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ASTC Dimensions January/February 1999

Museums must do what schools will not

By Craig Fox

"One must learn by doing the thing," Sophocles once said. "Though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try." This is at the heart of why I think it would be a mistake for museums to start acting like schools.

Museums offer what schools don’t: provocative and open-ended exhibits that provide visitors with the joy of learning and the kind of opportunity to "learn by doing" that Sophocles advocated. If museums have discomfort with state education standards, so much the better.

According to AAAS, textbooks (and the teachers who rely on them) "often impede progress toward science literacy. They emphasize the learning of answers more than the exploration of questions, memory at the expense of critical thought, bits and pieces of information instead of understanding in context." Museums must reach out and expand on what AAAS (in Benchmarks for Science Literacy) recommends: opportunities for exploration, critical thinking, and understanding in context. As Exploratorium founder Frank Oppenheimer once remarked, "no one ever flunks a museum."

I’ve been a part of the education establishment for thirty years, as a public middle school science teacher. Let me explain my apparent heresy, for indeed, I am very much a heretic. Years went by as I jumped the hoops provided by various district guidelines, texts, and tests. I was also familiar with the studies, the educational jargon, the administrative machinations, and of course, the parental anxieties. Teaching was relatively easy since the material was science, and I loved it. But most students were not excited. Why weren’t they as consumed with the wonder of science as I was? I began to wonder: What if I were a student in my own class?

This was the question that eventually induced a metamorphosis. I also discovered that science teachers taking summer workshops were perhaps the most playful and entertaining people around. These opportunities included the NASA Newmast Workshop, the APAST/NSTA Workshop, Project EarthView at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, and the South Coast Science Project. In 1995, when I heard about plans for the new Ventura County Discovery Center in Southern California, I volunteered to develop exhibits, and each summer joyfully cast off in search of museums to see what they had created. I started to see something amazing. Kids of all ages were seriously engaged in learning. Not that they were always so serious. Some were simply mesmerized with curiosity.

My most memorable experience occurred at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. I still have a videotape of a small, glossy eyed child with forehead wrinkled in concentration as he worked the controls of the Kundt Tube apparatus. Who knows whether he associated the changing sound intensity with the dancing waves of fluids? What mattered to him was that this was unexpected, it was changing, he was in control, and moreover, it was fun.

Schools are not noted for providing fun as a part of the educational process. Parents would surely get the wrong idea. Many administrators would be chagrined to hear hoots of joy emanating from classrooms. Even now, museum professionals shy away from the term "edutainment." What does the scientist say? World famous paleontologist John Horner puts it this way: "From the outside, science may seem like a collection of answers, a course in ‘How the World Works.’ From the inside, it doesn’t look like that at all. From the inside, science looks like a bunch of people doing crossword puzzles. It’s the doing them that’s fun. If you solve one, you don’t stop; you look for another."

So why, after all this, you may ask, am I suggesting that museums take an alternate path? Until recently, "integrated science" was in favor in the California schools—thematic connections that made things relevant and interesting. With the adoption of the California State Science Frameworks in fall 1998, what little integrated science did exist has all the appearances of becoming thoroughly disintegrated. The California Classroom Science newspaper worries that the current State Board of Education "will be remembered as the one to set science education in California and the nation back a hundred years," and that learning skills, creativity, and questioning will lose out to memorization and acceptance.

Meaningful science involves risk. Museums must provide that environment for students as well as their teachers. Teachers feel insecure and isolated and have little if any opportunity to work with colleagues to try out new ideas, ask questions in a secure environment, and adjust their paradigm shifts. Teachers lack the resources and quality mentoring that museums can provide. Students and teachers need museums to provide a framework of connectivity and a reality check—"something deeper than the mere learning of a specific fact or idea," in the words of the Exploratorium’s Rob Semper.

David Hawkins, author of The Language of Nature: An Essay in the Philosophy of Science, explains the need for museums today in another way. "Exhibits, unlike textbooks, often make strange things familiar and familiar things strange." Museums must provide connections in people’s lives, reward creativity, and encourage healthy questioning. They must become an oasis for integrating students’ lessons into practical applications and a place that features such efforts within the community. They must guide and substantiate the efforts of young as well as experienced teachers and assist them in creating meaningful classroom experiences. Everyone has a vital stake in this work.

Craig Fox is vice president, exhibits, at the Ventura County Discovery Center, Thousand Oaks, Calif., which is slated to open in 2001. He is also a science instructor at Redwood Intermediate School.

©1999 Association of Science-Technology Centers Incorporated. All rights reserved.

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