Where and What Do We Learn About Research? An Investigation Into a Hard-to-Find Article

A few months ago I stumbled upon an IMLS blogpost sharing research about the impact of informal learning environments on academic achievement. Deanne Swan, formerly a researcher for IMLS, mined a large body of data – the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which collected data from 21,000 children over nearly 10 years – for the correlations between museum visitation and academic achievement. Controlling for socio-economic status, Swan found that children who visited a library or museum had slightly but significantly higher academic test scores. Interestingly this does not hold true for visits to zoos and aquaria. Swan posits that the visit to a museum is an indicator of a family’s investment in informal learning, so the impact is likely not from a single visit, but from a relationship to out-of-school learning opportunities.



Child in the exhibition "Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs" at the Tate Modern, drawing on a touch screen.

Child in the exhibition “Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs” at the Tate Modern, drawing on a touch screen.


I remain intrigued by this article for a number of reasons:

(1) What existing data should we be studying and learning from as a field?

This research draws on the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, conducted in the early 21st century by the National Center for Education Statistics. This study collected data on 21,000 students (although as the article notes, the sample size by third grade was smaller – 12,558 students). This is an enormous body of data.

Museum research is hard – it is very difficult to gather data in an informal learning environment, and generally data collection requires special government approvals (Institutional Review Board, or IRB, approval). Questioning visitors can impact their experience and processing of that experience, skewing the findings. Museum research based on large sample sizes and valid data is rare. And research can be very, very expensive.

Are there other large bodies of data are out there the museum field could look at and learn from? One or two questions related to informal education that could be added to new large-scale studies being conducted in education or other fields?

(2) How do we get the word out about important research?

It was ridiculously hard to find the research referenced in the IMLS blog post. I couldn’t find it with a google search, so I called IMLS. Because the researcher, Deanne Swan, is no longer there it took me a few layers of staff members to speak to someone who directed me to the paper sharing the research cited in the blog. This research has never been published in a journal.

In a field without a great deal of academic research behind it, a study like this one seems important. As Swan herself notes:

This is the first study to examine the effects of visitation to libraries and museums on academic outcomes at a population level. Evidence that suggests that the influence of informal learning environments, such as those found at public libraries and museums, can have long-lasting effects on academic achievement. Even though these effects were small, they were there.

Is there more research like this that I should know about? If so, how do I find it? How do we ensure that practitioners know about important research, so we can build on what we know, rather than re-inventing it?

(3) What is the correlation between informal educational spaces and family investment in learning?

According to this research, far more families are visiting libraries than museums. This is not surprising – libraries are free, and families are familiar with and understand how to learn from books. Of museum visits, zoos and aquariums are the most common destinations, and yet these visits are the only ones not correlated with academic achievement. (There is not research directly examining visits to children’s museums – I suspect that they are more in line with zoos than with art museums.)zoo-visit-2

What does this say about the choice to visit a zoo vs. a library? Why are visits to libraries, like art museums, correlated with higher academic achievement, but not visits to zoos? If Swan is correct that a museum is an indicator of a family’s investment in informal learning, why does this not hold true for zoos?

Is there a way to collaborate across museums and draw families from zoos to art and science museums? To make investment in ongoing informal learning a goal of a family zoo visit?


What museum-related articles have you read that lead you to new ideas or questions?

The full paper referenced in this article, by Deanne Swan, is entitled “The Effect of Informal Learning Environments on Academic Achievement During Elementary School” and can be found here.

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