ERIC Identifier: ED372966
Publication Date: 1994-09-00
Author: Thomson, Barbara S. - Diem, Jason J.
Clearinghouse for Science Mathematics and Environmental Education Columbus OH.
Fruit Bats, Cats, and Naked Mole Rats: Lifelong Learning at the
Zoo. ERIC/CSMEE Digest.
It is a hot and muggy day and a group of seven friends and relatives decides
to visit the zoo. These seven rather diverse members of Homo sapiens, ranging in
age from 5 to 85, are all eager to have a good time, but how does an informal
learning environment such as a zoo, aquarium, or nature park assure that people
with widely varying interests all have a meaningful experience? Are the
experiences of these visitors going to be mainly recreational and social? Can
zoos and other informal learning centers strategically plan and implement ways
for "visitors on safari" to explore new and personally satisfying learning
opportunities? Might family members also sharpen their skills at learning
informally? This digest focuses on how learners process information and how
professional staff and visitors can promote learning at the zoo.
Though zoos have always tried to provide quality viewing of animals and
appropriate identification signage, educational television programs and wildlife
publications have increased the flora and fauna literacy levels of visitors, as
well as heightened their curiosity and interest. An informal study (Columbus
Zoo, 1991) of questions asked the 225 Columbus Zoo docents in 1991 indicates
that visitors want to know not just the name, weight, and age of animals in a
collection but also about diet, reproduction, life span, and behavioral
characteristics. What kinds of learning opportunities, beyond enhanced signage,
can we offer the sophisticated new breed of visitors in our zoos, aquariums, and
WHAT ARE INFORMAL LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS?
Learning is most
often viewed as something we do in school or in a formally organized setting.
However, educators know that when children are tested for academic achievement
in the spring and again in the fall, scores increase for some children. Informal
environments are rich resources for learning throughout our lives.
Although zoos, aquariums, museums, and nature parks are defined as informal
learning environments, they offer both formal and informal educational
opportunities. Formal experiences occur in the form of classes, workshops, day
camps, or tours and usually require a special fee to cover the cost of a
professional teacher or leader.
Informal learning opportunities, including exhibits and mini-shows, are
structured by educators, but the decision to participate is made by the
individual (Heimlich, 1993). Visitors are not held accountable for learning
outcomes and may walk away from any experience they decide not to pursue. Thus,
each visitor designs his or her own learning experience through choice and
commitment. Appealing to visitors from different educational, social, and
cultural backgrounds is a challenging but worthwhile goal for informal
educators. Learning by choice can be exciting and memorable!
WHY ARE INFORMAL LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS IMPORTANT?
teachers use a variety of materials and activities--reading, writing,
discussing, computer programs, videos, tape recordings, lectures--that are
helpful to the learning process. But, imagine an environment where learners have
an opportunity to see and interact with real things, not just pictures, words,
or recorded sounds. Informal learning environments provide firsthand experiences
for people of all ages. In our society today, everybody, regardless of
socioeconomic level, is exposed to media that bring exciting images of the world
into our homes. Informal educational settings go one step further by allowing us
to experience--not just imagine--reality. Hearing firsthand the early evening
vocalizations of white faced gibbons, the reprimand of a mother gorilla to one
of her energetic adolescent offspring, or watching a family of newborn ducklings
experience water for the first time are visual and auditory treats which cannot
be duplicated in a formal classroom or on a television screen.
Whether in a formal classroom or an
informal learning environment, each of us has certain perceptual strengths, or
preferred modes of processing information. Research indicates that some of us
are visually oriented, some are auditory, some are kinesthetic (action
oriented), and some are tactual. Most of us can process information in any mode
but learn best in one or two preferred modes (Gardner, 1991).
Children enter kindergarten as kinesthetic and tactual learners, moving and
touching everything as they learn. By second or third grade some students have
become visual learners, as they process more and more information through
reading and pictures. During the late elementary years some students, primarily
females, become auditory learners, who like to listen and discuss. Yet, many
adults, especially males, maintain kinesthetic and tactual strengths throughout
their lives (Dunn, 1993).
Carbo's (1987) research indicates that whenever learners process new or
difficult information, they should be introduced to the activity using their
primary perceptual strength. Learning should be reinforced using the second
perceptual strength. If you are primarily an auditory learner, your first
encounter with something new should ideally be in an auditory mode. If you are
also a tactual learner, you should reinforce with a hands-on activity. If your
second strength happens to be visual, reinforce by viewing a picture, diagram,
or better yet, the real thing.
