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Achieving Balance

During my 27 years of involvement with museums and docent training, I have arrived at the opinion that the most effective docents are those who have the firmest understanding of teaching and education. Likewise, it is my observation that the most common error made in constructing and executing docent training programs is over-emphasizing the importance of subject matter content to the near exclusion of teaching methodologies. The results are almost always, in my estimation, detrimental to docent performance.

I am privileged to provide docent workshops in art, history, and science museums throughout the country. Without exception, including the largest and most advantaged institutions, I find those docents who are trained in programs that are subject matter content heavy are struggling with the most basic of educational concerns. The result is a profound reduction in their effectiveness. For instance, docents may be told to employ open-ended questions but are not well informed about their construction. Or, docents are admonished to adapt information to the age of their audience but are not told about the impact that stages of cognitive and affective development have upon learning. Or, docents are asked to construct thematic lesson plans but are provided with few models that would give them an understanding of how to do so.

It is my opinion that the reasons docents receive precious little training in educational concerns are several. First, many museum educators who are in charge of docent training know little about teaching methods, themselves. Second, there is great pressure exerted by the curatorial side of the “museum divide” to ensure that docents not give out erroneous information. Third, it is easier to teach subject matter content than ways to teach. And fourth, museum educators do little modeling of the teaching behaviors they expect from their docents.

Once docents begin touring, however, many instinctively realize they lacked something important during training, even if they cannot articulate exactly what was missing. They just know that, regardless of the amount of information they may have been exposed to, the ability to connect to their audiences is not automatic and seems to require a separate set of skills from that of scholarship.

While knowledge of a collection and background in its subject area are essential to a docent’s accuracy and confidence when teaching, they do little to ensure that the docent will communicate effectively with an audience. In practice, it has been my experience that the most effective docent does not tend to be a scholar, but rather a good communicator. Scholarship is, after all, primarily a solitary endeavor. It does not provide a docent with the tools necessary to be an empowering leader or a motivational teacher.

The Importance of Balance

My observations have convinced me that the most effective docent training programs are structured to ensure that docents understand how to teach as well as what to teach. This means that their training program does not over-emphasize subject matter content to the neglect of teaching methods. Placing too much emphasis on academic content misdirects docents, making them believe that their primary responsibility is to tell others information about the collection when that is a job easily accomplished by text panels and labels.

Effective docent training must make docents aware that their primary responsibility is to teach others how to learn from the collection, not what to learn. In order to accomplish this, docents need to know how learning takes place, how to encourage observation and reflective consideration, as well as how to magnify their audience’s interest.

Are Docents Teachers?

Museums, historic sites, zoos, botanical gardens, aquariums, nature centers, and other cultural and scientific organizations are usually defined as “not-for-profit, educational institutions.” Almost all declare their educational intentions within their institutional mission statements.

Nearly without exception, docent programs fall under the realm of an institution’s department of education. Volunteer or paid docents are engaged as educators, in order to teach visitors because their institutions recognize that many visitors do not arrive at their doors equipped to learn from direct contact with the collection. In addition, many of these institutions are obligated to provide educational assistance to the public because they solicit financial support from public sources with the promise that some of the monies provided would be used to assist citizens gain a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, the objects, artifacts, or specimens exhibited.

It was no coincidence that the very first issue of The Docent Educator (Autumn 1991) was titled “The Docent as Teacher.” Nor was the name of this publication created capriciously. Whether they do so well or ineffectively, yes, docents do function as educators in their role with the public.

Education is a Content Area

If the adage “those who can, do; those who can’t, teach” is true, it may explain why good teachers seem to be such a rare commodity. Teaching isn’t easy, and it most definitely is not just a matter of retelling information learned. Teaching is both a talent and a field of study unto itself

Allow me to present a simplistic example. An effective teacher knows how to reach his audience. If you teach children like adults you will lose them; if you teach adults like children you will insult them. Now for the not-so-simple part . . . what, precisely, are the appropriate differences in methods one should employ when teaching children and how do they differ from those used when teaching adults? And, to take this concern a step further, what differences are significant within the category of “children.” Should all children be taught in the same manner? Are second graders like fifth graders, like eighth graders, like twelfth graders?

Effective training for docents cannot focus on subject matter content and expect that “the rest” will take care of itself Docent training must also address educational content. Such “weighty” issues as the following are essential training for an educator: lesson planning, the construction of educational goals and objectives, cognitive development and age graded lessons, questioning strategies and other techniques to encourage audience involvement and active learning, child development and psychology, vocabulary, body language, and other skills of communication, methods for accommodating special needs and disabilities, flexibility and appropriate methods of behavioral control, the impact of learning styles, and methods of evaluation and revision to name but a few.

How to Teach Teaching So, in addition to learning what to teach, docents should receive instruction in how to teach. There are abundant resources available to assist docent program supervisors and the docents themselves, with this essential component of training.

Among the most accessible resources are the teachers, administrators, and curricular specialists in your area’s public, private, and parochial schools. The curriculum of relevant subject areas should reveal how information is taught, and is adapted by age/grade level. Similar resources for adult education are often available within nearby school systems or at a local college or university.

There are myriad of education textbooks available in public libraries, bookstores, and through the internet. Request that your institutional library devote a small segment of its budget to the purchase of such reference materials. Books that detail lesson planning, inquiry teaching, promotion of thinking skills, programs for the education of gifted children, the processes of cognitive and affective development, and methods for constructing elementary and secondary education are excellent topics to use when beginning your search.

Striking the Correct Balance

Effective docent training, therefore, should have several components. Naturally, subject matter content is essential among them. Docents need to learn about their institution’s collection, and how that collection fits into the larger body of knowledge. Docents also need to learn education methods content. Unless docents understand the process and nuances of education, their teaching will always be haphazard at best. In addition, docents need to be invested with the authority and self-esteem of “teacher” status within the institution. If docents do not feel supported in their endeavors, valued for their contributions, and provided with ample training opportunities, they cannot feel the self-assurance necessary to be in charge of teaching situations.

The effectively trained docent knows how to reach and teach her audience. She is self-confident and never “bluffs” or offers information that is unsubstantiated as fact because she does not feel diminished by not knowing an answer. The effectively trained docent feels in control of the teaching situation because she knows that her responsibility is not to be an authority, but to be a teacher. She works to pry open minds and build upon interests and curiosity. She also welcomes periodic evaluation as a way to strengthen her skills. In short, the effectively trained docent is vitally aware that even the teacher is always learning.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Achieving Balance,” The Docent Educator 11.1 (Autumn 2001): 2-3+.

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