Over the years, my philosophy of education has evolved to reflect the concerns of the institutions that I've worked at. However, I have never lost sight of the ideas that lie at the foundation of my commitment to public education.
As a graduate student in museum education, I was required to develop a philosophy of teaching that has continued to guide my career as a museum educator. During that time, I identified three primary influences: Paulo Friere, Jurgen Habermas, and John Dewey.
Viewing education as a liberatory practice, I was drawn to Paulo Freire ("Pedgogy of the Oppressed") who opposed the "banking deposit" approach to education, advocating the view that education should empower and liberate (what he termed "conscientização" or "critical consciousness." Habermas's ideal notion of the Public Sphere ("The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere") helped me to envision how education could function in a museum setting, an institution historically committed to public education. The notion of the public sphere has guided my principles regarding teaching models and diverse modes of public engagement. John Dewey ("Art as Experience") helped to inform my understanding of education as a holistic process, embracing a long tradition of American pragmatism.
Currently, my philosophy of education has evolved, building on the legacy of John Dewey and taking into consideration more recent studies in museum education and visitor engagement.
Dewey’s dialectical approach to education defines the aesthetic experience as something that transcends the subject/object dichotomy, acknowledging the successful integration of the intellect, emotion, and practical experience. The experience embodied in the work of art is replicated by the viewer who undergoes the same transformative experience. Dewey’s Neo-Kantian view, seen through the lens of American pragmatism, thus defines the aesthetic experience as something that transcends the idea of art as an end in itself, and as the means for creating an analogous form of experience. Active looking through a process of questioning, coupled by critical reflection and an emotional investment in the subject lead to practical and constructivist engagements with works of art that can be classified as “experiences.” Dewey’s holistic approach has been adopted by a number of contemporary theorists and philosophers of education who have also defined the aesthetic experience as “flow” or an “autotelic experience” (Mihály Csíkszentmihályi), and other high level forms of engagement like “constructivism.”
In order to broaden our understanding of learning in a museum setting, George Hein proposed four models to encompass a range of experiences: Systematic (Didactic), Orderly (Behavioral), Discovery, and Constructivist. The Systematic museum is a didactic model of learning in which information is provided for the learner in the form of labels, catalog entries, and lectures to increase ones knowledge of a subject. The Systematic museum involves a learning setting that is designed and controlled by the educator, in terms of outcomes, but which takes into account the visitor’s response to certain stimuli, thus providing the context for positive reinforcement during the learning process. The Discovery Museum provides a context for further exploration, while still maintaining control over the goals and objectives of the lesson. The learner “discovers” by examining multiple options, embracing subjectivity as a vital part of the learning process, but ultimately arriving at outcomes pre-established by the educator. The Constructivist museum, on the other hand, embraces the idea that the learner is active rather than passive. As Hein explains:
“As an educational theory, Constructivism represents the view that learning is an active process in which we as learners make meaning—construct concepts—of the phenomena we encounter. In order to convert sensory input (what we see, hear, feel, and so on) into meaning, we rely on our previous experiences and on our previous meaning making. Thus, everything that we bring with us to any new situation—our culture, language, family background, companions on the visit—influences how we interpret our experience.”
In addition to the philosophy and theory of education in an informal learning setting, Falk examines learning in a museum from the standpoint of the visitor. He identifies five types of visitors: Explorers, Facilitators, Experience Seekers, Professional/Hobbyists, and Rechargers. Explorers are motivated by personal curiosity; Facilitators are motivated by other people and their needs (parents/docents); Experience Seekers are motivated by a desire to see and experience (a tourist); Professional/Hobbyist are motivated by the acquisition of knowledge (the scholar); and Rechargers are motivated by a more contemplative experience. In many ways, Falk’s assessment of various visitor types encompasses the models of learning addressed by Dewey and Hein, yet approaches the subject from a visitor’s perspective.
The ideas that have shaped my philosophy of education continue to evolve. Although I have devoted more attention to education theory and practice in more recent years, my earlier commitment to education as liberatory (Paulo Frieire) and inclusive (Jurgen Habermas) continue to inform my pedagogy for museum education.
As technology continues to transform how we access information and engage visitors with content, I have begun to consider theories of learning and visitor types in the context of digital modes of communication. As I move forward in my development as a museum educator, I will continue to explore the intuitive aspects of touchscreen interfaces, the graphical interface of the web, including the integration of video and multimedia. and other models of learning, such as, e-learning or online learning, user generated content, gaming theory, and "Blended Learning," a varied approach that encompasses traditional face-to-face instruction and digital models of learning.