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Motivating the Desire to Learn

What Makes Visitors Want to Learn? was the intriguing title of the feature article appearing in the May/June 1995 issue of Museum News. The article, authored by Mihaly Csikszentmihályi and Kim Hermanson of the University of Chicago, examines visitors’ intrinsic desire to learn from museum exhibitions.

Though clearly written for exhibit planners and designers, the article has important implications for staff and volunteer educators. These unsung (at least within the context of the aforementioned article) stalwarts of the museum profession grapple with issues of motivation and learning all the time, and on the most immediate levels. For, they must motivate and engage today’s arriving visitor regardless of (and sometimes in spite of) their institution’s exhibit design or installation.

Csikszentmihályi and Hermanson begin by drawing distinctions between learning that is externally motivated and that which is motivated internally. Extrinsic actions are motivated by the anticipation of external rewards, such as grades in school or a paycheck at work. Intrinsic actions are motivated by the anticipation of internal rewards, such as satisfying one’s personal curiosities and interests.

“Schools,” Csikszentmihályi and Hermanson state, “can afford to ignore intrinsic rewards to a certain extent because they have strong external incentives to enforce learning — grades, truant officers, etc. But museums, without external means to compel a visitor’s attention, must rely almost exclusively on intrinsic rewards.

“Museum visitors may at first attend to an exhibit because of curiosity and interest. But,” the authors warn, “unless the interaction with the exhibit becomes intrinsically rewarding, the visitors’ attention will not focus on it long enough for positive intellectual or emotional changes to occur.”

The authors inform readers that studies in a variety of settings reveal “that a common experimental state characterizes situations in which people are willing to invest psychic energy in tasks for which extrinsic rewards are absent.” This state of intrinsic motivation, which the authors term “flow,” has several general attributes.

They include:

  • opportunities for thorough involvement and for making personal discoveries;
  • an open process that is accommodating of various viewpoints;
  • an experience where challenges are tailored to the learner’s level of ability and experience;
  • an atmosphere that is positive and reinforcing; and
  • where individually meaningful experiences can connect with the experience of others.

Let’s investigate these five attributes that characterize flow experiences, and consider how we might incorporate them into our museum teaching.

Involvement and Personal Discoveries

Intrinsic motivation at its most intense and rewarding, Csikszentmihályi and Hermanson tell us, “involves the person’s entire being and full capacity … . [Such] activities provide a sense of discovery — we discover things about ourselves as well as the environment.”

In the vast majority of circumstances, listening to gallery talks or lectures is basically passive and non-participatory. Similarly, listening rarely involves a person’s “entire being and full capacity.” The one exception to this may be listening to stories. Storytelling has the potential to fully engage and activate listeners. Effective storytellers compel their audiences to consider, envision, and emote, engaging their sensory and emotional faculties, along with intellectual ones.

In addition, listening rarely leads to discovering things about one’s self. Rather, listening usually entails hearing about the discoveries made by people other than ourselves. We discover things about ourselves by being challenged and then uncovering resources from within that arise to meet that challenge.

Engagement, full participation, and self-discovery – – these are characteristic of situations where “doing” takes place. “Doing,” or “active learning,” can be provoked using carefully constructed questions or statements that challenge and provoke visitors to seek, acquire, and integrate information, and to form solutions. When actively learning, visitors involve themselves with museum resources; they extend themselves; and they discover their own capability to retrieve information and formulate ideas that, previously, may have seemed removed to them.

Openness and Accommodation

Csikszentmihályi and Hermanson inform us that “information that is presented as true without alternative perspectives discourages the motivation to explore and learn more …. Intrinsically motivated learning is an open process involving uncertainty and the discovery of new possibilities.”

Those who teach toward active learning should ask questions that embrace a variety of responses. They should use open-ended questions that do not have pre-determined answers. These questions enfranchise a full range of responses that can be supported by each person’s individual perspective and point-of-view.

The purpose of questioning is to enfranchise and involve visitors. It is not to test or to judge the visitor’s knowledge base. One does not ask visitors, therefore, “Do you know what the skull in this painting represents?” Asking questions that have right or wrong answers is neither open, nor is it particularly accommodating. If the skull represents something specific and important to the process of learning and discovery, then it should be told to visitors.

Questions are asked so that information is understood to have value and purpose. “The skull in this painting is a metaphor for death. How does the skull’s placement among gold, jewels, and other treasures affect the painting’s meaning for you?” In this way, the question reveals the application of the information and can demonstrate its usefulness.

Tailored to the Learner’s Ability and Experience.

Csikszentmihályi and Hermanson tell readers that positive learning experiences tend to occur when skills and challenges are in balance because too great a challenge to one’s skills creates tension, too little causes boredom. This cautionary note speaks directly to another concern about lecturing.

Lectures are usually tailored to the audience, not to the individual. A lecture to high school juniors, for instance, presumes a uniform level of experience, background, and exposure which may not actually exist. Open-ended questions, on the other hand, allow each member of the audience to actively consider and respond based on their own variables.

Teaching should make accommodations for differences in how people acquire, process, and make determinations about information, as dictated by differences in learning styles. Questioning accommodates differences in learning styles if the questions are truly open-ended and the docent remains flexible and receptive.

An Atmosphere that is Positive AND Reinforcing

It is essential that teaching strip away layers of mystification separating learners from understanding. Education should make things more accessible, not less. To this end, educators should refrain from using their tours as opportunities to demonstrate their own knowledge. Such demonstrations intimidate students and convolute teaching. Language should facilitate communication, not obscure it. Avoid using arcane or technical terms.

Every aspect of the learning environment that can be controlled should serve to empower learners, not strip them of confidence. Museums, by their very design and presentation, often inspire awe or reverence — emotions that do little to reinforce self-confidence.

Docents must think flexibly, finding ways to understand visitors’ responses to questions, and to congratulate them on making attempts. Working to validate visitors” thoughts and ideas addresses the concern expressed by the authors, that “people are open to learning more when they feel supported, when they are in a place where they can express themselves and explore their interests without fear of embarrassment or criticism, and when there are no predefined expectations constraining their behavior.”

Docents should ask questions that build confidence by demonstrating what learners are capable of gleaning and understanding. They should not use questions to test visitors, or to reveal their lack of awareness. “Supportive environments,” Csikszentmihályi and Hermanson remind readers, “provide people with choices and acknowledge their perspectives or feelings.”

Individually Meaningful Experiences Connect with the Experience of Others

Among the lesser discussed benefits of touring groups of visitors is the dynamic that happens between them — opportunities for “cross-pollinating” ideas and sharing of individual perceptions. When teaching to active learning, visitors can interact, learn from each other, and gain new perspectives. Questioning gives them the format to share their ideas with others — to present their own vantage point in an environment that is expansive, accommodating, and supportive.

Though many museums are eager to place computers in their galleries, as computers and video games are very popular and appealing to contemporary audiences, they run the risk of leaving learners isolated. They may be removing one of the most important ways visitors connect meaningfully with each other.

When describing the most successful exhibits, Csikszentmihályi and Hermanson state that they “…tend to be those that ask visitors to commit themselves to make guesses, to evaluate, to respond… .”

To improve and grow, docents should be aware of a broad array of research and trends, whether focused on classroom teachers or museum curators. Though these authors never mention public programming, tours, lessons, docents, or even the act of teaching in the galleries, nonetheless, their research offers sound advice to every museum educator working to motivate learning in an institution, regardless of the successes or shortcomings of existing exhibits.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Motivating the Desire to Learn,” The Docent Educator 5.2 (Winter 1995-96): 2-4.


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