Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Collateral Learning

“Perhaps the greatest of all pedagogical fallacies is the notion that a person learns only the particular things he is studying at the time. Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of like and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned…the most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning” (48).

When I read this, my thoughts immediately turned to the world of art museums and how I view their purpose...well, at least how I think they ought to be. To me, museums experiences aren’t necessarily about the subject matter that a visitor learns. Sure, you go to an art museum, and you hope that you will learn something about Monet, Matisse, Remington, etc. That is the expected part about going to an art museum, but is it the most important part?

My answer to the above question would most certainly be “no.” The reasons for this opinion will be dealt with later. The more I come to learn about what happens when individuals visit museums, how museums function internally and externally, and what the typical model for dealing with visitors has been in museums, I have come to the realization that we don’t give enough credit to our visitors. What I mean by this is that we do not truly understand the range of their ability to transform an experience into something that works for them in their lives. If we look at learning as being only what an educator presents to their students, we are not only missing the bigger, more important half of the equation but we are overlooking the power of our visitors.

This is where collateral learning is so imperative to what we do in our museums. It is truly handing over the power to our visitors to deem what is important for themselves. We could spend all day developing program plans that serve to increase the knowledge of our visitors in a given subject…let’s say art. However, if we are sincerely working to better the lives of those we serve, we should be focusing on creating experiences for our visitors that serve to generate within themselves those intangible qualities that last beyond the museum visit. These things include the follow: attitudes, opinions, understanding of the broader use of a given set of knowledge, etc. At the heart of the matter, museum educators should be looking for/creating opportunities within their facilities that function as a means developing within their audience a different perspective of looking at the world, and this perspective is visitor-generated.

A point not to be ignored is that fact that collateral learning is collateral because of the fact that it occurs as a result of a given stimuli. Without that initial spark, it does not exist by the very definition of the word. What that tells us as educators is that one experience flows from another, so that learning a concrete set of knowledge can lead to the formation of less tangible qualities within an individual. Dictated ways of learning can lead to self-generating principles.

I find these “less tangibles” to be the most important. They are what drive our visitors to continue to learn, to return to our facilities for worthwhile experiences, and to seek other avenues of “experiencing” outside of our walls. They are ways in which our visitors gain a sense of confidence in and ownership of their knowledge. The lesson here is to open doors of learning, not to limit what education can be. It is different for all of us, and we need to be accommodating.


  1. Nice ideas. The trick is in how to make these less tangible more evident to visitors as well as for our own measuring of success. Maybe what we should be looking at is ways of being rather than what the visitor took away. For example, how does going to an art museum result in listening to your children differently? Or looking at the world from a different perspective (in all definitions of the word)?

  2. Well put, Dewey goes on to say that :
    "If the impetus in this direction is weakened instead of being intensified, something much more than mere lack of preparation takes place. The pupil is actually robbed of native capacities which otherwise would enable him [sic] to cope with the circumstances that he meets in the course of life." homo aestheticus

  3. We are not mere educators, we are guardians of the "desire to go on learning".