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The Learning Conference 2003

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Presentation Details


What Does Learning Mean?: Museum Visitors Talk About Learning

Lynda Kelly.

Learning is essential to our existence, a fundamental part of humanity. It is an individual and social process that humans are constantly engaged in, both consciously and unconsciously. Learning occurs across a wide range of contexts and situations, in both formal and informal settings. In seeking to explain what learning means many theories, philosophies and ideas have been proposed, from Aristotle who theorised that all knowledge was based on sensory experiences that had been processed by the mind, to contemporary views of learning as a sociocultural practice and lifelong process. These current theories of learning emphasise the individual and social nature of learning and the meanings that an individual makes based on their knowledge, experiences and social circumstances.

In studying learning, however, much of the emphasis has been on what, where and how people learn. There has been little research that seeks to uncover why people learn and how they view themselves as a learner across a variety of learning contexts. My research is focussing on uncovering a range of individual 'learning images': personal views, perceptions and ideas about learning. What does learning mean?

As learning does occur across a wide range of settings, I have located my research in the museums sector, specifically the Australian Museum, Sydney, the oldest natural history and cultural museum in Australia. As informal learning environments, museums are increasingly positioning themselves as places for rich learning experiences. Research has shown that when asked why they visit places such as museums people often say 'to learn' (Hein & Alexander, 1998; Kelly, 2001), but there has been little exploration into what this actually means for visitors.

In the first stage of my research a pilot set of eight interviews were conducted with adults who had recently visited a museum. Initially respondents found it difficult to talk about learning as a concept, as it was seen as something 'you just did' without thinking very much about it. However, the nature of the interview allowed participants to discuss learning as it related to them and their personal experiences. The themes that emerged from an analysis of these discussions were place, people, tools, motivation and outcomes of learning. Based on these findings a quantitative survey was undertaken to uncover a range of perceptions and understandings about the concept of learning across a larger sample. A set of eleven statements about learning were developed, with each rated on the importance to the individual. In addition, tools and resources that were identified as important in learning were also included in the survey and rated by respondents. One hundred interviews were undertaken with visitors to the Australian Museum and 500 phone surveys conducted with adults in Sydney and Canberra.

This paper will present detailed results from this research that contribute to answering questions about what learning means and where it happens from the learner's perspective.


Lynda Kelly  (Australia)
Audience Research Centre
Australian Museum

Lynda Kelly is the Head of the Australian Museum Audience Research Centre (AMARC). Lynda’s interests include visitor experiences and learning, Indigenous evaluation, science learning, young children’s learning and the strategic use of evaluation in organisational change. Lynda is currently undertaking a doctorate investigating how adult museum visitors describe learning.

  • Defining Learning
  • Research
  • Museums

(30 min Conference Paper, English)