What does it take to create a great education program?

Here’s a really useful post from Rebecca at Museum Questions. Some good advice for all museum (and other) programs, not just educational ones. #musdigi #museumed #museumeval

Museum Questions

As we plan for 2018 at the Peoria PlayHouse Children’s Museum, we have decided to reduce the number of programs we offer, holding workshops and home-school programs monthly instead of semi-monthly, and cultural festivals bi-monthly instead of monthly. The goal is to leave more time to ensure excellence of programs, and to build strong systems that might then allow us to build up more effectively.

This has left me thinking: What does it take to create a great education program? What are the things that we often forget, but which are critical to enduring excellence?

Below is a list of 10 statements about programming which I believe to be true and important. Each of these statements in turn leads to its own sets of questions. I welcome readers’ thoughts – are there items here that are new to you, or which often go unconsidered? Are there things I…

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That “ah-hah” moment: Teachers talk Transformative Learning @MoAD_Canberra #musdigi

IMG_0302Back again with more on our Transformative Learning (TL) project with the Museum of Australian Democracy, Old Parliament House (start here for our previous work). We conducted a workshop in August with 22 teachers from the ACT, and prior to this they completed a survey asking them a series of questions around student learning generally and TL specifically. Here’s what they said.

In your own words, please describe what you think transformative learning is in the context of your teaching practice:

  • Finding a way to make content as interesting and relevant as possible, from my own personal experiences and the experiences of students in the classroom to make learning more relatable and real.
  • I would guess that it is a different style of learning that enables students of all learning styles to demonstrate what they know.
  • Adjusting my views, beliefs and perceptions with regards to how I teach. The methods and strategies used 20 years [ago] is different to today. Students and curriculum changes all the time, so it is a matter of keeping up and adjusting to these changes and adding extra stress into our lives.
  • Transforming the learning process for students.
  • Not really sure. I believe it is to do with the way people process learning. In my teaching I ensure that I provide different learning models.
  • Learning that gets students to question the world and their place in it.
  • Changing knowledge attitudes and motivation in the children I teach.
  • The opportunity to investigate a concept in a way that impacts perspectives, attitudes and actions.
  • Learning that opens ‘new vistas’ for students and may even be ‘life changing’.
  • It is a theory that a student’s perspective has three dimensions; a psychological, a convictional and behavioural.
  • Students understanding their personal strengths and recognising that they can be good at anything. Seeing themselves develop academically, socially and physically into mature beings.
  • Critical analysis, self-reflection and potentially changing ones approach.
  • Deepening/transforming the students’ understanding of history by developing perspectives, then, now and how they change over time, in all domains.
  • Learning that is not just about content or skills, but getting you to think and assess your own place in the world and the type of person you want to be in it.
  • Students leaving lesson/course with changed knowledge and understanding of their world.
  • Learning that transforms the way you think and learn.
  • Transformative learning builds on and extends my student insights so that they understand how their needs and interests are linked with the common good and the wider world.
  • When students can connect learning ‘to self’ and to their own experience, which creates a change in their beliefs about something.

Similar to the literature cited previously the themes of change, better understanding, self-reflection and identity all emerged. A second question asked them what indicators they look for when students are having a TL experience:

  • Engagement, contribution, excitement and being able to relate the content being taught to their own life or scenarios that exist in the real world without direction.
  • They would display satisfaction at being able to demonstrate what they have learned. The confidence to participate in discussions on the topic/s.
  • “Moods” and behaviours.
  • They are becoming more academic and studious.
  • Engagement, enthusiasm, improved outcomes.
  • They are highly engaged! They verbalise their “ahaha!” moments. You can see the penny drop or a new understanding blossom.
  • Engagement and a depth of understanding which can be applied, analysed and synthesised.
  • Either immediate feedback, feedback via assessment items, or hearing later from students about directions taken after leaving college.
  • Engagement in class work and discussion and debate, positive feedback after the lesson. Evolved or matured perspectives or opinions into future lessons.
  • A ‘wow!’ A ‘oh, that’s cool!’ Thank you Miss!’ Showing respect for other students. Taking pride in their results.
  • When you see the “A-ha” moment when they make connections about historical events and how they affect their lives today.
  • When students are able to analyse and synthesize the information, discuss and explain their understanding from different viewpoints, empathize with and interpret how others might have felt and responded, incorporate their own background information/knowledge, understand/justify why they, (or others) may think the way they do.
  • They’re excited about being in class, they participate actively and they are sharing things about themselves.
  • The quality of what they know and understand at the end.
  • Light-bulb moment.
  • Student directed, self-reflection and self-awareness shown through discussion, written reflections and small group responses. Understanding of diversity and a sense of how knowledge is constructed as shown through interactions in group discussions and written responses.
  • Evidence of examples from their own experience.
  • Able to relate the concept or idea to the wider world.
  • Independently identify the concept or idea in other contexts.

