Adult Learning in Non-formal Institutions

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Adult Learning in Non-formal Institutions

Museums, zoos, nature centers, science centers, aquariums, and other similar institutions provide a tremendous opportunity for lifelong learning in a relatively nonthreatening setting for most adults (Schroeder 1970). Many of these attractions and museums include education as a part of their missions (see, for example, Allmon 1994; Chizar, Murphy, and Illiff 1990; Conway 1982) and the popularity of these places as providers of both recreation and education is well established (Chobot 1989). This Digest explores some of the central concepts of adult learning in these settings. A brief discussion of nonformal learning and the adult visitor lays the foundation for the examination of ideas in the literature on (1) what is educational in attractions, (2) opportunities and challenges to education in these settings, and (3) the application of adult learning theory to zoo, museum, center, and attraction education.

Adult Visitors and Nonformal Learning

Nonformal learning is often defined by activities outside the formal learning setting, characterized by voluntary as opposed to mandatory participation (Crane et al., 1994). Mocker and Spear (1982) offer a taxonomy of adult learning wherein nonformal learning is identified as learners holding the objectives for learning with the means controlled by the educator or organization. Maarschalk (1988) contrasts nonformal learning (i.e., outside formal settings--such as field trips and museum visits) with informal learning (i.e., that which grows out of spontaneous situations).

In zoos, museums, nature centers, and attractions, adult learning can range from formal through nonformal to informal. Workshops, lectures, classes, and educational "shows" are some of the common formal adult learning programs; tours, informational signage, exhibits/interactive displays, and demonstrations are often considered nonformal learning constructed by the education staff; the individual visitor and the setting create informal learning situations (Diem 1994).

For whom are these opportunities constructed? In a study of zoo visitors, Conway (1982) found that between 55-70% of all zoo visitors are adults. Hundreds of millions of people visit museums, zoos, nature centers, science centers, and other attractions (Falk and Dierking 1992). In North America, for example, over 100 million people visit zoos and aquariums each year (Eaton 1981; Howard 1989; Marshall 1994), and over 500 million visit museums (Naisbitt and Aburdene 1990). This translates to a tremendous population of learners. Adults more often than children suggest the visit (Cheek, Field, and Burdge 1976) and are also the societal decision makers whose actions directly affect the attraction, whether the decision is simply to visit or to support funding for expansion or renovation (Diem 1994).

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