Docent Educator Logo

Active Learning and Adults

People learn best by “doing.” Need proof? Consider how most of us learn to use a computer. We don’t just read the instruction manual, memorize it, and then turn the machine on. We learn in a series of back-and-forth steps, where something we want to do compels us to find out how to do it.

In museums, historic homes, aquariums, zoos, and other institutions where collections are protected and visitors are kept at a distance, people usually do very little. They stroll, they gaze, they pause to read labels (often spending longer to read a label than to look at what the label describes), and they browse at the gift shop. Truth be told, most people don’t really know what to do when they are in our institutions.

That is one reason why the inquiry method of teaching is such a useful technique for touring. Questioning gets visitors doing things — actively pursuing answers through the process of careful inspection, analysis, and reflection.

Questioning allows visitors to engage in an active learning experience. And, as the old adage goes, “experience is the best teacher.” It is the reason school children are assigned homework; graduate students write papers and theses; tradespeople apprentice; and doctors endure residencies. Active learning experiences teach us in ways that simply hearing about things cannot.

Learning by doing is not new; it is at least as old as our use of tools. Formally, however, it can be traced back to the inquiry method of teaching developed by the philosopher, Socrates. He taught his students by asking them questions. When his students responded, Socrates took their responses, gave them a slightly different spin, and threw back even more questions.

Questioning creates a dynamic situation where people actively discover how to learn, as well as what to learn. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Oh, but there is one tiny complication, most adults want docents to lecture. They do not want to be asked questions. Questioning makes some adults feel put on the spot.

The fact that a majority of adults dislike or distrust situations where they must answer questions creates an educational dilemma for museum docents and staff educators. How do we get adults involved so that they, too, have a lively and enriched learning experience, without forcing them to participate in something they find uncomfortable or worse?

One way to engage adults in active learning is to remove the risks inherent in questioning—to provoke adults into action in ways that do not put them in a situation of perceived vulnerability. There are several ways to accomplish this, each of which can be easily incorporated into adult tours.

Rhetorical Questions

Rhetorical questions, or questions asked to produce an effect and not to elicit a reply, are a useful device for provoking adults into an active frame-ofmind. The effect sought when asking rhetorical questions is precisely the same as when asking questions to which a verbal reply is anticipated — that is to encourage careful observation, analysis, and thoughtful reflection.

Perhaps you’ve entered an 18th century kitchen building with a group of adult visitors. You point to the fireplace with its cauldron and crane. Then, you say, “Can you imagine the dangers of cooking on an open hearth?” Now you pause, giving visitors time to contemplate the question, while lending a dramatic flair to your presentation.

“Notice, there was no fireplace screen, and the women who worked in these kitchens used to wear long flowing skirts and aprons. Oh, and look around you. What is the primary building material used in this kitchen? How fast do you think this building and it contents would bum?” Again, you pause. “Can you understand why this building was not attached to the main house?”

Since adults generally prefer to receive information in a lecture format, rhetorical questions should be interjected into one’s text. They cannot, as with students, be the primary vehicle through which one teaches. You still pause after asking rhetorical questions, however, so that adults realize that you expect them to give them real consideration. Perhaps, the more verbal among your adult visitors may even decide to offer real, out-loud responses so that inquiry teaching can begin in a more overt manner.

Provocative Statements

Sometimes, statements can serve the same function as rhetorical questions. They can request that visitors participate by developing a mental response, even though a verbal response is unnecessary.

For instance, you take a group of adults into a gallery of contemporary art. Guide them toward a work that often evokes thoughts of violence, or pain, or discomfort. Before attempting to discuss the work or the artist, begin by saying, “I am often asked if the artist meant for this painting to be so upsetting and confrontational,” or “The artist of this work left it untitled. However, I’m certain that each of you could come up with a descriptive tide of your own for it.” After each provocative statement, pause. The pause serves as an unspoken cue to visitors that they should look, consider, and reflect.

In an entirely different setting a provocative statement might function like this . . . you are heading toward an area of the zoo that exhibits gorillas. As you approach this environment, say to your adult visitors, “Many people have the mistaken notion that gorillas are aggressive animals, or even man-killers. But then, remember how most of us got our impression of gorillas.” After an appropriate pause, continue by saying, “It certainly wasn’t through personal encounters or practical experience.”

Anecdotes and Stories

“Once upon a time” are magic words that weave their spell upon people of all ages. Adults, as well as children, enjoy hearing anecdotes, folktales, or stories when they are well told. In addition to the pleasure they bring, stories activate participation and engage listeners by prompting them to envision, imagine, and embellish what they hear.

Perhaps you are touring a group of adults through a garden. You begin by telling the group, “I once read a story for children that relates to what we will see in the garden. It was about the beginning of time, when all the plants on Earth were challenged to go without sleep throughout the night.

“Every plant agreed to try, each confident of its ability to remain awake. But only a few hours after sunset, the smallest of the plants became weak and drowsy, and soon drifted off into sleep. Most of the flowering plants also became tired and could not stay awake. One by one, they closed their flower petals and fell fast asleep. Before dawn, even many of the tallest trees had fallen asleep. Only the hardiest of the plants remained awake by the time morning came . . . plants like the holly, the hemlock, the cedar, and the pine.

“These plants had won the competition. For winning, they were told that they need not lose their leaves in winter, but could remain “ever-green” all throughout the year. And, to this day it is the evergreens that keep their leaves, providing us with beauty and greenery even in the coldest days of winter.

“While we tour the garden, I will point out some of the evergreens planted here. Evergreens serve an important function in our garden; they give it structure, especially during the months when the other plants are dormant.”

Inviting Questions

Inviting visitors to ask questions allows them an opportunity to pursue interests and to satisfy curiosities. It is also a wonderful way to permit your guests to set the agenda and determine the tempo of the tour.

When the tour begins, let visitors know to ask questions as they arise, and not to wait until the tour has ended. Then, after looking at something in depth, invite them again to ask questions. Should questions begin to overwhelm your tour, simply reign things back in by telling visitors of your time constraints while offering to answer the rest of their questions at the conclusion of the tour.

If, on occasion, you are asked questions to which you do not know the answer, don’t be rattled. When that happens to me, I admit my ignorance, and then thank the questioner for stimulating me to consider something familiar from an entirely new vantage point.

Engaging adults through a process of asking rhetorical questions, making provocative statements, telling stories, and inviting their questions is not only an effective method of teaching, it is a more satisfying way to teach. Everyone wins. Visitors enjoy a higher quality experience through personal involvement, as they imagine, discuss, and pursue areas of personal interest, while docents experience the satisfaction of having succeed at an educator’s two most important goals, nurturing curiosity and fostering an enthusiasm for learning.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Active Learning and Adults,” The Docent Educator 4.4 (Summer 1995): 2-3.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *