Learning from the real versus the replicated: a comparative study
The nature of the learning that occurs with real versus replicated objects and environments is an important topic for museums and science centers. Our comparative, exploratory study addressed this area through an investigation of family visits to two different settings: an operating permafrost research tunnel, and a replica of this permafrost tunnel at a science center. We conducted and analyzed family interviews, grounding our work in the Contextual Model of Learning and ideas about sensory components of learning. We found significant differences between the real and replicated environments in terms of what families discussed during interviews. Specifically, the proportion of perceptual (descriptions of features or sensory-based perceptions) talk at the real tunnel was higher than that at the replica tunnel, while the proportion of conceptual talk was higher at the replica tunnel as compared to the real tunnel. The nature of the conceptual talk was similar at the two sites, and often relied on objects as ‘nodes’ of learning. Our findings suggest that visitors were sensorially engaged to a higher degree in the real, versus the replicated, setting. Given these findings, exhibition designers should think carefully about the goals of specific exhibit elements and privilege real objects and immersive experiences accordingly.