IMG_0299We also got them to rate 23 statements in relation to how important each was to student learning. These were based on research we had done looking at rating scales previously used to measure museum learning generally and TL specifically. The teachers unanimously chose the following 11 statements as very important / important:

  • Discovering things they didn’t know
  • Stimulating their curiosity
  • Being reminded of the importance of some issues
  • When information is presented in an interesting way
  • Opportunities to actively participate
  • Topics that “click” with personal interests
  • Information that is relevant to their life
  • Providing “food for thought”
  • Having opportunities to ask questions
  • Thinking differently about a topic / issue
  • Becoming open to new ideas

We’ll be testing these further with a broader sample over the next few weeks so will report back as we go.

Inspiring active participation in democracy @MoAD_Canberra #musdigi

museum-democracy LOGOThis, the sixth in a series on transformative learning (see below for references to other posts), looks specifically at transformative learning experiences provided by the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House (MoAD).

MoAD’s approach to learning is expressed in the following:

Learning is a complex and personal process occurring in many contexts. At its core is the importance of personal experience, transformation, understanding, identity and agency.

MoAD embraces the following statement as the bedrock of its learning strategy:

Grow the museum as a leading educational institution providing safe opportunities for deep engagement in the ideas and practices of democracy and civic participation … by providing unique and transformative learning experiences that explore what it means to be an informed and engaged citizen.

At a workshop held with a range of MoAD staff they reflected on what a transformative learning experience looks like for visitors to their site – both as through the actual visit experience and the desired outcomes / post-visit actions.

yellow post itsWhat are the elements of a museum experience that support transformative learning?

  • Empathy
  • “Ah hah” moments
  • Extend onsite with online experiences
  • What are we looking at – an experience that transforms or a transformative experience?
  • Something that shifts a visitor’s perspective?
  • Need to acknowledge the role of prior knowledge

Some aspects that have made a difference:

  • an emotional connection
  • intellectual surprise
  • stretches your boundaries
  • feels authentic
  • giving permission to do something / think some way that’s not obvious
  • an unexpected surprise
  • capturing my imagination
  • triggering an emotional response
  • sharing with others
  • constantly coming back to it
  • “Take a walk in someone else’s shoes”
  • learning what you think you are capable of and, more importantly / surprisingly, what you are not capable of
  • building confidence

Some other aspects:

  • Physical sensations – this is often underestimated in TL
  • Connecting experiences beyond the MoAD one
  • Being an informed citizen
  • Long term outcomes – ultimately did it make me change??

What do we want MoAD visitors to go away with / do post-visit?

  • Talk about / share experience with others
  • Question and reflect
  • Take action:
    • participate – sign a petition, stand for parliament, volunteer
    • read / buy a book
    • actively look for / seek information
  • Come back to museum – online, physical site
  • Interact with the museum:
    • follow on social media
    • like / comment on a Facebook post
    • recommend us on Trip Advisor
    • leave a positive Google review
    • sign up to e-newsletter
    • donate
    • [for other museums] join members
    • be advocates for MoAD
  • For MoAD as an organisation:
    • an understanding about the museum – that it is the Museum of Australian Democracy, not only Old Parliament House
    • see the museum as more than just about Parliament and parliamentary processes
    • see democracy as a bigger concept than politics, with an understanding about  what I can do at a grassroots level: leading to being an informed and active citizen

image 6And finally, a general appreciation and valuing of museums and heritage sites as both places for leisure and as transformative spaces.

These ideas will be tested out progressively with MoAD visitors, including teachers, over the next few months so watch this space to see how we’re travelling. You can also follow MoAD on Twitter – @MoAD_Canberra and @moadlearning.


Measuring Transformative Learning Part 2: Checklists and Rating scales


© dilbert.com

Who doesn’t love a good checklist or rating scale? Have a read and tick a response – easy to complete, easy to analyse and easy to report!


