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Using the contextual model of learning to understand visitor learning from a science center exhibition

Using the contextual model of learning to understand visitor learning from a science center exhibition
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  SCIENCE LEARNING IN EVERYDAY LIFE Lynn D. Dierking, John H. Falk, Section Coeditors Using the Contextual Model ofLearning to Understand VisitorLearning from a Science CenterExhibition JOHN FALK, MARTIN STORKSDIECK  Institute for Learning Innovation, Annapolis, MD 21401, USA Received 13 May 2003; revised 14 December 2004; accepted 21 January 2005 DOI 10.1002/sce.20078Published online 18 July 2005 in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com). ABSTRACT:  Falk and Dierking’s Contextual Model of Learning was used as a theoreti-cal construct for investigating learning within a free-choice setting. A review of previousresearch identified key variables fundamental to free-choice science learning. The studysought to answer two questions: (1) How do specific independent variables individuallycontribute to learning outcomes when not studied in isolation? and (2) Does the ContextualModel of Learning provide a useful framework for understanding learning from museums?Arepeatedmeasuredesignincludinginterviewsandobservationalandbehavioralmeasureswas used with a random sample of 217 adult visitors to a life science exhibition at a majorscience center. The data supported the contention that variables such as prior knowledge,interest, motivation, choice and control, within and between group social interaction, ori-entation, advance organizers, architecture, and exhibition design affect visitor learning. Allof these factors were shown to individually influence learning outcomes, but no single fac-tor was capable of adequately explaining visitor learning outcomes across all visitors. Theframework provided by the Contextual Model of Learning proved useful for understand-ing how complex combinations of factors influenced visitor learning. These effects wereclearerest when visitors were segmented by entry conditions such as prior knowledge andinterest.  C   2005 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.  Sci Ed   89: 744–778, 2005 Correspondence to:  John Falk; e-mail: falk@ilinet.org C   2005 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.  VISITOR LEARNING FROM A SCIENCE CENTER EXHIBITION  745INTRODUCTION Few activities will be more important to 21st century free-choice science educationinstitutionsingeneralandsciencemuseums 1 inparticularthanmeaningfullyunderstandingthe learning they facilitate. Whereas only a few years ago it could be fairly stated that itwas unclear whether visitors to museums truly learned (Crane, 1994; Falk & Dierking,1992, 1995), today the same could not be said. A myriad of studies now clearly documentthe range of learning that museums afford (cf. Falk, 1999; Leinhardt, Crowley & Knutson,2002; Rennie & McClafferty, 1996). However, a full understanding of the complexitiesof the processes of learning that occurs during a visit to a free-choice setting remainselusive.Historically, much of the research on learning in museums was a-theoretical. This ischanging; currently a variety of theoretical frameworks have been proposed for under-standing the nature of learning from museums, two of these are particularly prevalent---sociocultural models based on the work of Vygotsky (cf. Leinhardt et al., 2002; Martin,2004) and the Contextual Model of Learning as proposed by Falk and Dierking (1992,2000). The work described here was based on the latter of these two models. Contextual Model of Learning Falk and Dierking (2000) put forward the Contextual Model of Learning as “a device fororganizing the complexities of learning within free-choice settings.” The Contextual Modelof Learning is not a model in its truest sense; it does not purport to make predictions otherthan that learning is always a complex phenomenon situated within a series of contexts.More appropriately, the “model” can be thought of as a framework. The view of learningembodied in this framework is that learning can be conceptualized as a contextually driveneffort to make meaning in order to survive and prosper within the world; an effort thatis best viewed as a continuous, never-ending dialogue between the individual and his orher physical and sociocultural environment. The Contextual Model of Learning portraysthis contextually driven dialogue as the process/product of the interactions between anindividual’s (hypothetical)  personal ,  sociocultural , and  physical  contexts over time. Noneof these three contexts are ever stable or constant; all are changing across the lifetime of the individual. As the museum examples described below help to clarify, the ContextualModel of Learning draws from constructivist, cognitive, as well as sociocultural theoriesof learning. The key feature of this framework is the emphasis on context; a framework forthinking about learning that has also been emphasized by others (e.g., Ceci 1996; Ceci &Bronfenbrenner, 1985; Sternberg & Wagner, 1996).The  personalcontext  