Free Choice Learning – this is a term that I found myself using a lot the last few weeks while back east attending various family events. Many family members know and follow what I do with my research, career and schooling, however many do not and it seems like every few hours or days I was explaining my work to various people. Some met me with great enthusiasm, so with the oddest look followed by – really studying how and why people learn – they just do. Very interesting. As a personal study, I then followed up with the question that so many of us in the field us – well – What is your hobby? What are you an expert in? The initial resistance to answer and the always – Im not an expert in anything followed, but after a few minutes of conversation, fruitful discussion followed. For example a family friend has always taken photographs at all events, often following around and waiting for that candid shot. Over the years, the amazing photographs taken by this individual bring both pleasure and art to the family. This is not this person’s job; however, they can tell you almost anything about photography, even information about photography greats if you will. Even with this, this person would not accept that they were an expert in this area. In the end he agreed to think about it and have another conversation with me the net time we get together.
Another example is my aunt. She is 83 years old and one of the most amazing land scape artists and gardeners I know. She can look at an area, walk around it, touch the soil between her fingers and design a beautiful relaxing garden. She knows what to plant in relation to the soil and sun and can bring almost anything back to life when most people would through the plant in the compost. She does all this without chemicals and any schooling. Her trade was business. As a child growing up, I loved working with her in her gardens. When talking to her, she will admit she knows a couple of things about gardening, but as she has not schooling, she can’t be an expert. I told her that my schooling says different, and yes you can be an expert.
This area of free choice learning is one that interests me greatly, but still is not the norm for people to understand or see how the concept is used in their own lives. As programs and research in the filed continue to grow, maybe one day when I am at a family event and I say I work in the field of science education, free choice learning, I will not have to give an explanation …..
For my blog post today I have been thinking about many different things. So now that it is time, I am going to proceed with the topic that has mostly entered into my head when thinking about this post – testing. I know that it is not truly a free choice learning topic as testing is often associated with standard school functions, however I want to bring forth that the more experiences you have outside of school should in theory support the success of testing. With that said, I am truly not a fan of standardized testing. Recently I read an article about a teacher who retired in New York after over 20 years of teaching and claimed that he no longer has a profession. This article struck me and made me think of what we do with our research in the free choice learning arena. We try to document various experiences that people have and ponder what meaning it has in their lives. Will this experience help them understand a particular concept better? Will it expand their thinking on a particular area – for example environmental issues – Will the experience of being in a free choice learning setting influence the participant to be more “open” in accepting new experiences such as touching animals in a touch tank or petting zoo? Not sure, and as group we were all looking at various data sets to reflect on these issues.
So how is this related to testing? Well our free choice learning environments are tied to the formal environments in many ways. The participants typically have had some sort of schooling. This helps shape the background knowledge brought forth by the participant. If what I am hearing from my teacher friends is true, as well as the information presented by the recently retired educator, then the experiences that the students are receiving in formal schools are largely focused on standardized testing. UGH! This in my thought process is very limiting. This limits active conversation by the teacher and students, sets an imposed timeline on pre-planned topics presented removing free flow of ideas.
How can we as educators and researcher in the free choice arena use this information when planning and when trying to implement change within the overall educational system? Do we still use any form of testing within our field? How is this testing different from the standardized ones given in the formal setting? Food for thought and hopefully future conversations.
Exhibits in museums, how does one go about deciding on what topic to “run with” when designing a new exhibit? Who has this privilege? How is this decided? Well after many years within the walls of museums, it seems to come down to the all mighty dollar – who is willing to pay for what and for how long. An interesting point was brought up the other day that I had not thought of about front end evaluation – if the topic is already decided, then front end evaluation is not really happening. If true front end evaluation was happening, then the topic would not already be decided until the potential audience were surveyed for topics of interest. I had not thought about this in a long time. There is a large amount of what is termed “front end” evaluation conducted on the various aspects of various exhibits prior to the onset of constructing the exhibit, but if this true front end?
When I worked at a science museum several years back they went under a major renovation and expansion. The areas for renovation and themes for new areas were decided in a variety of ways. First was a general survey of the staff. Next was a review of the grants available at that time and the third was personal choice of the direct of the museum. I do not recall one time surveying the general population about topics of interest. Some of the exhibits turned out amazing from an insider’s point of view and are well received by the public. Others are not bad, but leave a lot to be desired from both insiders and the public.
My personal favorite is the kids room renovation. This renovation took the longest and was based on research. The person in charge of this surveyed several other science museums and conducted a thorough literature review. In addition, she observed the interactions of families in kids rooms for hundreds of hours. The result is one of the best younger aged focused play areas for families I have seen to date.
So what are your thoughts? How would you begin to design a new exhibit at museum?