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From classrooms to "exploratoriums"

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An increasing number of educators are becoming familiar with Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences, as set out in his book, Frames of Mind. There is a growing realisation that Gardner's revised model provides greater opportunity for the recognition of the full spectrum of abilities that comprise human intelligence. There is also a growing awareness of the need for change in our educational structures if we are to maximise use of this powerful new model.


In his book, The Unschooled Mind, Gardner suggests that schooling has little impact upon the intuitive and common-sense interpretations of the world that children form as a result of their early interactions with their environment. This is largely because the activity that takes place in classrooms is of a totally different order from that earlier intuitive learning. Classroom learning is often de-contextualised and often operates independently of other institutions (family, home, community, business, etc.) that comprise the "real world". Additionally, classroom learning often fails to take account of students' individual intelligence profiles. In order to maximise the learning potential of our students, we need to revise not merely what happens in classrooms but to question whether classrooms provide a meaningful context for learning. Gardner sets out a number of approaches to education which embody the principles he espouses and which will serve to promote genuine understanding.


"Existing systems produce existing results. If something different is required, the system must be changed."

Sir Christopher Ball

More Means Different

Foremost among his suggestions are:

  • Apprenticeship (in which learning is closely contextualised);

  • Projects (which allow students to follow their interests individually or co-operatively within a structured framework);

  • New learning technologies; andů

  • Museums

"Emblazon these words on your mind: learning is more effective when it's fun."

Peter Kline

The Everyday Genius

If the images that spring to mind at this latter suggestion are of high-ceilinged corridors, monotonously uniform display cabinets and dusty labels, then it is obvious that the revolution in museum design has escaped your notice. Where once museums were designed to prevent touching, there is a growing number of new-age museums desperate to encourage interaction. Whereas the emphasis of yesteryear was on preservation of artefacts, the focus of these present-day innovators is on encouraging participation and developing understanding. When he writes of "museums", what Gardner has in mind is a discovery centre or "exploratorium" in which the learning experience is active and interactive. Far from being repositories for artefacts and exhibits, Gardner's ideal museums offer task engagement and group participation, organised and monitored by adult instructors. They do not merely present information but draw students into a journey of discovery be engaging their preferred intelligence and providing genuine challenges to be researched. In order to do this effectively, those who seek to design the museum experience need to be aware of the diversity of intelligences and to incorporate that awareness into the design process. However, it is not simply a matter of incorporating into each exhibit elements that appeal to as many intelligence areas as possible. Although this will attract learners of different types, it is also important to consider how to engage learners. To do this effectively, one must pay attention to the interactive aspects of each intelligence.


"Instead of a national curriculum for education, what is really needed is an individual curriculum for every child."

Charles Handy

The Age of Unreason

It is self-evident that the museum should include a dedicated learning space but it is important that as much consideration is given to the location, design and use of this "classroom" as to any other part of the museum. Research has shown that learners find it easier to recall what they have learned in the context in which the original learning took place. It is obvious that they will best consolidate the learning gleaned from exposure to the exhibition if the follow-up learning experiences take place in the same context.


Ideally, this means that there should be no differentiation between the museum proper and the classroom; rather the transition between the two should be seamless. A classroom that was situated at the hub of the museum's displays, with integral access from and to all areas, would be best.


Of course, the position of the classroom may already be determined (by existing architectural restraints) which poses problems, though not insurmountable ones. If the position of the classroom precludes moving easily between classroom and exhibits, smooth transition can nevertheless be effected by the use of a CCTV system that brings each of the exhibition areas into the classroom, perhaps on a video-wall. If this is controlled by the students, with the opportunity to direct cameras onto specific parts of the exhibits, there is increased likelihood of engaging students and maintaining their interest.


If CCTV is not an option, access to a video-library can be a useful alternative, with each brief video showing both panoramic and more detailed views of each of the exhibition areas, together with background material relating to each of the subjects on display. Eventually, the target should be to have each of these virtual tours on CD-ROM, thus providing immediate access to all areas of the museum from within the classroom.


At the very least, the classroom should not be a sterile, aseptic environment but decorated to reflect aspects of the exhibition whilst still leaving room for display of students' work.


In speaking of a "classroom" it is perhaps worth mentioning that this does not refer to a room in which students can engage in research and written tasks, but a flexible space that will allow students to be involved in a wide range of learning activities. As such, it should contain an art space (with the facilities for drawing, designing, painting and making models); a music space (with facilities for generating, recording and playing back both traditional and electronic sounds and music); a performance space (for dance and drama, with facility to record and play back video); and a comfortable discussion area.


Only by moving away from the traditional perception that learning is in some way inextricably bound with language can we hope to engage all learners. By providing an exploratorium in which visitors are encouraged to experience a wider range of learning opportunities than they have previously been exposed to, we may enable them to discover the joy of learning and engage them as lifelong learners.


Unfortunately, there are still not enough forward-thinking museums. A 1997 report by David Anderson (from the Victoria and Albert Museum) on the state of museum education in the UK revealed a patchy picture indeed. Just over a third of museums responding to the survey made any kind of provision for education, and even fewer had an education policy. The report says that the low level of educational provision "should be a matter of deep concern for governing bodies and policy makers. The need to bring educational provision up to a consistent professional standard in all UK museums presents the sector with a critical challenge which should be addressed as a matter of urgency."


"A Common Wealth: Museums and Learning in the UK"


David Anderson


The Stationery Office Agencies