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Volume 56 Number 1 January 2013

ARTICLE

The Right Kind of Wrong: A “Knowledge in Pieces”


Approach to Science Learning in Museums
PRYCE R. DAVIS, MICHAEL S. HORN, AND BRUCE L. SHERIN

Abstract Research has highlighted the vast gulf that exists between experts’ and novices’ understandings
of science, and how difficult it is to bridge this gulf. When this research is applied to the design of museum
exhibits and outreach material, it becomes clear that there is a tension between being scientifically correct
and communicating effectively to a broad, diverse audience. In this paper we present a new approach to
thinking about science learning in museums. Drawing on decades of research from the learning sciences, we
argue that being “wrong” is an inescapable part of learning, and that not all simplifications are problematic.
Instead, being “wrong” involves the gradual restructuring of many fine-grained intuitive or commonsense
notions that persist throughout the learning process and play an essential role in scientific expertise. We
discuss the implications of adopting this approach for museum design.

INTRODUCTION their research, create misconceptions, and are


The basic trouble, you see, is that people think generally “wrong” (Bell 1991; 1999; Dunwoody
that “right” and “wrong” are absolute; that every- 1982; Groseclose and Milyo 2005; Moore and
thing that isn’t perfectly and completely right is Singletary 1985; Stocking and Holstein 1993).
totally and equally wrong. —Isaac Asimov (1989) In education and the learning sciences,
there is a long history of research devoted to the
Within the scientific community, there is differences between novices—those who are
often a tension between the desire to publicize inexperienced and relatively new to a particular
science and the belief that science in the public skill or subject—and experts with extensive
domain is intellectually suspect (Lievrouw experience and training (see Chi, Feltovich, and
1990). Science is dependent on society for Glaser 1981; Chi, Glaser, and Rees 1982).
financial and political support, and reliable Much work has also been done in helping nov-
knowledge produced by science is of practical ices develop expert-level understanding (see
importance for members of the general public. Smith, diSessa, and Roschelle 1993). Over and
So it is in scientists’ best interest to communi- over, this research has highlighted the vast gulf
cate their work to a broad audience, and in the between expert and novice, and the great diffi-
public’s best interest to understand both estab- culty in bridging this gulf. When these results
lished science and emerging research. However, are applied to the design of museum exhibits
once science leaves the controlled discourse of and outreach materials, it becomes clear that
scientists it has a tendency to become simplified there is a potential conflict between being scien-
(Collins 1987; Latour 1987; Whitley 1985) in tifically correct and communicating effectively
ways that scientists often think “dumb down” to a broad, diverse audience. In the worst case,

Pryce R. Davis (pryce@u.northwestern.edu), Ph.D. candidate; Michael S. Horn (michael-horn@northwestern.edu),


assistant professor; Bruce L. Sherin (bsherin@northwestern.edu), associate professor; Learning Sciences, School
of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University, 2120 Campus Drive, Evanston, Illinois 60208.

