Saturday, May 9, 2015

Learning About Learning: Circuit Blocks and Labels

The Museum is partnering with Brown University on a major National Science Foundation-funded project (award #1223777) to study how children develop scientific thinking skills and understand their own learning processes.  Museum researcher Suzy Letourneau shared this project update.

Last summer, the Museum opened the new Mind Lab space, which hosts ongoing research about children’s learning and development by the Museum and its academic collaborators.  When researchers aren’t in the space, there is a self-directed “circuit block” activity with batteries, motors and buttons that can be connected in many different configurations.  On the surface the activity is about electricity and circuits, but the deeper message we hope to convey is the important role of exploration and experimentation in learning about cause and effect.  The activity draws on scientific research that shows that when children make their own discoveries about how things work, they explore and learn more deeply.  Thus, we purposefully did not include step-by-step instructions with the blocks to encourage children to test their ideas and make discoveries.  While prototyping the activity, we found that children often systematically tried the blocks to see how they worked, experimented with different ways of making a circuit, and collaborated or shared their ideas with one another – all evidence of learning.

The exhibits team tested resources for adults to support children’s thinking as they play, including observation tools and prompts caregivers can use while playing with their kids (for example, questions to ask when kids get stuck or aren’t sure how to get started).  Caregivers who tried these resources were more engaged in the activity themselves, either by observing while their children explored and made discoveries, or by helping them work through challenges in different ways.  The team also created labels to communicate how children learn through experience, exploration and play, and offer research evidence to back up these ideas. 

The labels are based on Museum staff’s discussions and knowledge about the ways that play and exploration support children’s learning and development, and are informed by conversations with dozens of caregivers.  We asked caregivers what they noticed about their children’s play, what they thought about how children learn through play, and what questions they had about these topics.  Caregivers often agreed that kids learned through play, were very interested in research on children’s learning (including the research that happens at the Museum), and wanted to learn more.

We created prototype labels and resources using low-cost, temporary materials so we could get feedback and make changes easily.  Some show specific examples of different ways that children can learn through play, and others give illustrated summaries of research studies.  We asked visitors: What did the new materials make them think about or wonder?  Which parts were most interesting?  Was anything confusing or unclear?

Based on comments and suggestions, we revised the labels in the fall to make our messages clearer.  We’re also creating more illustrated research summaries, since they were visitors’ favorites.  And we added a “Guide for Grown-ups” to the circuit block activity to suggest ways that caregivers can support their children’s learning as they play together.  Over the next few months, Mind Lab will continue to be a site for ongoing research and prototyping that will help Museum staff learn alongside visitors.

Visit the Museum’s website and see previous blog posts for more information about the Learning About Learning project.

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