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Shari Tishman

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Home > Learning and Development > Learning in museums

Learning in museums
HGSE Professor Shari Tishman

Museums and other informal learning settings can invite students to become engaged in exhibits and activities. In this essay, Shari Tishman, lecturer in the Arts in Education Program at Harvard Graduate School of Education and research associate at Project Zero, discusses how museums embody ideas about how people learn by offering opportunities for active learning and personal agency. This essay is excerpted from the September 2005 College Art Association Newsletter.

Museums are designs for learning. Whether intentionally or not, museums embody views about what's worth learning, and the way that artworks, objects, and historical material are presented—from exhibitions to architecture to wall texts—embody views about how learning happens. This in itself is nothing new: museums have always been designed with edification in mind. But historically, museum education departments have been the only place where visitor learning is explicitly considered—and often only after exhibitions have been fully designed—despite the fact that beliefs about learning are present in all aspects of museum offerings and at all stages of exhibition design.

For the last decade or so, there has been a change afoot. As museums broaden their missions and search for new constituencies, learning is becoming a fresh and central concern for institutions as a whole, from curators to designers to directors. Across all departments, museums are increasingly seeing themselves as settings of learning theory in action.

Why mention learning theory? As a field of study, learning theory draws from such areas as cognitive science, education, and philosophy. Its goal is to help us understand how learning happens and how it can happen better. As museums bring a focus on learning to the fore, they become more aware of, and thoughtful about, their views—or theories—about how visitors learn. Learning theory provides a lens for examining how learning unfolds in all educational settings, formal and informal, and it can provide suggestions for how to design learning experiences effectively.

(Dinosaur in a museum) Art by Eileen Kenneally

What does learning theory have to say about museums? One message is that museums are especially well suited to design visitor experiences that emphasize two general features of effective learning. One feature is active learning, which concerns the manner in which people engage with a learning experience. Another feature is personal agency, which considers the ways in which learners take charge of their own learning experiences. Here are a few words about each.

Active Learning

Active learning occurs when people stretch their minds to interact with the information and experiences at hand. In art museums, visitors are learning actively when they do such things as: formulate their own questions about works of art, reflect on their own ideas and impressions, make their own discerning judgments, construct their own interpretations, and seek their own personal connections. These sorts of behaviors are called active learning because they involve acting on available information—including information from one's own thoughts, feelings, and impressions—in order to form new ideas. Of course, not every moment of learning in a museum is, or even should be, active. There are times when passive learning can be wonderful, for instance, when a viewer stands in front of a painting and gloriously lets it wash over him or her, immersed in a flow of sensations. But in extended learning experiences, research shows that active learning is important: people learn more deeply and retain knowledge longer when they have opportunities to engage actively with the information and experiences at hand, even if these opportunities are punctuated with moments of passive receptivity. This is a general fact about cognition, as true in museums as it is in schools.

Personal Agency

As theaters of active learning, museums are distinct from schools and other formal educational settings in that they make their educational offerings quietly and without demand. In museums, visitors are free to move about at their own pace and to set their own agendas. They are free to choose whether to read wall text or take audio tours, free to follow a recommended trail through an exhibition or choose their own path. To be sure, freedom of choice in museums is not unlimited, and nor should it be. There are plenty of rules to follow, plenty of guiding information about what to look at and how to respond. But, by and large, museums invite learning rather than require it, which is why they are often called "free choice" or informal learning environments. This discretionary quality of experience is a signature feature of learning in museums. It is also a feature of good learning more generally. Research demonstrates that when people have some degree of personal agency—some range of choice about the shape and direction of their own learning activities—learning tends to be more meaningful and robust.

Designs for Learning

In art museums, active learning and personal agency are natural partners. When we're in charge of our own learning, we often do find opportunities to engage our minds, especially in environments rich with evocative objects and experiences.

More information about Shari Tishman's research on learning in museums is available online:

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