Supporting Learning

The participants in “Teenage Designers of Learning Spaces” faced a different challenge than visitors to the two museum exhibits described earlier. They lacked experience with the natural world and had not had opportunities to explore natural phenomena and develop rich, intuitive ideas about them.

After defining the reason why learning had been difficult for this group, Miller and her team discovered the way to connect with the teens—by asking them to find a compelling real-world problem, which they worked on together to solve. The problem highlighted in the case study was figuring out why their goldfish died. Rather than telling the teens the answer, Miller encouraged them to find out what happened on their own. They talked among themselves, read books, and surfed the Internet until they learned what fish need to survive and what was lacking in the environment they had created for their fish. As discussed earlier, research has found that learning through multiple channels—books, the Web, and conversation—tends to support flexible transfer of knowledge. This approach also proved to be so empowering that it set the teens on a path to further learning. After learning the tools and vocabulary of science (Strand 5), they were ready to ask more questions and find new ways to answer them.

Although the teens were novices, they used some metacognitive strategies to find the answer to their problem. They took notes as they did their research, which was conducted in different modalities (books and the Web). Then, through a process of elimination based on acquired knowledge, they determined which variable (an excess amount of ammonia) was causing the fish to die. Once they knew what the problem was, they had no trouble coming up with a solution—changing the water more frequently.

Two factors determined the amount of learning that took place—time and the quality of the teaching available. Programs represent informal learning experiences that take place over a longer period of time; in this case, it was over a period of 2 years. Miller and her team took advantage of the time they had to work closely with the teens, getting to know them and finding ways to remove barriers to learning.

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