Beyond facts and phenomena: Teaching and learning about science #TBT

heureka 2

Heureka, Finland

As part of this recent series on transformative learning and #STEM, this #throwbackthursday post revisits two articles that inspired me when undertaking my thesis (all those years ago!), while thinking about what they mean for transformative learning in 2018.

As I re-read my, somewhat battered, copy of a 1998 paper by James Bradburne, Dinosaurs and White Elephants: the Science Centre in the 21st Century, was reminded of how far we have come, yet also how so little has changed. Bradburne’s premise in this paper was that science museums need to fundamentally shift from being ‘fonts of scientific knowledge’ to showing visitors how to inquire. He identified a key number of trends impacting on science centres (and museums) and suggested that these institutions need to become a hybrid, or new learning platforms where users are considered as the starting point for effective learning. One measure of success suggested was that visitors leave “… not saying ‘I know’ but rather ‘I know how to know’” (p.119, emphasis in original).

There is an abundance of riches in this paper, so for the sake of brevity I’ll just summarise his conclusions (p.132-133):

  • Stress acquisition of new skills, not information: “These skills are largely shared by art, science and technology alike – creativity, collaboration, abstraction, thinking in terms of systems” and include finding, using, understanding and the ability to add to information
  • Turn visitors into users – find ways to embed our institutions within communities and encourage repeat use (visitation, whether physical or online) using lessons from how libraries operate
  • Think about “high value, not high volume” – find out how users learn and use this information in creating new experiences in an iterative (and design-thinking?) loop
  • Actively research visitors and share that knowledge, as well as using this knowledge to develop “effective new tools for teacher training”
  • Think global, act local – new learning platforms need to be based on what cannot be done somewhere else, using virtual communities to input to local communities and vice versa

Bradburne concluded by stating that the key to institutional survival is “… having the flexibility to respond to the needs of a wide variety of users” (p.133), and taking a leading role in informal learning by drawing on knowledge gained via research.

This led me to another paper, Perspectives on Learning Through Research on Critical Issues-Based Science Centre Exhibitions, by Erminia Pedretti (2004). In this the author talks about the new directions in science centres that go beyond ‘science as wonder’ and ‘objects as curiosities’ to an “emphasis on involvement, activity and ideas … [that include] social responsibility and the raising of social consciousness” (p.S35).

Pedretti outlines three types of science centre exhibits:

  • Experiential that enable visitors to experience phenomena
  • Pedagogical that set out to teach something
  • Critical that critically explore the nature of science, being: “… issues-based, inviting visitors to consider socioscientific material from a variety of perspectives, engage in decision-making and healthy debate of complex issues, and critique the nature and practice of science and technology … [emphasising] learning about science” (p.S36)

Pedretti concluded that critical exhibitions challenge visitors in different ways, appealing to a person’s intellect and emotions (sensibilities), enhancing learning by “… personalising subject matter, evoking emotion, stimulating dialogue and debate, and promoting reflectivity” (p.S45).

However, we know that visitors enjoy experiential exhibits, are naturally curious, like to learn (from simple facts to deep change), as well as engaging with exhibitions that make them think, so using the best elements from all three of these approaches may be the best way to develop and deliver transformative learning experiences.


3 thoughts on “Beyond facts and phenomena: Teaching and learning about science #TBT

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