Docent Educator Logo

Attending to Special Audiences

Notwithstanding the axiom that all audiences are special, and the truism that every individual deserves your best teaching efforts, there are segments of your community that require special attention. The reasons for this may be related to the purpose of their visit, their level of awareness or understanding, the preparation they received before arriving, the language they speak, or their physical or mental abilities.

In this issue of The Docent Educator, we present information about a wide range of “special audiences.” Regardless of the reason that this rather ambiguous label is prescribed to a particular group, the need to employ good teaching practices is paramount. As Jan Majewski, author of Part of Your General Public is Disabled, often reminded me when we worked together at the Smithsonian, many of the so-called “accommodations” made for disabled visitors are just good teaching practices, and would enhance tours for all visitors.

The extra thought or planning given to “special audiences” may, indeed, be the best way to teach and tour all audiences visiting such auxiliary educational institutions as museums, historic homes, zoos, parks, and botanical gardens. For purposes of illustration, consider how primary educational institutions ╤ such as public schools–teach a special population of students identified as “gifted and/or talented.”

Most schools having special programs for gifted and talented students use an instructional model developed by educator Joseph Renzulli. Dr. Renzulli called his method of teaching The Enrichment Triad. As its name implies, The Enrichment Triad has three levels. The first level consists of general exploratory experiences designed to expose students to new and exciting topics, ideas, and fields of knowledge not ordinarily covered in the regular curriculum. The second level consists of exposure to methods, materials, and instructional techniques specifically designed to encourage higher level thinking processes, such as creativity (the ability to generate ideas, insights, alternatives, and consequences). The third level consists of active involvement, or the expression of students’ interests and creative abilities resulting in a project, report, or something else tangible.

Doesn’t the richness of experiences inherent in this model sound like a better, more exciting, and more effective way to learn? Shouldn’t this form of instruction be available to all students, rather than only to those who are already motivated and interested?

Many educators think so! Among them is Dr. Renzulli, himself, who writes in his text The Schoolwide Enrichment Model (Creative Learning Press, Mansfield Center, CT, 1985), “development of gifted behaviors should be viewed as the goal of a school-wide enrichment program rather than a preexisting condition.”

This model has had an impact upon museum education, whether museum educators are conscious of employing it or not. Most museum educators hope that classroom teachers will conduct pre-visit activities designed to expose students to the ideas and concepts they will encounter on their visit to the museum (level one); and they also urge classroom teachers to follow-up their visits by conducting post-visit activities that make use of what was learned while on site (level three).

An increasing number of us who teach with collections believe that the audiences visiting our institution should be exposed to methods, materials, and

instructional techniques that encourage active learning and that engage higher-order thinking skills (a level two experience using Renzulli’s model), as opposed to simply listening and remembering. In other words, many museum instructors recognize that they should encourage visitors to think creatively and participate when viewing institutional collections.

Just as I truly believe all children have gifts and talents, I recognize that all visitors have special needs. And, just as I believe that all students would benefit from the richness of experiences provided to those considered to be gifted or talented, I recognize that all visitors, regardless of needs, deserve accommodation and consideration.

Attending to our visitors’ special needs, regardless of type, does not, and should not, mean altering or lowering our educational sights for any particular group. Rather, it requires that we refine and attune our methods of teaching and communicating. Our instructional goal, that of challenging visitors to strive, think, respond, learn, and gain appreciation for our collections, should remain the same for all.

For this reason, I strongly recommend that docents receive training in teaching methodology, questioning strategies, and learning styles, in addition to academic content. As Joseph Renzulli states, again in his text The Schoolwide Enrichment Model, “Although a comprehensive knowledge about the content of any field is considered to be a major part of the overall training of professionals, the ability to apply one’s knowledge in practical [teaching] situations represents the real payoff so far as effective training is concerned.”

As you read this issue and contemplate appropriate strategies for teaching special audiences of every or any variety, it is useful to remember that we must not program ourselves to respond in mechanical ways to the variety of people, learning styles, and needs we confront. Nor should we stereotype those people whose needs are more apparent than others. As educators, we must be knowledgeable and flexible enough to find and adapt to that which works best for each visitor we meet, ensuring that all our “special” audiences have experiences that appropriately challenge them to think, learn, and grow.

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Attending to Special Audiences,” The Docent Educator 2.4 (Summer 1993): 2-3.

Leave a Reply

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