How young people respond to learning spaces outside
school: A sociocultural perspective
Alan Peacock •Nick Pratt
Received: 14 September 2008 / Accepted: 2 February 2009 / Published online: 9 March 2011
Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011
Abstract This article focuses on educational enterprises outside the formal sector, such
as museums, botanical gardens and interactive science centres. International research is
drawn on to illuminate how design, culture, educational strategies and settings combine to
affect the way in which young people respond to experiences on offer, leading to analysis
of the impact of such settings in promoting learning, and the likely implications for those
who staff such venues. Aikenhead’s concept of the educator as ‘culture broker’ is devel-
oped to suggest ways in which learning might be best supported. It envisages a shift from
‘delivery’ strategies targeted at large groups towards approaches which focus on what
learners choose to know about using dialogue between children and ‘known and trusted
people’. Analysis of observed responses in various settings is undertaken from a socio-
cultural perspective using the notion of communities of practice. Implications for the roles
of education managers and their staff in further research are developed.
Keywords Communities of practice Learning professionals Museums
Non-school environments Science learning centres Young learners
Emergence of new forms of educational enterprise
In 1853, the Crystal Palace, originally built for London’s Great Exhibition of 1851, was
reconstructed in a park in Sydenham, South London, the centrepiece of which was a
display of life-size concrete dinosaurs. The site, which according to Bryson (2003) was
‘probably the ﬁrst-ever theme park’, opened with a grand dinner for 21 eminent scientists
in the still-unﬁnished ‘Giant Iguanodon’. Guests included the palaeontologist Richard
A. Peacock (&)
Graduate School of Education, University of Exeter, 29 Thornton Hill, Exeter EX4 4NN, Devon, UK
Faculty of Education, University of Plymouth, Floor 4, Rolle Building, Drake Circus,
Plymouth PL4 8AA, Devon, UK
Learning Environ Res (2011) 14:11–24
Owen, who was subsequently the prime-mover in the establishment of London’s Natural
History Museum. Since then, other such museums, botanical gardens, zoological gardens,
galleries, sculpture parks, national parks, nature reserves and theme parks have been
established worldwide. One hundred and ﬁfty years ago their function was perceived as
almost exclusively for research by the privileged few. Owen, for example, was considered
very radical in wanting to label exhibits in the Natural History Museum so that visitors
could be better informed about what they were looking at.
The educational function of such enterprises and sites has developed gradually over the
years, and more rapidly in the past two decades. At the same time, a new generation of
similar enterprises (interactive science centres, heritage sites, environmental/eco-centres,
etc.) has developed, often, in the UK at least, with the support of funding from charities and
from the national lottery. Examples of such educational establishments can be found
worldwide (see http://www-2.cs.cmu.edu/*mwm/sci.html).
The explicitly educational function which such sites in the UK now share is apparent
in their appointment of education managers, schools’ liaison ofﬁcers, communication
assistants, explainers, guides, wardens, rangers, etc., many of whom have a background in
education, as ex-teachers or trained teachers. For simplicity, these will be referred to here
as Learning Professionals (LPs). The facilities are mostly hands-on, in the sense that they
encourage visitor interaction with artefacts and exhibits, and actively encourage visits by
school parties as well as by individuals, families and the general public. They have clear
objectives, and usually link their provision explicitly to the curricula of formal education,
particularly at the primary (5–11 years) and secondary (11–16 years) stages. This often
involves extensive websites with materials and activities to download, as well as curric-
ulum-linked guided (and virtual) tours and workshops. Some have sought to improve the
effectiveness of their educational provision through evaluation of their programs (e.g.
Peacock and Bowker 2001; Rahm 2003; Tunnicliffe 2000). In recent years, some initial
teacher training institutions in the UK have begun to incorporate experience at such
enterprises into their training programs (Peacock and Bowker 2004).
Up to now, we have had to refer to these facilities as ‘enterprises’ because there is no
accepted terminology that encompasses the range of resources on offer. Some (e.g. wildlife
trusts) do not necessarily have sites as such; others (such as the National Trust, through its
Guardianship scheme) operate across many varied kinds of managed sites, from unin-
habited islands to stately homes; some are an integral part of public utilities (such as the
visitor centres at nuclear power stations or landﬁll/recycling sites); others operate outreach
education programs as well as on-site facilities. Most importantly, however, their educa-
tional function rarely ﬁts into the conventional classiﬁcation of education as either Formal,
Non-formal or Informal.