31
CURATOR THE MUSEUM JOURNAL

there may be a fear of presenting incorrect ideas or elite “visible scientists” who have already made
or reinforcing common misconceptions. This a substantial mark in their fields and can there-
fear may prevent otherwise insightful and inno- fore speak authoritatively to the general public
vative designs from reaching a public audience. without threatening their careers (Goodell
In this paper we present an alternative view. 1977). Of course, other avenues for discussing
Drawing on decades of research from the learn- science exist. Teaching science—both as a collec-
ing sciences, we argue that being “wrong” is an tion of facts and as a process for generating new
inescapable part of learning, and that not all sim- knowledge—has been a fundamental aspect of
plifications are problematic—even those that formal education for over a century. The British
would make an expert cringe. In fact, many con- Academy for the Advancement of Science
structivist learning theories argue that providing (BAAS) advocated teaching and learning science
learners with relevant simplifications is not only as early as 1867 (Layton 1981). Dewey referred
justified, but preferable to a strict adherence to to science as “knowledge in its most characteristic
“correctness” (Clement, Brown, and Zietsman form,” and went as far as to proclaim it “the per-
1989; Sherin 2006; Smith, diSessa, and Ros- fected outcome of learning” (1916, 142). He pos-
chelle 1993). Across the learning sciences, this ited that scientific reasoning “represents the only
insight has emerged in multiple places, and method of thinking that has proved fruitful in
taken a variety of forms. Here, we discuss a con- any subject” (Dewey 1910, 127).
ception of science learning called “Knowledge in The push for science as a school subject was
Pieces” (KiP) (diSessa 1993). From this perspec- intimately tied to the promotion of science as a
tive, learning is not a process of replacing main focus of museums (Friedman 2007). In fact,
misconceptions with correct theories. Instead, it the first credited science teacher in British public
involves the gradual restructuring of many fine- schools, William Sharp, was also notable for his
grained intuitive or commonsense notions that championing of local museums. Likewise, the
persist throughout the learning process and play first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution,
an essential role in scientific expertise (Sherin Joseph Henry, was a scientist. Since that time,
2006). We discuss the implications of the scientists have had a major role in museum
Knowledge in Pieces perspective, both in terms design, and have taken an active role in shaping
of how scientific understanding is communi- how science is portrayed to the public. Today,
cated to the general public and how to judge the many museums double as scientific research insti-
success of such outreach. tutions—the American Museum of Natural His-
tory even offers a Ph.D. program in Comparative
SCIENTISTS AS EDUCATORS AND Biology—and their scientists double as curators.
COMMUNICATORS On the whole, though, contact between scientists
and the general public is only very occasionally
Historically, there has been a belief in the direct, and most often several steps removed.
scientific community that respected scientists do Encouragingly, over the past several dec-
not “go public” (Goodfield 1981). Many scien- ades, popularization of science has become more
tists feared being ostracized for discussing their acceptable, and scientists have been encouraged
research directly in a public forum (Branscomb to engage directly with the public (Proctor
1981). The job of performing this task fell to 2009). Beginning in the early 1980s, the “public
non-scientist communicators such as journalists understanding of science” movement pushed

32 Article: The Right Kind of Wrong: A “Knowledge in Pieces” Approach to Science Learning in Museums
Volume 56 Number 1 January 2013

for a heavier emphasis on promoting science more participatory models of visitor engage-
and technology to the general public, and ment (Simon 2010; Russo 2011; Proctor 2009),
sought to erase the stigma on scientists’ direct in which the role of the curator and scientist
dialogue with the public. In 2003, American transforms from that of an expert to that of a
Association for the Advancement of Science collaborator (Proctor 2009). However, even in
(AAAS) CEO Alan I. Leshner, reaffirming one institutions that are consciously trying to shift
of that organization’s earliest goals, called for “authority” toward a partnership between visi-
scientists and the public to engage in a “more tors and museums (Humphrey and Gutwill
open and honest, bi-directional dialogue about 2005; Gutwill 2008; Enseki 2007), scientists are
science and technology. . . not only [about its] still tasked with generating scientific knowl-
inherent benefits, but also the limits, perils and edge, while museums stick to making that
pitfalls” (2003, 997). On the heels of this decla- knowledge accessible to audiences.
ration, AAAS and other science organizations
began putting extra resources into educating THE TROUBLE WITH EXPERTISE
scientists in effective communication strategies.
During this same period, the rise of new Conforming to the expert science viewpoint
media has made it much easier for any scientist, may not sound problematic. After all, who better
whether a celebrity popularizer or workaday to talk about science than the people doing
researcher, to directly engage with the public. research? But in terms of communicating effec-
Social media such as Facebook and Twitter allow tively to a diverse audience, expertise has its
scientists to share their thoughts and opinions on drawbacks. To start, expertise tends to be local-
new research in real time, and to interact with ized. A biologist may be an expert in biology, but
scientists and non-scientists alike. Blogs provide have no leg to stand on when talking about phys-
scientists with a space to discuss any topic at ics. In fact, the differences between individual
length. In fact, Seed Media Group (seedmedia- domains and subjects of science are so great and
group.com) created a service called Research complex that many conclude that there is no
Blogging that allows bloggers to note when they such thing as an expert in a single, overarching
are writing about peer-reviewed research. The science domain (Rudolph 2003). Of course this
service then collects and aggregates these posts should not present a problem, since scientists
for the rest of the scientific community. Addi- generally only work within their specific fields of
tionally, the rise of digital audio files and portable research. But when communicating with the
media players has inspired hundreds of scientists public, scientists rarely restrict themselves to
and science organizations to produce weekly their own narrow slice of expertise. They must
podcasts discussing science. draw on their personal knowledge of a variety of
While these new media outlets may seem domains, subjects, and beliefs (Posner, Strike,
revolutionary in their scope and openness to Hewson, and Gertzog 1982; Kapon, Ganiel,
dialogue, most of them still function in funda- and Eylon 2010; Davis 2011).
mentally the same way as museums and other Another difficulty is that scientists perceive
traditional informal learning environments. the world differently from non-scientists (Ste-
The main viewpoint shaping the content is that vens and Hall 1998). They are so knowledgeable
of the expert scientist. In contrast, social media in their particular fields of study that they can
has been advocated as a tool to move toward have a hard time understanding what it means

