Reflection on Evaluation and Research: 18 (2)

Reflections on Family Learning in Object-Based Museums: The Role of Joint Attention

Conducted and edited by James Kisiel

This installment Reflections on Evaluation and Research examines visitor engagement—a topic of great interest to researchers and practitioners alike. In their recently published article, “Family Learning in Object-Based Museums: The Role of Joint Attention” (Visitor Studies, Volume 18, Issue 2), Kathleen Tison Povis and Kevin Crowley use a simple, yet powerful research design to examine the impact of a unique strategy for learner engagement.

The investigation looks at whether the use of a flashlight and darkened dioramas at a natural history museum might invoke shared attention among family members (and subsequent learning talk) in ways that might not occur in a fully-lit diorama. Their findings showed greater levels of joint attention and learning discourse for those family groups using the flashlight with darkened dioramas compared to those viewing the dioramas under normally lit conditions and no flashlight. [A complete copy (pdf) of the article is available for free download.]

For this reflection, several graduate students enrolled in a course examining learning in informal settings were asked to provide their thoughts on the investigation and its implications for practice. The students are all practicing educators, working in a variety of settings, including aquariums, science outreach programs, afterschool settings and formal middle school classrooms. They represent a range of experience, from 2 years to more than 20 years. Although framing this reflection from a student perspective may provide a different set of comments from the typical Reflection on Evaluation and Practice, the ideas presented here provide interesting and important perspectives from those in the field who are beginning to look more critically at their practice.)

Jim: This research article examines visitor engagement through a lens of joint attention. As an educator, what aspects of the article did you find most interesting?

Mary (retired middle school science teacher): My first reaction to the use of flashlights in an object-based museum was that perhaps the novelty of the flashlights could have influenced more joint attention. However, in reality, this novelty would have worn off quickly if this, indeed, were the prominent impetus behind increased joint attention. The families would have reverted back by default to their accepted dynamic interaction level. I have seen this in my own family: "this is so cool...ok, whatever." Instead, the flashlight really does become the vehicle for conversation by restricting the visual field. It really would make it clear to parents exactly what children were looking at.

Joanne (informal science educator): If I had the opportunity to use a flashlight or a similar tool during a field trip, I would absolutely do it. Although I can understand the argument that it can easily be a distraction or an obstacle to learning, the research shows that parent-child groups engaged in learning talk and increased joint attention when using a tool like a flashlight. Any chance of increasing engagement among students would make for a successful field trip.

Corina (informal science educator): I first thought the flashlight concept was interesting, but then after mulling it over, I don't really like the idea. It is true that [the flashlight] creates a new experience, where it focuses attention, but I believe that this method used in other situations would not be helpful in the learning process. It may be unrealistic to trust a group of middle-schoolers (for example) to use flashlights in a constructive way the entire time they are visiting.

Kelly (informal science educator): It was interesting to find out that in this study, that while flashlights increased joint attention, signage prompts did not. However, with what [we know] about the cost vs. benefit and the perceived added work of reading signs, it is not surprising. Using the flashlights as a way to increase visitor interaction with object-based exhibit is a fairly easy method to apply to other exhibits and museums, and it would be interesting to see how other tools to increase joint attention would compare.

Jim: I too was excited to see how the use of a simple flashlight really helped to spur a shared conversation about the exhibit. Promoting meaningful learning conversations at non-hands-on exhibits can be challenging. The article reminds us that the use of signs isn't always effective. As with anything, Corina, a change may lead to challenge. Whether or not middle schoolers could effectively use such an interpretive tool is hard to say—sounds like another study to me!

Leslie (science outreach educator): [But] I wondered how practical would it be for an institution to facilitate that kind of interaction. Essentially it's spotlighting, but handing the spotlight and full control over it to the visitors. That kind of thing is often done with dioramas in order to call attention to specific parts of the display…but that can take away the visitor's ability to choose their own way of exploring.

Jim: I'd agree that it does give power over to the visitors to spotlight different parts of the diorama—a key characteristic of informal learning experiences. As far as practicality goes, I’d go back to the rationale for instituting such interpretive methods. Is it about having a flashlight and dark diorama, or is it about figuring out a way to create a joint attention experience? The transferability would depend on the goals of the interpretation.

What about the rest of you? Do you think an approach like this might work in other no-touch settings, like an aquarium or zoo, or even art gallery? If so, what might that even look like?

