Two weeks ago we considered how we can help children experience plants differently. This topic sparked a conversation about teaching ideas that ranged from how to see leaves differently to how to help kids relate to invisible processes.
Today let’s revisit this topic and consider adult learners and learning that occurs outside of a traditional classroom setting.
Informal learning is learning that occurs outside of traditional formal learning environments, such as a classroom or a lab. Examples of informal learning environments include nature centers, visitor’s centers, botanical gardens and museums. In these places of learning, scientific information is presented to the public in meaningful and easy-to-digest ways.
Building a bridge between experts and non-experts can be a perilous activity and can come with criticisms about dumbing down content (Davis et al., 2013).
Do informal science educators water down information too much when presenting it to the public? Do they encourage misconceptions or enable the formation of new misconceptions?
Pryce R. Davis, Michael S. Horn and Bruce L. Sherin address this issue in
The Right Kind of Wrong: A “Knowledge in Pieces” Approach to Science Learning in Museums.
Every single one of us is a teacher. It doesn’t matter that we do not have a physical classroom to call our own. Through our interest in plants, nature and the wonderful world of natural science illustration, we teach and communicate information about plants and nature in many ways.
When you are teaching, do you ever worry about being wrong? About making the wrong impression, about using the wrong analogy or about stretching the truth a bit too much just to make a point?
The article by Davis and his colleagues might put your mind at ease. In their article, Davis et al. (2013) argue that simplifying content does not necessarily lead to problems and they present an approach that can lead general audiences to meaningful understanding of content.
Expertise in a subject is great, but it can also be a problem because it can get in the way of teaching. Experts in their field have mastered the technical jargon of their discipline, are quick to point out the mistakes of non-experts, want to replace wrong knowledge with correct knowledge, and have forgotten what it was like to be a learner in their field (Davis et al., 2013).
To make the gap between experts and non-experts smaller, Davis et al. (2013) recommend that museum educators take non-experts on a gentle and winding path to expert knowledge by putting the misconceptions they bring with them to good use and by using the assorted bits of prior knowledge they each possess. The approach they encourage is called the “Knowledge in Pieces” approach.
Davis and his colleagues explain that the “Knowledge in Pieces” approach to science communication in informal learning environments isn’t about making grand leaps of understanding within the small space of a museum exhibit. Instead, it is about making small learning gains that engage learners by allowing them to relate the new knowledge to what they already know and how they have come to know it in their daily lives. By doing this, the learner remains comfortable and confident along the path to “expert” knowledge. To do otherwise (i.e., to replace what a learner thinks they know with a fresh batch of expert knowledge in one swift movement), would be to create a situation that leaves a learner bewildered and unsure of what they know because their new “expert” knowledge isn’t based on prior personal experiences.
Communicating science has never been easy. Davis et al. (2013) provide an interesting look at the history of science communication and how it has changed in the 21st century. Did you know there was once a belief that respected scientists did not “go public” with their research (Goodfield, 1981 as cited in Davis et al., 2013)?
Learn more about the “Knowledge in Pieces” approach. The article by
Davis et al. (2013) is available online for free. Click on the link below.
Davis, Pryce R. and Michael S Horn, Bruce L. Sherin. 2013. The right kind of wrong: A “Knowledge in Pieces” approach to science learning in museums. Curator: The Museum Journal. 56(1): 31-46. Web. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/cura.12005/full>
[accessed 22 March 2013]
Goodfield, J. 1981. Reflections on Science and the Media. Washington, DC: American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Science Communication Through Art