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Active Learning Thinking Skills, and Audience Participation

Unless you are reading The Docent Educator for the first time, you probably know that I advocate teaching methods that use active learning strategies. It is my strongly held belief that object-based learning is best accomplished by placing visitors in the active roles of seekers and contemplators, rather than putting them in the more passive stances of listeners and absorbers. Learning within museums, historic sites, zoos, parks, and gardens should be conducted differently than it is in classrooms. Access to authentic objects and specimens intensifies learning by extending lessons beyond the realm of the abstract. Such access permits learners to experience encounters with the “real thing.” And, because art, history, and science collections are intrinsically powerful and interesting, they offer opportunities to intrigue and involve people in ways that no textbook or blackboard can. Therefore, rather than spend time telling visitors information that they could otherwise read about in texts, it seems preferable to challenge visitors to experience the excitement of learning directly from the collection by having them actively investigate, make discoveries, and reflect upon what they find.

Of the several forms of active learning strategies an educator can employ, I find inquiry— the asking of questions — the most productive, flexible, and engaging. Questions can be geared to the age and experience level of audiences and to the type of objects or living things being investigating. Questions immediately place visitors into an active stance by requesting that they do, find, or think of something. And, when asked in an appropriate manner, questions enfranchise everyone regardless of the discoveries they make or the conclusions they draw. There simply is no more effective way I know of to encourage participation and retention than by using inquiry.

I advocate using active learning strategies for another reason as well. Active learning strategies provide visitors with an opportunity to use and acquire skills for “continued learning.” While facts and information about a collection tend to be trivia unless connected to well-developed interests and previously acquired knowledge, skills are tools that can be used again and again, to pursue interests and acquire knowledge. Skills allow people to unlock mysteries, solve puzzles, and find new insights. They give learners the ability to continue learning on their own.

Establishing an Atmosphere that Encourages Participation

“Everyone likes the spotlight, but no one likes being put on the spot.” When working to establish an atmosphere conducive to participation, I try to remember that rule. If given positive encouragement to share thoughts, ideas, and discoveries, people will enjoy doing so, but only if they feel safe and trust that their efforts will be treated with encouragement and respect.

When first meeting a group of younger students, I begin by asking questions that set the stage for further inquiry, such as, “Have you been to other botanical gardens before? What did you see there?” or “Do you have a favorite flower or tree? What makes it so special to you?” When meeting older students or adult visitors, I let them know that I will guide their experience by sharing information and by asking questions. “My questions,” I tell them, “are meant to open up a discussion. They are not a test of your knowledge, and your participation is voluntary. However, I believe that the conversations initiated by my questions will make your visit here more interesting, more responsive to your observations and concerns, and will broaden the topics we explore together.”

Through both my demeanor and my words, I must keep my commitment to maintaining a safe environment within which visitors can comfortably share their new and untested observations, ideas, responses, and attitudes. I do this best by honoring every response offered and being grateful for the respondent’s willingness to share. Once a response to a question is proffered, I restate the answer in my own words to ensure that others and I have understood the respondent accurately (and, if not, I ask that visitor for clarification). Then, I try to validate the response by finding something useful or insightful that I can use as a bridge to factual information.

For instance, after greeting visitors as mentioned above, I might take them into a greenhouse filled with tropical plants. Upon entering, I could ask, “What is the first thing you noticed when you walked in here?”

“It’s very muggy!” a visitor replies.

“You felt the increased humidity?” I say back, ensuring that we share the same definition of the word ‘muggy?”‘ After a nod of agreement, I might continue by telling visitors, “Most of the plants in this greenhouse grow where the humidity level is consistently over 80%.”

“There is a sweet smell in the air,” another visitor chimes in.

“Tell me more about that,” I answer.

“It’s a smell like that of flowers and damp earth,” the visitor replies, clarifying her observation.

“Interesting,” I respond. “Soil decomposes faster in high humidity environments and does give off a sweet smell while doing so. And, you happen to be standing near a plumeria tree, whose blossoms have a perfume-like fragrance. Both could be components of what you noticed.”

Using Appropriate Questions to Promote Participation

How do you ask questions that will encourage participation without making visitors feel tested or put on the spot? One way is to be certain that your questions are open-ended and do not have specific right or wrong answers.