Deﬁning ‘learning spaces’
For the purposes of this article, all forms of non-school settings, including botanical
gardens, environmental centres, nature reserves, museums, science centres, exploratoria,
etc., are referred to as Learning Spaces. Whereas it is common in the literature to see the
term learning ‘environment’, we have used ‘space’ in order to indicate, indeed highlight,
the very diverse nature of possible out-of-school spaces for learning, as outlined above.
‘Environment’ tends to suggest the idea of natural space, often involving living ﬂora and/or
fauna and, although this article includes such spaces, it does not refer to them exclusively.
Where we use the word environment below, it is in this sense of ‘living environment’
12 Learning Environ Res (2011) 14:11–24
speciﬁcally, particularly as it refers to environmental education (i.e. deliberate learning
about natural phenomena and their care/preservation).
As a growth area in recent years, learning spaces have been given a high proﬁle in
raising public awareness of environmental, social and cultural issues. Yet the way in which
they are perceived and their effectiveness at communicating their messages to children in
particular have not been studied extensively, with the possible exception of museums. This
could be a consequence of the widespread assumption that such lavishly-resourced and
exciting places are self-evidently good for learning. In fact, our observations (Peacock and
Bowker 2001) indicate that exciting buildings and structures can often distract from a focus
on the explicit learning objectives.
Our studies of Learning Spaces in the UK indicate that, typically, children visit such
centres either in small groups with parents or in large school groups, which might break up
into smaller groups. In school groups, the adult:child ratio is typically between 1:4 and 1:6,
though there are usually several non-teachers to every teacher. With parents, the adult:child
ratio is more typically 1:2. Time spent in ‘hands-on’ activity varies, but a school group is
likely to spend 1–1.5 h in structured activity and a further 1 h in less structured work
(Peacock and Bowker 2001). The roles of LPs can range from running structured work-
shops with classes of children to simply ‘meeting and greeting’ groups of people who carry
out teacher-led activities. Visiting teachers and other adult helpers perceive their roles in
varied and different ways, from management of behaviour to mediation of cognitive
messages (Brown et al. 1997). The physical layout or setting also varies enormously, in
terms of size, location of buildings, plants and other artefacts, pathways, spaces in which
children operate, and the ambience. Structured trails with pre-determined routes and
stations can co-exist with randomly-arranged layouts of interactive exhibits.
The above studies, as well as the international research literature reviewed below,
suggest several possible reasons why it might be quite difﬁcult, particularly for young
people, to learn the speciﬁc outcomes identiﬁed as objectives in such contexts:
•the structure and design of layouts and buildings which can often distract learners from
focusing on explicit learning objectives
•learners’ culturally-inﬂuenced perceptions of environment, history, etc. and the
perceived signiﬁcance of artefacts within these contexts (e.g. the idea that ‘plants are
•the affordances and constraints of physical arrangements, social groupings, accessi-
bility and localised distractions—what we have termed ‘micro-contexts’
•tensions between conﬂicting goals of LPs and between different approaches to learning
in such contexts.
In what follows, we discuss points 1 and 2 only brieﬂy before turning in more detail to the
third and fourth issues which form the main focus of this article. In order to do so, we ﬁrst
introduce a sociocultural perspective, based on Wenger (1998), as a theoretical framework
for our analysis.
Structure, design and layout
Structures can dominate perception. For example, at the Eden Project in Cornwall, UK,
giant twin domes built into a cliff face housing a tropical forest and a Mediterranean
environment are so eye-catching and dominant that they can make the plants inside them,
never mind the living outdoor environment, seem unimportant. The term ‘Biome’, for
Learning Environ Res (2011) 14:11–24 13
instance, widely used there, is taken by most children and teachers to refer to the buildings,
not the plant collections inside. When children were asked for their most signiﬁcant
memory some weeks after their visit, the most commonly-mentioned memory was of the
tractor that hauled the ‘land train’ that took them down into the biomes.
