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Free to Explore a Museum : : Embodied Inquiry and Multimodal Expression of Meaning


In the complexity and idiosyncrasies of everyday human activity, social scientists seek patterns--first to describe, then to explain the organization of thought and action. In a natural history museum, a setting of complex activity, video-based research addresses fundamental questions: How do children use museum exhibits? How do they make sense of experience when confronted with a rich array of resources, including natural objects, environments, models, digital and mechanical interactives, static and moving images, text and sound? How does design constrain and afford different forms of engagement and meaning-making? Theories of cognition--as embodied, situated, and distributed--informed methods of analysis focused on multimodal interaction. A detailed behavioral coding scheme, applied to video of six multilingual fourth -grade children, highlights when they look, touch, talk, and gesture with exhibits. Quantitative analyses focus on behavioral frequencies and sequences. Qualitative analyses describe the forms and cognitive functions of the children's multimodal engagements. In this cognitive ecosystem, the diversity, abundance, and distribution of modes of interaction permit inferences about the role of the environment, consequences of design and the potential for learning. Children's self-directed explorations of the museum clustered around themes: objects, action, and representation. The children's activity embodied inquiry. They asked, explicitly and implicitly, What is it? What can I do? What does it mean? Children used multiple sensorimotor and expressive modalities for different functions, and they distributed and integrated cognitive labor across modalities and individuals. When children manipulated objects in the museum--opportunities for interaction that they actively sought--they achieved feats of cognitive complexity. They tested cause-and-effect relations in the physical world, created layers of narrative interpretation, and filled conceptual gaps in exhibits with their own expressions of meaning. Guided by children's behavioral and cognitive inclinations, museums and schools can, and should, create environments for meaningful exploration, imagination and expression

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