Pryce R. Davis, Michael S. Horn, and Bruce L. Sherin 33


CURATOR THE MUSEUM JOURNAL

not to know something. This is often referred to wholly incorrect. By this we mean that experts
as the “expert blind spot” (Nathan, Koedinger, tend to concentrate on the errors non-experts
and Alibali 2001; Nathan and Petrosino 2003; make, instead of the fruitful aspects of partially
Koedinger and Nathan 2004). When experts correct explanations. When scientists see a mem-
attempt to educate others about their subject ber of the public make a mistake, it’s easy for
matter, they tend to use the formalized princi- them to think of that mistake in terms of “mis-
ples of their discipline to guide instruction. For conceptions” that must be confronted and
this reason, experts have a hard time understand- replaced with expert knowledge. Learning
ing what elements novices might find confusing, researchers back this up with a very large body of
and fail to recognize that axioms experts take for research devoted to illuminating misconceptions
granted may not be apparent to novices. Becom- in a variety of domains (see Pfundt and Duit
ing an expert often involves mastery of a special- 2000 for review). Of course, learners do make
ized vocabulary with a unique set of definitions errors, and limiting those errors is an important
for ordinary words. Experts and novices effec- and worthwhile endeavor. However, viewing
tively speak different languages (Lemke 1990). “misconceptions” as simply wrong raises prob-
For example, experts may overestimate how easy lems for educators attempting to overcome these
it is to understand a formal representation such errors. For example, museums might feel pres-
as a phylogenetic tree (Meir et al. 2007; Gregory sured to adhere to strict scientifically correct
2008) or mathematical equations (Koedinger messages and might worry about accidentally
and Nathan 2004). Studies have even shown imparting misconceptions to visitors. Many
that experts have less access to memories of their exhibits present visitors with rich explanatory
cognitive processes when they are engaged in text alongside counterintuitive phenomena, akin
tasks within their domain of expertise (Ericsson to a strategy of “confront and replace.” However,
and Smith 1991). In short, scientists have trou- the limited success of such “planned discovery”
ble seeing how they became experts, how they exhibits have encouraged science centers and
use their knowledge, and how they learned what museums such as the Exploratorium to explore
they know. other pathways toward visitor engagement and
Recent research on teachers has taken this discovery (Humphrey and Gutwill 2005; Gut-
point further. Researchers suggest that expert will 2008). These efforts are supported by several
understanding of a domain may be an insufficient modern theories of learning that reconceive mis-
qualification for teaching that domain (Gross- conceptions not as faulty notions that need to be
man, Wilson, and Shulman 1989; Wilson, Shul- replaced, but as the building blocks from which
man, and Richert 1987). Instead, the best expertise is ultimately constructed. In the
teachers are those who develop robust “pedagog- remainder of the paper we discuss this alternative
ical content knowledge” (Shulman 1986; Ball, perspective and its implications for museums.
Thames, and Phelps 2008): useful ways of for-
mulating a subject matter to make its learning SEEING THE USEFULNESS IN
less difficult. In other words, the best teachers are MISCONCEPTIONS
not just experts in their subject, but also experts
in knowing how to teach their subject. The way researchers in the learning sciences
Experts tend to view deviations from cur- think about misconceptions has evolved dra-
rently accepted disciplinary conventions as matically over the past 20 years. Prior to the

