Kylie Peppler is Assistant Professor of Learning Sciences and Director of The Creativity Labs at Indiana University Bloomington. An artist by training, her research focuses on the intersection of arts, new media, and informal learning.
How does your research relate to museums?
I’m a learning scientist, which means I study learning in real world contexts. A lot of the settings I have been looking at are science and children’s museums, spaces that allow for tinkering and play. Kids go to museums because they have an interest in something. I’ve been looking at what kids can learn through these open-ended experiences. What’s important about the museum space is that it allows for social interaction and participation.
One of the issues coming up in this work is that we want to compare the museum experience to a 90-minute classroom experience, and what we are finding is that they are not the same. Different things happen in this change of context: the museum is social, and students are encouraged to move around. In addition, the museum provides a sense of novelty, which we know is important for learning. Also, in the museum, children watch and are inspired by other kids playing around them.
Museum science exhibits place a heavy emphasis on hands-on, novel approaches through play.
What happens if children did not choose to go to the museum – if they are brought there on a field trip? Perhaps on a guided museum tour?
A guided tour is very different than an open-ended experience, which a lot of museums are moving toward. In an open-ended experience, children get to choose what to explore, the order in which they look at things. Choosing how you go about the process of exploring the museum is actually an important form of choice-making.
As for tours – the Exploratorium has studied docent and student interactions, and found that successful docents try to connect what the kids understand to the object and to something else more broadly. This is “connected learning.” A good connector will take something that the kid is noticing and connect that to something really large. Docents are tapping their own expertise, but also connecting it back to what the kids know and understand.
What role do you think teachers should play in these visits? Should they be guiding the tours?
Students have a sense of novelty with a museum educator. There are some gifted docents and guides that have a richness of things to share. When I’m traveling with a geologist, and they start interpreting the landscape, all of a sudden I see geology as a transformational subject. It is rare for kids to interact with people in these fields.
The teacher should be encouraged to ask questions, be musing along with the kids. It is valuable for students to see their teacher as a learner, too.
Sometimes it is difficult for teachers to be learners – they are busy with management issues, keeping an eye on students and making sure they behave appropriately.
That is an indicator that something is not working in the tour. Something is not high quality in that environment. In a high quality environment the teacher reports a sense of Zen.
Stress usually comes from designing a program with too many things for students to think about. Is there a way for them to relax? Is there a way to think about personalizing the experience? Often there’s something stressing the kids in a way that should be thought about and redesigned.
A lot of what I do as a learning scientist is I look at the environment and experience, and think about how it can be designed differently. There is often a huge cultural divide that we have to cross, so having a little bit of play-based experience prior to seeing the work can really be helpful. For example, students going to see a James Turrell exhibition might start with flashlights so they can play, become more ready to see the exhibition.
Fine arts museums in general have difficulty in engaging hands-on play. A lot of times this is because we want to preserve the environment. But we forget that kids need some sort of base experience to make sense of what they are going through. The Wallace Foundation was really encouraging this hands-on learning in the New York area, and museums would not take it up, so they moved their work into science museums and after-school centers. Revenue has shifted over time because of this reticence. What we know about high-quality learning is that it needs to be more tangible. You don’t really understand what it means to carve stone until you carve stone. I have seen Native American obsidian blades on display many times, but I didn’t really understand until I tried to carve a blade from obsidian myself.
So good tour design includes a hands-on activity?
The best design is to engage in this hands-on exploration in the classroom before the visit. A teacher could conduct a classroom experience first – kids could make African Masks as a way of understanding mask-making experiences. But it can be part of the museum experience – start the visit in a room where kids can play with stuff. This also allows the museum educator to see the kids’ starting places. It’s a way to get to know the kids. The tour guide can informally interview kids during this process to get a richer context for the tour. And the hands-on experience becomes a reference point, a shared experience, to anchor the tour.
Hands-on experiences after the museum visit still provide value, but they are not as productive. Research shows a 30% gain in learning outcomes if you provide the activity first. Conducting the activity afterwards is still a gain – if you never get the hands-on piece then the experience is not as consequential an experience – but the order of presentation does have a high impact on the learning outcome.
There are a lot of directions, and missteps, a tour can take – too much information, a lot of noise that could be presented to the kids. Which do you actually want to pull out? What are the big ideas that you want to pull across? Which of these threads do I pull on? I’m looking for the threads that actually get at the big ideas. From an educator perspective, it’s important that you know which ones to pull on.
How important is it that these big ideas relate back to the classroom?
Connection is important. This is why we want the teacher to experience it with the students, so they can connect it back to the curriculum. They can see the kinds of questions that are emerging for students.
Here is something we know about high quality parenting: Watching Sesame Street in and of itself not consequential to kids learning. It is consequential if you watch Sesame Street with your parents. Why is that? Because of connected learning – when I travel with my child to another environment, I connect back to it. It is a way of creating a common language with your kids.
Part of a high quality learning experience is that you have a connector that can continue in that child’s life. It takes the educator to draw those connections. Our research is showing that kids learn things in one context, but have trouble transferring it to another context. Unless we make those connections for the kids, they won’t make them.
What if the teacher is only with half of the class in the museum, and the other half is with a chaperone?
It’s really important that people co-experience things together. What are some quick ways to create that on museum tours? Is there a way to keep the group together? For the teacher to spend half of the time with each group? To bring the groups back together? These are design principals we are thinking about.
What tips do you have for museums in thinking about these design principals and strategies?
There is a great book that I wrote the forward to, by educators from the National Writing Project, called Teachers as Designers; you can see a pdf of the full book here. It starts to reposition the teacher as designer of learning experience. This is what the teacher does – they have an artistry for how they design for each of participants, constantly diagnosing children’s needs and the class as a whole. They lay out the classroom, the order of instruction, the day, the tools and materials. There are all sorts of ways that teachers make conscientious design decisions.
As a learning scientist I decide on what outcomes I value. These are big ways that we know that our programs can be transformative – for example, aesthetic awareness. How do you design for aesthetic awareness? We all have goals, and it is important to make these goals explicit. The more we simplify and understand what we are reaching for, the more we can think about designing toward those end games.
I want to empower your readers to think about themselves as being able to run their own design experiments. I’m going to take two classes and try two different things. What works better and why? I’m going to run an experiment where a docent leads one tour and a teacher leads another. Which do kids like better and why? You can find this out by talking to kids. Also, what do you as an educator prefer? Museum educators are part of the system. Which tour was more manageable, less harried? Keep a log. Create metrics that help you know if you are designing well. Behavior issues can be a metric. So can repeat returns.
A lot of times the education field just doesn’t have enough information. Running formal studies is good, but running small design experiments is really informative.