While qualitative methods have been used widely in measuring transformative learning (TL), I’m wanting to look at more quantitative approaches at this stage (as referenced here). In this, the fifth post in a series looking at TL, I’m gathering checklists and statements from a variety of sources that we may use in the future, so am popping them on this blog both to share and for easy access. The following are some examples of, what I think, could form the basis of a potential survey (and are in no particular order). Formal references are at the end of the post.

MARVEL Museums Actively Researching Visitor Experiences and Learning (Griffin, Kelly, Savage and Hatherley, 2005)

The MARVEL research project used a series of categories in a checklist format to self-evaluate how an exhibition fosters learning:

  1. Content
  2. Comfort
  3. Coherence
  4. Challenge
  5. Control
  6. Choice
  7. Collaboration
  8. Curiosity
  9. Continuing learning

Each item has a sub-set of “measures” that unpack each concept. The detailed form explaining these in more detail can be downloaded here and is a useful tool, especially for project teams to self-assess an exhibition before, during and after development.

Visitors and Learners: Adult Museum Visitors’ Learning Identities (Kelly, 2007)

In my doctoral work I used a range of rating scales to investigate museum visitors’ thoughts about learning. In Stage One of the study, visitors to the Australian Museum were asked to rate the following 11 statements that described various aspects of learning based on how important they were to them as a learner:

  1. Learning in a physical, “hands-on” way
  2. Learning when the information provided is of immediate interest to me
  3. Learning that builds on what I already know
  4. Learning that specifically fits with how I like to learn
  5. Teacher-led learning at school/other formal place
  6. Being told what to learn
  7. Constructing meaning based on my own experiences
  8. Changing how I see myself
  9. Seeing something in a different way
  10. Learning with and through others
  11. Learning new facts

In Stage Two, visitors to a particular exhibition were asked to rate a set of statements in order to find out how they felt they learned in the exhibition, rating the following ten statements on a four-point scale of Yes / a lot; Yes / somewhat; No / not really; Not at all:

  1. I discovered things I didn’t know
  2. I learned more about things I already knew
  3. I remembered things I hadn’t thought of for awhile
  4. I shared some of my knowledge with other people
  5. I got curious about finding out more about some things
  6. I was reminded of the importance of some issues
  7. I got a real buzz out of what I learned
  8. It was pleasant to be reminded and to learn more
  9. It was all very familiar to me
  10. Some of the things I learned will be very useful to me

Note that many of these statements were derived from the literature review and the MARVEL project referenced above.

Australian Museum: Visitor Motivations (Chris Lang)

The Australian Museum has surveyed visitors since 2012 using a set of statements uncovering visit motivations as follows:

  1. It’s an Australian / Sydney attraction / ‘must do’ activity
  2. I am drawn to interesting buildings and places
  3. It’s an enjoyable way to pass the time
  4. It is a nice place to spend time with my friends and family
  5. To encourage children’s interest in a subject at the Museum
  6. To improve my own knowledge or experience of a subject at the Museum
  7. I have a personal interest in a subject at the Museum
  8. I have an academic or professional interest in a subject at the Museum
  9. For a strong sense of personal connection or identity
  10. To see fascinating, awe inspiring things
  11. To see beautiful things in an attractive setting
  12. To stimulate my own creativity
  13. For peaceful, quiet contemplation
  14. To escape and to recharge my batteries

Chris then grouped responses into what he calls a “hierarchy of engagement”:

  • Social (a-d)
  • Intellectual (e-h)
  • Emotional (i-k)
  • Spiritual (l-n)

More details about this idea and the results from a range of exhibition evaluations are available on the Audience Research Unit Evaluation Reports section of the Australian Museum’s website.

Motivational Factors and the Experience of Learning in Educational Leisure Settings (Packer, 2004)

Jan Packer’s doctoral work investigated the impact of a range of motivational factors on both how and what visitors learned in museums and other leisure spaces. Jan used a number of rating scales in her work, with the following one I think is most relevant (2004, p.207):

  • The information was presented in an interesting way
  • I was reminded of something I already knew or had experienced
  • I had the opportunity to participate actively
  • The topic “clicked” with some of my personal interests
  • The information was relevant to my life
  • It provided “food for thought”
  • The information was surprising or unexpected
  • The information was new to me
  • I was able to discuss the information with a companion
  • The information appealed to my emotions
  • The information appealed to my imagination
  • I had the opportunity to ask questions
  • I was able to see the real things or places the information referred to

These were rated by participants along a scale of -3 to +3, but I’ll think I’ll stick to a four or five point scale.