At Carymoor Environmental Centre, which teaches young people about recycling and
waste minimisation and is based at a capped landﬁll site and recycles methane, leachate,
green waste composting, glass, plastic and metal, the sights, sounds and smells of the
adjacent active landﬁll site dominate their memories (Vrdlovcova 2005).
The organisation and layout of spaces can also inﬂuence time-on-task and therefore the
way children focus. For example, if the entrance, spaces to be used, toilets and lunch
spaces are widely separated, long periods of ‘dead time’ can elapse in order for groups to
move from one space to another during their day. At one venue, almost half the school’s
time at the centre was lost in this way.
Cultural interpretations of ideas associated with environment
It is possible to distinguish different ways in which people conceive ideas such as ‘nature’
as either an external objective reality or as an internal psychological or even philosophical
entity (Kawasaki 1990; Lynch 1996). Environmental knowledge can be seen either as
objective facts or as a process of subjective coming-to-knowing (Cobern and Loving 1998;
Kawagley et al. 1998; Peacock 2000; Peat 1994). Young people can respond to their
environment in very different ways, ranging from strong identiﬁcation, to ambivalence and
to rejection (Titman 1994). Even though ideas about what is living and what is not differ
from culture to culture (Clarﬁeld 1987), it is also possible and not exceptional for con-
ﬂicting explanations of phenomena to co-exist and be used as appropriate by individuals
(Jegede 1995). Thus managed environments which aim to communicate about plants,
landscape, fossils or physical processes, for example, must have a clear idea about their
‘message’ and the potential for differing interpretations amongst visitors from a range of
The analysis to date has dealt essentially with physical factors relating to learning
spaces. However, more signiﬁcant issues arise from the inter-relationships between people
and the way in which these are structured by issues such as goals and expectations. In
analysing these issues, we turn to a sociocultural perspective based on ‘communities of
practice’ (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998) which we ﬁrst outline in brief.
Communities of practice as a theoretical frame
Lave and Wenger’s theorisation of learning as increasingly central participation in the
practices of a community is wide ranging and has been extensively discussed and extended in
the literature (e.g. Fuller et al. 2005; Hodkinson and Hodkinson 2004). Here, we make use of
the idea that any identiﬁable community operates within a set of practices that have norms
and goals (all of which can be either explicit or implicit). Within this triumvirate, participants
are involved in identiﬁcation both with certain practices and as certain kinds of people. In
previous work (Back and Pratt 2007; Pratt and Kelly 2007), we have suggested that the notion
of a community can be usefully employed in understanding a particular situation, rather than
essentialising it as an entity. That is, we can view situations in terms of communities, rather
than asking if they actually represent a community and, if so, what sort. Furthermore,
14 Learning Environ Res (2011) 14:11–24
situations can be understood in terms of more than one community at any one time—as
hybrid communities (Pratt and Kelly 2007)—asking what features of each community are
represented by the practices of the participants. In this sense, the analysis works backwards,
overlaying what we know about familiar communities (such as classrooms) on novel situ-
ations (such as being in a new space) to illuminate the meaning of people’s behaviour.
From this perspective, one can dispense with the rather problematic idea of formal/
informal/non-formal learning strategies and, instead, focus on how a situation, and the
people within it, can be understood in terms of the way in which they behave in relation to
particular kinds of communities. Learning spaces can then be seen as places in which
different communities come into contact, leading to the question of what kinds of com-
munities are inevitable and/or desirable in that setting. Read this way, learning spaces
inevitably involve school communities, not just in the sense that groups of school people
enter them, but in the sense that these people bring with them the practices, norms and
goals of schooling with which they identify.
On the other hand, learning professionals aim to create a different kind of community
within their learning spaces. Because the aim is to maximise learning in relation to the
particular focus of the space—environmentalism, waste minimisation, physics principles,
ecology or whatever—then it stands to reason that such a community should aim to
replicate, at least in part, the practices associated with the discipline involved: what we call
a ‘disciplined community’. Put simply, learning (say) science means behaving as a com-
munity of scientists. It is worth noting here that from the sociocultural perspective,
adopting the practices of a disciplined community is not simply a matter of trying to
empathise with professionals in that ﬁeld. Rather, the practices through which learners
come to know the discipline qualitatively affect the nature of their knowing; that is, their
knowledge is structured differently (Boaler 2002), often with greater depth in the sense that
connections, patterns and implications are clearer.
