Designing Museum Educational Programs that Impact Environmental Actions

Visitor at aquarium

I just read a chapter from the book Behavior Change Theories and Free-Choice Environmental Learning (2009) that examines behavior change theories as they apply to environmental learning and action. The author Nicole Ardoin of Stanford University reviews several relevant behavior change theories that are particularly relevant to institutions that offer "free-choice" environmental learning. That is, places like museums, zoos and aquaria, where visitors choose what experiences to engage in, in contrast to formal educational environments like schools and universities. 

Ardoin brings in some interesting theoretical frameworks from health education, since those are also typically tied to behavioral change in the learner, as well as theories more directly focused on environmental concerns. Her main takeaway is that "engaging the cognitive, affective, and values-based realms, coupled with a focus on skills and opportunities for action, lay the groundwork for influencing and predicting behavior." In other words, if we want to encourage environmentally beneficial actions by our visitors, we need to appeal to the whole person, as thinking, feeling and self-motivated individuals. 

This is a good reminder that intellectual appeals are not enough to motivate action, particularly for the casual museum visitor. So affective experiences, or "moments of awe" as our executive director talks about, are just as important in spurring pro-social behaviors. 

This makes me thankful that I work at an institution that has the resources and capacity to engage the whole person, from our living roof to our up-to-the-minute scientific research to our professional visualization studio. Where we might do better is being more clear in what we want people to do and how they can do it. This is not something that museums traditionally are particularly good at. But I'm committed to helping figure out how we can be agents of pro-social behavior change for our millions of visitors we connect with.


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