Exploring visitors’ perceptions of the value and benefits of museum experiences (Packer, 2008)

While technically not a rating scale, these questions from Jan’s 2008 research (below) also offer a good starting point when thinking about transformative learning experiences in museums:

  1. What do you feel you have gained from the visit?
  2. If you think about yourself now, and yourself when you first arrived, what would you say has changed? (“I am more ……; I am less ……”)
  3. Would you say your mood has changed at all?
  4. Did you learn anything about yourself during the visit?
  5. Has it changed the way you feel or think about yourself?
  6. Has it changed the way you understand your place within the world?
  7. Was there anything about the visit that made you feel good (or bad) about yourself or about the world?
  8. Did the visit enhance your relationship with your companion(s) in any way?
  9. Was there any part of your museum visit that spoiled your experience in any way?
  10. In general, what do you value most about visiting museums? Why is this important to you? (prompting on entertainment, relaxation, discovery, and social interaction aspects of the visit)

I think these questions would also work on a follow-up basis, i.e. for interviewing visitors down the track.

Exploring Satisfying Experiences in Museums (Pekarik, Doering and Karns, 1999)

An oldie but a goodie, written by authors that have influenced many of us. This scale I feel will be useful for both on-site and follow-up surveys (p.167):

Object experiences

  • Seeing the real thing
  • Seeing rare things
  • Being moved by beauty
  • Thinking about owning such things
  • Continuing professional development

Cognitive experiences

  • Gaining information or knowledge
  • Enriching my understanding

Introspective experiences

  • Imagining other times or places
  • Reflecting on meaning
  • Recalling travels / other memories
  • Feeling a sense of connectedness
  • Feeling a spiritual connection

Social experiences

  • Spending time with friends / family
  • Seeing my children learning

This work was continued and built into a theory of experience preferences (IPOP), through four typologies (Pekarik, et al, 2014) distilling visitors’ primary interests under the following categories:

  • I = ideas
  • P = people
  • O = objects
  • P = physical

Finally: I’ll continue gathering away, in the meantime if anyone has any other scales or questions that may be relevant please feel free to share them here.


Measuring Transformative Learning: Part 1 #musdigi

This, the fourth post in a series looking at transformative learning, unpacks some of the literature around measuring transformative learning based on the work of Stuckey, Taylor and Cranton (2013).

Mezirow, the original proponent of this theory ‘… distinguishes between four kinds of learning: the acquisition of new knowledge and skills, the elaboration on existing knowledge and skills, the revision of meaning schemes (beliefs and values), and the revision of meaning perspectives (a larger view of the world)’ (Kroth and Cranton, 2014, p.1).

Most research into transformative learning has been qualitative in nature – retrospective interviews with subject as storyteller. These methods have been further developed to include approaches such as case studies, narrative enquiry, longitudinal studies and mixed-method studies.

While qualitative methods are useful, they can be time consuming and quite narrow in focus, with small sample sizes. To address this, Stuckey, et al (2103) developed a quantitative survey instrument to allow ‘… educators and scholars the means to determine more accurately what strategies have the potential to foster transformative learning’ (p.213). Survey items were written based on the table below (110 items!), and rated on a four-point Likert scale (1=mostly disagree / 4=mostly agree) coupled with two open-ended questions to ‘… focus people on a specific life-changing event (transformative learning experience) that they could consider as they rated each of the statements’ (p.218).

stuckey et al p217

From Stuckey, et al, 2013, p.217

The only sample questions I could find in this article were some examples of outcomes (such as shifting the way they see things) and process (such as critical reflection) as in the table below.

stuckey et al p222

From Stuckey, et al, 2013, p.222

So, in starting to think about measuring transformative learning, perhaps using a modified version of the Stuckey, et al survey either alone or in conjunction with narrative interviews / storytelling, AND/OR an adapted version of significant conversation events and categories of talk (Kelly, 2017) via a self-report questionnaire AND/OR developing questions that unpack Mezirow’s four kinds of learning (Kroth and Cranton, 2014)?? Some food for thought…


Analysing Visitor Conversations #TBT #musdigi

conversations imageFor today’s #throwbackthursday post I’m re-visiting Chapter 3 (Method) of my doctoral thesis, focussing on how to analyse conversational data (and from that, as essentially one way to analyse visitor’s talk and their stories). This methodology emerged from Stage Two of the doctoral study which looked at the question: How does a visit to an exhibition interact with an adult visitors’ learning identity?.

