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Getting out of school (updated)

7 Aug, 2012
Creativity Week at South Camden Community
Creativity Week at South Camden Community

Is there a pupil in the land who, given the chance of a day off school, wouldn’t take it?  Even the most studious pupils with the most inspiring teachers can find the day-to-day routine of school boring.  That’s why they look forward so eagerly to a day trip to somewhere like the Science or Natural History Museum. If you’re one of the five million people who visited the NHM last year, you will know the potential of places like this to excite and activate the mind, making it more receptive to the messages received back in school.

The Wellcome Trust believes in the value of out-of-school, informal settings for learning, and we have spent over £50 million in the past 10 years supporting projects to deliver performances, exhibitions, debates, games, broadcasts and other activities to help the learning of science. For example, Design and Gerontology brings students together with fashion designers and scientists to create a clothing collection inspired by changes to the mind and body brought on by ageing. I’m a scientist, Get me out of here uses an X-factor style competition with students talking to scientists online, engaging with their research, and asking questions before voting which scientist wins a prize to communicate their work.

With such activities, it seems intuitive that it affects attitudes and emotions towards science, as well as offering a different way of learning than in the classroom. But we want to know more about informal learning. What is its unique value? How can we measure its impact? How does it link to formal learning? And how can it reach families that don’t often take part?

To help answer these questions, the Trust commissioned two studies of informal learning in the UK in Autumn 2011. Hundreds of individuals and organisations involved in informal learning activities – from theatre to science and discovery centres to online media producers – have contributed to this work by sharing their experiences, knowledge and ideas. Although the studies will not be published for another few months, we can give a taster of some of the emerging findings.

Early Findings

The question of how to effectively measure impact has long been debated, but how and why are providers of informal science learning measuring impact, if at all? The majority of providers who contributed to the study said they conduct some form of evaluation of their activities, though this varied greatly in nature and purpose. Unsurprisingly, the rigor and scale of such activity was most often related to the size and resource of the organisation, though inspiring work has been demonstrated even with those with more limited means.

It may come as no surprise that for many, the main driver for undertaking evaluation is funder requirements. Coming from the funder perspective, this requirement is not merely a box ticking exercise but is driven by the desire to better understand this area – which can only coming from honest evaluation of what does and doesn’t work in practice.

Informing service delivery was another key reason many providers gave for evaluation, and evaluation is generally viewed as an important and valued activity. However, the extent to which evaluation is prioritised is varied, with the three most commonly cited barriers to evaluation being time restraints, lack of funding and uncertainty about appropriate methods. A lack of appreciation of the benefits that evaluation will offer was also cited as a barrier by one in three respondents.

Students of Maria Fidelis

Students of Maria Fidelis

To complement the feedback from providers, the relationship between young people and informal learning was explored through a small-scale study of families and how they spend their free time. Families from more deprived backgrounds tend to have a narrow horizon towards informal learning. Making a resource or activity accessible and affordable doesn’t in itself remove the barriers to engagement if the audience doesn’t recognise it as ‘for them’.

Parents’ primary concern was who their children are associating with in their spare time, rather than how they were spending it. This often meant they preferred their children to stay at home. Again this was more prevalent in deprived families. For young people, the biggest influence on how they wanted to spend their free time was the influence of their peers, networks and their school.

Turning to the literature, from a comprehensive review of peer-reviewed academic papers on informal science learning, more than half of the most widely cited papers are from the US. Although a number of papers were UK-based research, few of these were prominently cited. From this research, the majority is conducted in science museums, followed by electronic media and then science and discovery centres.

This review of the literature raises an issue of the disparity between research and practice. The feedback from providers indicates that the majority of those delivering informal learning activities do not engage with the academic literature. Most report learning through trial and error or relying on less permanent information sources such as blogs, with a great deal of emphasis also placed on ‘grey’ literature such as government reports and internal studies. Clearly researchers are not effectively engaging practitioners with their research, and more needs to be done to encourage open communication between the two.

Next stage

The full findings from this review will be made available through the Wellcome Trust website in a few months. We are hopeful that this study will offer a real insight in to the unique and valuable contributions informal science learning offers, as well as clear indication of the challenges that still face us.

The Wellcome Trust will be hosting a number of activities around the key areas to emerge from this work – further details will be announced with the publication.

Please get in touch with any questions or comments by contacting Emily Conradi at

Sir John Holman
Emily Conradi
Steph Sinclair

John, Emily and Steph are part of the Education team at the Wellcome Trust. 

Post updated 7/8/2012 13.38 removing some preliminary figures that had not been verified.

Image credit: Wellcome Library, London.
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