John H. Falk’s expertise is diverse and broad, ranging from his internationally recognized research on learning, particularly how people learn across their lifespan and outside of schooling, to the biology and ecology of the peculiar human creation called the lawn. As these diverse topics demonstrate, Falk is both a social scientist and biologist, with doctorates in both educational psychology and ecology from the University of California, Berkeley. He has conducted research in both of these areas, first at the Smithsonian Institution, Oregon State University (OSU) and the Institute for Learning Innovation. Currently he is Executive Director of the Institute for Learning Innovation in Portland, Oregon, and an Emeritus Sea Grant Professor of Free-Choice Learning at OSU. For 40 years, he has studied why people engage in “free-choice learning,” a term he coined more than 20 years ago with his colleague Dr. Lynn D. Dierking to describe learning that is self-motivated, self-directed, and occurs in the many diverse settings in which humans find themselves: at home, on the Internet, visiting museums and national parks, and while on holiday.
Falk is also an expert in ecology and evolutionary biology, which is how he became a world expert on the lawn, that is, everything one might want to know about a lawn, except how to grow one! Beginning with his dissertation research and continuing into the present, Falk has strived to understand not only how lawns function as ecological systems, but why people are so drawn to these landscapes in the first place, spending time and money to create and nurture them. Falk suggests that humans’ love of lawns is not a recent, European invention as many have argued, but rather a vestige of millions of years of adaptation to life on the savannas of Africa, where humans first evolved. Conducting research on the landscape preferences of people living around the world, including infants, Falk’s ideas have been featured in articles in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, London Times, and Detroit Free Press, and in numerous live interviews on radio stations around the world, including National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.
Another area of expertise Falk possesses is his ability to synthesize complex ideas and research drawn from multiple disciplines into engaging storylines, written in a clear and straightforward manner, refreshing in today’s world of academic specialization and focused research. Few would undertake or even be able to write a book like Born to Choose, spanning disciplines as disparate as psychology, philosophy, evolutionary biology, genetics, medicine, immunology, biochemistry, anthropology, and the neurosciences. And in fact, the book has been over 30 years in the making as Falk developed and researched the ideas presented. The culmination is Born to Choose, a book that provides a radical new theory about the nature of choice-making, a model capable of simultaneously explaining how this process works for the simplest creatures on earth as well as those arguably most complex creatures, present-day humans. It is a story about life’s ability to respond to an ever-more challenging world, building on a basic toolkit that first evolved more than 3.5 billion years ago, at the very beginning of life on earth. It is also a story of one man’s quest for a unified theory of choice-making that embraces understandings drawn from both the natural and social sciences.
A prolific author, Falk has written roughly two hundred scholarly articles and chapters in the fields of biology, psychology, business, leisure and education. Falk has also written, co-written or edited numerous books, including the best-selling academic books Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience (Left Coast Press, 2009), The Museum Experience and The Museum Experience Revisited (with Lynn Dierking, Left Coast Press, 1992, 2014), and Thriving in the Knowledge Age (with Beverly Sheppard, Alta Mira Press, 2006). He also has authored or co-authored several books of original science activities for children and families (Smithsonian Science Activities, GMG Publishing, 1987, 1988, 1989; Bubble Monster and Other Science Fun, Chicago Review Press, 1996; and Bite-Sized Science, Chicago Review Press, 1999). Over the years, Falk also has written scientific pieces for a general audience, including articles in Smithsonian and Horticulture, and his 2002 book with Lynn Dierking, Lessons without Limits (Alta Mira Press).
Additionally, Falk is also a compelling and globally sought-after public speaker, able to effectively present complex ideas to diverse audiences in accessible, yet provocative ways. He has recently delivered keynote addresses to audiences in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colòmbia, Czech Republic, Denmark, England, Finland, Germany, India, Ireland, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, Slovenia, South Africa, Sweden, Taiwan, Thailand, and across the United States.