Exposure to concepts through programs and activities develops our personal experience banks. We add to these throughout our lives and what we’ve experienced informs inform our understanding of ourselves, environment, history, and culture. Our accumulation of experiences equals that which we've learned during our lives. This means that we don't need to teach everything about our topic to people in one short program. Delivering content to families is not about dumbing down. It’s about focusing on what matters.
Tips & Takeaways
- What do you want participants to understand from your program? What concepts do you want to expose them to? These are your content goals.
- Determining your major content takeaways is a process, just like developing the rest of your program. Through trial and error, you will find content goals that make sense both for your program and the visitor.
Quick & Easy To-Dos
- Do your existing programs have well-articulated content goals? Are they clearly relayed and explained to your facilitators?
- Look critically your content goals. Are you trying to do too much? If it takes a classroom teacher a whole lesson to teach something, it is reasonable to expect a program to do it in 20, 30, even 40 minutes?
Families are willing and able to absorb the content you present, but it's safe to say that no one wants a family program to feel like a test. Still, programs are great opportunities to expose visitors to content through fun, social, and interactive experiences in order to build their inner catalog of knowledge and experiences.
Teaching Content: How Exposure Leads to Learning
What do we mean by learning in the context of programs? Do we expect participants to leave being able to repeat back what they learned? Is it essential that they fully comprehend and digest the concept of, for instance, buoyancy? Or is it enough that they were exposed to the idea and file it away in their personal experience bank until the next time they encounter the topic?
According to John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking, there is a "misguided notion that learning is primarily the acquisition of new ideas, facts, or information, rather than the consolidation and slow, incremental growth of existing ideas and information." Instead, they argue that "learning is an active process of assimilating information." Therefore, "museum visitors do not catalogue visual memories of objects and labels in academic, conceptual schemes, but assimilate events and observations in mental categories of personal significance and character, determined by events in their lives before and after the museum visit." 
Graham Black calls this the Learning Cycle: "We do something, we learn from the experience, and when we do something new that is related, we seek to apply the experience we have previously obtained...This is the concept of experiential learning at its most basic...Thus knowledge and resultant understanding follows on from acquiring, reflecting on and applying the results of live experiences and is not a one-off activity." 
The Learning CycleBecause it can take days, months, or years for this cycle to complete, it is not useful to ask people what they learned as they leave a program. To really find out about learning, you must give visitors time to contemplate, encounter more related experiences, and develop memories.
"Let's Not Do Anymore Learning"
In this example from a personal experience with her grandson, Beverly Sheppard of BKS Consulting reflects on the fun, excitement, and discovery that can come from an informal, self-directed experience and takes on the argument that learning only happens through traditional, formal pedagogy.
Developing Content Goals: An Example of Finding the Right Balance
USS Constitution Museum's Under Pressure "cannon"-firing program.
Like every other aspect of your program, you may not get it just right the first time. Developing content goals is an on-going process. When the Engage Families team began prototyping Under Pressure, an Alka-Seltzer(TM) cannon-firing program, we started with very lofty scientific content goals related to the science of firing early 19th-century cannons. We hoped participants would learn about chemical reactions, force, pressure, ignition, velocity, and gasses. All this in a short 10-minute program that needed to be engaging - we weren't giving a lecture!
As we began testing with an audience, it became clear that we were trying to do too much. Facilitators were spending precious time defining terminology while showing the public images like this:
This prototype sign was meant to explain gasses under pressure, chemical reactions, and other scientific concepts. It was too much for visitors. Besides, why not just show these concepts with the Alka-Seltzer(TM) "cannon?"
The "real" reproduction cannon.
Participants were itching to do something. They saw a "real" cannon in front of them and a fun exploding film canister just waiting for them to "fire." If we tightened our goals to the concept of gasses under pressure, which they could readily see happening in the clear canister, rather than the ensuring that participants could mimic back to us the definition of multiple scientific terms, we would create an environment in which participants would leave with a solid understanding on one concept rather than a weak, confusing piece of a whole bunch of scientific ideas that it takes classroom teachers weeks to define and explain.
Water and Alka-Seltzer(TM) results in gasses. Cap the canister and the gasses build up pressure until they force the cap to fly off mimicking the process of firing a black powder cannon.
We also realized that we were ok with participants learning the basics of early 19th-century cannon firing. We didn't need to teach them each step in the ??-step firing process, and they didn't need to know the extra details (there were two wads of rope inserted into the cannon barrel in addition to powder cartridge and cannonball). It's too much! By focusing on the wheat within all the chaff, we ensured that participants left understanding out major content takeaway rather than a confusing muddle of facts.
Honing down our content goals allowed us to let participants explore the content in a couple of ways (the reproduction cannon and the chemical reaction of Alka-Seltzer(TM) and water in an enclosed space). We exposed families to ideas that they could connect to in other aspects of their lives, thus building relevance and providing exposure to a concept that will assimilated in the natural course of the Learning Cycle.
1. Falk, John H. and Lynn D. Dierking. The Museum Experience. Howell's House, 1992: 98.
2. Graham Black. The Engaging Museum: Developing Museums for Visitor Involvement. London: Routledge, 2005. 132-3. This practical guide outlines various ways professionals can develop their programs, exhibits, and general museum atmosphere to best engage the public.
3. Bell, Philip, et al. "Learning Science in Informal Environments: People, Places, and Pursuits." National Academies Press, 2009. The evidence base that describes informal science, its promise, and effects is informed by a range of disciplines and perspectives, including field-based research, visitor studies, and psychological and anthropological studies of learning.