Silverman (2000) outlined three ways to analyse conversation data. The first was to identify sequences of related talk. Second, to examine how speakers took on different roles and identities. Finally, he suggested to look for specific outcomes and trace those back in the conversation to find out where and how they originated. Ash (2002) noted that ‘Maintaining the tension between looking closely at any particular segment(s) while maintaining the integrity of the whole is paramount in microanalysis’ (p.394). Yet Silverman reminded us that as long as the parameters of analysis are made clear ‘… the analysis of conversations does not require exceptional skills’ (2000, p.151) and should be reasonably straightforward.

In museum learning research techniques to analyse conversations developed to date have ranged from relatively simple to more complex systems that involved quantitatively counting chunks of conversation (Allen, 2002) or developing more qualitative/holistic categories that considered the broader context of the conversation and how they applied to learning (Ash, 2002; Paris and Mercer, 2002; Rosenthal and Blankman-Hetrick, 2002; Stainton, 2002). Leinhardt and Knutson (2004) used conversations to discuss museum learning in terms of “conversation elaboration”, that accounted for the conjunction of the museum context with the shared identity of the group.

Rosenthal and Blankman-Hetrick (2002) taped visitors’ conversations with interpreters at a living history museum. The categories of analysis they developed for those conversations were:

  • list when visitors listed what they saw
  • synthesise when they compared current experiences to prior experiences and knowledge
  • analyse when they discussed how something that they saw might have worked or been used in the past
  • explain when visitors brought together existing information and new insights to draw conclusions or clarify what was happening

Another way of coding conversations was employed in a study of interactions between visitors attending an exhibition about African art (Stainton, 2002). Learning was uncovered through the meaning making that could be inferred from transcripts of visitor conversations, as well as comparing their views about the content in pre- and post-interviews. The categories Stainton developed were drawn from the curatorial intent of the exhibition gathered through interviews with staff:

  • Aesthetic
  • Anthropological
  • Visitor/aesthetic
  • Visitor/anthropological
  • Visitor management
  • Visitor personal
  • Other

Allen (2002) used conversation analysis in studying visitor learning from an exhibition about frogs at the Exploratorium, US. Allen categorised conversations to look for evidence of “learning talk” which she defined deliberately ‘… quite narrowly to refer to discussion of the exhibits and the exhibition, and its topic area’ (p.262). Allen employed the following set of underpinning questions:

‘Is this evidence of learning? … Is it likely that one or both of these people have just acquired new knowledge or new ability from what was said? … Has this utterance advanced the dyad’s collaborative process of making meaning from the exhibition?’ (p.263).

The categories that resulted from Allen’s investigations were:

  • Perceptual talk where visitors drew attention to something through identifying, naming, paraphrasing text.
  • Conceptual talk being cognitive interpretations including inferences, predictions and reflection.
  • Connecting talk making explicit connections between something in the exhibition and visitors’ external experiences.
  • Strategic talk which was explicit discussion about how to actually use the exhibition.
  • Affective talk expressing feelings, emotions and pleasure (adapted from Allen, 2002, p.274-277).

Ash (2002) studied how families made sense of biological themes in an exhibition about life through time by looking at interactions and behaviour over a longer time period. Ash decided to identify significant conversation events for in-depth analysis, recognising that ‘… language is a negotiating medium for teaching and learning’ (p.361). Significant conversation events (SEs) were defined as having ‘… recognisable beginnings and endings … [and] were sustained conversational segments that differed from short interactions, which can precede and follow [other] SEs’ (Ash, 2002, p.366).

I found SEs a useful framework when looking for evidence for a change in ways visitors thought about themselves as a learner after an exhibition visit through identifying ‘… short, sustained segments of conversation with definite beginnings and endings that related to a particular exhibit, content area or theme’ (Kelly, 2007, p.107). An example of one of the conversations from this research can be found here.

I’m going to keep the idea of significant conversation events (Ash, 2002) plus Rosenthal and Blankman-Hetrick’s categories of talk (2002) in mind when thinking about how to first uncover, and then measure transformational learning in museums – my latest research interest.


