Freelance Museum Consultancy


Journal of Education in Museums No 18, 1997

Talking to each other: conversations between carers and children in an exhibition
Kate Pontin

This article considers the conversations that occurred between carers and children in a small travelling exhibition developed in 1994 by David Curry, Keeper of Earth Sciences at the Museum of St Albans. In particular, the article considers whether evidence of science learning is apparent in the conversations. Obviously it was quite difficult to record actual learning through observation, as learning is an internal activity. However conversations and actions do illustrate children’s development of some of the concepts and skills developed during the experience and thus provides some evidence. For the purposes of this article, learning includes social, cognitive and affective learning.

The “Rocky Road Show” is an interactive travelling exhibition which considers some of the basic concepts in earth sciences, and includes sections entitled “Ingredients of Rocks”, “Building Stones” (including Hertfordshire Puddingstone, a well known local rock), “Can you find the fossils?”, “Crystals”, and “In the Home”. There is also an activity table which includes fossil rubbing, colouring sheets, quizzes and specimens to handle. There is a minimal amount of text with emphasis on colourful graphics and attractive design. The exhibition gives the opportunity for children to explore their current idea about these topics and to challenge them.

Science is best defined by both content and process; it is not just the information it produces but also the process by which this data is collected. Therefore when considering the evidence of both the development of skills used in the practice of science and the understanding of scientific concepts. The learning of science is usually seen as constructivist, relying on developing schemata or ideas about the worlds around us. These schemata remain in place until new information challenges these ideas. The challenge can be ignored or used to adapt the current schemata. Occasionally new schemata can be taken on board. It has been shown in science that there area a number of stages of understanding that we often go through before fully understanding scientific concepts as they are currently Childrens ideas and the learning of science, Open University Press, 1st published 1985′,”); return true;” onmouseout=”nd(); return true;”understood by scientists.

The study took place as part of data collection for my doctoral thesis, a qualitative study of children’s learning in museums. During the pilot study observations of 30 visits to the exhibition were recorded, including the route through the display actions and conversation, with the focus on recording conversation between carers and children. The data collection took approximately eight days over a period of four months as the Rocky Road Show visited different venues. Categories of analysis were not established until after the observation had finished and an in-depth study of the material undertaken. Resulting categories developed from recognising similarities and patterns in different children’s experiences. Most of the conversations fell into a small number of categories. These included social conversation and group management as well as conversation related to the activities themselves.

The conversation related to activities fell into three major sub-categories, which were:

  • Asking questions
  • Making comparisons
  • Making identifications

Conversation within all these sub categories and was usually asked by the child. Most parents responded with a prompt rather than an answer:

Child Is this real?

(Child read label) or

Child What is this?
Mum What does it look like?

She continues with prompting (using labels) to help her daughter to answer, “a pudding” (referring to the Hertfordshire Puddingstone).

Carers took on the role of supporting their children’s exploration and used prompting as a means to help their children continue. Other parents used comparisons to help their children. In one example a mother compared a fossil mould to a jelly mould.

Comparisons were also used by many of the children:

“That looks like one in our garden”
“It’s like a heart”
and “lava – like on Lanzarote Dad”.

Children made comparisons that either relied on prior knowledge or used information given in the display. One very young child (approximately three) recognised that the picture he had coloured in was like that of the mammoth on display. Comparisons illustrate that children are thinking about what they are looking at and considering similarities and differences. Comparison is an important skill used in identification and relies on good observation.

Identification is a complex process requiring a number a number of problem-solving skills: comparing correctly chosen features, recognising similarities and differences, making inferences, and finally concluding with a name. Observed identification often included the use of previous knowledge too: “I’ve got some rose quartz like this”, but other conversation suggested that children were considering new information as well. In particular this occurred with the identification of specimens on display: “It’s like that one” and “I think this is a coral” (comparing a specimen with a picture card).

Obviously we cannot conclude whether the new information is learnt but it is certainly being used and discussed which in itself provides a positive climate for learning to occur.

The children’s comments therefore suggest that as well as using information they already knew, they were making deductions and decisions using the data given in the activity. They also asked questions, made comparisons and concluded with identifications, all skills important to the process of science.

Previous research on conversation within school groups discovered that at least 50% of conversation was about topics other than the exhibition. Tunnicliffe also considered conversation between children in school groups visiting museums and zoos and found that conversation about the animals, although very meaningful, comprised only a small percentage of Journal of Biological Education, 30(2), 1996, pp 130-1419′,”)conversation .

In comparison, family conversations seem to be related more to the activities themselves. Diamond’s work on family use of galleries concluded that interaction was usually between parent and child pairs and this gave an opportunity for parents to teach and guide. She found that children are more likely than adults to broadcast commentaries of their own experience, increasing the potential for Curator 29(2), 1986, pp 139-153′,”); “family learning.

McManus suggested that informal groups, which include children, are more likely to interact with the exhibits and have longer conversational periods Towards the museum of the future, new European perspectives, Routledge, 1994 pp 81-98′,”) within the group. The research for this paper confirms previous research for this paper confirms previous research concluding that conversation focused on exhibits occurs to a greater extent in family groups. Although only a small study it does give pointers to the sorts of opportunities for learning that occur in museums. It confirms that carers act as a teacher and guide in an important and productive relationship in the gallery.

They act as crucial catalysts in helping children develop the ideas they already have and consider new ones. Child/career groups interact and stay for long periods of time at one activity and discuss in some detail what it is about. In fact a large proportion of the discussion, unlike class groups, is related to the displays themselves. The most important aspect of the activities, as with Tunnicliffe’s work, was the identification of specimens, using comparisons and deductions.

Questions often initiated an activity and further associated conversation, while comparisons and identifications played a large part in the conversation too. This confirms that skills associated with the process of science were being used and developed. Children were also given opportunities to challenge their current scientific ideas and assumptions, for example a boy who altered his opinion of a mineral name after considering the information given, and the children who, when doing the processes of fossilisation activity, continued to rearrange the card until they were happy with their final solution, altering their original ideas. In interacting with the display they were able to compare their understanding with new information.

It can be concluded that learning in informal family groups is important in museums. Museums need to consider ways of supporting this: in particular how to help parents prompt and support their children’s learning. The Rocky Road Show provided opportunities for families to interact with the displays and to develop new ideas about geological concepts. Many of the activities referred to topics familiar to the public, such as the home and local features. This helped adults to feel more familiar with the topic and consequently helped provide appropriate entry points for their children. However, a number of the activities would have been improved by having the answers available this would have helped the carers support the learning of their children to a greater extent. In the future I hope those developing exhibitions will continue to provide these opportunities.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of the
Group for Education in Museums.