The power of an individual's perceptual strengths or learning modalities to
facilitate the processing, retention, and application of new ideas has been
studied by numerous researchers (Brunner & Hill, 1992; Ingham, 1991; Nelson,
1993; Stone, 1992). But what does the theory of learning styles imply for a zoo?
IMPLICATIONS FOR INFORMAL LEARNING ENVIRONMENTS
learner needs to assume major responsibility for his or her own learning.
However, the education staff at zoos and other informal learning centers also
has a responsibility to provide diversity of learning opportunities. Strategic
planning with a knowledgeable staff can create a stimulating learning
environment to accommodate various perceptual styles. When educators at these
facilities do not understand the importance of meeting the learning needs of
their clients, visitors will focus on recreational and social activities, rather
than learning activities. Triggering perceptual strengths must be a goal for
both visitors and staff.
Auditory learners truly appreciate lectures and discussions. Meet-a-keeper
talks are quite meaningful to auditory learners and take only a few minutes of a
keeper's time. Auditory learners will remember the voices, as well as what was
said, and will be able to retrieve information easily at a later date.
Visual learners at this same meet-a-keeper talk will focus on the animal that
the keeper is showing the visitors. A visual learner also enjoys reading about
the animals and will utilize the Zoo Guide and the signage that is provided.
Visual learners are usually the ones who use and can interpret maps correctly.
Each group of visitors needs a visual learner to process the local information
map! Visual learners also benefit by taking pictures or drawing sketches in a
journal. Look at a journal kept by a visual learner and you will see lots of
diagrams, doodles, arrows, and labels beside the sketches.
Tactual learners need to have something real to touch, a challenge when
working with exotic animals. However, hair combed from an animal or a snake skin
can be passed around a group. Zoo volunteers may work at conveniently located
carts filled with both real animal items and simulated comparison items. Keepers
sometimes make plaster imprints of gorillas' hands while they are under sedation
for their yearly physical. Comparing a gorilla's handprint with human hands is
fun for everyone but is especially meaningful to the tactual learner. These
learners also enjoy keeping a notebook, but their notebook entries look very
different from the visual learner's notebook. Writing down as much information
as possible is useful for the tactual learner, and the retrieval of information
will be extensive, even after the notebook is closed. For youngsters who are not
yet fluent writers, drawing a picture and having an adult print labels will help
these learners process new information efficiently.
Kinesthetic learners need to be involved in everything. Many zoos have play
areas with educational, interactive toys and games for young children, but
kinesthetic adults also need opportunities to become actively involved.
Comparing your sprint to the sprint of a cheetah, standing by a cutout of a full
grown giraffe, and seeing if you can jump as far as a kangaroo are fun for
adults and valuable for the kinesthetic learner. Matching wits with animals on a
computer simulation game is another kinesthetic challenge. Street dramas are a
great way to learn about animals and involve kinesthetic learners of all ages.
How do you identify kinesthetic learners? They volunteer for activities and are
eager participants. They are the ones who are willing to hold the snake and walk
through the audience or allow cockroaches to crawl all over their arms.
Both educators and parents need to realize the importance of learning through
perceptual strengths. Mismatching perceptual modalities can be a disaster. For
example, giving an auditory or visual learner a snake or cockroach to hold is
probably not a wise move. Both the visitor and the organism will be
uncomfortable. Parents and educators need to be good observers to identify the
learning strengths of each individual. Recognizing the preferences of others
helps us appreciate the diversity of learners and nurture the strengths of all.
Motivation is another critical variable that can facilitate learning in an
informal setting. If a visitor encounters an activity in a modality that is not
a personal strength, interest in the subject can overcome any perceptual
weakness. Feeding shrimp to a bat ray or fish to a seal is a unique and highly
motivating experience, even for the auditory learner. Hearing that Colo, a
lowland gorilla, would not return her keeper's keys for one orange but traded
one key at a time for multiple oranges is an intriguing vignette that can
inspire anyone to learn more about gorillas and other animals. Educators and
parents need always to be on the lookout for interesting, motivational
activities and tidbits.
REFLECTION AS A RETRIEVAL STRATEGY
A key link between
experience and learning is reflection, or thinking back on an experience.