  • Allen, S. (2002). Looking for Learning in Visitor Talk: A Methodological Exploration. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley and K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 259-303). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Ash, D. (2002). Negotiations of Thematic Conversations About Biology. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley and K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 357-400). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Kelly, L. (2007). Visitors and Learners: Adult Museum Visitors’ Learning Identities. PhD diss., Sydney: University of Technology.
  • Leinhardt, G. and Knutson, K. (2004). Listening in on museum conversations. Walnut Creek: Altamira Press.
  • Paris, S. and Mercer, M. (2002). Finding Self in Objects: Identity Exploration in Museums. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley and K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 401-423). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Rosenthal, E. and Blankman-Hetrick, J. (2002). Conversations Across Time: Family Learning in a Living History Museum. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley and K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 305-332). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Silverman, D. (2000). Doing Qualitative Research: A Practical Handbook. California: Sage.
  • Stainton, C. (2002). Voices and Images: Making Connections Between Identity and Art. In G. Leinhardt, K. Crowley and K. Knutson (Eds.), Learning Conversations in Museums (pp. 213-257). Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

We’re Slack…

slack 1As part of some work I’m doing (yes, semi-retired and busier than ever!) am taking advantage of the wonder that is Slack – one of the better collaborative project management tools out there.

I had great success using Slack for a mobile app development project at the Australian National Maritime Museum (ANMM). We set up a group with ANMM staff and the developers, both based in Sydney while I was at a conference in LA. This meant I could keep track of all updates and progress as well as checking content without having to wade through countless emails, the best part being it was all via my mobile phone. I’m also using it as a communication tool in a mentoring situation which has been a great learning experience for us both.

slack 2So, for those of you who have just got my Slack invite (you know who you are!) here’s some help in using Slack:

And of course the Slack Help Centre itself (as well as the Slack bots in the app themselves – they’re really very helpful).

So, hope you have as much fun ‘Slack-ing off’ as I am!

Transformative Learning in museums: some examples


Talking learning with students at the Pop-up museum

This is the second in a series of blog posts about Transformative Learning (TL). The first post introduced the theory behind TL and how it might be measured. This post cites some examples of transformative learning in the museum context as a starting point for further discussions around what this may look like in civics and citizenship education (and maybe even STEM – more on that to follow…).

Life-transforming learning experiences may be evoked by a range of activities, including reading a book or poem, engaging in discussion, watching television, experiencing a painting, travelling, observing, reflecting, and doing (Mezirow, 1990). There is certainly a lot of evidence from museum workers themselves about a transformational experience that usually led to their lifelong love of museums (see for example, Pitman, 1999, Samis and Michaelson, 2017), but what about visitors?

My doctoral research found that:

… participants [in the study] strongly associated learning with change, both deep and surface, as well as products such as learning new facts and engaging with ideas. When reflecting on their museum experiences, participants in the study were able to express changes made to deeply-held attitudes, as well as thinking differently about concepts, ideas and their own learning processes (Kelly, 2007, p.215).


… all those sampled could clearly state something they had learned from an exhibition—from ‘simple’ facts or aesthetic appreciation; to deep change in attitudes, behaviours or self-perception. Participants also felt that learning new facts was important, as well as both asking questions and finding answers (p.215).

Over my long career practicing audience research (around 30 years now…) I have come across many examples of what I consider ‘transformative learning experiences’. These range from visitors reporting learning new facts to a change in or a questioning of deeply held attitudes and opinions, and therefore, transforming themselves in the process. Some examples follow.

Body Art Exhibition, Australian Museum

  • I’ve got my eyebrow pierced and have three tattoos. After walking through the exhibition I feel like getting more piercings and tattoos. I’ve been inspired.
  • I waited until I was 53 to break free of a strict Catholic upbringing and a formalised military life-style. On my 53rd birthday my daughter paid for me to have a tattoo on my hip. I love it.

Bats Exhibition, Australian Museum

Of the visitors to the exhibition, 43% said that their views about bats had changed – they liked or understood them more after visiting the exhibition:

  • [I’m] not so afraid, they’re gentler than I thought, only usually see them overhead.
  • [I have] more knowledge and understanding of their role in ecology.
  • [there is a] bat colony at home I disliked, now I’ve changed my perception.

