Contextual Model of Learning – John Falk and Lynn Dierking






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Presentation by Dr Sally Montgomery

Dr Sally Montgomery OBE

With twenty years experience in the museum and science centre sector, with a degree and PHD in Zoology, Sally specialises in start development of science centres and science education projects. She spent ten years at the Ulster Museum, firstly as a Science Educator and then Head of Education before being seconded as Project Director for the Museum’s Millennium bid to develop a Science Centre. Sally led the development of W5 from conception to completion and became the founding Chief Executive in 2001 to 2012. Sally has held a number of Board and advisory positions including Northern Ireland Advisory Committee for OfCom and Board member of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and is currently a Director of Titanic Foundation Ltd and member of the Regional Advisory Council of the National Trust. She now assists projects in Malta, Poland, Russia and Northern Ireland.


Free choice learning includes:

Museum visits, reading newspapers, attending a play, surfing the net. Learning is a result of millions of years of survival orientated evolution. Learning is both a process and a product – a verb and a noun. Learning is influenced by three overlapping contexts and can be conceptualised as the integration and interactions of these contexts.

1. Personal Context

Learning flows from appropriate motivational and emotional cues . Learning is facilitated by personal interest and ‘new’ knowledge is constructed from a foundation of prior experience and knowledge. Learning is expressed within appropriate contexts. Memory comes with an emotional stamp – the stronger the emotional value the more likely it is to be remembered. Positive emotions are more valued than negative ones. Learning occurs more readily in a supportive environment – e.g. free from anxiety and fear, and when the challenges of the task match their skills. Intrinsic motivation results in more effective learning than extrinsic – i.e. self motivated learning e.g. learning a craft, rather than passing an exam.

A sense of ‘self’ is important – personal needs, interests and abilities – is fundamental to all learning. A sense of ‘self’ filters out what is relevant – or not. ‘Self’ concept is influenced by self esteem, self worth, attribution, locus of control and their sense of control over their own experiences. Children with stronger locus of control are more likely to be successful learners that ones with weaker ones who feel that external factors prevent them from

Interest – is the persistence in a task, continued curiosity – factors that influence what motivates someone to learn in a museum. It is influenced by individual experiences and personal history. It can result in a positive emotion that encourages action…..e.g. A visit to a museum etc.

Inherent quality of an experience, without rewards produces ‘flow experiences’ a state of mind that is spontaneous and has immediate feedback. These experiences such as sport, music, art and dance all have clear goals and appropriate rules. The challenge must match the skill levels or boredom/anxiety results.

Flow in museums requires: Multiple entry points and layering. So an exhibition/exhibit can be enjoyed in from many different levels and many different perspectives. Csikszentmihalyi states ‘when goals are clear, feedback is unambiguous, challenges and skills are well matched then all of one’s mind and body is completely involved in the activity. In this state the person becomes unaware of fatigue or the passing of time’. People want to do flow activities again and again. This may mean that they visit museums again and again.

Learning not only requires prior knowledge, appropriate motivation, and a combination of  personal, physical and mental action; it also requires an appropriate context within which to express itself. In the absent of contextual cues from the outside world, the patterns and associations stored within each person’s head would remain dormant and meaningless.


1.1 Recommendations for Facilitating the Personal Dimensions of Learning

• Match peoples’ expectations of visiting

• Provide opportunities to personalise the information – allows them to take ownership and make the learning experience their own.

• Provide opportunities to construct connections between the experience and their own lives.

• Acknowledge that different learners prefer different learning styles, offer clear strategies.

• Provide a variety of different entry points ‘hooks’ that permit free choice learners to pick the point that best meets their personal need at that point in time.

• Layer the complexity of the experience – so visitors can self select the complexity and depth of information they need.

• Goal – to reinforce prior understanding and occasionally to help reshape understanding, attitudes and behaviours

• Work to change short and long term understanding, attitudes and behaviours.

• Build emotion into the exhibit – humour, uncertain endings, human interaction.

• Make experiences enjoyable and entertaining – fun and learning are NOT mutually exclusive.

