Museum, Media, Message

By Eilean Hooper-Greenhill | Go to book overview

17

Evaluating teaching and learning in museums

George E. Hein

Introduction

This chapter provides an overview of the methodology we have used for the past fifteen years to evaluate programmes and exhibits in museums. Our work has all been carried out within the framework of an educational theory that places major emphasis on the role of the learner. The first section of this chapter describes this constructivist educational theory to provide a background for our evaluation methodology. The second section outlines three examples of our evaluation work, emphasizing the methods we use and illustrating each with a single outcome from that work. The third section discusses the components of our evaluation approach which make them appropriate for the educational view to which we subscribe. Finally, our work is placed in a larger context of visitor research in museums.


Learning and teaching in museums

The last two decades have seen a tremendous growth in museum education: we now have major departments specifically devoted to this activity in most museums, the literature is expanding, students are graduating with degrees in museum education, and professional publications increasingly focus on aspects of museum education. 1

Simultaneously, our ideas about learning theory, about what it means to learn, have undergone a sea change, not so much in that there are dramatic new ideas, but in that a coherent and interrelated set of ideas advocated by a steady stream of thoughtful commentators from Dewey and Piaget to Vigotsky (as well as a wave of current writers) now receives wide acceptance. These ideas cluster around the notion that the most important issues involved in understanding learning are derived from analysing the actions of the learner rather than in probing the nature of the subject to be learned. We now talk about constructivism, how the learner constructs meaning out of experience. 2

Broadly conceived, museums have always had an educational function. The Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology was built to refute Darwin (Gould

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