Reflection is defined by Hutchings and Wutzdorff (1988) as the "ability to step
back and ponder one's own experience; to abstract from it some meaning or
knowledge relevant to other experiences" (p. 15). For Boud, Keogh, and Walter
(1985), reflection is "an important human activity in which people recapture
their experience, think about it, mull it over and evaluate it" (p. 19).
According to Jarvis (1987), reflection is an essential phase in the learning
process. For an experience to become meaningful, people have to think about it.
But, reflection is a personal process and may vary in intensity, duration, and
degree from one individual to the next.
All seven of our zoo visitors need an opportunity to reflect on their day in
a way that is meaningful and relevant to them. Discussing activities with the
rest of the group is perfect for auditory learners. Visual learners will enjoy
taking home a book, a poster, or even a postcard of their favorite animal.
Tactual learners will be happy with a stuffed animal or a pine cone bird they
made at a "make it, take it" table. Teach kinesthetic learners a sidewalk animal
game and provide copies of the directions to take home.
Staff members at informal learning sites need professional development
training so they can better respond to the reflection needs of learners.
Creating closure and questions for thought are useful in the various
interactions that staff members have with visitors. Mini-talks, tactual hands-on
materials, and zoo promotional handouts can all be used in creative ways to
encourage visitors to reflect on their activities in a meaningful way.
The American Association for Zoological Parks
and Aquariums (AAZPA; recently renamed American Zoo and Aquarium Association) is
the national organization for professionals who work with animals in informal
learning environments. AAZPA (1992) identified four goals in its mission: (1)
Conservation, (2) Recreation, (3) Research, and (4) Education. People enjoy
nature facilities for all four of these reasons, but many sites do not have
staff trained to develop the signage, activities, talks, tapes, and printed
materials necessary to appeal to the vast diversity of visitors.
Understanding perceptual learning modalities is crucial for parents and staff
in order to provide experiences that will motivate repeat attendance and
continuing interactions with animals. The education staff has a responsibility
to provide effective ways for all visitors to learn. Parents have a
responsibility to model appropriate learning behaviors and to help their
children learn, especially considering their perceptual strengths. The more we
find out about how Homo sapiens learns, the better we can utilize this
information, whether we be volunteers, staff, parents, or a group of adults
enjoying a simulated safari experience. The animals deserve it and so do we.
American Association for Zoological Parks and
Aquariums (AAZPA). (1992). Mission Statement. Wheeling, WV: Author.
Boud, D. J., Keogh, R., & Walter, D. (1985). Promoting reflection in
learning. In D. J. Boud, R. Keogh, & D. Walter (Eds.), Reflection: Turning
experience into learning (pp. 18-40). London: Kogan Page.
Brunner, R., & Hill, D. (1992, April). Using learning styles research in
coaching. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation, and Dance, 63(4), 26-30.
The Columbus Zoo Board of Trustees Education Committee. (1991). A study of
the evolving perceptions of The Columbus Zoo visitors and the implications for
zoo educators. Columbus, OH: The Columbus Zoo.
Carbo, M. (1987, February). Reading style research: What works isn't always
phonics. Phi Delta Kappan, 68(6), 431-435.
Dunn, R., & Dunn, K. (1993). Teaching secondary students through their
individual learning styles. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.
Gardner, H. (1991). The unschooled mind: How children think and schools
should teach. New York: Basic Books.
Heimlich, J. (Ed.). (1993). Nonformal environmental education: Toward a
working definition (Information Bulletin 502E). Columbus, OH: ERIC Clearinghouse
for Science, Mathematics, and Environmental Education.
Hutchings, P., & Wutzdorff, A. (1988). Experiential learning across the
curriculum: Assumptions and principles. In P. Hutchings & A. Wutzdorff
(Eds.), New directions for teaching and learning (pp. 5-10). San Francisco:
Ingham, J. M. (1991, Spring). Matching instruction with employee perceptual
preference significantly increases training effectiveness. Human Resource
Development Quarterly, 2(1), 53-81.
Jarvis, P. (1987). Meaningful and meaningless experience: Toward an analysis
of learning from life. Adult Education Quarterly, 37, 164-172.
Nelson, B., Dunn, R., Griggs, S., Primavera, L., Fitzpatrick, M., Bacilious,
Z., & Miller, R. (1993, September). Effects of learning style intervention
on college students' retention and achievement. Journal of College Student
Development, 34, 364-369.
Stone, P. (1992, November). How we turned a problem school around. The
Principal, 71(2), 94-96.