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4 minutes reading time (872 words)

Why Are There No Museums of Learning, Teaching, or Education?

IAE Guest Blog
Liza Loop
First published 12/13/2016 In LinkedIn.

Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Well, not none. I've been looking for the Museums of Learning, Teaching and Education in the world for several years. I've only found one, MOTAL (Museum of Teaching and Learning in Fullerton California), that seems to target the field as a whole. There are also several small museums based at university schools of education. Most of these are highly focused on their local geographic region or a specific theme. There must be more... I hope. Do you know of any?

I came to this question when I had to decide whether to discard my accumulation of paper, equipment and ephemera amassed over 40 years of working to enhance learning and teaching through computing. As I watched newcomers in the US and Europe try to integrate electronic techniques into classrooms and non-formal learning environments it appeared that the lessons of those 40 years were not being transmitted to today's practitioners - neither to teachers nor to learners. To fill this gap I've been working to create the History of Computing in Learning and Education Virtual Museum (see our preliminary wiki). The task is to transform the mixture of seminal publications, obsolete equipment, letters, laundry lists, and lesson plans into a series of curated online exhibits of interest to teachers, learners, educational policy makers, university scholars and the public. HCLE is just a small corner of the museum we really need. It only covers the intersection of learning and computing between the years of 1960 to 1990.

What about the rest of humanity's record of passing its know-how from one person to another? Learning is a basic function of living organisms. The highly refined forms of teaching and learning that humans have generated is one way we distinguish ourselves from other creatures. It's how we transmit our variegated cultures from one generation to the next. And it varies widely across communities. For example, in some communities in Africa one rarely tells another, even a child, that he or she is wrong. You "teach" by simply demonstrating a better way. In many schools in the US, putting the learner in the position of not knowing the answer, of being wrong, is the primary instructional method. Each group could benefit from knowing that the other strategy has its strengths and when, how, where and for whom it works well. This would be the content of a global museum of education.

I can imagine some answers to why we don't have such an institution. Perhaps it's the proverbial fish-doesn't-perceive-water conundrum. Learning is so basic to humans that we rarely see it happening. There are pitfalls in this that often don't reach awareness until someone fails to acquire skills, emotional maturity or information normally. We don't think much about children learning to walk and talk until their development falls behind. Our ignorance of the spontaneous processes can leave us clueless as to how to help those who, for whatever reason, do not "self-teach". Equally distressing is the growing number of students who do self-teach and are terribly bored in schools and colleges.

We, in the industrialized countries, have many generations of schooling that have served economic growth for most of the population. Perhaps we are so afraid of change, changes of the conditions in which we live and changes in the behaviors we need to adapt to those conditions, that we can't even look at their basic parameters. We talk endlessly of educational reform and 21st century curricula but is there really anything new in this conversation? An in-depth history of formal education and informal learning would highlight how supposedly 21st century skills have been required by and transmitted throughout human existence.

Parochialism could be another explanation. Perhaps each community of educational practice believes theirs is the epitome of teaching and learning so there is no need to explore how others do it or to reflect on our own methods. Such short sightedness is more than geographic and manifests in several ways. One is confusing the concepts of teaching and learning. When a student does not exhibit the behavior a teacher intends we are likely to say, "The student hasn't learned." In so doing we ignore all the unintentional lessons the student may have taken from the episode of teaching. Such teachers are so focused on their own landscapes that they are unable to see from the perspective of the learner.

Museums are excellent spaces for bringing the unfamiliar closer and for inviting visitors to see what is familiar as strange. Exhibition creates a barrier between the observer and the observed so that the frightening can be approached and the unthinkable can be contemplated. These functions are sorely needed in education. Not only do communities where formal education is not available need to be able to study how it is done in industrialized countries, we, in the so-called "developed nations", need to realize that learning and teaching takes place in every human group, even when its form is radically different from our own. We need to see our contemporary practice in the context of its historical antecedents. We need a safe place to imagine futures diverging from what is known today. We need a global museum of learning, teaching and education.


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