Spiders! Exhibition, Australian Museum

  • We only have two deadly spiders in Australia.
  • They’re marvellous – ten different types of web for each spider!

Indigenous Australians Exhibition, Australian Museum

Participants in the Indigenous Australians exhibition research reported doing the following things after their visit:

  • buying a Aboriginal book/diary, purchasing Aboriginal artworks
  • recommending the exhibition to others
  • returning to the exhibition with others
  • thinking differently
  • gaining more respect for and understanding of Indigenous people

Six months after visiting the Indigenous Australians exhibition, a range of visitors were asked what they remember doing afterwards:

I’ve been interested [in Indigenous issues] for probably about six years. [When] I went to school it was Captain Cook who discovered Australia. I read the Fatal Shore and then I remember [my daughter] did a school project and I rang up Aboriginal Affairs and they sent me out this information which I read and then became appalled and shocked. Horrified, mortified. And then I saw the exhibition and had the same response to the photographs, the people in chains. I must say I was aware of that but it really coalesced those images in the Fatal Shore – just to see those photographs. I really couldn’t walk past, I read the information, but those photographs, those people in chains. And I remember trying to get the family to go through it to show them these things.

I thought differently. I’ve met Aboriginal people … the ones I have met … didn’t click with the way that, as a child, when you grew up and everything you heard [was negative] and then you see an exhibition like this, well then you see a lot more of the story…

Action Stations, Australian National Maritime Museum

declan 1Declan, aged 10 was so inspired by the museum’s submarine and warship he went home and made them himself from Lego – then sent pictures of these to the museum.

We’ll be gathering more stories / evidence / data like this over the next little while and, in the spirit of democracy will be sharing as we go – feel free to share your experiences too!


Transformative Experiences / Transformative Learning – what is it and how can we measure it?

image 2As part of a research project I have been delving into the world of transformative learning experiences in cultural institutions. So what is this concept and how can we measure it – both as a general concept and how it relates to an organisation’s strategic aims and content areas? This is the first in a series of posts around this topic, so watch this space.

Transformative Learning (TL)

TL is a theory originally introduced by Jack Mezirow in 1978, who was researching women returning to either postsecondary study or the workforce after an extended absence. Mezirow defined TL as “The process of using a prior interpretation to construe a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s experience in order to guide future action” (1996, p.162). Patricia Cranton, an academic who has published widely in this field, defines TL as:

… the process by which people examine problematic frames of reference to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, reflective and emotionally able to change. It can be provoked by a single event – a disorienting dilemma – or it can take place gradually and cumulative over time. … We need to engage in a conversation with others in order to better consider alternative perspectives and determine their validity” (Cranton, 2016, p.27,29).

And this:

There seems to be no doubt that transformative learning is voluntary. People may not always deliberately set out to critically question their beliefs and values; many times transformative learning is prompted by an outside event… (2016, p.6).

(transformative) Learning in museums

Constructivist learning is a theory widely employed in cultural institutions as a way to explain and measure museum learning (Hein, 1998, Kelly, 2011). The TL literature cited above supports the ideas around museum learning as a voluntary, social, active, immediate or long-term and a learner-centred process, based on an individual’s prior knowledge, interests and motivations.

Hein (1998) explained that constructivist exhibitions enhanced learning through enabling visitors to both validate and also re-think their own interpretations of a subject by allowing them to consider other interpretations, perspectives and ideas about a topic. Museum learning experiences provided under a constructivist framework would encourage learners to use both their hands and their minds to experiment with the world and reach their own conclusions, through choosing what they want to attend to (Kelly, 2011), and to (sometimes) take future action (Simon, 2017). Some specific examples of TL in museums can be found on my next blog post.

How to measure TL in museums / cultural institutions?

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Visitors @Exploratorium, SF

Packer’s research with visitors to a range of institutions found that “Approximately 40% of visitors to the museum and interpretive centre made comments which indicated that their experience had been transformative to some extent” (2004, p.171). And “… there is considerable evidence … of deeper reflection, attitudinal challenge and personal change. Even those who come with no intention to learn are often drawn into an engaging and transformative learning experience by the fascinating, multi-sensory, effortless nature of the experience.” (p.180).

My next post looks at some examples of transformative learning from studies I have conducted in the past.

Where now?

