ERIC Identifier: ED399412
Publication Date: 1996-00-00
Author: Heimlich, Joe E. - And Others
Clearinghouse on Adult Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Adult Learning in Nonformal Institutions. ERIC Digest No. 173.
Museums, zoos, nature centers, science centers, aquariums, and other similar
institutions provide a tremendous opportunity for lifelong learning in a
relatively nonthreatening setting for most adults (Schroeder 1970). Many of
these attractions and museums include education as a part of their missions
(see, for example, Allmon 1994; Chizar, Murphy, and Illiff 1990; Conway 1982)
and the popularity of these places as providers of both recreation and education
is well established (Chobot 1989). This Digest explores some of the central
concepts of adult learning in these settings. A brief discussion of nonformal
learning and the adult visitor lays the foundation for the examination of ideas
in the literature on (1) what is educational in attractions, (2) opportunities
and challenges to education in these settings, and (3) the application of adult
learning theory to zoo, museum, center, and attraction education.
ADULT VISITORS AND NONFORMAL LEARNING
Nonformal learning is
often defined by activities outside the formal learning setting, characterized
by voluntary as opposed to mandatory participation (Crane et al., 1994). Mocker
and Spear (1982) offer a taxonomy of adult learning wherein nonformal learning
is identified as learners holding the objectives for learning with the means
controlled by the educator or organization. Maarschalk (1988) contrasts
nonformal learning (i.e., outside formal settings--such as field trips and
museum visits) with informal learning (i.e., that which grows out of spontaneous
In zoos, museums, nature centers, and attractions, adult learning can range
from formal through nonformal to informal. Workshops, lectures, classes, and
educational "shows" are some of the common formal adult learning programs;
tours, informational signage, exhibits/interactive displays, and demonstrations
are often considered nonformal learning constructed by the education staff; the
individual visitor and the setting create informal learning situations (Diem
For whom are these opportunities constructed? In a study of zoo visitors,
Conway (1982) found that between 55-70% of all zoo visitors are adults. Hundreds
of millions of people visit museums, zoos, nature centers, science centers, and
other attractions (Falk and Dierking 1992). In North America, for example, over
100 million people visit zoos and aquariums each year (Eaton 1981; Howard 1989;
Marshall 1994), and over 500 million visit museums (Naisbitt and Aburdene 1990).
This translates to a tremendous population of learners. Adults more often than
children suggest the visit (Cheek, Field, and Burdge 1976) and are also the
societal decision makers whose actions directly affect the attraction, whether
the decision is simply to visit or to support funding for expansion or
renovation (Diem 1994). It makes sense, therefore, to consider how better to
serve the learning needs of these adult visitors.
Not all visitors come for the purpose of learning. Beer (1987), for example,
found slightly over half the visitors came to a museum with learning as a
purpose. Other researchers (e.g., Hood 1983; Miles 1986) found much lower
numbers. In a study by Hood and Roberts (1994), younger adult visitors had
greater social goals in attendance, and, of the 18- to 34-year-olds, fewer than
one-third attended for family outings. Studies such as these suggest there are
many adult visitors attending for primarily social reasons and that learning may
need to be constructed in a manner that supports the social activity.
Learning, however, is not restricted to those who attend with the intent of
learning. One study in an historical center found most visitors could recall
historical facts from the exhibits and could also assign meaning to the exhibits
(Boggs 1977). In another study, the knowledge gain of adult visitors was no
greater for those who came to learn than those who came for social reasons
(Miles 1986). Overall, however, the research in this arena suggests that adult
visitors rarely demonstrate significant recall of facts and concepts encountered
during visits (Falk and Dierking 1992), which creates both opportunities and
challenges for the institutions.
Many nonformal organizations or
institutions have education staff or curators who oversee the education and
outreach functions. Often supported by docent or volunteer corps, these
departments develop signage, exhibits (including interactives and immersion
exhibits), outreach, visitor services, guided tours, program/show notes,
workshops, lectures, shows, and speakers bureaus. Often small in personnel
numbers, these departments frequently are responsible for how people experience
People come to these places to see the "stuff" (Watkins 1994). The
educational opportunities arise out of the very human reaction to these real
things--plants, animals, art, natural wonders, or collections (Resnicow 1994).
The nature of an attraction, however, provides the educators with but an instant
to capture, hold, and engage attention (Roberts 1994). The challenge, then, is
to use the nature of the attraction to turn what may appear to be entertainment
into a tool with which to encourage visitors in terms comfortable to them so
they may be drawn to deeper levels of involvement (Resnicow 1994).
APPLYING ADULT LEARNING THEORY
Adults come to the learning
with an array of experiences and lifelong constructed knowledge. Often, lifelong
learning centers such as zoos, museums, and science or nature centers must
correct misinformation before new or desired learning can occur (Borun, Massey,
and Lutter 1992). Within the visit, the free choices of attendance and learning
create a fundamental dependency on addressing the interests and the beliefs of
the adult learner (Falk and Dierking 1992).
Destination sites are often viewed as having the potential to introduce
people to art, ideas, history, nature, and knowledge. These sites, however, can
do more than create interest or inspire curiosity (Watkins 1994). They can allow
visitors to become engaged with ideas, even when the visit is for social
purposes (Lucas 1991).
To engage the adult visitor effectively, education programs can use
traditional adult education principles to enhance the visit for the purpose of
learning. One of Knowles' (1970) assumptions of the adult learner is that
learners seek information that fits their societal roles. Visitors to
attractions consciously or subconsciously seek to learn about themselves and
their cultural heritage (Kramer 1994). Adults visit those places where they feel
comfortable, places that are nonintimidating, user friendly, and speak in the
language of the uninitiated public (Resnicow 1994).
Attractions themselves present experiences; it is the nature of an experience
to be determined and interpreted largely by the individual (Boud, Keough, and
Walker 1985). The education staff are ultimately responsible for creating the
opportunities for learning that may arise from the experience of the visit. The
fields of interpretation and museum curation continually assess the impact of
placement of kiosks, signs, interactives, and displays on learning.
Increasingly, institutions are using interpretive layering, which provides
information in small, layered levels so that visitors can choose to absorb the
essence of the exhibit without filtering through complex descriptions or
discussions. Learners can engage in giving longer time to selective data or
discussion. A trend in exhibit interpretation is in simplifying information to
reduce the cognitive difference between the actual scholarship source and the
lay visitor (Watkins 1994). Posing issues as questions encourages visitors to
confirm propositions actively in the exhibit with the goal being that the
visitor gains ownership of ideas the educator seeks to cover or to share with
the visitor (Spicer 1994).
Whether the purpose of the visit is social or
educational, adult visitors attend attractions with an overall positive,
affective attitude. Learning is a natural lifelong process, and learning
episodes can vary from incidental learning to intentional learning projects
(Tough 1972). Learning in attraction settings can rely on the natural occurrence
of the process of learning and can be enhanced with guidance and facilitation
through construction of learning opportunities by educators (Heimlich 1993).
The haptic need for adults to experience something physically (touch, feel,
smell, etc.), rather than read or hear about it, is a major reason nonformal
institutions exist (Allmon 1994). Natural learning, as described by McCombs et
al. (1991), includes action, volition, internal mediation, and individual
meaning making. In the nature of their attraction, nonformal institutions
provide a setting where this natural learning can occur. Ultimately, the role of
the educator in this setting is to enhance the attraction and help guide the
adult visitor to new levels of understanding and action.
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