Adapting Learning From Objects: A Teacher’s Guide to natural history specimens

Learning From Objects: A Teacher’s Guide by Gail Durbin, Susan Morris, and Sue Wilkinson (1996) is a slim volume focused on teaching with man-made objects, but the concepts could be applied to natural history specimens.  The authors assert that objects provide creative and emotional stimulus and aid the memory because physical sensations, experiences, and emotions may be more permanent than facts or ideas learned orally or visually.  Visitors to natural history museums come to see the specimens.  Allowing visitors more opportunities to interact with the specimens should lead to more learning and better retention.

The authors offer a formula for investigating objects that includes questions related to physical features, construction, function, design, and value.  Other than physical features (What does it look and feel like?), the remaining categories might not seem to translate well to natural history specimens, but a little creative thinking is all that is necessary.

Construction – Although biological and geological specimens are not constructed by people, they are constructed nonetheless.  Questions about construction (How was it made?) can lead visitors to look more closely at specimens to see beyond the obvious.  Was the specimen constructed by geological or biological methods?  Is it stable in room-temperature conditions without special treatment?  What stage of development does it represent?  What limbs and sense organs, if any, does it possess?

Function – A specimen may not have a function (What was it made for?) in the way a manufactured object does, but it was once part of a system in which it performed a function.  Was the specimen predator, prey, or both?  Did the specimen play a part in the building or destruction of a landmass?  Did the specimen provide a service to other members of its environment or did it require the services of others?

Design – Design of natural objects may not be intentional, but evolution or physical and chemical processes contribute to their design.  Questions of design (Is it well designed?) in nature might trend toward survivability.  Does the specimen’s design suit its environment and lifestyle?  Do its colors assist it in hiding or attracting food or mates?  Design may also reflect chemical or physical properties.  What is the specimen composed of?  Is it colorful?  Is the design pleasing to you?  Is it pleasing to others?

Value – People tend to associate man-made objects with a monetary value.  However, value (What is it worth?) can also be expressed in sentiment or degree of contribution to a society.  The value of natural history specimens can sometimes be estimated or even precisely determined in monetary terms.  But often the value of these specimens lies in their research potential or their ability to transmit ideas.  What is a specimen worth to a scientist, a student, or the person who discovered it?  Think about the value of the group the specimen represents.   What contributions do the animals represented by this specimen make that benefit the planet or people?  Why are the animals or minerals represented by this specimen important to you?

Incorporating questions such as these in exhibits and programs will enhance the learning from natural history specimens.  However, eliciting such questions from visitors requires even more thought.  Durbin et. al. offer advice on developing skills that are necessary when working with objects.  The skills described include looking, describing, recording, questioning, classifying, relating form to function, formulating and testing hypotheses, and constructing knowledge from fragments of a specimen.  The lesson ideas given in the text for developing these skills can be directly translated to natural history specimens and could become a part of a museum exhibit or program.  Not only do these activities provide impetus for visitors to look more closely at objects, they develop observation, deduction, language, and recording skills in the participants.

The final section of Learning From Objects offers instruction on the selection of objects that might be best for teaching and issues related to their use.  Neither rarity nor perfection is necessary to elicit questions.  Original specimens are preferred, but in the case of fragile, perishable, dangerous, or rare specimens, the use of replicas is appropriate.  Conservation of specimens should be a part of the lesson and visitors might be asked to consider why a given specimen is worth conserving even if the cost of conservation is relatively high.  Discussion of conservation methods and costs are encouraged.  Specimens from a variety of disciplines can help visitors understand what they mean to themselves and others.  One visitor’s fear of snakes could be assuaged by another’s appreciation of them.   Selecting a series of specimens to demonstrate a chronology can develop sorting and classification skills and demonstrate continuity, change, and progress.  These topics can be directly related to taxonomy, evolution, ontogeny, and plate tectonics among other natural history themes.

Learning From Objects: A Teacher’s Guide can be adapted to benefit natural history museum exhibits and programs.  I advise anyone who is creating a specimen-centered program or exhibit to read it and make use of the ideas it incorporates.

Works Cited

Durbin, G., Morris, S., & Wilkinson, S. (1996). Learning From Objects: A Teacher’s Guide. (M. Corbishley, Ed.) English Heritage.