A Formal Introduction to Informal Learning

When I first started working in the field of “informal learning”, I discovered using this term with friends and family usually resulted in a blank stare. When I clarified this refers to learning that happens out of school—in zoos, museums and nature centers—I would then get a smile and a story of a recent museum visit or childhood field trip. The story usually ended with “I had no idea this was actually a real job!”

Fast-forward 20 years. Today, I think we can rest easy that informal learning has, indeed, become a clearly recognized field complete with experts, a solid research base that directs our decision making, and degree programs preparing the next generation.

We’ve learned through our research how people engage with exhibits, right down to which direction they are most likely to walk through the galleries (counterclockwise) and how long they spend in an exhibit space (about 20 minutes, more or less). We know which types of experiences visitors remember most clearly as well as which family members are more likely to engage with a hands-on opportunity (no surprise: the kids!). We even have research that shows these visits are remembered long after they are over…even if sometimes what is remembered most is what was eaten for lunch.

But despite our success,  I think we’ll all agree that if we want to stay relevant in a constantly morphing society, the informal learning community must keep pushing forward. We need to continue to explore new opportunities to engage visitors and take some risks to uncover the best ways to connect with our audiences in this rapidly changing world. What this means is being comfortable with looking past best practices in order to explore “next” practices in the field.

A shift in practice is never easy and certainly does not come without risk. However, at Lincoln Park Zoo, pursuing this path has just become a little bit easier. Thanks to an extremely generous $3 million leadership gift from the Hurvis Charitable Foundation, the zoo is ready to step into the forefront of innovation efforts through the creation of the Hurvis Center for Learning Innovation and Collaboration. The center will focus on increasing understanding of how learning happens in museums, zoos and aquariums through innovative program models and thoughtful reflection on program outcomes and impacts.

The design of the center began with the process of exploring “What if?”…

What if we could be comfortable with the reality that exploring new pathways of engagement will likely be a very bumpy road?

  • What if we didn’t need to show immediate success, but instead could give a program the time it needed to mature?
  • What if we didn’t have to start with the assumption we’d be working with limited funding?
  • What if—gasp—we could operate with the assumption that a program “failure” could provide so much critical data it could ultimately be termed a success?
  • What if we could successfully capture true innovation?

Defining innovation is tricky. There are as many definitions as there are varieties of museums.

Our definition of innovation at the Hurvis Center is in line with that of EmcArts, a group dedicated to supporting innovation within cultural institutions. We agree that innovation is a process and at its core is a commitment to doing things differently than before.  To us this means looking at what comes next, and not being fearful of working outside tradition. We all laugh at images of the first, brick-sized cell phone, but I think we’ll all agree we’d be lost without cellular technology as it looks today.  I remember rolling my eyes at my educational technology teacher in 1993 who would force us to send our assignments by email. “I’m right here,” I would argue. “Can’t I just hand it to you?” Because clearly that email thing was never going to take off.

We want the Hurvis Center to be a place of innovation, where tradition and established best practices are respected and acknowledged but are not the end of the story. Rather, they are a prologue, setting the stage for trying new approaches, engaging new audiences and taking programmatic risks.

To justify our actions, we’re making sure evaluation and research are conducted at every step to capture our hits, misses and everything in-between. Perhaps most importantly, we want the center to acknowledge the great work of our colleagues and build off the many successes happening at museums and zoos around the country. It’s no accident the word “collaboration” is part of the center’s title. We truly believe that our efforts toward innovative practice can only be strengthened by working with our peers and partners collaboratively, not competitively.

As with any new endeavor, the road ahead will have its share of successes and challenges. Dare I say, probably even a failure or two, but most importantly this is sure to be an interesting and rewarding journey. I’ll be back to share regular updates from the Hurvis Center, including information regarding opportunities to connect with our new initiatives.

Leah Melber


Leah Melber, Ph.D., is Senior Director of the Hurvis Center for Learning Innovation and Collaboration at Lincoln Park Zoo.