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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
and is not naturally accessible to others, although researchers have found it useful to ask knowledgeable people to talk aloud about their thinking while they engage in tasks. Metacognition, like expertise, is domain-specific. That is, a particular metacognitive strategy that works in a particular activity (e.g., predicting outcomes, taking notes) may not work in others. However, metacognition is not exclusive to experts; it can be supported and taught. Thus, even for young children and older novices engaged in a new domain or topic of interest, metacognition can be an important means of controlling their own learning (National Research Council, 1999). Accordingly, as a means of controlling learning, metacognition may have special salience in informal settings, in which learning is self-paced and frequently not facilitated by an expert teacher or facilitator.
At the individual unit of analysis, people-centered analyses might focus on the details of mental processes and evidence of acquiring knowledge, affective responses, or interest development. It may also attend to changes in the individual as a result of broader social and cultural processes.
It is important to note that a people-centered analysis is not the same as a cognitive perspective. Although both tend to examine individuals as the unit of analysis, a cognitive perspective is concerned with mentation, whereas people-centered analysis could also explore people’s social actions, practices, and emotional worlds. Thus, within a people-centered analysis, shades of sociocultural and cognitive perspectives are evident.
Many approaches to designing informal science learning experiences reflect a people- or individual-centered approach to learning. For example, many museum experiences are designed to juxtapose museum goers’ prior knowledge with the formal disciplinary ideas that can explain the natural phenomena they engage with in an exhibit or activity. This approach to design, focused on stimulating cognitive dissonance, is presumed to help learners question their own knowledge and more deeply reconstruct that knowledge, so that it comes to resemble that of the discipline in question.
One example of a framework that could be considered people-centered was developed by George Hein (1998). It allows for classification of museum-based and similar learning experiences along dimensions of the thinking they support or promote for participants. Hein’s framework can be represented in a diagram depicting two orthogonal lines on a plane (see Figure 2-2). One plane represents the theory of knowledge (epistemology) embodied in an exhibit or museum. This ranges from realism (the world exists independently of human knowledge about it) to idealism (knowledge of the world exists only in minds and doesn’t imply anything about the world “out there”). The second plane represents a theory of learning, which moves from a transmission model to a constructed model. This reflects a range from behaviorist commitments (e.g., knowledge is transmitted) to the variability in cognitive perspectives with respect to the extent to which knowledge is learner-constructed.
Hein’s simple diagram can be used to classify the pedagogical approach