I've just come across Dan Lockton's thoughtful post on Education, forcing functions and understanding, which looks at some of the ways in which textbooks and computer software can sometimes try to 'force' learning within educational contexts. The post is part of his Architectures of Control blog, a look at how design tries to force behaviour, which I'm finding fascinating.
There's some interesting parallels with museums here, which I'll try to write up more fully in a future post. Museums often try to force visitor behaviour in order to achieve learning outcomes, sometimes more successfully than others. A common example of this is a game - designed to appeal to children - which has factual text embedded within it. The 'Mobile Mayhem' game included within our recent Dead Ringers exhibition is a typical example. The gameplay, essentially about pressing the right buttons at the right time, is bookended by some factual paragraphs about mobile phone recycling. By revealing the content word by word, and making the screens unskippable until the whole paragraph has been displayed, the player is meant to be forced to read the text, and hence to take in the new and educational information.
This strategy, of using simple games to try and deliver learning, is pervasive throughout the education sector (I certainly remember lots of CD-Rom games at school being like this), and is the equivalent of giving sweets to children for visiting the dentist. The game is used as a way of attracting children, perceived to enjoying 'playing' but not like 'learning', who are then surreptitiously slipped educational information whilst they're having fun. The problem is, of course, that it's not that difficult to ignore the education and just focus on the game. As Lockton points out, it's pretty impossible for software to actually evaluate educational 'understanding', and so attempting to force can be somewhat disingenuous.
Museums do, I hasten to add, also contain plenty of newer galleries which use more modern understandings of educational theory. Evidence of 'architectures of control' can still be found, however, in everything from navigational signage to marketing banners and gallery layouts to interactive design. It's such an interesting topic that I'm sure I'll be studying more about it, and following Dan Lockton's blog with great interest.
Suggestions of further reading on this topic (blogs, websites, books, papers) are very welcome - please leave a comment below.
Update: Dan responds to this post with another great post of his own, looking at educational architectures of control in museums. He also looks at a few interesting examples (through Josh Clark) of art galleries with minimal or no interpretation, and asks how that changes visitor behaviour.