representsthesumtotalofpersonalandgenetichistorythatanindi-vidualcarrieswithhim/herintoalearningsituation.Buildinguponconstructivisttheoriesof learning, the influences of prior knowledge and experience on museum learning have beenwidely described and documented (Dierking & Pollock, 1998; Falk & Adelman, 2003;Gelman, Massey, & McManus, 1991; Hein, 1998; Roschelle, 1995; Silverman, 1993);so, too, the role of prior interest (e.g., Adelman et al., 2001; Adelman, Falk, & James,2000; Csikzentmihalyi & Hermanson, 1995; Falk & Adelman, 2003). The exact nature of a visitor’s motivations, or “agenda”, for visiting a museum has also been shown to sig-nificantly influence the visitor’s learning outcomes (e.g., Falk, 1983; Falk, Moussouri, &Coulson, 1998; Graburn, 1977; Hood, 1983). More recently, it has been appreciated thatthe degree of choice and control over learning also affects visitor learning (e.g., Griffin, 1 In this paper we use the term “museum” to generically refer to museum-like institutions includingscience centers, museums of science and industry, natural history museums, etc.  746  FALK AND STORKSDIECK 1998; Lebeau, et al., 2001). Thus, from the  personal context   perspective, one should expectnew learning to be scaled to the realities of an individual’s motivations and expectations,which in the case of museums normally involve a brief, usually leisure-oriented, cultur-ally defined experience. One should expect learning to be highly personal and stronglyinfluenced by an individual’s past knowledge, interests and beliefs. One should expectlearning to be influenced by an individual’s desire to both select and control his/her ownlearning.Humans are extremely social creatures. We are all products of our culture and socialrelationships (Ogbu, 1995; Wertsch, 1985). Hence, one should expect museum learning toalways be  socioculturally  situated. Factors affecting learning have been hypothesized toinclude such large-scale influences as the cultural value placed upon free-choice learning(Ogbu, 1995) as well as the cultural context of the museum within society (Bal, 1996;Bennett, 1995; Hooper-Greenhill, 1992); although this is almost certainly true, empiricalevidence for these impacts are difficult to find. However, considerable research now existswhich shows that visitors to museums are strongly influenced by the interactions and col-laborations they have with individuals within their own social group (Borun et al., 1997;Crowley & Callanan, 1998; Ellenbogen, 2002; Schaubel et al., 1996). Research has alsoshown that the quality of interactions with others outside the visitor’s own social group,for example museum explainers, guides, demonstrators, performers or even other visitorgroups, can make a profound difference in visitor learning (Crowley & Callanan, 1998;Koran et al., 1988; Wolins, Jensen, & Ulzheimer, 1992).Finally, learning always occurs within the physical environment, in fact is always adialogue with that physical environment. Thus, one should expect visitors to museumsto react to the  physical context   of the museum itself; which includes both the large-scaleproperties of space, lighting, and climate as well as the smaller scale aspects such as theexhibitions and objects contained within. Since museums are typically free-choice learningsettings, the experience is generally voluntary, nonsequential, and highly reactive to whatthe setting affords (Falk & Dierking, 2000). As such, visitor learning has been shown to bestrongly influenced by how successfully visitors are able to orient within the space (e.g.,Evans, 1995; Falk & Balling, 1982; Falk, Martin, & Balling, 1978; Kubota & Olstad, 1991;Hayward & Brydon-Miller, 1984); being able to confidently navigate within a complexthree-dimensional environment turns out to be highly correlated with what and how muchan individual learns. Similarly, intellectual navigation, as supported by quality advanceorganizers (Anderson & Lucas, 1997; Falk, 1997), has been shown to affect visitor learningfrom museums. Research has also shown that a myriad of architectural design factors suchas lighting, crowding, color, sound, and space subtly influence visitor learning (Coe, 1985:Evans, 1995; Hedge, 1995; Ogden, Lindburg & Maple, 1993). Considerable research hasfocused on the exhibitions and labels themselves since they are designed to be the primaryteaching tool within museums. Not surprisingly then, ample evidence exists that exhibitiondesign features influence learning, in particular the sequencing, positioning, and contentof exhibitions and labels (Bitgood & Patterson, 1995; Falk, 1993; Serrell, 1996), as wellas how many exhibit elements a visitor attends to, and for how long (Bitgood, Serrell, &Thompson,1994;Serrell,1998).Finally,lesswelldocumented,buttheoreticallycompellingis the expectation that learning from museums will not only rely on the confirmation andenrichment of previously known intellectual constructs but will equally depend upon whathappens subsequently in the learner’s environment since learning is not an instantaneousphenomenon, but rather a cumulative process of acquisition and consolidation (Anderson,1999; Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 1999; Medved, 1998). Thus, experiences occurringafter the visit frequently play an important role in