The Value of Thinking Design for a More Effective Instructional Performance of Museum Exhibit in Informal learning Practices.

Posted: June 15, 2010 in Professional-Me
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As a growing force, informal learning appears to favor further attention and exploration with its potential and valuable contribution to the dynamic of learning in the 21ct century (The Teaching Firm, 1998). At the onset, the growth of technology and its implementations and practices have transformed learning into a multidimensional paradigm. This multidimensional paradigm of learning enables a wider range of instructional design and approaches – providing variety of ways and models to approach where meaningful learning can best implemented and achieved. One of the models is experienced-based learning or object-based learning provided by museum for informal learning practices. However, based on studies and research findings about museum and its role informal learning, I argue that exhibit designers of the museum need to develop extensive opportunities for thinking design to amplify experience and object based learning platform for a more effective instructional performance in informal learning practices. The need to develop extensive opportunities for thinking design occurs due to the fact of “anatomical” milieu – museums do not typically provide visitors with opportunities to try out an activity, skill, or interest because of the briefness visiting design and often the design of exhibit environment makes it hard to think. Therefore, I reiterate my hypothesis that exhibit designers of the museum need to develop extensive opportunities for thinking design to amplify experience and object based learning platform for a more effective instructional performance in informal learning practices.

In particular, the museum experience in informal learning has its own unique characteristics where the notion of free-choice learning (Falk, 2001) creates encouraging results and findings, reinforcing the qualities of a museum experience: a match to personal interests and family and cultural backgrounds, control over content and pacing, some measure of independence from adults, and variety in activity and content (Jensen, 1994)”. To resemble the uniqueness of these qualities, Rossets & Hoffman in Reiser (2007) agree upon the emphasis from the essence of informal learning itself, which is authenticity outside the limits of classroom and environments established to deliver formal instruction at a distance.

What is more, Paris (1997) stated that to facilitate meaningful learning, museums need to create environments that encourage exploration and enable meaning to be constructed through choice, challenge, control, and collaboration, leading to self-discovery, pride in achievements, learning and change. It also has been argued that museums needs to move from being suppliers of information to providing usable knowledge and tools for visitors to explore their own ideas and reach their own conclusions (Bradburne, 1998; Hein, 1997). Similarly, Freedman (2000) argues that museum should become mediators of information and knowledge for a range of users to access on their terms, through their own choices, and within their own place and time. In other words, informal learning focuses more on the liberty that the learners have to take control of what, where, and how they learn fostered more likely by the intrinsic motivation (Reiser, 2007)”. Adding to that, informal learning is also unique in the nature of experience, that is to say, tends to be vivid, emotional, unexpected, and idiosyncratic where individuals “willingly immerse themselves in experiences that are real, often social, and essentially engaging (Reiser, 2007)”. Therefore, informal learning is dependant to the willingness and active trait of the individual in an informal, offhand, and natural way of learning.

More on that, the case study of museum as a potential place for informal learning to take place has been taken into a more elaborated consideration in which the phenomenon of authentic objects from the real life situated environment combined with explanation and interpretation to give stronger grip and mental models between received information and knowledge to the understanding of the information and knowledge themselves with the context-specific manner to establish a more concrete connection to the real world. To that end, Russell contends that museums (especially interactive museums) should pay more attention in developing their thinking design to encourage visitors to think as the permeate extension toward the intrinsic motivation resulted from object-based learning experience.

To illustrate, Alison Gopnik, a developmental psychologist, yields what is needed for exhibit designers in the museum in developing their thinking design based on the distinctive characteristic between two kinds of learning: There are two kinds of learning – the process of discovery and the mastery of what one discovers. Museums seem to focus on the process of discovery, but give little attention to the mastery. That is to say, visitors often find their raw experiences coming from ranging schemes – immediate aesthetic pleasure to the hand-on experience with the object. However, there is undoubtedly more than just having raw experience museums can offer – to get visitors to use what they know to think and how this is important to add values to a more effective instructional performance in informal learning practices (2003)”. Furthermore, exhibit designers can optimize the potentialities museums have for designing thinking platform enriched by the experience-based learning.

