Saturday, October 24, 2009

Free to Learn Science

We met Dr. John Falk last week. He is one of the authors of one of our textbooks, "Learning from Museums". His main area of research is free-choice learning in science education, particularly in museums. He and rhetoritian Dr. Carolyn Miller were visiting as part of a review by the Ontario Council of Graduate School.

It is too bad that they were only visiting for a short time. A guest lecture from them would have been great. One of our professors, Chantal Barriault, is a big fan of Dr. Falk's work.

Free-choice learning is an interesting concept that I never really thought about. We generally learn from three main sources; school, work and free-choice learning. The last one, is often overlooked. Free-choice learning is essentially learning "what we want, but also where we want, when we want and with whom we want" (Falk 2002). This includes learning from books, magazines, television, museums, science centres, word of mouth and more.

Dr. Falk's studies in the United States indicate that people learn a lot of science from free-choice sources compared to school or work. For example, people look up medical information online if a family member of friend has been diagnosed with an illness. People watch Mythbusters and Discovery Channel and get all sorts of information. The first point is that people can learn a lot of information when they want to, and they can learn a difficult topic like science. I'm sure that everyone can come up with an example in their own lives. I, like many kids, had spent a lot of my youth learning about dinosaurs. 

SciComm Class with John Falk. Top row (left to right): Julie Fisowich, Kevin McAvoy, James Baxter-Gilbert, John Falk, Myles Carter, Steph Lynn-Russell, Merissa Scarlett, Iara Dos Santos. Bottom row (left to right): Justin So, Jenn McCallum, Sarah Bouchard, Holly Baker, Mylene Lenzi.

People learn  personally interesting science topics from free-choice sources moreso than from formal education. Does this mean that school isn't important? Are governments misguided in funding schools to increase science literacy?

Not really. I would argue that it is good to have a standard set of school science topics to appeal to a variety of students. However, the studies show that free-choice learning is just as important as formal schooling and should not be overlooked.

If organizations and governments really want to engage people in science there should be an increase in newspaper science articles and stories (which are in decline) or in science TV programming. People want to learn science, given the right source. For me, I think I'll go watch another episode of Jurassic Fight Club... Ciao.

- Justin

Falk JH (2002) The contribution of free-choice learning to public understanding of Science. Interciencia. 27(2):62-65

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