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Science learning: better outside school than in?

30 Nov, 2011

How is science learning evolving? In this post, Sir John Holman explains the need to better understand education outside of the classroom.

Even at the peak of their schooldays, young people spend less than a fifth of their waking hours in school. Their life outside school has much more scope to influence, for good or ill, than their time in school. Parents, friends, family outings and the media are all potentially greater sources of learning than school itself. Attitude surveys such as the Wellcome Monitor show that young people find science one of the more interesting subjects at school, but their interest is even greater in science experiences outside of school.

John Falk and Lynn Dierking, leading US workers in this field, point out that by the time U.S. citizens are young adults they are better informed about science than their international peers, but they claim that the most important sources of scientific knowledge are not schools. The informal infrastructure of museums, aquariums, broadcast programming and other sources of science exposure, with which the United States is richly endowed, is a far more potent source of public understanding of science than has been previously acknowledged1.

We’ve long recognised this at Wellcome, and over the past 10 years the Trust has invested over £50 million in what you might call ‘informal learning’: learning in museums, science centres, through performance, debate, broadcast and online media. In this eclectic field there are many enthusiasts but few high profile champions, and Wellcome has, almost by default, become one. As such, we are concerned that the potential for informal learning is frequently underestimated by most players in formal education, particularly government. As investors in both formal and informal learning this worries us.

Education often suffers from an excess of theory and a shortage of pragmatism, but informal learning is one field where I believe we do need a better theoretical framework. We need to know more about what informal learning offers that schools cannot: is it about a better way of learning facts and understanding theories, or is it about sparking interest and shaping positive attitudes to science? We need to know more about how to measure the outcomes of informal learning, how best to link it to the work done in schools, and how to reach the children and families – often in deprived areas – who do not engage with the many opportunities which Wellcome and others fund.

Two studies                 

With these questions in mind, the Trust has just commissioned two major studies of informal science learning in the UK. The first, led by social policy consultancy GHK whose team includes Richard Lloyd, Mark Dyball and Suzanne King, will collect evidence from over 400 stakeholders using a variety of techniques including an innovative family study. The evidence they collect will provide answers to our questions, and no doubt raise new ones.

The second study is being carried out by John Falk and Lynn Dierking, whose work is cited above, together with Jonathan Osborne at Stanford University. Using the UK field data gathered from the first study, together with an extensive literature review, they will build comprehensive maps that show the place of informal learning within the complex ecology of influences on learning.

The two teams, who are collaborating closely, have just started work and will report by Autumn 2012. A kick-off seminar was held at the Trust on October 11th, attended by over 60 stakeholders in this diverse field. There is much interest and excitement in the results of our studies, which we believe will make a significant contribution to a field whose importance can only increase alongside the growth of new technology, but whose potential impact is seriously underestimated.

Look out for a future blog that will share some of the early findings of the studies.

Sir John Holman is Senior Fellow for Education at the Wellcome Trust

Reference: The 95 per cent solution, John Falk and Lynn Dierking, American Scientist, November – December 2010

Image Credit: Wellcome Images
3 Comments leave one →
  1. 30 Nov, 2011 5:24 pm

    Excellent studies that will hopefully add some perspective as to how to enhance informal learning experiences for youth. Flip the curriculum on its ear! Make the extra-curricular activities the curriculum.


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