and people. This finding is supported by other researchers (Benton, 1979; Bitgood, 1986; Taylor, 1986; Wolf Tymitz, 1979). Like Lakota (1975), Rosenfeld observed that adults selected specific animals/exhibits to view, while children controlled the pace of family visits. His findings also supported Diamond’s (1980) and McManus’ (1987) finding that when the adult males were present in a group they were the dominant leaders.  INFORMAL SCIENCE SETTINGS 61 Family Time Allocation and Agenda Research Another area of family museum behavior research has focused on the allocation of time by family visitors. In particular, researchers are interested in determining whether there appears to be any predictable patterns in how family groups behave during visits to informal science settings. In much the same way that a classroom researcher observes time allocation of students as an indicator of potential learning, observing how families spend their time is critical to understanding and “assessing” the informal science setting experience, particularly given its free choice nature. In two separate but related studies, one conducted at the Florida State Museum [now the Florida Museum of Natural History] (Falk et al., 1985) and the other at the National Museum of Natural History (Falk, 1991), researchers examined what family visitors attended to during the course of their visit. Despite the fact that these museums were very different, similar patterns of family visitor behavior were observed. The visit could be divided into four distinct phases: (a) an orientation phase, lasting 3-10 minutes, when visitors began their tour and became familiar with surroundings; (b) intense exhibit viewing, lasting 25-30 minutes, when visitors concentrated attention on exhibits, reading labels, and interacting in an exhibit- directed fashion; (c) exhibit “cruising,” lasting 30-40 minutes, when visitors scanned exhibits quickly, infrequently reading labels; and (d) preparation for de- parture, lasting 5-10 minutes, when visitors prepared to exit the museum. Similar patterns of family visitor behavior were observed at an aquarium (Taylor, 1986). As an underlying dimension to how families allocate their time during visits, researchers also suggest that visitors arrive at informal science settings with a set of desires, needs, and expectations for what the visit will hold; in museum research parlance this is referred to as an “agenda.” Visitor “agendas” are shaped by a variety of factors including prior knowledge and experience with the content of the informal science setting, motivation, and interest and can result in a variety of expectations ranging from “seeing the dinosaurs” to visiting the gift shop. Although the notion of an agenda may seem obvious, it is critical in a free-choice learning situation, such as an informal science setting, to understand the parameters within which the learner is operating. Researchers hypothesize that family agenda strongly influences behavior and subsequently, should strongly influence learning. The un- derstanding of these agendas and the investigation of how they can be affected by educational interventions is proving a fruitful area for research. It is clear from research previously conducted that families’ agendas include a strong desire to view the exhibits, and as described in the time allocation studies, direct considerable attention to doing just that (Benton, 1979; Diamond, 1980; Dierking, 1989; Falk et al., 1985; Falk, 1991; Kropf, 1989; Rosenfeld, 1979, 1981; Taylor, 1986). Researchers have only begun attempting to understand the rela- tionship between family agenda and learning (Falk, Balling, White, 1983). Pre- liminary data suggest a strong relationship (Falk, Balling, Liversidge, 1985). Snow Dockser (1987a, 1989) conducted a research study investigating the rela- tionship between institutional agenda and family agenda. She found that it was possible to influence the agendas of families with preschool-age children so that they adopted a more age-appropriate learning agenda for their child.
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