• It should be made clear from the beginning that participating in a learning experience will enhance the learner’s sense of self-worth, self-awareness and self – respect. This needs to be made apparent to the learner.

• Scale the challenges and rewards to the self-defined abilities of the learner. Quality learning experiences are open ended…multiple entry and exit points.

• Develop the museum learning experiences that provide choices and put the learner squarely in control of their own learning.


2. Sociocultural Context

• Learning is both an individual and group experience

• What someone learns & why someone learns is linked to the cultural and historic contest of which they learn.

• All communications – exhibitions, books, TV, internet etc represent a socially mediated form of culturally specific communication between the producers of the medium and the user.

• Myriads of communities of learners defined by boundaries of shared knowledge and experience.

• People mentally organize information effectively of if it’s re-encountered to them in a story or narrative form.


2.2 Recommendations for facilitating the Social Dimension of Learning

• Design experiences that permits sharing socially and physically.

• Reward and foster social interaction, rather than penalise and inhibit it.

• Invest in people – best facilitators for learning, but need to be excellent listeners and communicators.

• Create opportunities for group dialogue beyond the time limits of the initial experience. Like..questions to discuss at the dinner table or the drive home?

• Create situations where novices can work alongside knowledgeable mentors in an atmosphere of collaboration and shared goals.

• Utilise stories, songs, poems, dance, music that help to string together information for the learner in a profoundly human context.

• Be sensitive to the cultural specificity of language, gesture, and narrative and avoid the use of linguistic idioms and cultural specific humour.

• Recognize and build on the diverse norms and values of many cultures.

• The best learning experiences create multiple opportunities for diverse populations to ‘see themselves’ and others like themselves within an exhibition etc and assess their relative status.


3. Physical Context

• Learning is ‘situated’ within a physical context – being bound to the environment in which it occurs.

• The need to make sense of the environment – to find pattern and make order out of chaos is an innate quality of mammalian brains. Humans search for meaning.

• Spatial learning is integrated with all types of learning, all learning is influenced by the awareness of place

• Humans automatically for long-term, emotion laden memories of events and places without deliberately attempting to memorise them.


3.3 Recommendations for facilitating the Physical Dimension of Learning 

• Learning occurs more readily in a supportive environment – e.g. free from anxiety and fear

• Easy navigation from one experience to the next

• Have clear, explicit goals and appropriate rules. Give feedback – are the gaining the skills, information intended?

• The challenges of the task match their skills & knowledge.

• Make learning boundless….provide extension activities.

• Use all the senses – more memorable

• Use all the museums for learning…lift, shop, toilets etc

Use evaluation – front end to summative, to build better, more cost effective, more learner centred experiences



This model was developed by Falk and Dierking in the early 90’s using a myriad of research. The visitor’s museum experience is not just the result of interactions with the exhibits, but the sum of his/her constructed personal, social and physical contexts. These contexts are not always of equal importance, nor are they always distinct and separate.


1. Personal Context

Child’s Agenda – difference between expectation and reality affected the success of the trip

• Expectations – day off, bus ride, talk by expert, buying something in the shop

• Research include some pre visit orientation

• None

• cognitive – this is what you will learn

• process skills – these are the skills you need, lastly

• child centred – this is how long the journey will be, where we will park, lunch, what they could see/buy etc

• All groups performed better than control group but the children who had the child-centred orientation performed the best and were most relaxed. Learning persisted over 3 months.

The children’s relaxed as they knew how their personal agenda would or would not be achieved which left them time to consider other aspects. They even outperformed in the process side, despite some of them never having this pre-visit talk.

2. Social Context

Hands on exhibit are played with before reading exhibits – and only when they get stuck will they engage with a label. But even then parents are more likely to seek and explanation than children

Most visits are in relation to a family social visit. The Family context is one of spending time together – as a family – 15-20% of time is often spent on family interaction and conversations unrelated to the surrounding. Children’s needs come first from being hungry, to loo stops before any exhibits. Mothers often are the key carers who fuss over these aspects.

Social modelling – or learning by observation occurs – for example one child doing something, copied by another. This can be a powerful way of learning (if positive) with parents and children exploring together.

