Freelance Museum Consultancy


Learning about Learning – Action Research in the Museum Classroom


I have been teaching for many years, more than I care to remember. However this experience has not been in the school classroom but in the museum. I know that means it is probably less full of stress and paper work than teaching in school, but the interaction with the children is just as exciting and stimulating. In helping children access historical objects and archives I have become more and more interested, and involved in research, about learning especially in the museum environment. This research has often been to inform and develop my own practice, which has in recent years become much more focused on evaluating work for other people. The approaches I take to do this work are similar to those I used to use when evaluating my own teaching and associated museum services. It is these approaches that I wish to consider in this article. I hope I will inspire you to use them to develop your own practice.

What is Action Research?

“Action Research”, also known as practitioner research is defined as the evaluation of one’s own practice to inform changes and improvements. This can be through a number of different methods or tools, as they are known. It sees the researcher as someone with conscious partiality, but not someone from “above” and is someone who is involved in the work being assessed. The research is an attempt to change the status quo and improve procedures and practice in the future.

Action Research Tools

  • Observation – Either through recording general observations which are written down in as full as detail as is possible, or with a checklist of behaviours to be noted or ticked. This type of approach is usually used to record the behaviour of one child at a time and can include recording of conversation too
  • Interviews – Informal interviews have a list of topics to be covered but are flexible in their approach and allow the person being interviewed to develop ideas and discuss aspects of interest to them. Formal interviews rely on a specific list of questions to be asked of each interviewee.
    Interviews with helpers and other teachers as well as with the children can be helpful to validate the data collected, as it will provide a number of viewpoints on the same scene.
  • Interviews also offer a useful approach in a group situation, and are known asfocus groups, Here a set of questions can be used to interview a number of people at one time. The group react and respond to each other’s answers and is a useful approach with children.
  • Use of documents including children’s work, reports and assessments can also be used to provide evidence.
  • Surveys – either with closed or open questions. Closed questions which require only simple answers (often Yes or No) are easier to analyse and can provide more quantitative data but they tell us less about the detail of the experience. More open-ended questions provide opportunities for the respondent to expand and provide extra detail.

Case Study: Looking for learning in science galleries Action research does take time to do properly, but it does mean that the practitioner feels empowered and has the opportunity to develop their own practice in the ways they feel useful. It is a formal opportunity to reflect.

In a recent project I used observation of children using interactive displays in museums. This data was supported by interviews with the children afterwards. The work intended to consider how to improve the tools available to assess learning in museums. Learning in museums is often very diverse and does not always relate to the outcomes designers, curators and educators planned for. Developing a way of assessing the quality of individual’s experience without “testing them” is becoming an issue for me in much of my evaluation work is of learning projects in museums. Here was a chance to improve my practice and to widen the types of approaches I use.

I watched individual children using two different museum galleries. The first exhibition, is the Things Gallery at the Science Museum, is for 7-11 year olds and looks at everyday objects in our lives. The exhibition enables visitors to look at these objects, which include toys, kitchen items, wheels and the like, in a new way. For example small components from familiar objects are displayed on their own. There are opportunities to make chairs and to consider the properties of a comfortable chair, or design a bicycle, and race it, using a computer programme. School bags from different countries allow children to consider cultural differences, and various games provide opportunities for children to manipulate tools and consider design and purpose through trying to move balls on to conveyor belts or make a mechanical face move. Much of the activity can be done within a social group.

Science Museum, London
There are a number of different interactive galleries for children. Entry is free and the Museum is open every day from 10.00am until 6.00pm (except 24-26th December). The website has a whole range of useful information including a teacher’s area and downloadable resources, as well as information on the galleries.

The other exhibition, the “Rocky Road Show” was a travelling exhibition with hands-on activities on rocks, fossils and minerals. These are less familiar objects than those seen in Things, but the approach taken was simple and exploratory. For example, at one display visitors were asked to group specimens into different types of category (rock, fossil, or mineral) by placing each specimen into a large Venn diagram on the display. Visitors could decide for themselves the correct answers and discuss whether some items belonged to more than one category. In another example visitors are asked to consider how fossils were formed and place a number of pictures of the stages of fossilisation into the correct order.

In each exhibition I observed the whole gallery visit of over 70 children who looked at the displays independently or with help from parents or carers. However the results might have implications for the use of museums by school groups too. In observing children’s visits I concentrated on recording what the child was doing, saying and the interaction that occurred between the individual being observed and others, in particular their parents. In doing so I was looking to establish a deeper understanding of a “real” visit. This type of data collection and analysis is known as qualitative research and requires in-depth study and a certain amount of empathy by the researcher and is based on anthropological and sociological research methods. The data collected is analysed by looking for patterns and common elements. It can also be useful to look for anomalies or issues that arise from the analysis. Any ideas or hypotheses that result from the analysis can subsequently be tested.

The results showed that there appear to be certain types of interaction that regularly occur between the child and the hands-on displays, and also between the child and the parent. These types of interaction, I would like to suggest, can often be linked to processes of learning and thus could also be used as evaluation tools. Evidence to support this comes from the children themselves, in the form of conversations with others while in the display and during interviews afterwards. For example I often heard children telling their parents what they had found out while doing an activity. These ideas now need testing further to see if they are correct.

However, Laevers, a Belgian researcher, has also used this type of approach (that is using “behaviour indicators” to assess the learning of children) in pre-school institutions where the curriculum is very flexible and thus it is more difficult to assess children’s development and learning using just outcomes. He found using indicators very useful in developing improved strategies for supporting the children.

Indicators for learning:

  • The child concentrates and focuses on what they are doing for long periods of time (the length of time depending on the activity and expected length of interaction).
  • Much energy and enthusiasm is shown.
  • Quality interaction with parents/adults and or siblings/friends occurs, resulting in information/questions being given/asked.
  • The child is pleased with the outcome of the activity.
  • The child shows or tells someone about the activity or what he or she has learnt from doing it.
  • The child is seen to play with or use the activity for its own purposes such as role-play.

It is helpful if a number of indicators are seen together during one activity.


Doing Action Research has not only provided me with new ideas that might be useful for future evaluation work, but it has also meant that I have examined my overall practice. Thus it has also provided me with time to reflect and to consider wider issues such as the way I approach defining evaluation programmes and in the tools I use.Although my ideas need further testing and development it can be suggested that we can use visual indicators to support our assessment of learning when they are linked to the process of learning. Other work, such as that by Laevers, helps add weight to this approach. In using this type of technique I hope to develop systematic ways of assessing learning and thus develop more rigorous research programmes.

Action Research provides important opportunities for us all and should be something we all find time to do at regular intervals. With all the pressures teachers have and the increasing amounts of paper work they do can mean that finding time for such luxuries seems impossible. However it is amazing how useful it can be in informing and changing the way they work. As the case study shows here it does not have to be done using conventional approaches and can relate to specific problems or concerns. A useful source of alternative approaches can be found in Doing Practitioner Research Differently (details below), which looks at a number of interesting case studies in schools. Good luck with your future action research!
Further Information
Doing Practitioner Research Differently
Marion Dadds and Susan Hart, RoutledgeFalmer 2001

Deep Level Learning: an Exemplary Application on the Area of Physical Knowledge, by Ferre Laevers
European Early Childhood Education research Journal, Vol1, No 1, 1993, pp 53-68

The Leuven Involvement Scale for young Children (LBS-YC). Manual and Video-tape, Leuven: Centre for Experiential Education