Informal Learning Environments


Joseph Polman, Department of Education
Washington University in St. Louis

Overview and goals

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.

Required Activities

There are four main activities associated with the course:

1) Attending class twice a week in the beginning of the semester and once a week later. These sessions will be devoted to discussion of assigned readings, short presentations by students on readings, and reflections on research and activities in the field sites.

2) Participant observation in a field site once a week beginning in Week 5.

A few weeks into the semester, students will begin field work in one of several field sites. Choices include:

3) Writing detailed field notes on your field experience following each session. Field notes must be submitted by electronic mail no later than 6 pm the day following your field experience.

4) Completing a research project on an informal learning environment. A project proposal will be reviewed and approved by Week 10, and the report will be due in lieu of a final exam. The research report should be based on your own observations, and incorporate concepts or research from class readings or other literature.


Grades for the course will be based on work in class and out as follows:

  • Class participation, short paper, and presentation (20%)
  • Site participation and field note quality (40%)
  • 8-12 page final research report (40%)


Class Readings

Reading packet available in the Education Department, and two books available at the bookstore:

Glesne, C., & Peshkin, A. (1992). Becoming qualitative researchers:  An introduction. White Plains, NY: Longman.

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


Class Schedule



Assignment, due Tuesday, Sept 1: 3 page paper on two of your most memorable and valuable learning experiences, one in school and one not.


Resnick, L. B. (1987). Learning in school and out. Educational Researcher(December), 13-20.

Wigginton, E. (1986). Chapters 1, 3, 4, & 5. In Sometimes a shining moment: The Foxfire experience, twenty years teaching in a high school classroom  (pp. 9-10, 31-54). Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.


Falk & Dierking, pp. 1-93

Falk & Dierking, pp. 97-125

Assignment, due next Tuesday: Museum observation to be conducted over the weekend, to be discussed today.


NOTE: Students participating in HistoryWeb after school clubs should sign up for a computer orientation during my office hours this week, or at another arranged time if schedule requires.

Glesne & Peshkin, Chapters 1, 3, 4 and 5.

Heath, S. B., & McLaughlin, M.W. (1991). Community organizations as family: Endeavors that engage and support adolescents. Phi Delta Kappan(April), 623-627.

Ball, A., & Heath, S.B. (1993). Dances of identity: Finding an ethnic self in the arts. In S. B. Heath & McLaughlin, M.W. (Eds.), Identity and inner-city youth (pp. 69-93). New York: Teachers College Press.





Childress, H. (1998). Seventeen reasons why football is better than high school. Phi Delta Kappan, 79 (8), 616-619.



Wertsch, J. V. (1984). The zone of proximal development: Some conceptual issues. In B. Rogoff & J. V. Wertsch (Eds.), Children's learning in the "zone of proximal development", (pp. 7-18). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.



Cole, M. (1996). A multilevel method for cultural psychology. In Cultural psychology: A once and future discipline (pp. 286-325). Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

(Proposal for research project due next week. You may want to read over Glesne & Peshkin Ch 2. If you want to discuss ideas for your research project, come to office hours this Thursday or next Tuesday)



Polman, J. L., & Pea, R. D. (1997, March). Transformative communication in project science learning discourse. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL.

(Research proposal due today)



Harel, I., & Papert, S. (1992). Software design as a learning environment. In D. P. Balestri, Ehrmann, S.C., & Ferguson, D.L. (Eds.), Learning to design, designing to learn: Using technology to transform the curriculum (pp. 35-72). Washington: Taylor & Francis. NOTE: You only need to read pp. 35-42 and 60-69 in Harel & Papert.

Resnick, M., & Rusk, N. (1996). Computer Clubhouses in the inner city. The American Prospect (July-August), 1-8.




Cronon, W. (1992). A place for stories: Nature, history, and narrative. The Journal of American History, 78 (4), 1347-1376.

Barton, K. C., & Levstik, L. S. (1998). "It wasn't a good part of history": National identity and students explanations of historical significance. Teachers College Record, 99 (3), 478-513.




Rogoff, B. (1994). Developing understanding of the idea of communities of learners. Mind, Culture, and Activity, 1(4), 209-229.




Rogoff, B. (1995). Observing sociocultural activity on three planes: Participatory appropriation, guided participation, and apprenticeship. In J. V. Wertsch, del Rio, P., & Alvarez, A. (Eds.), Sociocultural studies of mind (pp. 139-164). New York: Cambridge University Press.





NOTE: In writing your research report, you may want to read Glesne & Peshkin, Chs. 7 & 8.

Lentz, R. R. (1971). Outward Bound Education through experience. In D. U. Levine (Ed.), Models for integrated education: Alternative programs of integrated education in metropolitan areas. Worthington, OH: Charles A. Jones Publishing Co. (Schedule for presentations next week will be decided today)



Half the class will give a 10-minute presentations of their projects

(Paper outlines are due today)

The other half of the class will give 10-minute presentations of their projects