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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
The informal education community pursues a range of learning outcomes. The idea of lifelong, life-wide, and life-deep learning has been influential in efforts to develop a broad notion of learning, incorporating how people learn over the life course, across social settings, and in relation to prevailing cultural influences (Banks et al., 2007).
Lifelong learning is a familiar notion. It refers to the acquisition of fundamental competencies and attitudes and a facility with effectively using information over the life course, recognizing that developmental needs and interests vary at different life stages. Generally, learners prefer to seek out information and acquire ways of doing things because they are motivated to do so by their interests, needs, curiosity, pleasure, and sense that they have talents that align with certain kinds of tasks and challenges.
Life-wide learning refers to the learning that takes place as people routinely circulate across a range of social settings and activities—classrooms, after-school programs, informal educational institutions, online venues, homes, and other community locales. Learning derives, in both opportunistic and patterned ways, from this breadth of human experience and the related supports and occasions for learning that are available to an individual or group. Learners need to learn how to navigate the different underlying assumptions and goals associated with education and development across the settings and pursuits they encounter.
Life-deep learning refers to beliefs, ideologies, and values associated with living life and participating in the cultural workings of both communities and the broader society. Such learning reflects the moral, ethical, religious, and social values that guide what people believe, how they act, and how they judge themselves and others. This focus on life-deep learning emphasizes how learning is never a culture-free endeavor.
Taken together, these concepts of lifelong, life-wide, and life-deep learning help bring into view the breadth of human learning and emphasize the broad reach of informal settings. Figure 2-1 is a conceptual diagram that depicts the prevalence of lifelong and life-wide learning in formal and informal learning environments. Although there is significant variation for individuals, the diagram gives a rough estimation of the amount of time people routinely spend in informal (nonschool) learning environments over the life course. In addition to focusing on how learning is accomplished in specific informal settings, we consider how learning is accomplished across multiple settings—across shifting material and social resources, in the variety of ways people participate in and make use of their knowledge, their various social groupings, and their evolving purposes and expectations.
The idea of lifelong, life-wide, life-deep science learning informs the committee’s approach to the charge. Thus, we explore a wide variety of places and social settings, which we refer to as venues and configurations. We defined a broad set of valued learning outcomes and examined the evidence related to each. Finally, we examined research on learners of all ages from very young children to the elderly.