34 Article: The Right Kind of Wrong: A “Knowledge in Pieces” Approach to Science Learning in Museums
Volume 56 Number 1 January 2013

early 1990s, when researchers talked about mis- learning must chart a path from novice to expert
conceptions, they—explicitly or implicitly— that builds on useful aspects of a novice’s knowl-
made several basic assertions about knowledge edge, and gradually reshapes that knowledge into
and learning. The first is that misconceptions are the expert form (Smith, diSessa, and Roschelle
stable, widespread, and resistant to change—an 1993).
observation supported by significant empirical
research (Clement 1982; 1983). This means that KNOWLEDGE IN PIECES
rather than being momentary hiccups in a
smooth learning process, particular misconcep- The Knowledge in Pieces perspective (KiP,
tions can persist before and after instruction in for short) provides a framework for constructing
children and adults alike. The second assump- accounts of scientific learning that are consistent
tion is that misconceptions interfere with learn- with constructivism. KiP is usually explained by
ing because they are simultaneously flawed and contrasting it with accounts of scientific think-
remarkably resistant to change. For example, it ing and learning in which novices are seen as
is argued that people fail to understand basic possessing their own “naive theories,” which are
aspects of natural selection because they errone- similar in form to expert knowledge, but incor-
ously rely on teleological explanations of adapta- rect from a scientific perspective (see McCloskey
tion—which suggest that organisms actively try 1983). For example, McCloskey argues that
to change to fit their environment (Clough and people with no physics training intuitively hold a
Wood-Robinson 1985; Evans 2000; Lawson naive theory of motion that corresponds to pre-
and Weser 1990; Mayr 1982; Tamir and Zohar Newtonian impetus theory (1983). In this theory,
1991). Finally, this interference with learning a force applied to an object is understood as
means that misconceptions must be replaced. In imparting an ‘‘impetus’’ to the object, which
particular, it has been argued that, for people to keeps its motion going. Absent the continuing
learn, they must confront their own misconcep- force, the impetus gradually dies away, either on
tions (Strike and Posner 1985). This is generally its own or because of the intervention of outside
taken to mean that a learner must externalize a influences. McCloskey argues that this naive
misconception, be presented with a competing theory is the source of misconceptions about
expert conception, and replace the former with motion and must be replaced with a Newtonian
the latter. theory.
Beginning in the early 1990s, some research- Alternatively, researchers have proposed a
ers argued that there are problems with this perspective that has been described as “knowl-
whole chain of reasoning (Smith, diSessa, and edge in pieces,” (diSessa 1988; 1993) “concep-
Roschelle 1993). The crux of the problem is this: tual ecology” (Demastes et al. 1995; diSessa
A basic tenant of all constructivist theories of 2002; Strike and Posner 1992) and a “systems
learning maintains that new knowledge is built perspective” (Smith, diSessa, and Roschelle
from existing knowledge (Piaget 1978; Vygotsky 1993). In the KiP view, prior knowledge is not
1978), and so learning only takes place at the so coherent or stable. Instead, knowledge is
edges of what is already known.1 Thus, any conceived as consisting of many fine-grained
account of learning which has the form delete the bits of knowledge. For example, diSessa argues
old knowledge, replace it with the right knowledge is that people with no physics training don’t hold a
no account of learning at all. A useful account of coherent and consistent impetus theory, but

