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The language of living : developing intelligent novices at the Suter Art Gallery : a thesis presented in fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Masters of Philosophy in Museum Studies at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
This research was founded in Bruer’s (1993, p.15) concept of the intelligent novice, considering
students visiting an art gallery could be so described. He defines intelligent novices as “people who
learn new fields and solve novel problems more expertly than most, regardless of how much
domain-specific knowledge they possess. Among other things, intelligent novices seem to control
and monitor their thought processes”. Peckham’s (1965) ‘cognitive dissonance’ is related,
describing how some novice learners respond in cognitively threatening situations. These theories
are augmented by Efland’s (2002) exploration into art and cognition, in particular, the concepts of
‘ill-structured cognitive domains’ and ‘cognitive flexibility’. Drawing on and reconceptualising
these theories, this research addresses how the art gallery environment helps students become
The case study focuses on the researcher’s education programmes located at The Suter, Te Aratoi a
Whakatu, Nelson, New Zealand’s oldest public art gallery, established in 1898. This crossdisciplinary
research bridges education and museum studies, and is action-based using mixedmethods.
Through a process of journaling, observating, discussing, dialoguing, audio and video
recording, as well as collecting and analysing documents including students’ work, the researcher
considered how young students develop as intelligent novices. She found that their learning in the
art gallery was enhanced by three interrelated factors: the individual’s agency, physical aspects of
the art gallery, and the community of practice which developed around class visits, each essential to
the development of the intelligent novice. A framework was developed to support art museum
educators in facilitating these attributes.
The thesis suggests that:
Intelligent novices independently make effective connections between prior learning and
Within the art gallery as an ill-structured domain, the art gallery educator works with
communities of practice to support development of intelligent novices;
Repeat gallery visits enable students and communities of practice to practise particular
strategies in order to develop as intelligent novices.
Intelligent novices flourish when all members of the communities of practice demonstrate
It concludes that, due to the ‘ill-structured’ nature of the art gallery environment, and its cultural
role in society, the role of the intelligent novice is as active cultural transformer.