In school groups – affiliation occurs with peers where the environment creates anxiety, i.e. if you put a group of children in a totally strange environment for example city kids in a forest their initial reaction may be to clump together.

However modelling can also change behaviour if used appropriately. The example given is of a large model of geology very similar to previous models in the museum. The difference is this one was not behind glass and was interactive. But parents were confused telling their children – don’t touch. By using a member of staff they museum intervened by getting the staff member to interact with the exhibit. The public then modelled their behaviour on
what they saw.

Visitors spent some time watching other people and seemed to gain enjoyment from other peoples’ enjoyment.

Visitors remember years later who they were with.

In group context visitors with greater knowledge in groups can provide scaffolding or supports to help the learning process. Cues, hints and questions can guide a learner to the right conclusion. This can be the role of the guide or the explainer. Parents too take on this role.

3. Physical Context

Research has shown that museum fatigue is real. Visitors spend less and less time looking at exhibits as their visit proceeds. It is argued that it is a combination of both physical and psychological factors. Some suggest no exhibition should encourage a dwell time of over 30 minutes.

It is also been shown that 75% of visitors turned to the right on entering a gallery and exit through the first door they encounter. Visitors generally see more exhibits on the ground floor than those on upper floors are towards the back of a museum. There is research that also shows that visitors in smaller museums look at more exhibits than larger museums.

For children a novel setting – if totally alien to them, can cause anxiety. In those situations the children did not learn anything, compared with children who were familiar with the setting.

How families spend their time were influenced by the physical context of the museum, three types of behaviour were observed:

1. First time occasional visitors: orientation (3-10mins), intensive looking (15-40mins), exhibit cruising (20-45mins), leaving taking (3-10mins)
2. Frequent visitors: intensive looking, leaving taking – not compelled to visit all the museum just goes to the place that most interests them
3. Organised groups: intensive looking, exhibit cruising  The light, heat, and decoration can affect the physical experience and a feeling of security
and well being.
People often remember the physical context of the museum and when they visited. Recall – even forty years later – can be detailed. Memories include smells, temperature, physical feeling such as ‘we got muddy/wet’.

4. Museum vs Science Centre

• Traditionally Museums places of reverence – low voice, find things of immense value
• Science Centres – hands on
• Museums with hands on exhibits’ in galleries can cause visitors to be confused – do I
touch or not? This can make the visitor uncomfortable.

5. Labels

Visitors create their own experience – interacting and selecting exhibits, discussing them with each other. Not always the way that was intended. They are selective. Each visitors experience is different because they bring their own social and personal context with them.

Exhibit design often tries to use the attracting power of the exhibit to draw the visitor. But this often failed as visitors shows the exhibits they wanted to see. They do not view exhibit linearly so linear stories created by designers are undone! Even a forced route can be skipped. The only solution is with a guide. However the key element of an exhibit is not its attracting power but its ‘holding power’ so a visitor stays to read the label etc.

If you average it out then reading labels lasted seconds. Many read part of the label but not all of it. Most label reading is in the first 20-30 minutes of the visit. Bi model distribution.

First time visitor take 5 -1 5 minutes to decide to stop reading every label – after 40 min very selective. They then become selective on reading labels that satisfy their curiosity.

Visitor first looks at exhibits and asks – what does it do or what is it. Friend may check answer by reading the label. In some cases the answer the visitor wants isn’t in the label so they make it up.

This mis information is frequent and often the result of the curator not including information a visitor might want i.e. showing relevance or not making a simple message explicit enough.

Most visitors deal with information on a concrete level rather than an abstract one. What is it? Compared with ‘how did it change the course of history?’. While abstract can be included the satisfying the concrete questions needs to come first.

‘A museum is not a book’ and museums risk missing the value of three dimensional objects with long text. Visitors spend most of their time to touching, feeling, looking, smelling – and not reading.

Experienced museum visitors are much more capable of absorbing information than the ‘novice’ visitor.

6. The Museum Experience

This starts from the moment of getting ready, departing, journey, arrival and parking. The first interaction with staff can determine the success of the visit. Cleanliness – especially of facilities is rated highest in visitors concerns. Maps have limited use as visitors cannot relate a “D design into a 3D reality. Disney maps use perspective, another approach is using landmarks drawn in relief.

