Informal Learning Environments


Scott Paris, Department of Psychology
University of Michigan

Course Overview

This course is a practical introduction to "informal learning environments" (ILEs). This term refers broadly to settings and activities outside of formal schooling whose mission includes learning and development. Examples of such settings include after school clubs, museums, and summer camps. Students will become familiar with theories of learning relevant to understanding activity in such settings, and combine this with a field-based experience. The field-based experience is like a "social science laboratory." Field sessions will challenge students to support the functioning of an ILE, while simultaneously learning to study the action as a participant observer.


Assessments of Learning

The purpose of the class discussions is to stimulate high levels of understanding about the issues in each article and to help students synthesize new information with their own backgrounds and interests. The assignments are intended to support these goals. The mastery approach will only work if students read the articles and think about them carefully before class and then engage in productive dialogues. Students are encouraged to work together on class presentations and to talk about the issues and articles outside of class. However, all papers are to be written individually. All assignments are expected to be handed in on time and no incompletes will be given in the course.

1. Class participation. (15% of grade)

Students are expected to be prepared and to contribute to class discussions each week with scholarly analyses and insights.

2. Reaction papers. (2, each 20% of grade) First due by February 10; second by March 24.

Students may choose to write reaction papers on material discussed in any two different weeks, excluding the topics of your own presentations. This is an opportunity to consolidate your understanding on a topic, to present your own perspective, to make novel connections to other domains, and to read additional sources on the topic. I am looking for constructive criticisms and generative ideas so think of your task as a journal editor or book reviewer in which you must identify the strengths and weaknesses of the ideas presented. Relating the information to other domains, other readings, personal experiences, "real-life" examples, and other such connections that embed your reactions in additional contexts are encouraged. Each paper should be approximately 5-8 pages, double-spaced, and should include a review of the major issues, critical evaluation of the approach/theory/method/claims, and some syntheses or constructive ideas about future directions in the area.

3. Class presentations. (2, each 10% of grade)

Students will be responsible for leading discussions during the last hour of class each week. Usually two students will work together to design the presentations and each student will work on two presentations during the term. The purpose of this assignment is to give choice, responsibility, and ownership to students of the content covered in the course. The presentations should provide extensions of the weekly topics and should include presentation of new information. I will meet with students in advance of the presentations to provide information, to coordinate plans for coverage, and to make arrangements for special needs. Each presentation should include a handout for students with key information and references.

4. Synthesis paper (25% of grade) Due April 7th

Each student will write a final paper that synthesizes information from different aspects of the course. For example, students may examine topics not covered directly in the course and apply information from the course readings to the topic. If you have a specific interest that was not covered in the course, the final paper might provide a venue to examine it from a psychological or educational point of view. The paper should be 8-10 pages long and should integrate several topics or areas in museum education. Reaction papers emphasize review and critique with more convergent thinking skills whereas this assignment emphasizes divergent thinking, creativity, and syntheses.


Required Textbooks

Falk, J.H. and Dierking, L.D. (1992). The museum experience. Washington, D.C.: Whalesback Books.

Falk, J.L., & Dierking, L.D. (1995). Public institutions for personal learning: Establishing a research agenda. Washington, D.C: American Association of Museums.

Roberts, L. (1997). From knowledge to narrative. Washington, D.C: Smithsonian.


Class Schedule


I. Introduction to the course.

Overview of the course objectives, format, and mutual expectations. We will consider the following questions:

  1. What are the central issues in museum education?
  2. What is the history of the field?
  3. What are some representative theories and methods?

*optional* for background

II. Contexts of museum experiences.

Museum experiences reflect multiple interactions among physical, social, and personal contexts. We will discuss Falk & Dierking's Interactive Experience Model (IEM) and consider:

  1. What are the key features of each context in the IEM?
  2. How can the contexts be considered or engineered to foster learning?
  3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of a contextual model for research, evaluation, and exhibition design?


III. Learning, memory, and motivation in museums.

One of the troubling problems in museum education is finding the appropriate terms to capture (and assess, promote, etc.) the consequences of visitors' experiences. "Learning" seems unduly narrow, yet "residue" and "long-term impact" seem vague and lack the psychological grounding needed for understanding the processes of change.

  1. What is the nature of learning and how is it relevant to the mission of a museum?
  2. Are there varieties of learning that vary by visitor and museum?
  3. How do visitors' memories and motivational characteristics change as a function of museum experiences?
  4. What are the values and liabilities of importing psychological and educational terms from school contexts to understand museum experiences?




