Learning in Interactive Environments: Prior Knowledge and New Experience #TBT

F&DFor this #throwbackthursday post I was inspired to return to a 1995 paper by Jeremy Roschelle, SRI International, Learning in Interactive Environments: Prior Knowledge and New Experience, looking at learning in interactive environments, particularly given my recent posts along this theme.

Roschelle’s article primarily looks at constructivism as a way to frame learning, particularly science learning, in interactive environments such as museums.

The role of prior knowledge:

  • It is impossible to learn without prior knowledge.
  • There is widespread agreement that prior knowledge influences learning and the learners construct concepts from prior knowledge.
  • Learning proceeds primarily from prior knowledge and only secondarily from the presented materials.
  • Prior knowledge determines what we learn from experience.
  • New knowledge does not replace prior knowledge – new knowledge reuses prior knowledge.
  • Educators often focus on the ideas they want their students to learn – whereas research has shown that a learner’s prior knowledge often confounds best efforts to deliver ideas accurately.
  • Prior knowledge also forces a theoretical shift to viewing learning as conceptual change.

Designing interactive experiences:

  1. Need to refine and understand the learner’s prior knowledge.
  2. Must anticipate a long-term learning process of which the short-term experience forms an incremental part.
  3. Remember that learning depends on social interaction – conversations shape the form and content of the concepts that learners construct.
  4. Expect learning to occur through gradual refinement and restructuring of small component capabilities within a large distributed system of which the museum is only one, sometimes small, part.

Conceptual change

Museums are well positioned as sites for conceptual change as they:

  • provide visitors with opportunities to experience authentic objects directly
  • allow visitors to learn socially in small, voluntary groups
  • provide novel and challenging settings with opportunities for interaction, contemplation and inquiry
  • provide intellectual, physical and social resources to aid in resolution of problematic experience

Roschelle suggested, however, that museums sometimes don’t rise to this challenge as they can present an “aggressively professional point of view”, without acknowledging and working from the learner’s point of view, often neglecting the social nature of museum visits. He surmised that museums’ goals should be to:

  • encourage curiosity, caring and exploration
  • provide positive memorable experiences
  • support constructivist learning processes
  • develop sense of personal, cultural and community identity

Encouraging interactive learning

How do museums activate visitors’ prior knowledge, opening new and effective roads for long-term learning? We need to ask ourselves:

  • Do museums raise visitors’ awareness of alternative perspectives?
  • Do visitors formulate personally relevant questions?
  • Do visitors realise how they can tap their current knowledge to enter a new field of inquiry?
  • Do museums provide models of constructive learning processes with which visitors can go on learning?
  • Do visitors become aware of books, videos and other resources [i.e. digital!] that start from what they already know?
  • Are museums places where visitors can use prior knowledge to help their friends and families learn?
  • Do museums provide settings for integrating diverse views that comprise a rich understanding?

Roschelle noted that becoming a participant in a community may have stronger motivation than gaining new knowledge. He suggested that it is useful to focus on what the learner is becoming rather than on the right knowledge to be gained. Overall, he concluded that museums need not do much more than provide high-quality experiences that engages prior knowledge, coupled with an achievable intellectual challenge to help visitors assemble the physical, intellectual and social resources they need to succeed in their learning goals.


Previous blog posts on interactive learning/multi-touch tables:


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