Pryce R. Davis, Michael S. Horn, and Bruce L. Sherin 35


CURATOR THE MUSEUM JOURNAL

that instead their knowledge consists of many answers that a scientist would view as correct.
small sub-elements he calls phenomenological Out in the world, the same elements can be
primitives or “p-prims” (1993). These p-prims employed in ways that are useful or not useful,
are the microgeneralizations that people given the demands of the circumstance.
abstract from their experience. Once estab- Moreover, even expert scientists persist in
lished, p-prims don’t disappear or become using elements of knowledge in ways that are,
replaced. Many different p-prims can be acti- strictly speaking, incorrect. The difference is
vated and organized in the moment, in order to that experts know when precision is required,
help people interpret their experience. and when it is sufficient to reason more infor-
P-prims, by themselves, are neither correct mally. For example, biologists frequently discuss
nor incorrect. They become correct or incorrect evolutionary adaptation in terms of what organ-
only in their application. For example, consider isms need to survive (Reiss 2011). Biologists
the p-prim “more effort yields increased results.” might claim that non-experts use teleological
If this p-prim is applied to say that increased force explanations because they do not understand the
yields increased velocity, this would be incorrect science, while the biologists themselves use such
from the point of view of formal physics. But if descriptions to create simplifying analogies used
the same p-prim is applied as a way to understand for economy of explanation. Scientists under-
that increased force can yield increased accelera- stand the concept in pragmatic forms that allow
tion, that usage would be correct. them to use “wrong” knowledge in productive
Furthermore, applications of p-prims that ways (Sherin 2006). Likewise, some physicists
are incorrect from the point of view of formal and chemists frequently lament the fact that, in
physics are nonetheless highly adaptive for popular culture, atoms are still portrayed using
functioning in the real world. For example, if a the Bohr model, the “atom as solar system” anal-
child wants to push a heavy box across the floor, ogy (Fischler and Litchfield 1992; Nakhleh
the child will probably be best served by pro- 1992; Ouelette 2012). The fact that this obsolete
ceeding under the assumption that increased theory persists in popular culture might be frust-
force yields increased speed. Likewise, there is rating to scientists, but they also understand
evidence that kids sometimes think about the how the Bohr model can function as a produc-
shape of the Earth as being both flat and round tive intermediary model in learning the quantum
at the same time—like a hollow sphere with model (Grosslight, Unger, Jay, and Smith 2006;
people living on flat ground deep inside (some- Kalkanis, Hadzidaki, and Stavrou 2003; Mc-
thing like a fish bowl) (Vosniadou and Brewer Kagan, Perkins, and Wieman 2008).
1992). This is obviously incorrect, but the idea
persists because it is useful for kids to go WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR MUSEUMS?
through their days treating the Earth as flat—
since the part they live on is relatively flat. So what does all this mean for how we think
Thus, according to the KiP perspective, about communicating science to the public in
kids have elements of knowledge that, in and of museums? The bad news is that communicating
themselves, are neither wrong nor right. In sci- science in a way that results in deep learning is
ence learning environments such as classrooms, difficult and time consuming. Even the clearest
these elements might be used to construct explanations and the most obvious confronta-
answers that are wrong (misconceptions) or tion with naive conceptions can fail to produce

36 Article: The Right Kind of Wrong: A “Knowledge in Pieces” Approach to Science Learning in Museums
Volume 56 Number 1 January 2013

any meaningful or lasting change. Existing intu- to put away the driver and make several shorter
itive knowledge, meanwhile, is stable and resis- shots that reach the hole less directly but in
tant to instruction—and for good reason. It is fewer overall strokes.
knowledge that works in the world and that is How does this analogy relate to learning? If
reinforced through everyday experience. Knowl- you believe that people have incorrect theories
edge in Pieces suggests that the most we can comprised of a few principles, then you just have
hope to achieve are small learning outcomes that to swap out those principles to produce the
are incremental in nature—that slowly restruc- desired learning outcome. This is the straight
ture, reshape, and connect existing knowledge. shot from the tee to the green. But if instead you
When we design exhibits to explain away or believe, as we are arguing here, that there are
replace misconceptions, we are ignoring the many steps and intermediate states on the way
active nature of knowledge construction and set- to expertise, then there is a question of how
ting ourselves up for failure. We know that “straight” your path might be. If you achieve
obtaining learning outcomes in museums can be small changes always strictly in the direction of
tough. Pekarik (2010) argues that a focus on “correct” expert knowledge, the learner might
learning outcomes in museum evaluation never pass through a stable state that allows for
emphasizes the passive acquisition of informa- explanatory work—resulting in a semi-perpet-
tion and ignores the personally meaningful ual state of confusion (all water hazards and
unintended consequences. But de-emphasizing sand traps) that abates in the rare occasions
learning as a goal in science museums means that when expert-level understanding is achieved.
we are no longer prioritizing attempts to help On the other hand, the indirect path, because it
people access the kind of reliable knowledge relies on fine-grained, intuitive knowledge,
about the world that scientists produce. might pass through stable and functional, albeit
This all might sound like a depressing out- somewhat “wrong,” intermediate states. These
look for learning science in informal environ- shorter golf strokes may appear to be leading the
ments (and formal environments, for that learner away from the goal of “correct” knowl-
matter). However, one of the points we want to edge, but are easier to hit with accumulated
make in this paper is that from a Knowledge in prior knowledge. Eventually the ball reaches the
Pieces perspective, we should not resign our- hole and learners are able to obtain the correct
selves to small learning gains, but instead we understanding while still retaining productive
should strive for and be encouraged by small prior knowledge.
gains in learning through exhibits and public Obviously, this is an imperfect analogy that
outreach, even if the result of that learning is an puts less emphasis on the fact that productive
understanding that is “incorrect.” One way to learning often comes from personal meaning-
think about this is through the analogy of golf. making resulting in multiple outcomes. Learn-
At first glance it might appear that the shortest ing is a complex process that involves personal
way to the hole is a straight shot from the tee to identity, social and material context, and idio-
the green. The problem is that the distance syncratic trajectories. A more accurate analogy
turns out to be much farther than it looks, and if would create a golf course with a multitude of
the straight shot lands the ball in a sand trap, holes, an infinite number of tees, and personally
rather than on the green or fairway, our effort is defined fairways. But for our purposes in dis-
wasted. Instead, the more productive strategy is cussing the goal of experts, a single hole is