IV. Creating and assessing museum experiences.

One of the primary missions of museum educators is to create experiences for visitors. We will consider how visits can be organized for the casual visitor and school groups and consider how structuring the experience alters the visit. Exhibition design, physical pathways, labels and text, and interpreters and docents all contribute to the experience. We will also consider how to study and assess these design features in the environment and consider the implications of the Annapolis conference research agenda for learning in various museums.

  1. Should the museum experience be structured for visitors?
  2. What are the pros and cons of various design features that guide visitors to specific experiences?
  3. What methods and theories are heuristic for studying learning, conceived broadly, in various museums?




V. Museum visit and observation.

Choose a museum that you have not visited (ever or recently) and visit it with a classmate or friend. Observe visitors as they are engaged with several exhibits and note the features of their experiences that foster or impede learning, motivation, affect, memory, or other successful interactions. Use the IEM or other course material to interpret the visitors' experiences and be prepared to give a 5 minute report at the next class.


VI. Situated activity and the culture of practice.

A growing number of researchers espouse socio-cognitive and socio-cultural theories of learning to analyze learning wherever it occurs. The key features include: the co-construction of meaning with social guidance and collaboration; attention to contextual constraints such as history, politics, and culture; analyses of unique and immediate situational constraints; and consideration for repeated and enduring habits or practices that shape expertise. These ideas extend Vygotsky's concepts of "interpsychological planes of functioning" and the "zone of proximal development" to elaborated concepts of participation, activity, and identity. These perspectives may be especially valuable for understanding informal learning and lead us to ask:

  1. What additional information is provided by viewing museum experiences through the lenses of socio-cognitive and socio-cultural theories?
  2. How do participatory, collaborative, and scaffolded social arrangements operate in museum contexts?
  3. How can museums foster "cultures of practice"among visitors?




VII. School-museum connections.

Informal learning is identified in part by comparisons to formal learning in schools and in part by the ways in which informal learning contexts support mandated educational agenda. We will consider various ways that formal education is complemented and supplemented by informal learning opportunities, in particular, by museum schools and school field trips.




VIII. Museums, schools, communities, and families.

Discussion of presentation by Steve Hamp, President of Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village, on Feb 23 and then a discussion of family visits in museums.

The seminar will begin with a summary of Hamp's talk and last week's discussion of school-museum connections. Then we will consider how families visit museums with special attention to the age of the children, the social dynamics and discourse of the adults, the type of museum, the novelty or familiarity of the museum, and the pre and post-visit activities of families.

  1. Do parents provide scaffolded support for children's learning?
  2. Do parents promote inquiry, curiosity, and question-asking?
  3. How do family members interact as they navigate through exhibits?




Spring Break; no class


IX. Assessment of learning.

John Falk and Lynn Dierking will make a presentation Tues Mar 9th and lead the seminar today.



X. Mediating museum experiences.

Docents, interpreters, and staff provide a variety of assistance to visitors that range from structured presentations to informal question-answering.

  1. Is assistance sought and appreciated by visitors?
  2. Do docents and explainers provide appropriate information and assistance?
  3. What kind of training and supervision is useful for docents?



XI. Edutainment? The role of museums in packaging experiences.

The challenges of interpretation often reflect the tensions between curators and educators, between archival functions of museums and outreach roles.

  1. Can museums balance their roles of entertainment and education? Should they even try? Can museums compete with other community venues and "destination experiences" such as DisneyWorld?
  2. What are the historical changes in museums' cultural responsibilities and what will their roles be in the next 20-50 years?




XII. Visitors' voices and stories.

We will explore the narrative as a form of reporting and assessing the impact of museum experiences on individuals. We also consider the perspectives of disenfranchised museum visitors and "voices" of gender, race, disability, and poverty as they react to portrayals or lack thereof of their own identities in culture and history. An underlying theme is the "ethics of interpretation".

  1. Why do some people avoid museums?
  2. What is the ethical responsibility of museum education toward citizens who do not visit museums, who may be at risk for poor education in schools, or who may be recent immigrants to the area?
  3. Can narrative frames provide a useful technique for museum research?




XIII. Visual literacy and aesthetic appreciation.

Three fundamental features of object-centered learning are: the nature of viewing and analysis; the quality of the reflection and discourse stimulated by the experience; and the affective reactions to the objects and experience. We will consider various definitions and approaches to aesthetic appreciation, apply them to different kinds of museums, and consider the roles of age and experience in developing aesthetic appreciation.

  1. Can young children and naive viewers appreciate the quality of an object fully, deeply, and meaningfully?
  2. Is aesthetic experience more than direct emotion or perception?
  3. How can exhibitions be designed to promote aesthetic responses?




XIV. Technology and museum education.