When Objects Guide Our Pedagogy: An Introduction to Experiential Learning

Posted: January 30, 2014 - 14:31 , by Amanda Girgis

Experiential learning is sometimes used as a synonym for educational practices that include active participation by the learner.  Museum educators consider this an effective way to teach; it is also a tool that that animates and interprets objects within the museum’s collection. Experiential Learning allows students and visitors the opportunity to explore sites, environments, and objects, using active rather than passive learning methods.

The concept of discovery or experiential learning can be traced back to the nineteenth century and beyond, where finding out about the world thorough the exploration of real things in real places, is seen as one of the best ways of facilitating growth and development. (Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. The educational role of the museum. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1999.)

Museum educator’s value objects such as fossils, minerals, and textiles, and what we can learn from them; unlike many schools, museums also have access to a diverse pool of real specimens and artifacts that can be used for teaching. Experiential learning is a teaching method that allows learners to explore and examine objects that illustrate larger concepts, like gravity, for example. When students learn about gravity by observing it for themselves, seeing that the effect of gravity on a falling object is constant regardless of the object’s weight, science becomes more than just a subject taught in the classroom. When objects guide our pedagogy, science in this case becomes a natural extension of the learner’s world: it becomes something they can touch, interpret, hear, understand, and most importantly, use in their day-to-day life.

At the Royal Ontario Museum, the Hands-On Galleries (including the Patrick and Barbara Keenan Family Gallery of Hands-on Biodiversity and the CIBC Discovery Gallery) offer a fun, welcoming, interactive learning space where a team of staff and volunteer facilitators are dedicated to providing interactive methods of learning and interpretation of the gallery specimens whenever the museum is open. Sarah Elliott, museum educator at the ROM says:

The galleries offer visitors the opportunity to learn about history and the natural world by doing rather than looking-- and it’s a great way to experience the museum when you’re young, when you’re someone who does better with alternative methods of learning, or if you’re just someone who wants a chance to indulge your imagination by engaging in experiences you might not have anywhere else. Even the most seasoned of museum-goers are amazed to feel how soft muskox wool is!

The Hands-On Galleries help contextualize and reinforce the information students are given during their museum visit, Elliott explains. School groups often come to the ROM for a lesson with museum teachers about, for example, growth and change in animals. The school groups then have the opportunity after their lesson to visit Hands-On Biodiversity to observe the life cycles and metamorphosis of the live beetles in the insect display, or the honey bees in their hive. “The galleries give students the opportunity to actively apply concepts they learned in their museum lesson,” Elliott concludes. 

On your next visit the Royal Ontario Museum, be sure to visit the Hands-On Galleries located on level 2, and don't forget to follow the galleries on twitter: @ROMhandson

Watch Sarah facilitate a deer skull:


Elliott, Sarah. "Museum Girl Sarah." Museum Girl's Musings. http://museumgirlsarah.tumblr.com (accessed January 23, 2014).

Hein, George E.. Learning in the museum. London: Routledge, 1998.

Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean. The educational role of the museum. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1999.

Amanda Girgis is a Social Media and Web Intern at the Royal Ontario Museum.  Amanda has completed a degree in History at York University and is now pursuing a post-graduate study. Twitter: @lovehk_