Bryson, Usherwood & Streatfield (2002) believe that museum promotes social cohesion, fostering social inclusion and encouraging lifelong learning because it holds relics of shared societal events and aids in the construction of communal memory. Parallel to that, Dodd asserts that there are some evidence in which museum objects help to stimulate memories and individual creativity (e.g. in the production for artwork), and contribute towards social interaction between participants because the historical objects are believed to be a catalyst for increased communication and self-expression and have helped the participants to develop better understanding of what the past was like (2002)”. A report from Research Center for Museums and Galleries (2002) highlight seven key areas of the impact of museum: personal growth and development, community empowerment, the representation of inclusive communities, promoting healthier communities, enhancing educational achievement and promoting lifelong learning, tackling unemployment, and tackling crime. As educational institution, Bloom and Powell point out that museum should “communicate the essence of ideas, impart knowledge, encourage curiosity and promote esthetic sensibility (1984, p. 55)”. To that end, Csikzentmihalyi & Hermanson are certain that museums have had profound impact on their visitors. They further note that “one often meets successful adults, professionals, or scientist who recall that their life-long vocational interest was first sparked by a …museum (exhibit) (1995, p. 35)”.

In order for exhibit designers to develop thinking design in a museum, they need to explore what are fundamental values in designing museum exhibit – there are three dimensional spaces: medium of communication, information, and museum experience that present information and ideas to the general public and from which this public, called visitors, can learn information and change attitudes, presenting many challenges to museum professionals (Csikzentmihalyi & Hermanson, 1995). Due to this nature in designing museum exhibit, there should be agglutinative aspects within these three dimensional spaces that pertain to the conscious process of thinking (problem solving, contemplation, reflection, planning, directed experimentation, etc). According to Russell, feedback, modeling (or coaching), and practice can be explored as to develop thinking design to amplify experience and object based learning platform for a more effective instructional performance in informal learning practices

“Providing visitors with exhibits hat provide extensive feedback that can inform them on the efficacy of their actions and that can motivate extended engagement with exhibits; providing explainers or guides who can coach visitors without “leading the by the nose”; providing visitors with models – whether the models are other people engaged in the same activity or physical models that can suggest starting points and strategies for visitors to try out; providing visitors with some opportunities to practice an activity or skills so that visitors can at least achieve some modest success and be motivated to explore the activity further; providing opportunities for social interaction centered around exhibit at hand as extended engagement with the subject matter of an exhibit (2005).

In the similar fashion, Serrell et al reviews that concrete experiential activities, reinforcement of concepts and efficient communication techniques are environmental-enhancing values of the exhibits characteristics that are suitable to informal learning setting where front-end and formative evaluation from using visitor feedback during planning and development stages of exhibit design is essential to increasing the success of informal learning in museums (1994)”.

To develop and promote thinking, exhibit designers can also revisit to the suggestion of employing social media and technology of web 2.0 and 3.0 as to design a more engaging physical and online museum experience where it has been proven to be creating a strong synergy to support learning objectives within these four elements as in the following:

Experiences that encourage discovery, interaction, cater for the unexpected, provide many pathways to explore, give a taste for what happens behind the scenes and are fun; content that is challenging, real, authoritative, meaningful, encourages questions and is well-organized and easy to navigate; staff that can relate to young people, are respectful of their ideas and views, are knowledgeable in their field and are easy to talk to; opportunities to socialize hang out with their friends and learn together (Kelly, 2008).

This implementation happens to be more synchronously prevalent because the development and use of the web by museums, mass media, and other informal learning resource centers to enable remote public access to their resources and expand their educational outreach programs has grown enormously over the past decade. In addition, many open source learning and education portals are rapidly growing into major free global lifelong learning resources (Kahn, 2007).

