Reflections on Museums 4: Museums Provide Insights into the Different Ways People Learn Informally

Cross-posted with the blog, Informal Learning Basics.

As the winter break approaches, I thought I would re-post some reflections on learning in museums that I had posted on my old blog few years ago.

In their extended study of museum visitors, Falk and Dierking found that people can learn a lot from museums, but they often learned a lot about subjects they were already interested in. And perhaps there’s some truth in that.

When reflecting on our visits to museums, I realized that existing interests played a key role in choosing which museums we visited, as well as what we saw in them. In some cases, we both had an interest in seeing a museum, like le Musee des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. In other instances, the interests of one of us drove the choice of museum and the other acquiesced, such as my partner’s interest in seeing el Museo de Traje (clothing) in Spain and my interest in seeing the history museums in every city we visited. Similarly, within museums, our interests drove our choice of exhibitions to visit. In the Neues Museum in Berlin, we visited Nefertiti’s bust because of my partner’s interest, just as we chose to visit the galleries on the early history of Berlin in the Story of Berlin because of my interest in that subject.

What I also observed, however, was that the interest of one partner helped inspire interest in the other. My partner’s interest in clothing and Nefertiti drove mine. I probably acquired more new knowledge than him in these instances because my knowledge base was likely more limited than his. By the same token, my partner acquired much more basic knowledge about the history of Berlin and Germany because I had more than he did. In those instances, the more knowledgeable partner still learned, but it was fill-in knowledge, filling in holes in our existing knowledge bases.

More than the subject, I also observed that each of us took advantage of different learning resources offered by the museums. To gain factual knowledge, my partner preferred the audio guides while I preferred the labels.

Part of this preference was practical; his native language is Spanish and all museums offered audio guides in his native language but few labels. In contrast, my native language is English and most museums offered labels in my language.

The other practical consideration is speed; one can read more quickly than one can listen. I found this true even when I read labels in Spanish and French, which are not my native languages and which I cannot read as quickly as English.

That said, I also learned that the information available from labels did not match that provided by the audio guides. In any given instance, one provided more extensive information, though which channel did so varied among institutions.

We rarely took advantage of human tour guides except when required. Once again, this was practical. In some instances, tours were not available. When they were, we could only take tours when they were scheduled, which often conflicted with our plans. Or the tours were not conducted in languages we could easily understand. Part of this is a self-service orientation; we prefer to do things on our own.

But when we did follow a tour guide, we found that they added a depth of knowledge not available in either the labels or audio guides.

Most of the museums also offered touch screen computers, with access to additional content about the exhibitions and their objects; we almost never used them. In some instances, that resulted from the line-ups at the computers. In other instances, the computers were slow or not working. And that formed our attitudes.

One exception was the history museum in Valencia, where the computers presented acted out scenes from history in viewers’ choices of Spanish or English. I watched some of these, but because of the same time consideration as with audio guides, did not watch many.

I observed other visitors and noted that some would tour together, stop and discuss an object or case, then move on; others went at their own pace and occasionally joined one another (our plan), some read most or all of the labels (like me) while others concentrated more on the objects themselves (my partner).

And the two saw and learned different things. My partner would often mention something to me and I’d wonder where he had seen it, because he saw something I missed. That wouldn’t be so bad, but because I read so closely, I thought I had been a thorough visitor. I was fooling myself.

For designers of online and informal learning programs, these observations suggest many take-away issues:

  • When given a choice, people will choose what interests them the most.
  • To expand the horizon of choices, note that people will accompany friends and follow their suggestions—at first to be polite, but they often benefit from the choice.
  • In such situations, the two learners do not learn the same things because they’re working with different bases of knowledge.
  • Given a choice of learning media, people will choose the medium that best suits their preferences and needs.
  • Unless the design of the content on those different media is coordinated (it usually is not—the two are likely designed by different people at different times), the material presented will differ. As a result, what people learn will differ depending on their choice of medium.
  • Even when visiting the same space, however, different learners will approach that space differently (some read, some look, some discuss). As a result, even when the learning experience is designed to cover a single body of material, when people approach it in their own way, they each see different things. Those differences go beyond different perspectives; different visitors see entirely different things. One person will see something the other misses and vice versa.

In terms of informal learning, what this means is that it’s only useful if we don’t care about the specifics that people learn. But if we do care, then informal learning might not be most appropriate because each person leaves having had experienced different content, much less with a different understanding of the subject. For building a basic body of knowledge, informal learning probably doesn’t make much sense. It prevents people from building the common basis of knowledge that permits knowledgeable participation in a conversation.

For building a personalized base of knowledge, as is necessary for building expertise, informal learning is terrific because it allows a person to tailor knowledge to his or her own needs. And because the learner is constantly tailoring knowledge to his or her own needs, they’re also choosing what they don’t learn—and that’s always something to learn later. Perhaps that’s why true experts always say that they don’t know anything about the field. They know what they’ve chosen not to learn yet. That they can label what they don’t know is what makes them experts.

To learn more about informal learning in contexts other than museums, visit my blog Informal Learning Basics, which accompanies my book on the same subject.

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