Interactive learning - the demands of the task

The nature of the task in an interactive learning experience makes psychological demands on the learner which differ in some distinctive respects from the traditional tasks of formal education. Interactive learning tasks encompass three psychological dimensions: cognitions, self-efficacy beliefs and social identifications. The assessment requirements of formal education has led to an emphasis on the first of these dimensions, but in both informal and non-formal educational experiences the other two are both as important as the first

Our understanding of the psychological processes involved in interactive learning is still developing. For the most part, research into the psychology of interactive learning has tended to explore imaginative science education undertaken in relatively formal settings, or within the formal school structure. However, the type of interactive learning which takes place in a science centre has some important differences.

Some of these differences are material ones. The science centre benefits from having very different resources and also from being focussed primarily on the individual rather than on the group, which enriches the potential learning experience considerably. Other differences are less measurable, although no less important; in particular, the voluntary nature of the learner's engagement and, associated with that, they way in which the learner is free to engage only with fragments of an exhibition rather than pursue the whole systematically.

These differences bring to the fore two other important psychological dimensions of learning, which add to and complement the cognitive dimension. They are also present in formal educational settings, but in those the more structured nature of the experience can easily cause them to be overlooked. In the science centre experience, however, they are of primary importance. These other psychological dimensions are self-efficacy, and social identification. Approaching evaluation of the science centre task using these three dimensions, rather than just the cognitive dimension alone, can provide us with a useful framework for understanding the psychological demands of an interactive learning task.

The Cognitive dimension

The cognitive dimension has traditionally been the main focus for our understanding of both formal and non-formal educational experience. There are two main reasons for this. One of them is the intuitive, common-sense one, which is to do with the outcome of learning. Although it doesn't apply to all learning, where scientific knowledge is concerned, the end product of acquiring it is that our cognitions have changed. We think differently as a result; and depending on the depth of our understanding, we may be able to put those different cognitions to use in day to day interaction with the world. However, although altered cognitions may be the end product, that does not mean that the cognitive dimension can explain the entire process of learning.

The other reason for focussing largely on the cognitive domain of learning has been because traditionally, educational assessment has remained almost exclusively in this dimension. Both imaginative teaching methods and science centres have often ventured into motivational and emotional domains, for instance by building up self-efficacy beliefs, or utilising pre-existing social identifications. However, a lack of scope for the assessment of these dimensions has meant that they have taken second place to the cognitive dimension in our understanding of the demands of the task.

This is not to belittle the cognitive dimension. Within this dimension, interactive learning provides a sophisticated vehicle for the development and / or challenge of existing schemata and personal constructs. The experience is deliberately structured in such a way that making sense of what has happened will lead the individual to a clearer conceptual grasp of the topic at hand.

The cognitive dimension, however, is not enough to explain everything about interactive learning. This is implicitly recognised in the way that we evaluate a visit to a science centre. Typically, questions such as whether the process has been enjoyable, overall impressions of the quality of the experience, and whether the learner is likely to want to engage in similar experiences in the future are of prime importance. These bear little resemblance to the asessment of science learning in formal education, and can provide us with a much richer picture of the demands of the task. Without a coherent psychological framework, however, that picture remains elusive.

Cognitive development alone is not enough to explain the psychology of the science centre experience. There are many other psychological processes involved, which tap into personal, emotional and motivational domains. In developing a framework for understanding the demands of a science centre's tasks, two of the most important of these psychological processes are self-efficacy beliefs and social identifications.

The Self-efficacy dimension

Self-efficacy beliefs are all about how effective, or competent, we feel ourselves to be. Bandura and others have shown how positive self-efficacy beliefs are the key factors in human motivation: those with high self-efficacy beliefs learn more effectively than those with low ones, even when ability has been carefully matched. Indeed, it has been shown that children of lower ability but higher self-efficacy beliefs ultimately perform better in school maths classes than those of higher ability but a more passive approach to their learning. The fact that they believe that they are capable of learning effectively in the end leads those children to persevere, and to try harder, which produces results in the end.

A typical interactive learning task is designed to allow the individual to participate as an active agent in the learning experience, rather than as a passive recipient of information. In so doing, it challenges learned helplessness, and this is where its motivational power comes in. Many people carry a sense of helplessness away from their formal educational experience - a sense that they have little control over acquiring scientific competence, and that scientific knowledge is for experts rather than ordinary people. It is this sense of helplessness which produces the challenge in science education, and which makes the science centre so important.

By showing that science is reachable, and that all of us can actively participate in developing our own understanding of how the world works, the science centre experience directly challenges that helplessness. It aims to generate a sense of agency and autonomy on the part of the learner, and by so doing, it enhances the person's sense that they really can understand and utilise scientific concepts. So one of the key feature of an interactive learning task is that it should provide people with the opportunity to develop, or enhance, their self-efficacy beliefs.

The Social identity dimension

Another frequently-overlooked part of the learning experience is to do with social identification. Our individual identity is only part of the story: our sense of self includes many social identities as well. We belong to various social groups and categories in society, and these are part of how we see ourselves. Depending on whether it is relevant, I may identify as a psychologist, aligning myself with other psychologists, say, in an inter-disciplinary challenge; or as English, or as a resident of Yorkshire, or as a member of my particular academic department.

Effectively, social identity is all about "us-and-them" - which is a very deeply-rooted part of human consciousness which has everything to do with our evolution as social animals. And identification with social groups is closely bound up with social respect, and a sense of personal dignity. Psychological research into social identity can tell us a great deal about how it takes place, and when intergroup conflicts are likely to occur. By understanding these mechanisms, we are in a position to learn why some forms of information become associated with certain groups and rejected by others. Some groups in society, for instance, consciously reject or systematically disparage "scientists" and their ways of thinking about things. Other groups have nothing against science as such, but consciously reject anything associated with school.

It is the voluntary nature of science centre learning which enables it to operate within the social identifications which visitors bring with them. For instance, rather than converting all visitors into passive recipients, the science centre allows a father to maintain his role of mentor and guide for younger children without getting out of his depth, or being obliged to surrender his authority to a teacher or explainer. Science centre learning has considerable potential for reducing this type of social conflict, and allowing the visitor to retain their social identity and therefore personal dignity.

This potential means that the science centre is able to reach even those who have rejected formal educational methods. A teenager who aims to maintain an image of being anti-school, or even anti-establishment - can participate in an interactive learning task in a science centre without challenging that image. But the same teenager would refuse to engage in the same task in a more structured, or less voluntary, setting. An interactive learning experience can benefit from allowing any individual to operate from a secure sense of social identity - even when that social identification is normally inimical to formal learning situations. It is in this context, too, that we can analyse "outreach" science exhibits and projects, aimed at particular groups within the population.


These three dimensions do not represent the whole story, of course. There are a number of other psychological mechanisms which exert their influence on the way that people respond to interactive science exhibits, such as the social representations widely held by groups within society, or the social scripts which people apply to their understanding of day to day living. But if we wish to develop a framework for evaluation of the learning task which takes account of more subtle psychological processes, then these three dimensions can provide a useful starting point.

Evaluating a learning task or exhibit, then, involves asking three sets of questions rather than one. Instead of just asking "what can the individual learn from this task/exhibit?", we also ask "how can this task/exhibit contribute to a positive sense of self-efficacy?", and "does this task/exhibit provide the person with scope for expressing their social identification and therefore personal dignity?". In doing so, we open up a broader context for understanding why science centre tasks can be effective, and for planning their enrichment.

Nicky Hayes 1996

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