Having brieﬂy outlined some of the key aspects of a community of practice (CoP)
model, the following analysis makes use of this framework in analysing issues of personal
relationships, goals, expectations and outcomes in differing settings.
Tension between conﬂicting goals
Most learning spaces are expensive to create, maintain and market to the public. In many
countries, there is an expectation that such facilities as museums, nature reserves and
botanical gardens, often publicly-funded, should be open to the general public at no cost.
Yet, in the UK, many are privately funded and need to generate income to be sustainable.
In turn, this means maximising visitor numbers (particularly school groups) and devel-
oping strategies for merchandising, which are often at odds with educational goals.
Research represents this as a conﬂict between education and entertainment, or between
affective and cognitive goals (Lucas 1991; Rennie and McClafferty 1996; Stevenson 1991;
Wellington 1989). Marketing the commercial aspects to visitors often curtails the time and
attention available for interacting and learning (Peacock and Bowker 2001) by providing
powerful distractions in the form of kiosks, restaurants, shops and other novel yet non-
educational experiences. These are distractions not only in the sense of reducing ‘time on
task’, but also in terms of any attempt to temporarily suspend the school and everyday
communities in favour of the disciplined community of the learning space. Typically,
relatively small numbers of LPs are employed to deal with school groups, in comparison
with numbers employed in other roles. The educational experience provided can thus
Learning Environ Res (2011) 14:11–24 15
become transformed into a ‘day out’ in the minds of visiting groups; and the media often
reinforce this by their insistence on referring to all such work out of school as ‘trips’.
Schools themselves ﬁnd that they have to visit in large numbers by coach for logistical
reasons, also reinforcing the ‘trip mentality’, making it harder to adopt practices related to
work in the relevant discipline.
Impact of the setting: Micro-contexts, interpretation and signage
The way in which visitors interact has been shown to be inﬂuenced by complex contextual
factors such as: the deliberate physical arrangement of structures, plants, pathways and
artefacts; the nature of the focal objects and artefacts themselves; the social conﬁgurations of
groups visiting; the actual and potential discourse practices; and any task structures offered
(Brown et al. 1997; Dierking and Falk 1994; Hindmarsh et al. 2005; Rahm 2003). All of these
play a part in supporting learners to adopt the working practices of a ‘disciplined’ participant.
Some more speciﬁc studies (Roth 1996; Roth et al. 1999) indicate that social conﬁgurations
(such as group size, composition and location) are strongly inﬂuenced by the layout and
nature of the objects of interest (plants, installations, touch screens, sculptures, etc.). In turn,
social conﬁgurations inﬂuence the nature of discourse, the roles that individuals play and
the extent to which individuals contribute (Marton 1993; Roth et al. 1999). The presence
or absence of LPs, teachers or experts in a group can strongly inﬂuence the nature of
children’s dialogue (Maybin 1993). Social speech in the setting of a learning space is likely
also to include signs, gestures and visual representations related to what is being observed
For example, at a Marine Visitor Centre which offers a centre exhibition along with
rock pooling activities, our own evaluative observations indicated that, when families
arrived in the centre when no LP was present, mothers tended to watch the video loop with
their younger children, boys gravitated to the touch screen game, and fathers, unac-
countably, to the leaﬂets describing other local attractions. Also individuals interact dif-
ferently with an installation depending on whether or not it is already being used. At
unattended installations, visitors tend immediately to go ‘hands on’ without reading
instructions. But, if it is already in use, visitors pass the time reading instructions so that
they are better informed when their turn comes (Hindmarsh et al. 2005).
A second example involves the two biomes (humid tropic and Mediterranean) at the
Eden Project. In the former, there is a set route with a narrow path that can be very
congested, thus preventing groups of any size from stopping to carry out an activity and
making discussion difﬁcult because of the background noise from the waterfall. Because
none of these constraints exist in the other biome, completely different approaches and
activities, such as the use of storytellers, are possible. Our extensive observations at this
venue indicate that the nature of discourse is very different in the two adjacent settings,
even though the personnel may be the same (Peacock and Bowker 2001).