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CURATOR THE MUSEUM JOURNAL

enough to highlight the usefulness of the indi- Fender and Crowley 2007; Guichard 1995;
rect path. Diamond, Evans, and Spiegel 2012). Yet other
Another reason to embrace the intermediate researchers document difficulty of deep science
steps of small learning gains is that learning is not learning in museums (Allen 2004), and arrive at
usually isolated in single events. Of course, there conclusions that are quite similar to our own
can be epiphanic learning moments (Gentner, (Falk and Dierking 2000).
Brem, Ferguson, Markman, Levidow, Wolff, Because of this, we suggest that it might be
and Forbus 1997), but most learning is small and worthwhile to draw some lessons from classroom
gradual (Piaget 1978). Furthermore, many intervention designs that are in line with the KiP
researchers have documented the way learning perspective. Of course, the first step for design-
crosses contexts and how combining multiple ing KiP-influenced science museums exhibits
instances of small learning gains has an accumu- would be to assess visitors’ current understand-
lated effect that results in broader conceptual ing. We stress that this does not mean we should
change (Ochs and Taylor 1992; Warren, perform short pre-visit surveys or close-ended
Ballenger, Ogonowski, Rosebery, and Hudi- interviews. Uncovering the fine-grained intuitive
court-Barnes 2001; Zimmerman and Bell knowledge that visitors draw on to make sense of
2007). Museum research has demonstrated how scientific phenomena might require visitor
museum visits impact learning in other contexts, observations, think-aloud protocols, and in-
such as home and school (Anderson, Lucas, depth, open-ended clinical interviews. Clinical
Ginns, and Dierking 2000). So even if museums interviews in particular have been a widely used
are not suited to be centers of high-order learning tool to uncover conceptual change and intuitive
(Wellington 1990) they can still contribute knowledge (Posner and Gertzog 1982), and they
important bits of larger learning gains over time have been shown to make in-the-moment con-
(Falk and Dierking 2000). If we think about ceptual dynamics visible (Sherin, Krakowski,
museum visits as a part of a system of learning and Lee 2012). An iterative program of inter-
events that together begin to add up to the cumu- views can keep curators, exhibit designers, and
lative learning, then offering memorable small docents aware of visitor thinking and help keep
steps of the indirect path might be preferable to museums reactive to their visitors. The goal of
targeting large shifts in understanding. Our this visitor research is not to find out what visi-
question for museums is: What would an exhibit tors are lacking so that post-visit studies can eval-
that attempts this less direct path look like? uate an exhibit’s success. Instead, this research is
meant to empower the designers to empathize
DESIGNING IN MUSEUMS WITH KIP with visitors and to recognize the useful ideas
that an exhibit might utilize to aid in learning.
Decades of research have discussed the cog- Specifics of designs are dependent on con-
nitive, personal, and social nature of learning in tent, context, and visitor knowledge, but we
museums (Anderson, Piscitelli, Weier, Everett, would like to make some suggestions about pos-
and Tayler 2002; Crowley and Callanan 1998; sible strategies that might be employed. Some
Falk, Moussouri, and Coulson 1998; Falk and of the most successful instructional techniques
Dierking 2000). Several studies have shown that adopt KiP perspectives involve deep class-
positive learning outcomes in single visits to room discussions based around “benchmark
museums (Borun, Massey, and Lutter 1993; lessons” (diSessa and Minstrell 1998; Hunt and

38 Article: The Right Kind of Wrong: A “Knowledge in Pieces” Approach to Science Learning in Museums
Volume 56 Number 1 January 2013