I will be working with staff from the Museum of Australian Democracy (Old Parliament House) to develop a set of indicators that demonstrate TL. We will be starting with their aim to offer a place for visitors “… that creates a sense of connection, welcome and enthusiasm”, with a vision to “… engage Australians in the importance of getting involved”. MoAD defines a transformative experience as (emphasis added):

One that will empower our visitors through an experience that is fun and/or meaningful where they can learn about democracy and the power of their voice within it.

MoAD’s Learning Team have developed a vision and set of guiding principles which we will be referencing as we start our journey of defining and measuring transformational learning – we’ll keep you posted!


Some online resources

Accessing Natural History Collections: #TBT

ootb 3Last week I spent the day at the University of Canberra talking all things natural history collections at the event Out of the Box, sharing strategies 4 accessing natural history collections. Heard some great speakers and the lightning talks were full of ideas and information.

I spoke about visitors and collections – something I have written on before:

And my thesis, Understanding museum learning from the visitor’s perspective, delved into this topic in more detail.

My talk focussed on how museums often neglect thinking about the audience when displaying natural history (and other!) collections in a physical space. The first slide was based on a blog post about the Children’s Room in the Smithsonian in 1901 and how the then Secretary, Samuel P. Langley, recognised that although young children love animals (alive and dead), he felt that museums fail to cater for their interests both in content delivery and display modes. His views can be found on this blog post – Advocating for our youngest visitors.

The second slide reported on a study undertaken at the Australian Museum for their Treasures of the Collections exhibition, where a number of focus groups were held to unpack visitors views about and responses to the museum’s vast collections, both natural history and anthropological. Participants were given sets of images to view, real objects to touch and explore, then asked for their feedback on how best to exhibit these. The study found the following.

Visitors displayed little interest in:

  • discussions of the scientific significance of specimens
  • specimens stuffed, in bottle or otherwise preserved
  • the ‘everyday’, particularly out of their natural environment
  • things ‘done to death’, especially in anthropology
  • things that the layperson finds largely indistinguishable from one another

The appeal of an object lies in the unique and unexpected objects to be found across all of the collections:

  • things about which we know little or nothing
  • the weird and wonderful
  • quirky species and behaviour
  • the confronting
  • extinct icons
  • the humorous
  • and, anthropologically, unusual customs and belief systems

They also responded very well to the idea of using scientists throughout the exhibition to bring an otherwise ‘dull’ topic to life through their enthusiasm and passion for their subject (and their slightly quirky ways!).

Some examples of objects that resonated (see the above image) showed:

  • The last ever native Eastern quoll to be found in Sydney was accidentally run over by someone in the posh suburbs of Vaucluse – while participants initially through this was amusing, they soon felt extreme sadness that this could happen in suburbia
  • A marsupial mole (type-specimen) that was subject to a theft scandal
  • Stalk eyed flies – three showcases with thousands of these tiny, tiny critters pinned up carefully – visitors’ response “who the **** does that?”
  • Goliath tarantula –big, scary and something they’d never seen before (or will again)

“Tom and Jess”

The final slide showed the following tape-recoded conversation between two visitors in front of a display case, ”Tom” (T) and “Jess” (J), which demonstrated how visitors respond to objects in very individual ways – asking questions, ruminating on why the object is displayed in a particular way, and making connections between objects and their personal lives:

  • J. Don’t you think it’s the stuff that is scary and dangerous and deadly that is more interesting to look at? Like snakes. So, while I don’t like birds I think snakes are really gross, but I like to look at them.
  • T. Um. I don’t mind looking at birds. They’re just weird.
  • J. These are so gross.
  • T. And why do they have them in water as well?
  • J. I don’t think it’s water.
  • T. Well, some kind of liquid.
  • J. [reads text] “Desert Death Adder”
  • T. Remember the snake whisky in Thailand? How they used to have all the snakes in big, like, Chupa-Chup containers?
  • J. [reads text again] “Death adder” … They don’t look as long as I would’ve thought. Is it because they are curled up? Or is it because … they are just a bit … stumpy?
  • T. Well, there’s lots of different types I would say.
  • J. I wish it said where in Australia they found it. Like, it just says “Australia”.
  • Tweets and notes from Day One of the conference (as I skived off from Day 2 …) can be found on this Storify.

    Overall, was great to re-connect with those thinking about natural history collections, and I’ll be keen to hear how these conversations are progressing.