The physical resources also can differ in the way in which they provide opportunities for
interaction. For example, the extent to which plants can be touched and manipulated can be
very different from the way in which machines and other technological installations are
used. Resources thus can be seen in terms of their use as mediational tools and the extent to
which they facilitate and support learning conversations (Lemke 1998). In small widely-
dispersed school groups, interaction can often be dependent on ‘reading’ some form of
instruction in verbal, visual or symbolic form. In the absence of an LP as part of the micro-
context of a focal area, our own observations in a number of differing physical and
16 Learning Environ Res (2011) 14:11–24
biological contexts indicate that children visiting as part of a school group rarely read the
relevant information (perhaps because the ‘classroom’ norm is to read only when asked?),
or that they often do not understand or follow textual or symbolic instructions when they
do read them (Peacock and Gates 2000). However, when visiting in family groups, younger
children read signage aloud without prompting. In doing so, they are frequently observed
to make mistakes (e.g. reading ‘palm’ as ‘plum’), suggesting that they might not always
understand what the signage indicates. Our follow-up research in schools (Peacock and
Bowker 2001), using stimulated recall through photographs of signage, has conﬁrmed this.
Task structures—or the way in which LPs interpret their learning objectives from within
their disciplined CoP—depend on many of the above factors, as well as on the time
available. They also might be tightly- or loosely-structured, depending on the needs and
preferences of visiting groups; in turn, an imposed task structure determines the social
conﬁgurations and physical locations utilised. In practice, task structures are often modiﬁed
and re-interpreted in situ by adults and children alike (Peacock and Bowker 2001). Chil-
dren visiting with schools, however, might have a pre-set agenda and itinerary, often
determined by teachers and reﬂecting the way in which the practices of school or class-
room communities are organised. However, parents with children typically do not follow
structured learning pathways, but tend to respond to children’s interests and explore ser-
endipitously (Peacock 2004). Thus the setting, or micro-context, can have a major impact
on interpretation and how young people actually perceive the learning space. However, this
impact is always subject to the overarching practices, goals and norms that different
communities bring to the space and which ultimately dictate the way in which any setting
is interpreted. This has to be taken into account in planning any program for young people.
A good example was observed when a group of 16 10-year-old boys from a primary
school were taken rock-pooling, not by a teacher but by the National Trust warden (a
parent and governor of the school) for the coastal region in which the school was located
(Peacock 2006). Three boys came without their Wellington boots and assumed that (had
‘school’ practices prevailed) they would not therefore be allowed into the water. However,
because the day was ﬁne and sunny, the warden was quite happy to allow them in wearing
their trainers. As a consequence, these three students, who might otherwise have become
isolated, bored and disruptive, were deeply engrossed in catching and doing beautifully-
detailed observational drawing of shrimps, anemones and other marine life.
Many enterprises have already evolved a variety of ways in which their space can best
be used by school groups. Most have produced materials, tasks, trails, workshops, websites
and worksheets in one form or another that can be directed either by their own LPs,
teachers, parents or children themselves. Materials can be accessible through the web in
advance of visits. Such task structures have implications for on-site artefacts to be used and
can have signiﬁcant impact on the nature of the discourse that ensues. Crucially, because it
is likely to be the way in which they alter the community perspective of the group that
matters most, no artefact is useful or not per se. For example, a task devised with one CoP
in mind might be difﬁcult to operate from the perspective of another CoP, leading to
tension between alternative approaches.