determining, in the long term, what isactually “learned” in the museum. Recent longitudinal studies show that the learning that  VISITOR LEARNING FROM A SCIENCE CENTER EXHIBITION  747 results from a museum experience does change over time, and not always just by declining(Anderson, 1999; Adelman et al., 2001; Falk et al., 2004; Goldman et al., 2001; Medved,1998).The Contextual Model of Learning provides the large-scale framework with which toorganize information on learning. Inside the framework hang the details. These detailsare myriad. The total number of factors that directly and indirectly influence learningfrom museums probably number in the hundreds, if not thousands. Some of these factorsare apparent and have been summarized above and in previous publications (cf. Falk &Dierking, 2000), others are either not apparent or are not currently perceived by us to beimportant. After considering the findings from hundreds of research studies including theones cited above, 12 key factors, or more accurately suites of factors, emerged as influentialfor museum learning experiences. These 12 factors arePersonal context1. Visit motivation and expectations2. Prior knowledge3. Prior experiences4. Prior interests5. Choice and controlSociocultural context6. Within group social mediation7. Mediation by others outside the immediate social groupPhysical context8. Advance organizers9. Orientation to the physical space10. Architecture and large-scale environment11. Design and exposure to exhibits and programs12. Subsequent reinforcing events and experiences outside the museumResearchhasshownthatthese12factorscontributetothequalityofamuseumexperience,though the relative importance of any one of these factors may vary between particularvisitors and venues (e.g., science centers, natural history museums, zoos, planetaria, naturecenter, etc.). While there exists evidence that each of these factors influences learning, wedonotcurrentlyknowtowhatextenteachofthesefactorscontributestolearningoutcomes,in what ways, and for whom.At various times, the above cited authors, and others, have made a case for one of thesefactors being THE critical variable influencing learning from museums. Arguably, all areimportant, but are one or two of these factors more important than the others, particularlywhen they are not studied in isolation since little is known about the combined effect of these variables or the relative significance and importance of each factor when measuredsimultaneously? Or, alternatively, do none of these factors, individually, satisfactorily ex-plain visitor science learning from a science exhibition as would be hypothesized by theContextual Model of Learning?This research study was intended as a first attempt toward answering these questions,and to our knowledge, the first attempt to systematically investigate all of these factors  748  FALK AND STORKSDIECK simultaneously within a single study. Specifically, this study sought to answer twoquestions: •  How do specific independent variables individually contribute to learning outcomeswhen not studied in isolation? •  DoestheContextualModelofLearningprovideausefulframeworkforunderstanding(the complexity of) learning from museums?In order to answer these two questions, we compared in one study 11 of the 12 factorsdescribed above; each representing suites of variables assumed to effect learning frommuseums. We were interested in determining which of the factors, when directly comparedwith one another, was important and for which type of visitor. Another, closely relatedquestion---How do collections of independent variables contribute to learning outcomes?---will be addressed elsewhere (Storksdieck & Falk, in preparation). The 12th factor, the roleof subsequent reinforcing experiences, will also be addressed in a separate article (Falk &Storksdieck, in preparation). MATERIALS AND METHODSDesign The study was based on a repeated measure design that included pre/post interviews(closed and open-ended questions, self-report items, and test items) and observational andbehavioral measures obtained through unobtrusive tracking of all respondents throughoutthe duration of their science center exhibition experience (Table 1). Setting and Content The site for this investigation was the  World of Life  (WoL) exhibition at the CaliforniaScience Center, Los Angeles. This large, permanent exhibition was designed to communi-cate the overall message that all life, whether composed of a single cell or many specializedcells, must perform certain life processes to survive. The five basic life processes describedin the exhibition are living things all: (1) take in energy, (2) take in supplies and get ridof wastes, (3) react to the world around them, (4) defend themselves, and (5) reproduce TABLE 1Summary of Repeated Measures Element of Study Entry Interview Tracking Exit Interview Mean duration 17 min 47 min 16 minMeasures  •  Personal meaningmapping •  Unobtrusiveobservation(tracking) •  Personal meaningmapping •  Open-ended,focused questions •  Runningcommentary •  Open-ended,focussed questions •  Multiple-choicequestions •  Multiple-choicequestions •  Self-report items  •  Self-report items
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