Shops and cafes are also rated by visitors as important. Cafe franchised out can causeproblems if they don’t exhibit the visitors expectations from the museum. Visitors do not discriminate between the time they spend in the gift shop with the time they spend with exhibits – it’s all part of the experience and attention to this aspect is warranted. The content of the gift shop must mirror the content/message of the museum.

7. So the Theory

Personal context – genetics, personal knowledge, learning styles all come in here. Howards Gardeners 7 intelligences – linguistic (highly verbal), logical-mathematical (conceptualise maths problems), spatial (spatial memory read maps, charts and visual displays), musical (play instruments, remember melodies), kinaesthetic (sports and crafts), interpersonal (many friends, socialise and enjoy group games), intrapersonal (independent,
like to work alone, have initiative).

Gardener proposes that the three highlighted are the three that schools focus mainly on. Learners have strengths in different areas and educators should explore them. 4MAT system – Bernice McCarthy – four learning styles or preferences people have for perceiving or processing information: concrete experiences (feeling); reflective observation(watching); abstract conceptualisation (thinking); active experimentation (doing). She extends this into four types of learner: the diverger, who integrates the experience and answers the question why?; the assimilator – who formulates concepts and answers and answers the question What?; the converger, who practices and personalises the question – how does this work?; the accommodator – who integrates practice and experience and answers the question ‘what can this become?’. Her view is that schools frequently only assimilators are reached by classroom teaching.


Maslows hierarchy of needs food to individuality has some relevance to a museum visit. It explains why a visitor needs to satisfy their orientation needs before they can settle to explore exhibits. If the visitor requires food or comfort these come before exhibits.

Rogers work indicates that a person’s learning can only be facilitated, not taught directly; and a person learns well only those things perceived to be conducive to the maintenance and enhancement of self. Martin Maehr contends that motivation is far more than just liking a subject but also influences to what and how to learn and the persistence in the task.

Motivation is both intrinsic – within the learner – and extrinsic as in an external motivation like passing an exam. In informal learning environments intrinsic motivation is the key and is far stronger that external motivation.

Czikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton studied the role of intrinsic motivation plays in learning. Three elements critical: the task must be equal to one’s ability; there must be clear goals for what will be learned; there must be clear feedback. If these are present then deep involvement of effortless progression or ‘flow’ occurs. Associated with this is deep sense of satisfaction, enrichment, a sense of discovery. They suggest museums need to consider
museum experiences as ‘varieties of flow’ experiences.

Jerome Bruner indicates that the interest and the beliefs of the learner is vital and they must have the in discovery learning the expectation that there is something worth learning. Some theorists take this further into suggesting there is an intrinsic aspect of ‘sense making’.


Experiences and knowledge not only influence what a person is interested in looking at, but also their capacity to perceive it. An expert may understand the complex relationship of objects or art, but does not make it explicit to the novice. Abstract presentation are, therefore, more frequently misunderstood. Perception can be both active and selective.

Hence people can come away from the same exhibition with entirely different experiences. Mood can affect memory. Past experiences can be connected to current experiences.

Learning: Museum visitors do not catalogue visual memories of objects and labels in academic, conceptual schemes, but assimilate events and observations in mental categories of personal significance and character, determined by events in their lives before and after a museum visit. This is learning. Not all experiences are assimilated but those that are, are learned.

Two important mechanisms working: firstly is previous knowledge – seeing tangible examples – produces long term memory. Secondly mechanism is subsequent experience – i.e. repetition/reinforcement.

Institutional goals- ..knowing what you want to achieve and making sure that comes through your exhibits.

Nested goals – like Russian dolls: public image, audiences, building, staff, exhibit, printed
matter, —–visitor centred.

8. Further Reading: 

Museums and Education – purpose, pedagogy, performance. Eilean Hooper-Greenhill


Learning In the Museum – George E Hein


The Museum Experience – John Falk and Lynn Dierking


Learning from Museums – John Falk and Lynn Dierking



The Museum Experience Revisited – John Falk and Lynn Dierking




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