Tensions between different approaches to learning in non-school settings
Studies in various cultures have focused on non-formal learning strategies utilised by
indigenous peoples and the tensions created for them when working in structured learning
spaces (Cobern 1993; Ezeife 2001; Githinji 1992; Lynch 1996; Ogawa 1995; Rennie and
Learning Environ Res (2011) 14:11–24 17
McClafferty 1996; Snively and Corsiglia 1998; Vare 1998). This tension has been
summarised by Grifﬁn and Symington (1997) as being between task-oriented and learner-
oriented strategies. They show that teacher-led groups often adopt classroom-style, task-
oriented approaches which focus pupils on the practices of schooling and are ineffective in
supporting ways of knowing that are useful beyond the classroom. (For example, at the Eden
Project, we have observed school groups arriving and experiencing the ‘wow!’ of seeing it
for the ﬁrst time, and then being given a worksheet within ﬁve minutes and asking their
teacher, ‘‘Miss, how do I spell ‘humid tropic’?’’.) Grifﬁn and Symington (1997) thus
advocate a framework for learner-oriented strategies based on natural learning behaviours,
which they identify as being typically exhibited by family groups during visits to the same
venues. Speciﬁcally, they argue for learner-initiated questioning and enquiry, informal
structures, holistic rather than detailed foci, adaptability and the importance of social
interaction. They note that these approaches are typically exhibited by family groups and,
importantly, represent the kinds of practices that are typical of professionals working in the
same ﬁeld. Thus, whilst they might lead to ‘knowing more’ information, they also lead to a
form of knowledge that is associated with central participation in the community of scien-
tists/environmentalists. The value of undifferentiated, structured worksheets, which tend to
dominate teacher-led strategies, is seriously questioned by the above authors. Amongst other
things, they position children as school pupils with the associated goals that this entails, often
around accuracy and completion, and thus seriously narrowing their focus to only those
boxes that the worksheet requires them to ﬁll in or tick. Hence, like Grifﬁn and Symington,
our own studies conﬁrm that much of the learning space is neither seen nor responded to.
Other studies (e.g. Dierking and Falk 1994) reinforce the effectiveness of family-group
behaviour in such settings as museums, as well as the value of pre-visit preparation
(Gennaro 1981; Symington et al. 1986). Vare (1998) has noted that school groups tend to
focus on strategies which rely heavily on delivery and dissemination of predetermined
ideas, and that such approaches make children feel disempowered. His research indicates
that, in non-school settings, most children perceive that they learn best through their own
observations or through 1:1 learning. He therefore argues that effective learning in these
contexts happens when: a child is enabled to identify things that are both do-able and worth
doing, which can lead to positive action; a child has an element of control through ‘ﬁl-
tering’ perceptions of what is appropriate; and through making use of known and trusted
people who have expertise, in this case, the LPs.
Our own interviews with children after their visits indicate that an important determi-
nant of what they learn during engagement with artefacts is the way of knowing that they
bring with them, often from their home rather than from previous experience in school
(Peacock and Bowker 2001). For example, children who were familiar with and had used
maps with parents were able to orientate themselves through a map of the different climatic
zones in the biomes. Many pupils, however, clearly had no previous experience of using
maps to ﬁnd where countries were located. With school groups, most children did not even
notice maps, despite their large size and key location (e.g. a 3 m 92 m map of the world’s
Mediterranean regions that is prominently displayed in the entrance to the Mediterranean
biome at the Eden Project).
Implications of research ﬁndings
Because learning spaces and their use by children can vary in many ways, it can be
hypothesised that some conﬁgurations are more likely to lead to forms of learning that are
18 Learning Environ Res (2011) 14:11–24
aligned with the practices of the associated discipline (rather than with the practices of
schooling) than others, and that these conﬁgurations might be context-dependent. The
above review has been based on our own studies in a variety of contexts, our meta-analysis
of other evaluations from a wide range of social, cultural and educational contexts across
many countries, and takes cognisance of earlier meta-analyses (e.g. Rickinson et al. 2004).
The outcomes suggest that there are many potential inﬂuences on learning, some of which
are not apparent in classrooms. For example, the size, content and layout of learning spaces
allow kinds of interaction (between teacher–child–object) to take place that the physical
constraints of a classroom and its resources do not allow. They also allow children
potentially to interact with a wider range of adults.
Teachers and children are accustomed to working in classrooms but, in a typical
learning space where the scope for interaction is far larger, children still might be con-
strained into spaces similar to classrooms for part of the time. Small spaces can constrain
movement, whilst a very large space can prevent children from ﬁnding other people and
things with which they want to engage. Predetermined routes can affect children’s ability
to remain at or return to a speciﬁc location. Yet movement can be closely linked to the
perceived norms and expectations of teachers, LPs, other adults and other children.