Jennifer (middle school science teacher): I just had a flashback to a time when I used a flashlight in a no-touch environment. It was in San Jose at an old house, the Winchester Mystery house. Basically, a historical house of an eccentric millionairess from the 1800s. Around Halloween, they had your typical pop-up haunted house located next to it for an additional price. You could tour the Winchester house with a flashlight. I was surprised to see what looked like just as many visitors to the museum as to the main attraction (the haunted house). Also, the flashlight in the dark experience made me intrigued to visit again for a different experience, since I had been there previously in the daytime and probably would not have gone again had the flashlight experience not been offered.

Jim: Very interesting! So in this case, the use of the flashlight may or may not have fostered joint attention, but it certainly did create a different visitor experience that encouraged repeat visitation—another essential goal of museums and other informal learning institutions.

Mary: I’m not sure the use of a flashlight would work in an aquarium or a zoo setting due to the most obvious reason: the attractions are alive. If the child shines the flashlight on an animal there is the likelihood that the animal will move. However, this could in fact stimulate family learning talk because the parent and child would have to direct so much attention to where the animal is. Is it afraid of the light? How do animals act in darkness? In this case, joint attention might be achieved.

Joanne: A major challenge in promoting joint attention at an aquarium or zoo is preventing any harm to the animals on exhibit. Tools like flashlights or laser pointers could be dangerous to them physically and sometimes enable unwanted behavior. However, I think there is potential of incorporating this into an aquarium or zoo setting, as their exhibits are not always 100% live animals. Assuming aquariums or zoos exist primarily for promoting environmental or wildlife conservation, the simple idea of a flashlight being used to spark joint attention can be modeled for use in a conservation exhibit. This carries a lot of potential benefits for aquariums or zoos, as exhibits that lack live animals aren't always the most popular attractions. The researchers noted that the flashlight was a "simple means of making gaze external and explicit," so tools are not limited to a flashlight (i.e., laser pointers).

Corina: [I agree that] the use of a flashlight could help turn a non-interactive display into an interactive one. In an aquarium especially, visitors can use flashlights to learn about the phenomenon of phototaxis (attraction to light) in some aquatic animals. This incorporation would encourage interactive activity [as well as foster joint attention].

Jim: But is a flashlight the only way to support joint attention? Are there alternatives?

Kelly: It is hard to think of ways to encourage joint attention in a free choice manner that doesn't also require other resources. For instance, moving away from using a flashlight, visitors [would] have to be more descriptive to really point out what they're looking at so that their partner can join in. There could be more signs at the exhibit, but not only does that cost money, but visitors might not use them for that purpose if at all. I was thinking too that zoos and aquariums could bring out artifacts so visitors could compare them to the live animals they saw. However, that would also require manpower. It seems as if the idea of using a flashlight to increase joint attention is [also] about increasing the interactivity of an exhibit so that visitors connect more to what they are seeing and share that experience with others.

Jim: Good points, Kelly. But I'm not suggesting that you restrict resources. Flashlights were seen as a simple solution (along with darkening the dioramas) for fostering joint attention. I agree that it may be prohibitive to incorporate more resources—but it really comes down to what the museum's (aquarium's, zoo's, etc.) goals are, right? I mean, if the educators want to encourage visitor joint attention, then they need to be willing to invest in that. I would agree that the flashlight, in this case, adds a degree of interactivity, as you and Corina suggest. Perhaps then you would consider joint attention to be a sign of exhibit interactivity?

Jennifer: [I think] someone may take the research study and [decide] that they should install spotlights that visitors can turn on/off to replicate the experience, but I think they would be misguided. I believe a case can be made of the fact that it was the novelty of the experience that lent itself to more free choice [interaction]. This then led to more collaborative science [talk and] learning…. Ultimately, if a museum is seen as an exciting, interactive, and highly engaging place, more people will visit and more opportunities for funding will [present themselves] to continue to create even more engagement.

On that note, we’ll bring this discussion to a close. Thanks to Jennifer Garcia, Kelly Lieske, Mary Nowak, Joanne Park, Corina Silva, and Leslie Hellman, MS students from the Science Education Department at CSU Long Beach, for their perspectives and thoughtful suggestions. As we consider the role of research and evaluation in the field of visitor studies, it is equally important to consider how such work can ultimately spark conversation and even inform practice in free-choice learning institutions.