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A Method to the Madness: What Teens Need and Want from Us

How much content from your last tour do you think students retained? It may well depend on the method you used to convey the information. According to S. Famham-Diggery in Paradigms of Know ledge and Instruction (1994). there are four teaching methods which encompass all other teaching activities, they are: 1) talking, 2) displaying, 3) coaching, and 4) arranging the learning environment. In the first method, the teacher’s talk may be declarative or inductive, that is s/he may tell, discuss, and question. In the second, the teacher models or demonstrates. In the third method, the teacher provides cues and suggested modifications while the student is engaged in some activity. In the fourth, the teacher designs and implements activities that stimulate self-learning.

Docents should be aware that student retention rates vary widely among these methods. According to the Learning Pyramid, produced by the National Training Laboratories in Bethel, Maine, a learner’s retention rate of the content of a lecture is a shockingly low 5%. (Perhaps it’s not so shocking. How much do you remember from the last lecture you heard?) However, if students discuss that content in a group, the retention rate jumps to a much more respectable 50%. Additionally, we retain 70% of what we, ourselves, actually say or ask in a discussion.

In her book, Endangered Minds (1990), Jane M. Healey corroborates the critical role played by the use of spoken and written language in one’s learning process. She writes, “Language shapes culture, language shapes thinking — and language shapes brains” literally, she explains, by arranging synapses which alter the physiological development of the neocortex, the part of the brain where mathematical, verbal, and logical functions are located.

Healey feels that most educational experiences, with their reliance on teacher lecture, worksheets, and reading chapters only to answer questions at the end, are causing the brains of today’s children to be “structured in language patterns antagonistic to the values and goals of formal education. The culprit . . . is diminished and degraded exposure to the forms of good, meaningful language that enables us to converse with others, with the written word, and with our own minds …. To reason effectively and solve problems … growing minds … need to learn what it feels like to be in charge of one’s own brain, actively pursuing a mental or physical trial, inhibiting response to the lure of distractions.”

The solution? According to at least three sources cited by Mark A. Forget in A Brain Compatible Approach to Learning, Jane Healey ‘s Endangered Minds, the Virginia Department of Education’s Plain Talk (1987), and Judy S. Richardson and Raymond F. Morgan’s Reading to Learn in the Content Areas (1994), solutions must involve students in the active, rather than passive, and interactive pursuit of meaning and understanding in an affective environment, one that is compassionate and does not rely on threats as a motivation to learn. Where better than in museums?

These research findings are in complete accordance with the desires expressed by 50 high school students we recently surveyed. In preparation for a workshop for museum educators and docents, Cindy Moneta, art department chair at Ocean Lakes High School in Virginia Beach, polled her students. Her question to the students was simple: what should and shouldn’t art museum docents do when touring high school students? Their answers, which were not exclusive to art museums, reflect concerns ranging from content and teaching strategies to style of presentation and even personal hygiene.

Perhaps most importantly, the majority of students’ answers corroborate research which asserts that a nonthreatening inquiry-based, language-rich, student-centered approach is most effective. The following are some of their responses:

  • let us select the object to discuss ask more specific questions about the images that interest us
  • ask us what we are interested in
  • ask how we can relate the subject or information to our lives
  • allow us to ask questions allow us to interpret the image
  • ask for our opinions
  • let us tell you what we already know
  • give your information after we have given our view, opinions, interpretations
  • find out what we are expecting to learn
  • give us food for thought and then allow us to participate
  • give us a chance to think and figure certain things out.

Believe it or not, some activities they said the enjoy include role playing, games, treasure hunts, and meaningful worksheets (as opposed to “busy” work). Perhaps students desire these kinds of activities because they intuitively know that allowing learners to practice by doing means they are likely to retain 75% of the content!

In terms of interpersonal communication, the students want us to follow the “golden rule” by being nice, friendly, enthusiastic, caring, and warm while avoiding treating them like children and underestimating them. Worse, perhaps, is being condescending or talking down to them, as well as the opposite, acting intimidated. They asked that we not assume that they aren’t listening nor that they do not care, and to please not lose patience with them. Not surprisingly, teens are concerned with establishing their own identity — autonomy is important to them. They recommend being allowed to pick their own groups for group activities, as well as being allowed to explore on their own.

They want educators to remember the rules of effective public speaking by acting natural and relaxed, facing the audience, speaking clearly and loudly enough, speaking eloquently, spicing up the information, adding humor, modulating our facial expressions and tone of voice, speaking at a moderate pace and avoiding fillers such as “um” and “like.” Looking nice and having fresh breath were important to at least two other students.

High on the “don’t” list were lecturing, rambling on-and-on, over-explaining, overwhelming them with too many facts and too much information, and spending too long on one object. Remember, students only retain an estimated 5% of what is lectured to them. Additionally, two students implored us to “be creative” and “use props.”

Unwittingly, these students reinforced exactly what leading researchers in the field of education have indicated as the new paradigm for education. The implications for those of us challenged with creating meaningful educational experiences in museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and botanical gardens are quite clear and have been espoused in the pages of The Docent Educator since its inception: tours should be concentrated with varied opportunities for students to use language to express and connect ideas, ask and answer questions, and discuss content with the docent, teacher, and other students.

When possible, students preference and research indicate that docents should stretch perhaps beyond their “comfort zone” to incorporate demonstrations (30% retention rate) and to allow student to practice by doing (75% retention rate). Further, facilitating a learning environment in which students use what they have learned immediately will likely result in a whopping 90% retention of content. (A simple way to achieve this goal is to ask students to apply concepts learned in relation to one object discussed on the tour to a subsequent object in the course of the same tour.) The psychological context for all of this teaching and learning should not only be non-threatening, but should be pleasant and emotionally supportive of the students.

Finally, it is important for docents to recognize that the researchers’ and students’ recommendations are method-related, not style-related. That is, regardless of one’s personal teaching style, all docents can succeed as effective educators by following the guidelines above. In so doing, docents will discover that the content to be learned is the means to an end, rather than the end itself. What is that end? Students who can think, reason, abstract, connect, hypothesize, make judgments, and suggest solutions. And, students who find doing so enjoyable enough to sustain for a lifetime.

Betsy Gough-DiJulio is Director of Education for the Virginia Beach Center for the Arts, in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and is a frequent contributor to The Docent Educator.

Gough-DiJulio, Betsy. “A Method to the Madness: What Teens Need and Want from Us,” The Docent Educator 5.4 (Summer 1996): 4-5.

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