Although these subtle tensions are not always apparent, some teachers attempt to
impose the practices, norms goals and identities of their classrooms on out-of-school
settings. Cogent reasons for this include Headteacher and parent expectations, notions of
what constitutes school-work, curriculum pressures and concerns about effective man-
agement and control of children’s time and behaviour. Learning professionals, often
themselves ex-teachers, are very aware of these pressures and constraints. At the same
time, they are aware that their objectives can be quite different and that they are
empowered to work in ways that teachers cannot. National Trust wardens and rangers, for
example, are preferred by children when working outdoors because they know more than
teachers and allow different ways of working. Although these LPs themselves are aware
that they can learn from teachers (e.g. how to manage large groups or to communicate with
a wide age range), they do not want to ‘become teachers’ as their priorities are different
(Peacock 2006). In this sense, the adults involved must tread a narrow path between the
two different communities of school and learning space. Wittingly or unwittingly, they
become the ‘culture brokers’ who can negotiate crossings between the school community
and that of the learning space.
On the other hand, parents are hardly constrained by curricular considerations and they
can use their day in any way in which they or their children think ﬁt, focusing broadly or
narrowly and choosing what they wish to emphasise or enjoy. Therefore, there is poten-
tially a wide range of ways in which children’s learning can be managed by adults, as
exempliﬁed in the study of family conversations at the Eden Project (Peacock 2004).
Implications for LPs: The role of ‘culture broker’
The transitions between the life-world of the learner outside school, inside school and the
sub-culture of any speciﬁc learning space involve the crossing of boundaries between
different communities. Whereas Aikenhead (1996) uses the term ‘cultural border-crossing’
to conceptualise the transition, Wenger (1998) talks about boundary crossing. Whatever the
term, it describes the idea that the worlds are culturally different in terms of their values,
goals, language, personnel, resources encountered and location. The extent to which the
particular discourses of each community are recognisable will vary according to learners’
Learning Environ Res (2011) 14:11–24 19
personal circumstances, as well as to their school’s approach to learning. In a school
context, teachers have to help learners to negotiate the transition from one community to
the other, which many learners (and some teachers) ﬁnd difﬁcult because of the very varied
approaches to ways of knowing in each one.
Any structured learning space that is managed by LPs, whether it is a museum or a stretch
of coastline managed by the National Trust, incorporates an explicit ‘curriculum’ of ideas
and objectives relevant to visitors in general and to school learners in particular. This
curriculum can be decided by curators, managers, LPs or a range of staff working together.
This curriculum is not only a catalogue of key ideas, but also an implicit set of practices,
norms and goals—ways of being and knowing—which reﬂect the discipline(s) inherently at
work in the space. To help learners to make sense of a coastline, for example, a National
Trust warden does not just need to know things; he or she also brings particular dispositions
and ways of seeing and knowing that have been learned through the experience of being a
Warden, and which allow him or her to know what is signiﬁcant and what is not. Crucially,
this way of knowing affects not only what becomes known, but also the form of such
When a school group visits, it has its own objectives related to the school’s curriculum
and to its own inherent set of school practices. The two are mediated in practice by input
from both the teacher and the LP. During a single visit, this can mean engaging with a
limited number of ideas and in a limited way by the practices of the disciplines(s). A family
group visiting also can have its own objectives, mediated largely by parents but, to some
extent, also by stewards, wardens or other staff who might see it as their role to answer
questions raised by visitors and thus ﬁll gaps in their knowledge. However, our studies
suggest that, in most cases, there is currently little overlap between the goals of LPs who
manage the ‘border-crossing’ and those of visiting groups. Where there is overlap (i.e.
common goals and working methods), these have arisen from professional partnerships
deliberately set up as part of an ongoing link between school staff and LPs. The beneﬁts of
such partnerships are very clear, especially in relation to children’s perceptions of the
learning space. For example, we observed that, whilst most children do not read signage
when in school groups, children whose teachers prepare them for their visits by showing
examples of the signage that they are likely to see will notice and read signs.
This makes clear that the role of LPs crucially involves acting as ‘broker’ between
different stakeholders and becomes much more central, because they should have a grasp
not only of the full range of implications of differing communities (goals, norms and
practices), but also of the expectations and priorities of visitors and of evaluation evidence
relating to children’s learning. Moreover, it is the LPs who are best placed to model these
practices and forms of identiﬁcation as they relate to the disciplined community of the
learning space. At the same time, however, they must work within the discourse of the
school community too in a careful balancing act—a highly demanding task in which
the expectations of each community might well be incommensurate at times. On top of all
this, they also have to effectively mediate with their own colleagues and management in
order to ensure that everyone is ‘on side’. One tangible beneﬁt of this has been the
emergence of joint planning between school staff and LPs in re-working programs that are
considered appropriate to both communities (Peacock 2006).