Despite the encouraging results and finding from museum studies and its impact in informal learning, there are some researchers argue about its effective instructional role in learning. According to Kubota and Olstad (1991) along with Anderson and Lucas (1997), the highly stimulating, novel and interactive physical and social environments of museums have been linked to ineffective learning outcomes by visiting school students. Following this footstep, Falk and Dierking (2000) summarize the key point where museum studies in informal learning still face challenges:

“Over the years providing compelling evidence for learning from museums has proved challenging. This is not because the evidence did not exist, but rather because museum learning researchers, museum professionals, and the public alike historically asked the wrong questions and searched for evidence of learning using flawed methodologies”.

Abridging what is important in this discussion about developing extensive opportunities for thinking design; Russell (2005) has put his point where he stresses on the importance of extending the functionality of museum to build up thinking process:

“I do not mean for museums to reduce the thrills, aesthetic pleasures, or other valuable and central aspects of the museum experience. I simply believe that many museum visitors would like to think as part of their museum experience. If museums design for thinking, I believe museum experiences would be much richer as a result”


Athens, Ohio, 2009 – Essay @ My Graduate Advance Seminar Class _ Instructional Design and Technology


Anderson, D. and A.M. Lucas (1997). The effectiveness of orientating students to the physical features of a science museum prior to visitation. Research in Science Education 27(4): 485-495

Bitgood, S., B. Serrell, et al. (1994). The impact of informal education on visitors to museums. Informal science learning. What the research says about television, science museums, and community-based projects. V. Crane, H. Nicholson, M. Chen and S. Bitgood. Dedham, USA, Research Communications Ltd: 61-106.

Bloom, J. & Powell, E. A. (1984.) Museums for a new century: A report of the commission on museums for a new century. Washington, DC. American Association of Museums

Bradburne, J. (1998). Dinosaurs and White Elephants: the Science Center in the 21st Century. Museum Management and Curatorship, 17 (2), 119-137

Bryson, J., Usherwood, B. and Streatfield, D. (2002). South West Museums Archives and Libraries social impact audit. Taunton: South West Museums Council.

Csikzentmihalyi, M. & Hermanson, K. (1995.) Intrinsic motivation in museums: What makes visitors want to learn? Museum news74(3), 35-37 and 59-62.

Dodd, J. et al. (2002). A catalyst for change: the social impact of the Open Museum. Unpublished draft report by the Research Center for Museums and Galleries, University of Leicester.

Falk, J.H. and L.D. Dierking (2000). Learning from Museums: Visitor Experiences and the making of meaning. Walnut Creek, AltaMira Press.

Falk, J.H., (Ed), (2001). Free choice science education: How we learn science outside of school. New York: Teacher College Press

Freedman, G. (2000). The changing nature of museums. Curator, 43(4), 295-306

Gopnik, Alison. (2003). “How We Learn,” provides a very readable introduction to some of her theories and research. Retrieved on April 25, 2009 from wwelearn.htm

Hein, G. (1997). The maze and the web: Implications of constructivist theory for visitor studies. Paper presented at the Visitor Studies Association Conference, Alabama.

Jensen, N. (1994). Children’s perceptions of their museum experiences: A contextual perspective. Children’s environments 11 (4): 300-324

Kahn, Ted. M. (2007). Archives & Museum informatics: Museums and the Web. Retrieved April 25, 2009 from

Kubota, C. and R. Olstad (1991). Effects of novelty-reducing preparation on exploratory behavior and cognitive learning in a science museum setting. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 28 (3): 225-234

Paris, S. (1997). Situated motivation nd informal learning. Journal of Museum Education, 22, 22- 27.

Reiser, Robert A & Dempsey, John. V., (2007). Trends and issues in instructional design and technology. Upper saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Research Center for Museums and Galleries. (2000). Museums and social inclusion: the GLLAM Report. Leicester: Research Center for Museums and Galleries, University of Leicester.

Russell, Robert. (2005). Designing for thinking in museums. The informal learning review. Retrieved April 25, 2009 from


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