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Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits
of the activities designed to promote learning in an informal setting should be part of the assessment, serving as cues for activating the capabilities and dispositions that participants have or might have learned. Before drawing conclusions about whether the informal experiences have led to particular outcomes, researchers and practitioners should ask themselves: Are the assessment activities similar in relevant ways to the learning activities in the environment? Are the assessments based on the same social norms as those that promote engagement in the learning activities? Overall, is it clear that learners in a setting have had ample opportunity to both learn and demonstrate desired outcomes? Without such clarity, it is difficult to make fair inferences about what has been learned or the effectiveness of the environment for promoting learning.
To a significant extent, the ability to answer these questions depends on how well the research community is able to describe the nature of participants’ experience in particular types of informal learning environments, with an eye to eventually understanding what is consistent and systematic across these environments. An in-depth understanding of key features of the environments (e.g., what are the physical and social resources? What are the norms of behavior?), ways in which learning is framed or organized (e.g., what activities are presumed to lead to learning? How is learning supported? What does it mean to be knowledgeable in this setting?), and the capacities being built (e.g., what skills, knowledge, or concepts are learners engaging with?) can lead to critical insights regarding the particular contributions of informal experiences to science learning, therefore highlighting the outcomes one would most expect and want to see.
As important as it is to document the unique and valuable contributions of informal opportunities for learning, there is a tension in the field regarding the degree to which one can or should try to direct outcomes. On one hand, the field has an overarching commitment to valuing the great diversity of ways in which informal learning experiences can positively affect participants. Researchers and practitioners are receptive to acknowledging the many types of outcomes, anticipated or not, that emerge from the interplay of people and resources as they engage in science learning activities. This receptivity to contingencies, George Hein explains, is “a matter of ideology” (1995, p. 199).
By framing the questions as we do, we leave ourselves open for the broader responses, for noting unexpected behaviors, and we do not shut out the possibility of documenting learning that is distinct from the teaching intended. By leaving our list of issues deliberately vague and general, we do not exclude the possibility of learning something about the … experience that may be outside the framework of … expectations.
Hein’s formulation suggests that informal environments are oriented toward providing learning experiences that are relevant to the interests and needs