It takes a bit of a mental shift to ask questions that do not request pre-determined answers, but once you catch on, they are really quite easy to construct. Rather than ask visitors. “Do you see any shades of red used in this painting?” try asking, “What colors can you find in this painting?” Or, instead of asking a question such as, “Which of these two rocks is igneous?” try asking, “What differences can you find between these two rocks?”

Unless you master the “art” of asking open-ended questions and use this form of inquiry, visitors will never feel safe responding to your questions. They will always assume that you are seeking one specific, correct response (or a set of specific, correct responses) when the best they can do is hazarding a guess.

Questioning that Builds Skills

It becomes far easier to construct questions for active learning if you focus on the skills being taught, rather than the objects being examined. Any one of these skills can serve as the route for investigating an object, living thing, or specimen, regardless of its subject matter or content. Historians, art historians and critics, scientists, and others who have mastered their fields employ the skills detailed below. When used for teaching purposes, they are simply requested and executed at a more rudimentary level.

What follows is an examination of four skills — observing, comparing, classifying, and hypothesizing— as well as some examples of questions that call for visitors to practice using them. Responses to any of the questions below offer a docent the opportunity to build upon answers and to relate information that confirms the significance of what is discussed.

Observing People use their five senses to gather information and impressions. Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching (or any combination of these) are the ways we explore and examine the world around us. Observing is the starting point for all the other skills visitors will use. Yet most visitors spend very little time or energy observing items in institutional collections. The reason is that most visitors do not know what to look, listen, or otherwise observe for. Therefore, observation questions should give visitors a reason to inspect more closely.

For instance, questions that ask for descriptions encourage visitors to take more careful notice. “How would you describe this sculpture to someone who couldn’t see it?” “What words would you use to describe this chest of drawers?” or “How would you tell a friend visiting our garden next week to look for this particular cactus?”


Comparing requires finding similarities and/or differences between two or more items. It is another way to encourage active involvement with, and closer inspection of, objects, living things, and specimens.

Questions can ask visitors to make direct comparison between two or more items in close proximity to one another. “In what ways are these two paintings of Madonna and Child different from one another?” “How many differences can you find between the male and female cardinal?” and “What similarities do most of these desert plants share in common?” are examples.

Questions can also challenge visitors to compare items to other things that are commonly known, but not directly available. An example of one such question might be “What similarities are there between the status symbols owned by wealthy families in the 18* century and those that are our status symbols today?”


Those of you who have a science orientation are most familiar with the term “hypothesizing,” but folks in all disciplines do it. To hypothesize is to make a considered, reasonable guess based on the evidence available.

For instance, if you asked visitors “What assumptions might you make about tribal people who produced such highly decorative items?” you are asking for hypotheses. Though your visitors might not know a definitive answer to that question, you are asking them to make reasonable guesses based on all that they have seen, thought about, and learned.

Other questions that request employing the skill of hypothesizing demonstrate the usefulness of this essential thinking tool. “If you were to try to identify this plant, what aspects of its appearance might you use?” “Based on what you see in this portrait, how do you think the artist felt about the sitter?” “What do you think life would be like if you lived in a rainforest?” Each of these questions can lead to productive and stimulating conversations and could lead to the exploration of other, related issues.

[For a more in-depth examination of these skills, and to learn of other thinking skills that can be used with inquiry teaching, please refer to my new book, Questioning Art: an Inquiry Approach to Teaching Art Appreciation, which is available from The Docent Educator. (For information, see details in the box to the right.) While this text applies active learning to works of art, the strategies, skills, and questions modeled can easily be adapted for use with other subject areas.]

Concluding Remarks

As an educator, I hope to teach expansively. It is not enough that visitors learn the specifics about any particular artwork, historic object, or scientific specimen during their encounter with me. Such information, while interesting, is rarely remembered and has little long-term impact or usefulness. Rather, I want visitors to learn skills so that they might continue learning from such things without my being present. To this end, involvement is key. Within the museum infrastructure, curators and registrars pursue information that defines and refines understandings about the collection. Educators, on the other hand, teach and construct ways to disseminate information. For scholars and those who arrive at the institution with a developed interest and background, guided tours that adhere to a lecture format may be appropriate. But, when leading groups of students or the general public, who have limited knowledge of the subject matter, active learning strategies are a more engaging form of teaching.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Active Learning Thinking Skills, and Audience Participation,” The Docent Educator 12.1 (Autumn 2002): 2-5.


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