Learning at Zoos…Do they get it?

Learning is the culmination of perceptions and knowledge.  It is assessed by changes in attitude and behavior (Powell, 1969).  Therefore, creation of meaning is a form of learning.  “Learning…is the means through which we acquire not only skills and knowledge, but values, attitudes, and emotional reactions” (Taylor, 2002).  As educators know, people learn by different means:  visual clues, reading, hands-on experience, imitation, and so on.  Successful learning generally occurs through repetition and utilization of multiple channels of education (Powell, 1969).  In assigning meaning to a zoo exhibit, a person can learn through contextual clues of the exhibit, written signage, hands-on interpretives, and docents.

Although several channels of learning are available to a zoo visitor, it is important to remember that successful education depends on the “inclination and ability to receive and to respond” to these education channels (Taylor, 2002).  Understanding that visitors may or may not be visiting the zoo with the intention of learning is a first step to more successfully educating the visitors.  This means that we must not only provide interesting signage and interpretives, but we have the daunting task of ensuring that every aspect of the exhibit follows the educational message we are intending to send. 

Bronx Zoo

Additionally, we have to create an environment where learning is fun.  Usually, people don’t come to the zoo to read.  Walking up to an exhibit with a slew text on a sign can be overly intimidating to visitors.  I’ve done studies on visitor behavior and have found that barely 2% of visitors completely read text panels next to zoo exhibits.  Most glance at the sign to learn the name of the animal or some other easily accessible information, depending on how the sign is laid out, like where its from or what it eats.  Therefore, learning and meaning assessment is generally accoomplished through visual cues and sensorial experience, and not intentional educational signage. 

Text Heavy Sign

Because of this, many designers live by the notion of “Edutainment” (educational entertainment).  Obviously, this style of design requires us to develop an in-depth story for experience alongside the equally important educational “big idea”.  The two intertwine and support each other.  Recently, edutainment has meant an engaging, true to life environment, completely immersing the visitor in the natural habitat of the animal along with the region’s cultural cues.  However, I question if we cannot spread our wings a bit from the reality of a specific place to encompass more of a fantasy feeling, to entertain, while still meeting our educational goals. 

Ultimately, learning in zoos and aquariums (and museums, as well) must be recongnized as a crucial component in our designs.  Being responsible designers means to be aware of the meaning our guests assign to the experience they just encountered.  Did the rollercoaster through the orangutan exhibit subconsciously lower the value of the orangutan to the visitor, or did it heighten the excitement of the experience thereby increasing the excitement associated with all aspects of the experience, including the animals related?  Did the addition of text heavy graphics throughout the exhibit make the exhibit less fun for the visitor, or make the information less accessible to them?  What about that trench drain at the foot of the underwater viewing area?  How does that affect the viewer’s experience? 

Zoo Atlanta

At the heart of the issue is why we are doing what we do.  Connection.  If someone doesnt entirely get all of the educational goals at the end of their experience, but do walk away thinking, Man, those Orangutans are cool!  Then we did our job, in my humble opinion. 

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