Minstrell 1994; Minstrell 1989; van Zee and board). Incrementally moving from intuitive
Minstrell 1997). This strategy involves identify- examples to the counterintuitive goal gives the
ing concepts that students already understand learner a concrete, productive, and easy to fol-
and using deep classroom discussion to build low path to the target concept (in this case, the
from these toward “target” conceptions that Newtonian idea of a passive force, which explains
more closely match a scientific view. While this that the table does supply an upward force on
sort of deep discussion may be difficult to the book).
achieve in museums, starting with concepts the This basic model seems reasonably easy to
learner understands, creating a safe exploration transfer to a museum exhibit that guides visitors
space, making thinking visible, and coaching from an anchoring artifact through successive
toward a scientific viewpoint can all be modified analogically bridging artifacts to a target arti-
to fit with the museum space. These lessons can fact. For example, an exhibit wishing to help
guide the choice of phenomena presented in the visitors understand the cause of the seasons
exhibit, how it is presented, the language of the might start with a model of a rotisserie cooker
labeling, and the role of the docent. (emphasizing everyday understanding about
Related to benchmark lessons, techniques directness of a heat and light source on a rotat-
suggested by Clement use anchoring concepts and ing object), then a flashlight projecting onto a
bridging analogies (Clement, Brown, and Ziets- vertical stick, then a flashlight projecting onto a
man 1989; Clement 1993). Clement used think- tilted stick, and finally a model of the Sun and
aloud interviews to document how students and the Earth. Obviously these would require expla-
scientists spontaneously use analogies to make nations, but they would likely cause less confu-
sense of scientific phenomena (1987; 1988). In sion than the final model in isolation.
the KiP view, analogies function to activate pro- Finally, KiP-related research on learners’
ductive resources (Hammer 2000). Clement’s understanding of scientific representations
strategy begins with a target problem—a difficult argues that learners have intuitive ideas about
to grasp scientific question (for instance, representations (diSessa 2004; diSessa, Ham-
whether or not a table exerts an upward force on mer, Sherin, and Kolpakowski 1991; diSessa
a book placed on it). An expert conception of and Sherin 2000; Elby 2000). This research
the problem and an understanding of learners’ suggests that instruction that involves merely
intuitive conceptions allows us to derive an explaining common representations (graphs,
anchoring concept—one that is intuitively tables, and so on) leads to poor understanding
appealing, activates productive resources, and and fails to take advantage of people’s meta-
maps onto the target problem (such as a hand representational competence, the full range of
placed on a spring). Unfortunately, it is difficult capabilities people have to generate, construct,
for learners to see the anchoring concept and critique, and refine representations. Instead, we
the target problem as analogous. So we must should provide tasks that allow learners the
gradually move the learner toward the target opportunity to design their own representations
problem through the use of bridging analogies, in problem solving tasks. These meta-represen-
which are intermediate examples of the target tational tasks engage the learner, encourage cre-
problem that share features with the anchoring ativity, and promote sense-making in science
concept (for instance, a hand placed on foam, a (diSessa and Sherin 2000). Based on this idea,
book placed on foam, a book placed on a flexible we are involved in an ongoing project to design

