A family visits museum Naturalis and comes across a fossil dinosaur egg. "What does this look like?", "How big do you think the mother of this egg was?", "What would the nesting place of a dinosaur have looked like?" Three options for a question on the object label, but which one encourages a reasoning conversation between parents and children? Anne Land, a researcher at Science Communication & Society of the Institute of Biology Leiden, investigated this. And that is important: "A part of learning is that you talk about the things you encounter. When you talk about science with others, you remember more about it."
A little reasoning
Next to the fossil dinosaur egg in Naturalis, visitors only saw one question on the object label, without any other information that could be distracting. There was also no answer provided. The researchers studied the length and content of the conversations that took place by analyzing audio recordings. Visitors had permitted for this beforehand but did not know at which object their conversations would be recorded.
The question of what kind of object it was, turned out to be too simple. According to the researchers, children answered the question like a guessing game, without an extensive conversation. The question about the size of the mother led to the most comprehensive discussions. According to Land, this open question is suitable for triggering conversations, because the answer requires some reasoning, but is not too far-off from the knowledge of the visitors.
Out of your comfort zone
That would also explain why people talked less about the size of the nest. Land: "We noticed that the question about the size of the nest was a bit too complicated. The visitors hardly had a frame of reference to answer the question, which made them less likely to discuss the question with the child. When asked about the size of the dinosaur mother, they can more easily compare it with something from everyday life, such as a chicken egg. We also heard that visitors were looking for clues in the exhibition around them. A good question will pull you just out of your comfort zone, but not too far."
The published research is part of a sustainable collaboration between researchers from Science Communication & Society and the Education department of Naturalis. Welmoet Damsma from Naturalis, involved in the study, says: "We want to make people think and let them talk to each other. A sign or label next to an object with a good question is the perfect trigger for that. With this research, we are a step closer to answer the question: What is a good question?" Land thinks that the results can also be translated to other museums: "An object label with a question like this could be next to a fossil, but I can imagine that it also works for something completely different, like a painting or statue."
Text: Naturalis Biodiversity Center
Photos: Mike Bink Fotografie (lead photo: T. rex Trix in Naturalis Biodiversity Center); Naturalis Biodiversity Center