From Ash, 2014, Curator. Volume 57 Number 1 January 2014. © 2014 All rights reserved.
Positioning Informal Learning Research in Museums within Activity Theory: From Theory to Practice and Back Again
This article discusses the theory I have come to rely on most consistently to collect and analyze data, interpret interactions at exhibits, and understand power dynamics within museums at many levels of analysis. Activity Theory has, for me, demonstrated the greatest versatility in informing, supporting, and reciprocally intertwining practice and theory. I describe my own evolutionary process here in the context of Activity Theory in order to demonstrate how I have come to see the theory reflected in my research design and analysis. Activity Theory has, for me, demonstrated the greatest versatil- ity in informing, supporting, and reciprocally intertwining practice and theory (Engestrom 1987; 1999; 2010).
I describe my own evolutionary process here in the context of Activity Theory in order to demonstrate how I have come to see the theory reflected in my research design and analysis. This was a reflective exercise that proceeded after much reading and discussion with other scholars.
From Mai & Ash, 2012
THAO MAI AND DORIS ASH D.
Ash et al. (eds.), Putting Theory into Practice, 97–117. © 2012 Sense Publishers. All rights reserved.
TRACING OUR METHODOLOGICAL STEPS: Making Meaning of Diverse Families’ Hybrid “Figuring Out” Practices at Science Museum Exhibits
The process of interpreting how collaborative groups make sense of science in informal learning and teaching contexts such as museums has been actively studied for the past few decades. Studies often focus on the science content that is learned or the ways in which content is taught. Such studies also largely focus on the typical European-American public that predominantly populate museums and other informal places of learning. The research we describe in this chapter disrupts these patterns; our research has actively explored scientific sense making from the point of view of the learners, who, in our study, were all ethnically diverse families with children in a nearby school serving culturally and linguistically diverse students. As in the other chapters in this volume, we focus here on the twists and changes of methods with time that made our research possible. We start with a short vignette, in order to introduce some of the themes we will advance.
Vignette 6.1 “What are we supposed to be doing?”
This question “What are we supposed to be doing?,” was posed by “Leticia,” an African American teenager (13 years old), to her family as they approached the DINO-Saurus exhibit. DINO-Saurus included a structurally large (3ft x 5ft) dinosaur head with an open mouth and detachable plastic teeth, surrounded by two tables displaying samples of meat-eating and plant- eating animals’ teeth.
When Leticia and her family first came to the dinosaur head, they questioned each other about what was expected. Then, collaboratively and with much discussion and laughter, they put in the plastic teeth. Leticia said very little as she directed her younger brother, “Pedro” (6 years old), giving him some plastic teeth to place in the spot toward the back of the dinosaur’s mouth. At that point Pedro turned to his mother, who stood next to him and was also placing teeth in the dinosaur’s mouth, and told her that the teeth she was holding were molars.
Mother: How do you know those are the molars? Pedro: Cause I know.
Mother: Did your teacher tell you?
Pedro: [laughing] Yes.
Soon after that exchange, the youngest brother, “Norman” (5 years old), jokingly punched the dinosaur with his older brother “Karl” (12 years old). He was directed by his mother to stop and join the others in the teeth placement activity. Norman joined Pedro and started to put the teeth in while Karl watched them from behind.
Pedro: No, look, lookit, lookit, look what I’m, what I’m doing! You twist it in.
Pedro was telling and guiding Norman to put the teeth in a certain way so they wouldn’t easily fall out. But as he watched Pedro, Norman objected:
Norman: No! The sharp teeth ain’t supposed to go up there!
Pedro disagreed by saying, “No, up!” and the two struggled to place the teeth. At this point, the mother said,
Mother: You can put them in any way you want. Let’s look at these right here.
She got up and walked over to the other area of display and the boys followed.
(“Aarons” family at DINO-Saurus)