Pryce R. Davis, Michael S. Horn, and Bruce L. Sherin 39


CURATOR THE MUSEUM JOURNAL

a museum exhibit to encourage visitors to con- conceptions by adding manipulable traits as part
struct their own phylogenetic tree representa- of the gameplay and allowing visitors to create
tions as part of a multi-level puzzle game (see and justify their own trees (whether “correct” or
Horn et al. 2012). For each level of the game, not). We believe this will help them build a dee-
visitors are presented with a set of organisms per understanding of the evolutionary relation-
and challenged to join them into a tree structure ship of organisms.
that reflects their phylogenetic relationships.
For example, visitors puzzle through the rela- WHAT THIS DOES NOT MEAN FOR
tionships of birds, lizards, and mammals on one MUSEUMS
level, and of mushrooms, people, and green
plants on another. The levels get progressively We have attempted to give a moderately
more difficult, and there are often surprise out- thorough explanation of the Knowledge in
comes (for example, that fungi are more closely Pieces perspective and how it might be adopted
related to people and all other animals than they by museums. But limited space means an
are to plants). Our first instantiation of the exhaustive description is impossible. So this
game was successful, in the sense that it was paper is an exercise in what it preaches—we’re
engaging and collaborative. simplifying. To add a bit more detail, we’d like
However, it also provided less opportunity to address some possible ramifications of misap-
for visitors to reason through the representa- plying this perspective.
tions that we had provided than we had hoped First, embracing learners’ mistakes does not
(Horn et al. 2012). A detailed evaluation con- give designers the license to be sloppy. The point
ducted with visitors in a natural history museum is to find productive ways to use mistakes and
suggested that subtle features of the game (and intuitive understandings. This does not mean
the ways in which visitors manipulate elements that we should ignore the accepted scientific
of the phylogenetic tree representations) play an understanding and sacrifice the goal of being
important role in people’s ability to reason correct and clear in our explanations. The expert
through their interactions. In particular, in the understanding should remain the ultimate
current version of the game, visitors construct objective, and not every simplification or error is
phylogenetic trees by manipulating tokens rep- a productive pathway to that understanding.
resenting organisms rather than the structure of Secondly, we are not making the argument
the tree itself. This may sound like a superficial that a single exhibit will be an effective learning
difference, but the focus on organisms seemed environment for every learner. We are also not
to activate many bits of knowledge about living suggesting that individual differences make
things, but less knowledge about the relation- learning—even learning en masse—impossible.
ships that tie them together. Furthermore, We envision museums as a system of mutually
many visitors relied on the embedded gameplay supportive learning environments. Paying atten-
features to decide whether their trees were cor- tion to learners’ intuitive understanding allows
rect. So instead of thinking deeply about the designers to improve the ways in which exhibits
organisms, they quickly found the “correct” tree reach deep learning, but not every exhibit will
and moved on. Our hope is that later iterations lead to deep learning for every visitor. A well-
will take full advantage of people’s meta-repre- designed exhibit increases the likelihood that at
sentational competence and intuitive biological least one visitor will learn from it. Likewise, a

40 Article: The Right Kind of Wrong: A “Knowledge in Pieces” Approach to Science Learning in Museums
Volume 56 Number 1 January 2013

system of connected and well-designed exhibits Our goal is to encourage science communi-
increases the likelihood that all visitors will learn cators—whether they are involved in traditional
at least a little bit from at least one exhibit. informal spaces like museums or in new outlets
Finally, we are not suggesting that museums like blogs and podcasts—to overcome the
should adopt a strict uniformity. We believe that expert’s fixation with what is “right” and
if a museum’s goal is deep knowledge transfor- “wrong” about what learners think. We want to
mation, then designing exhibits based on the move past concerns about misconceptions and
KiP perspective is necessary. But museums have embrace the productive ideas that non-experts
multiple goals, and they should design exhibits have about scientific phenomena. In doing so,
based on multiple perspectives. For example, we hope to empower science educators and
inspiring awe and excitement about historic sci- communicators with tools that allow them to
entific breakthroughs is an important role for focus on science learning while still paying
museums (Bell, Lewenstein, Shouse, and Feder attention to what is personally relevant and
2009) that might produce distinctly different meaningful for the learner.
kinds of designs. A museum’s strength and dis- By its nature, Knowledge in Pieces con-
tinctiveness comes from the depth of experience ceives of understanding as fluid, dynamic, and
it provides and the authentic artifacts that can be constructive. We embrace the new modes of sci-
found nowhere else. We embrace the rich diver- ence communication that are personal, sponta-
sity of exhibits as necessary to engage visitors on neous, humorous, and dialogic. But in doing so,
emotional, personal, and cultural levels. we believe that we cannot lose track of the
importance of reliable scientific knowledge to
CONCLUSION our society. We should harness the power of
those new modes, and do so in a way that retains
In this article we have introduced an the centrality of science learning. END
approach to science learning in museums. Pek-
arik argues that a museum that attempts to
NOTE
“uncover ‘what people know’ about a subject in
order to refine the cognitive message that is to be
1. As used by cognitive scientists, “knowledge”
the exhibition’s objective will have trapped itself refers to all of the mental representations—the
within the model of outcome-based develop- mental stuff—that is possessed by a person,
ment, since it is likely to ignore—or not solicit, or whether it be right or wrong, well-formed or
not notice—data that points to the value of other, inchoate.
very different visitor goals, including those that
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