Can there be learning conversations in demo shows?

January 24, 2013 in Evidence from the Field, RoP Reflections, Stories from the Floor

Science World, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, is a science centre in the tradition of the Exploratorium.  Our galleries are full of hands-on (and even body-on) exhibits.  Almost everything is meant to be touched and explored by visitors guided by their own interests and questions.

Like the other institutions using the Reflecting on Practice program, we do structured programs for school groups, cart demonstrations, animal encounters, and drop-in activities.  Similar to our colleagues at these institutions, we have found that the RoP framework and tools have helped us to understand better the dynamics of these kinds of learning experiences. But, we also do large-scale, theatrical, whiz-bang demonstration shows. It is in these shows that our reflective journey has been complex and insightful.

The Show @ Science World


Science World’s demonstration show stage is central to the open-plan heart of our building.  When there’s a show on, visitors gather around on two levels, often filling the staircase on a busy day.  We present five to six 20-minute shows each day. A typical show consists of a half dozen demonstrations related by theme (Air, Cold, Electricity, Bubbles etc.) and connected by brief, pithy explanations. Key ingredients are volunteer participants from the audience and age-appropriate humour. We’ve invested a lot of time and energy over the last decade in developing our performance skills.  Brian, our performance specialist, adapts tricks of the trade from children’s theatre, clowning and improvisation for use in our shows.  We record every performance for review and training purposes, which is handy for the RoP program!

Conversations in demonstration shows: A source of tension

RoP program implementation began in fall 2012 with our science facilitators (front line staff).  As of December, we were beginning Module 3.  Rhoda and I facilitate the program; we are part of the Community Engagement group, which develops content for exhibits, shows and programs.  Our most difficult discussion so far was about learning conversations in the context of demonstration shows. In a show, there’s not room to diverge much from “Educator Monologue” with occasional moments of IRE/IRF. Science facilitators reading the lists of “characteristics of conversations that support learning” and “educator moves that support learning” could find almost nothing in common with “characteristics of a successful show”.  If the presenter were to ask audience members to elaborate their reasoning or to discuss ideas amongst themselves, the show would grind to a painful halt.  The facilitators were inclined to conclude that reflecting about learning conversations was irrelevant to this part of their practice.

Rhoda and I encouraged further discussion, though, trying to unpack a bit more about how learning conversations can be supported by a whiz-bang show.  Brian’s devoted participation in the RoP sessions supported his role in leading the group to implement creative solutions. For instance, some facilitators opined that the main goal of our shows is purely affective – to encourage our audience to see science as fun.  If this is the case, we noted, we should be making greater efforts to integrate the themes and content of the shows into the overall experience at Science World.  So the idea emerged that if learning conversations can’t really be part of the show, perhaps the show could act as an invitation to a richer conversation (among visitors, or between staff and visitors) at an exhibit.

This suggestion led us to refer more consistently to exhibits during shows (or vice versa).  For example, facilitators do the “tablecloth trick” using a tower made of Keva building blocks, and encourage visitors to explore tower stability in the Keva gallery. Other facilitators pointed out that audience members often have questions after a show.  Rhoda noted that some really rich learning conversations happen when curious visitors approach the facilitator to pursue a discrepant event that was used as a demo.  Thinking about this has led us to re-emphasize the importance of ending shows early enough that visitors can participate in deeper conversation with the demonstrator afterwards.

Rethinking our practice: A work in progress

Many facilitators respond to critique of their shows with, “But the audience LOVES my shows!  They’re completely engaged – laughing, cheering, leaning forward.”  They focus on this evidence of “engagement” as the indicator of a successful show.  The RoP program has encouraged us – in some cases reluctantly – to think more deeply about what we mean by engagement.  As performers, we want to engage the emotions of our audience.  But as educators, we want to engage them intellectually and support their learning.  Rhoda and I have some challenges ahead in trying to convince facilitators that emotional and intellectual engagement can and should co-exist. We’ll need to work with facilitators to incorporate good teaching and learning practice without detracting from the entertaining approach that makes the shows so popular.  This is where it’s been helpful to work directly with Brian.  As a first step, we are working with Brian to rewrite stage performance standards, which now includes explicit references to learning goals.

Reflecting on the practice of learning conversations has also led us to re-evaluate what kinds of programming we deliver on stage.  Rhoda and I found, for example, that a popular “Grossology” school workshop was actually more like a show, with the focus on the dramatic performance of the facilitator, and less opportunity for dialogue.  With Brian’s help, the workshop was reinvented as a stage show, making it available to more visitors, and leaving classroom space available for more inquiry-based programming. The next step will be to use RoP tools to reflect on the effectiveness of “Grossology” in its new incarnation as a show.

Closing thoughts

It’s early days yet, and we are still working on turning our group into confidently reflective practitioners.  We’re looking forward to the “Teaching with Objects” module, which we think will be a more comfortable fit with our usual practices.  Meanwhile, however, we’ve started some great discussions about teaching and learning in demonstration shows, and even taken some small steps towards making our wonderful shows even better.

Written by Sandy Eix

2 responses to Can there be learning conversations in demo shows?

  1. Awesome stuff! It is really hard to have a good conversation in a show, I have only seen a few educators that could pull of anything close to a true conversation without losing many of the crowd. And your Totally right that entertainment and education need to co-exist! Why would anyone learn something they had no interest in? IRE/IRF can make up a good chunk of a show with a fair bit of effort. It is hard, and it requires flexibility on the presenters part (they need a WAY deeper grasp of the concepts involved when compared to doing a monologue), but with a willing/ableness to go off script, plus a bit of effort and self reflection, it can be done.

    Some of the shows I work with also involve explosions, thermite, and liquid nitrogen. By asking a lot of questions like “what is the air made of? what is boiling? What do you see or feel?” type of things, and taking objects into the audience to examine you start to hone that ability. By focusing on what is interesting and reading the audience and not a script, you can start the shift from monologue and more towards a simulated conversation. Not to imply this is easy, it is not, but it makes from some interesting shows that are always different!

  2. Another thing that helps some of the educators I work with is to think of the shows as just a bigger, better attended, louder cart demo or activity.

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