Informal learning: What’s that about?

When people think about learning, they often think about the kind of learning we all experience in school. We sit down nicely, we are given instructions in the form of a lesson, then we perhaps complete a project or a worksheet or a test in order to confirm that we have learned what we were supposed to learn.

But here is a pretty cool statistic that was brought to my attention at the Science Communication Conference (#SciCom12 ) last week: The average adult (this figure was specifically referring to American adults but it’s probably fairly generalisable to the UK too) spends a mere 5% of their lives in the classroom. The same report claimed that evidence demonstrates that most science is learned outside of school. So where are our kids learning about science? Well, from places like zoos, science centres, parks, museums, and through television programmes and websites.

My PhD research will be carried out in an environment which is all about informal learning; a science centre. Therefore it is of particular interest to me to know how informal science learning actually works. How does a museum, or a science centre, or an educational TV show, know that it is making a difference? This is exactly the question that was addressed at one of the Science Communication Conference sessions, entitled “Making a difference? Measuring the impact of informal learning“.

John Holman from the Wellcome Trust began by reminding everyone that you cannot measure impact if you do not know what you want to achieve. What does a science centre want to achieve in regards to learning? I can tell you what we’re not doing: We are not trying to do the same as schools. What would be the point? Schools do their thing in the formal learning world, and they do it well. Science centres, museums and other institutions try to encourage learning in a different way: Children get to explore and discover, in such a way that they don’t even realise they are learning. They are learning through experience, rather than through direction. However, whereas a school can measure the impact of their teaching directly and quantitatively through tests and exam scores, we in the informal learning field cannot. It is therefore much harder to show what impact we are having. Cognitive outcomes, such as those measured by tests and exams, may be easy to measure, but they may not be the most important outcomes.

So what is informal learning? Ben Johnson defined it as “anything that’s not curriculum”. Ben has been involved in science communication and education for over 15 years, working with schools in order to research, create and deliver drama based projects on various aspects of science. He admitted that he and others like him just do not have the resources to properly evaluate the impact his work has on the students, but there are steps that he does take in order to get some sort of useful feedback and an idea of impact. Ben uses observations of what actually happens in the sessions and also feedback from teachers, particularly what they say after a session (e.g. that the kids are still talking about the project a few weeks/months later). Ben also believes it is important to “embrace the anecdote”. In science we are always told that anecdotes are not data, but in some circumstances, a single case of a student giving particularly good feedback or an individual clearly getting something out of a project can speak volumes.

When working with children particularly, Ben stressed the importance of looking for evidence of thinking; i.e. when a child says something they have not heard during the session – a conclusion or a question that they have come up with themselves. This shows impact. For Ben, there are three things to look for when evaluating the impact of informal science learning: novelty, empathy and expression.

All of Ben’s points were really interesting, but what struck me as an academic working in science communication is that there is a missing link between research and practice. Emily Dawson reported that just under 14% of all research on informal science learning comes from UK researchers, which isn’t a bad statistic given the size of the country, but when looking at the quality of the articles (i.e. the top 60 cited papers) it becomes clear that there is just not enough good quality work on the impact of informal learning being done in the UK. The research that is being conducted, Emily stated, includes too few people (usually school groups) and in too few contexts (e.g. science museums).

So returning to the point raised by John Holman at the beginning: What are we trying to achieve through informal science learning? Penny Fidler, CEO of The UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres, believes that there are two answers to this question. The utilitarian answer is that we should be aiming to promote interest in science and encouraging young people. The cultural answer is that informal science learning is a creative and cultural pursuit, which is valid and important in its own right. What we really should be trying to achieve is to instill confidence in young people, and to assure them that they already have the skills it takes to be a scientist as long as they are curious and willing to try things out.

There needs to be more of a focus on the importance of informal science learning. If the average person spends 5% of their lives in the classroom, we need to make damned sure that the other 95% offers exciting, fun and engaging opportunities to learn science outside the walls of the school, and that such experiences are worthwhile and are having a meaningful impact.

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