Academic journal article Adult Learning

John Dewey and Adult Learning in Museums

Academic journal article Adult Learning

John Dewey and Adult Learning in Museums

Article excerpt

Abstract: The objective of this article is to investigate learning in museums through the lens of John Dewey's philosophy of education and experiential learning. The influence of Dewey's philosophy of education is widespread and resounding. In this article, I examine the experiential qualities of Dewey's philosophy and compare it with the objectives of the museum educational experience, explaining the relevance to adult education. There can be no doubt that museums are unique arenas for learning, made rich by the experiential nature of their environment. They have a long history of educating the public through informal and nonformal learning. Through their interactive nature, museums have the power to confront individuals' schemata and transform the way people view the world. Recent museum educational theory focuses on the social, personal, and physical interactions that combine to create meaningful learning experiences. Museums are often not given the consideration they deserve as meaningful centers for learning, especially in adult education, It is my hope that through a discussion of Dewey's educational philosophy and its implications for museum learning theory, I can illustrate the relevance of museums as alternative sites of learning for adult educators.

Keywords: Dewey, museum learning, adult education, educational philosophy

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Education in order to accomplish its ends both for the individual learner and for society must be based upon experience which is always the actual life-experience of some individual.

John Dewey on education (1938, p. 89)

It is Satisfying to think that our knowledge--the history we feel passionate about, the aesthetics we espouse, or the science we have learned as universal truths--can be taught (and learned) by allowing visitors to explore and use their minds.

George E. Hein on museum learning (1998, p. 31)

The objective of this article is to investigate learning in museums through the lens of John Dewey's philosophy of education and experiential learning. The influence of Dewey's philosophy of education is widespread and resounding. Two fundamental questions guide this article: What are the links between adult education and museum learning? Why is there not more integration between museums and adult education? In this article, I examine the experiential qualities of Dewey's philosophy and compare it with the objectives of the museum educational experience, explaining the relevance to adult education.

When I was in Vietnam, I had the opportunity to visit the Cucci tunnels museum. This outdoor museum portrayed a view of history I had not considered--the Vietcong as victors in the Vietnam War. The museum included parts of hidden tunnels stretching some 250 kilometers, reaching all the way to Cambodia. They were three-levels deep, complete with kitchens, rooms, and secret entrances. I was able to see and touch a variety of weapons, and their effects through pictures, including homemade grenades and pits with spikes inside. With the aid of guides, visitors can crawl through the tiny, pitch black tunnels if they dare, stand in gigantic bomb craters, eat in an underground dining room, and try to find the entrances from above. I could barely fit in the tunnels, and could feel the terror big American soldiers must have experienced going through them blind. The 100 meters I crawled through were certainly enough for me. Not only did my preconceived notions of the Vietnam War shift, but so did my interpretation of the world.

The learning experience I just described was an experiential process that involved a guide who facilitated my physical interaction with the environment and social surroundings to help me form a unique and memorable learning experience. The experience enabled me to interact with my previous experience of learning about the Vietnam War, challenging my preconceived notions of history, and provided continuity of experience as I developed a new and more critical way of interpreting both historical and current events. …

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