Researchers, scholars and professionals in museum studies and education herald the museum as a prime space for student discovery and knowledge building, most notably through the museum’s status as a place of informal learning. Museums have the potential to allow students to explore unique topics, make discoveries, engage with greater content either in a hands-on or mind-on manner, and utilize their time in the space in a manner that most behooves them.
Yet a large number of education programs at museums are devoted to supplementing or emboldening the formalized, behaviorist aspects of traditional education. Students follow a guided tour of select artifacts rather than exploring unique topics…they gain information from a set curriculum rather than embarking on personal discoveries…the hands-on engagement is rote…and their time in the museum is dictated not only by a school professional, but a museum professional as well. While the theoretical museum may be an exemplar space for informal learning, the practical museum works as a same-as-it-ever-was extension of formal learning.
This will not be a popular argument among museum professionals, who work hard and do their best to serve the interests of learners and educators. With state and federal education policy shifting its attention to data collection and standardized metric evaluation, museums are fighting to keep students coming through the doors for any sort of education experience. Building curriculum allows a museum to provide schools and districts with a rostrum of material students will engage with and learn, which helps schools and districts justify the expense and experience. And herein is the problem: determining the material students will engage with is counter to the idea of informal learning, which is the unique experience the museum provides.
Over the next several months I am going to explore this postulate as I work toward creating a model for museum education to fight the Catch-22 and provide measurable, output-laden student experience in a social and informal (or at least non-formal) learning environment. As that process occurs, a question: can informal learning happen under the guise of staff-driven programs?