Are Museums Really Informal Learning Spaces?

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?

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2 thoughts on “Are Museums Really Informal Learning Spaces?

  1. In your post you seem to make it sound that one can either be learning with staff formally or learning informally but not both. I think that some informal learning takes place during any type of structured instruction although certain exercises and teaching techniques might foster a more informal learning than others. Its really not as black and white as informal versus formal either. There are many different contributors to the acquisition of knowledge, motivation, environment, facility are other aspects.

    The museum allows students to learn through their environment and the interactivity and fidelity experienced at a museum is much greater than anything that can occur in a classroom. I would argue that showing kids certain paths through a museum in a structured manner fosters future selectivity amongst students when they have the option to learn more in the future and perhaps in an informal manner.

    1. My question exists with the manner in which museum education departments look at their mission. On one hand, public relations and published research herald the museum as the great informal learning space for student exploration. On the other hand, a student’s time at the museum is controlled, the artifacts pre-determined, and the exploration pre-selected. I don’t think staff guidance and informal learning are mutually exclusive, but their current iteration is. School districts are having a difficult time funding field trips, and museum field trips are down across the nation. Museums in turn are going back to research from the last 15 years discussing the importance of an informal learning environment, yet once the kids get to the museum, the experience is mostly formal. If the informal space becomes formal based on the objectives of both district and museum education departments, the argument for the museum is to be in proximity with the artifacts, which is the missive museums are pushing away from.

      You say that the “interactivity and fidelity experienced at a museum is much greater than anything that can occur in a classroom.” I agree with the potential, but disagree with that in existing practicality. A great teacher can turn the classroom into a lab, a project-based workshop, a Socratic forum in the same way that a museum education department can inadvertently turn the wonder and allure of a museum collection into a drab, dull and rote exercise. And while setting a path is valuable (there must be some structure, either direct or cultural), if the end game is to get students interested in later exploration that can be more informal, you can’t turn them off with the first paths they encounter.

      I greatly appreciate your feedback and push-back on these ideas.

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