In this sense, LPs are most effective when they actively assist learners to move back and
forth as appropriate between the communities of school culture, home culture and the sub-
culture of the learning space itself. They will be aware of, and hence able to help learners
deal with, the sociocultural conﬂicts that might arise during their attempts at learning in the
complex spaces which they present. At the Eden Project, this involves focusing attention
20 Learning Environ Res (2011) 14:11–24
on: visible plants and their uses as food, clothing, shelter and pharmaceuticals; the sym-
biotic relationship between plants and people; the importance of world trade in plants and
its impact on development; and the ‘can do’ attitudes which develop their ‘action com-
petence’ (Jensen and Schnack 1997) in relation to big issues such as sustainability. Such
foci necessitate carefully-constructed tasks that require pupils, as part of the task itself, to
adopt the practices and goals of a disciplined community so that they not only identify with
some of the key ideas, but also with themselves as botanists/ecologists, etc.
One example of a learning space that attempts such an approach is Dig, an archaeo-
logical museum in York (www.digyork.com) where visitors (whether as school parties or
the general public) work in groups to investigate replica archaeological digs in the city. On
arriving, groups are taken into the ‘archaeologist’s hut’ where an LP prompts them to
consider the different ways in which archaeologists work, before arming them each with a
trowel. Then, the group moves through to three replica dig sites where original artefacts are
buried in ‘mud’ (actually rubber pellets) and must be dug up. Finally the group moves to an
area where original artefacts such as bones and ﬂints are offered for examination with the
challenge of making deductions about, and from, them. Completing these activities gives
visitors not just ideas and information about York in previous centuries, but also a real
sense of what archaeology is all about and how it takes place. Likewise, Centre of the Cell
(www.centreofthecell.org) is an innovative educational site located within the Institute of
Cell and Molecular Science in Whitechapel, London, allowing children from schools to
work alongside professional scientists while addressing key medical and ethical concerns
(Balkwill et al. 2008). Children are able to use professional microscopes, for example, to
compare cells and tissues, to grow cells on a ‘virtual lab bench’, and to discuss the ethics of
stem cell research with professional scientists.
Implications for further evaluation and research
Research needs to focus on the kinds of interactions and learning strategies that are found
to be most effective in different contexts, as well as the roles of LPs within different kinds
of learner groupings, in order to compare their effectiveness at prompting learning in
different contexts. This implies two points for action.
The ﬁrst is to make sense of the term ‘effective’, because what is effective for any
classroom might not be effective in terms of the discipline(s) associated with the learning
space. Taking a group of pupils to a marshland some years ago, we helped them to become
effective at noticing marshland plants and learning to sample these systematically. This
seemed less ‘effective’ a few weeks later when the standardised test in science required
them to identify marshland plants but gave no marks for dandelions—presumably being
‘grassland’ plants—even though the pupils had observed them in abundance on the marsh!
The second point is to investigate the perceived roles and priorities of LPs in order to
establish what affordances and constraints they experience in their work and to be able to
support them better in treading the narrow lines between communities.
It is also important to ﬁnd out what children actually see and don’t see in different
contexts and micro-contexts and how their knowledge is constructed from this. For
example, at one interactive science centre, we found that children rarely read the
instructions that make interactive installations work. Therefore, in trying to operate them,
children often concluded that an installation was ‘broken’. Moreover, there is a need to
investigate how changes in forms and expectations of participation—for example, as a
consequence of national initiatives such as Learning Outside the Classroom (Department
Learning Environ Res (2011) 14:11–24 21
for Children, Schools and Families 2008) which is part of the Creative Partnerships con-
sortium—affect these ways of seeing.
Finally, there has been a rapid growth in recent years in developing and using strategies
for capitalising on children’s use of mobile technology as a means of communicating and
managing visitors within interactive science centres (Kahr-Høyland 2005); these strategies
could be fruitfully explored in relation to other kinds of learning spaces.
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